CSA Signal Corps


The beginnings of the Signal Service in the Confederate army were about simultaneous in the Peninsular command of General John B. Magruder and in the Army of Northern Virginia under General Beauregard. Captain Norris, a member of General Magruder's staff a gentleman of scientific education and of some nautical experience-called the attention of the General to the advantages to be derived from a system of signals connecting his outposts and his headquarters with Norfolk. Magruder forthwith gave Captain Norris the necessary authority to establish the service, and appointed him Signal Officer to the command.

The signals used by Captain Norris were similar to the marine signals in use by all maritime nations. Poles were erected on which were displayed flags and balls, the combinations of which indicated various phrases, such as were conceived to be most in demand to express the exigencies likely to arise.

Edward P. Alexander, Myer's assistant in testing the wig-wag signaling system, resigned his U.S. Army commission on May 1, 1861, to join the Confederate Army as a captain of engineers. While organizing and training new recruits to form a Confederate signal service, he was ordered to report to Brig. Gen. P.G.T. Beauregard at Manassas Junction, Virginia. He became the chief engineer and signal officer of the (Confederate) Army of the Potomac on June 3. After becoming the chief ordnance officer for the Army of Northern Virginia, Alexander retained his position as signal officer, but his other duties took precedence.

Although the Confederate Signal Corps would never achieve a distinct branch identity to the extent that the Union version did, the Confederate Congress authorized its establishment as a separate organization, attached to the Adjutant and Inspector General's Department, on April 19, 1862, a year before the U.S. Congress did so. The first chief signal officer was Captain William Norris, a Maryland lawyer then a civilian volunteer on the staff of Maj. Gen. John B. Magruder. The corps under Norris was organized to consist of one major, 10 captains, 20 lieutenants, 20 sergeants, and 1500 men detailed from all branches of the service. A signal officer was authorized for the staff at each corps and division. The Confederate Signal Corps perform duties and utilized equipment very similar to their Northern counterparts, with some exceptions. Electric telegraphy was not used in tactical battlefield communications due to shortages of telegraph wire and trained operators. Their aerial telegraphy was performed with similar flags, but with slightly modified codes and movements from the Myer methods. Unlike the Union Signal Corps, however, the Confederate Signal Corps also was chartered to conduct espionage for the South. (Both services provided valuable battlefield intelligence, and sometimes artillery fire direction, from their elevated observation points, but the Confederate corpsmen performed undercover missions behind enemy lines as well.) Acting as the Secret Service of the Confederacy, the corps administered the Secret Line, an information network that ran between Richmond and the North and extended into Canada. It is because of its clandestine nature that much of the work of the Confederate Signal Corps is lost to history. Many of its records were burned in the fall of Richmond and in a subsequent fire at Norris's home, which claimed his personal papers

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