Friday, September 25, 2020

A Signal Success

Imagine receiving vital intelligence that could potentially change the outcome a military campaign, and yet having to rely on a horse and rider to deliver that information. By the time the receiver gets the message, the situation could have changed drastically, rendering a lost opportunity. Real time communication during the American Civil War was a true challenge for those in leadership positions. And while the invention of the telegraph fifteen years or so before helped reduce much of the time and distance problem, running wires, setting poles, manufacturing telegraph keys, and locating experienced operators, all presented numerous logistical issues.

One way that Civil War armies battled the communication issue was through the use of signal flags and the utilization of observation and signal towers. A carte de visite photograph in the Collections of Pamplin Historical Park and the National Museum of the Civil War Soldier shows one such signal tower used during the Petersburg Campaign.

Due to the relatively flat terrain around Petersburg, it was often necessary for men in the Union and Confederate signal corps to get to an elevated position—either a constructed tower or a high tree—to send and receive information. Using the so-called “wig-wag” system, a series of directional flag waving developed by Maj. Albert Myer before the Civil War, both sides incorporated the system to effectively communicate during the conflict.

The observation and signal tower shown in the Park’s carte de visite is identified as the one located at Cobb’s Hill on the Appomattox River. This Union tower stood 110 feet high. Constructed beside Fort Zabriskie, it was not far from Point of Rocks on the Bermuda Hundred. It served as a vital communication link between the Army of the James and the Army of the Potomac. Built by the army’s Engineers, the tower consisted primarily of pine logs fastened together to form a six level structure with a “crow’s nest” atop.   

The Union army had a series of signal towers that ran near the U.S. Military Railroad line from City Point (present-day Hopewell), out to the far Union left end of the earthwork line at Fort Fisher. The tower located behind Fort Fisher rose to over 140 feet. One Maryland Confederate soldier commented on the towering timbers: “From its top the curious Federals have the satisfaction of seeing all that is going on in our lines. They will next mount a telescope to ascertain what we eat and the color of our hair. Go ahead, Mr. Yankee! But use it for religious purposes, as the top of your observatory is the nearest you will ever get to heaven.” A Union chaplain who ventured up in the towner confirmed the Maryland soldier’s suspicions. He wrote, “We could see rebels very distinctly, their defences, camps, etc. We also had a fine view of Petersburg. . . .”

The Cobb’s Hill signal tower remained in use to the end of the Petersburg campaign. Although Confederates targeted the lofty structure with artillery fire, it apparently remained unharmed.

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