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American Civil War Life: Union Infantryman - Life On Campaign VII

Updated on July 22, 2018
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I'm a Sr. Financial Analyst from Long Island, NY and am an American Civil War buff and Living Historian (Company H, 119th NY Volunteers).

Dear Sister…: How I wish I could live near you and that we could grow up into substantial, prosperous farmers together! But why be building castles in the air, when, perhaps, the bullet is even now rammed home to lay me under the sod on the field of Yorktown? I would not, if I could, unveil the future and see my fate…

- Oliver Wilcox Norton, 83rd Regiment, Pennsylvania Volunteers, 1861

To Engage The Enemy

Close contact with the enemy could have occurred within the first day’s march or after a march of several weeks. However long was the time period, sooner or later, the two opposing forces met. Battle then became imminent.

Sketch - troops collide with enemy forces in the distance
Sketch - troops collide with enemy forces in the distance

Contact

Throughout a march, small unit contact between opposing forces often occurred as each side tried to learn the whereabouts, intentions, and strength of the other while it screened its own. Cavalry units were usually the belligerents, and they encountered either enemy cavalry or infantry. Skirmishes then commenced. Intermittent small arms and artillery fire was then heard in the distance.

More serious probes were sometimes attempted to punch through the enemy’s screening forces or to drive back any enemy concentrations that threatened the army. This was often known as the “Development” – the attempt to get more accurate information on the dispositions and strength - of enemy forces. Larger units were involved, which led to combat of greater duration and intensity. Advantages might have been gained or lost in these encounters that had major effects upon the general engagement still to come. Mostly, however, these actions were inconclusive.

General engagements were often avoided in these initial contacts until the army was concentrated and / or the enemy forces were known more fully. To order an army to fight before its strength was consolidated, or before proper and accurate intelligence reports were gathered, would have risked disaster.

Sketch - a dismounted cavalry Skirmish Line
Sketch - a dismounted cavalry Skirmish Line
Sketch - a mounted cavalry Skirmish Line
Sketch - a mounted cavalry Skirmish Line
Sketch - opposing skirmishers engage each other
Sketch - opposing skirmishers engage each other
Painting - The Skirmish Line
Painting - The Skirmish Line
Sketch - preliminary engagement before Battle of Perryville, Oct. 1862
Sketch - preliminary engagement before Battle of Perryville, Oct. 1862

Communications

Troops that awaited battle often witnessed flurries of inter and intra-army communications. In the mid-19th century, communications between government and the military, as well as between forces of the military that acted in concert, were done in several different, and even inventive, ways.

Communications - Telegraph

The telegraph was the speediest of the communications mediums. So valuable was it to the army that the US Military Telegraph was established. Civilians and/or soldiers in this organization established telegraph communication via the erection of poles and wire, the establishment of telegraph centers, and the deliverance and reception of messages. They also needed to maintain the many miles / kilometers of telegraph poles and wires as enemy units cut those lines if encountered. The usage for this communications medium varied from army-to-government communication, to commanders that needed to communicate with distant subordinates during battle.

In use since 1837, a telegraph, in simple terms, was an electric wire that ran between two locations. An electric current, by way of a battery, ran through the wire, which was interrupted by a break in it. At that point was a switch, also known as the “Operator Key”. When that key was pressed down, the two ends of the wire were connected, which freed the electric current to resume its travel down the wire to wherever would be its final destination. When the key was released, the wires were again disconnected and the electric current stopped at the key.

The length of time the key was pressed determined the length of the pulse of electricity that was released. A man named Samuel Morse invented a way to standardize the lengths of the pulses and to translate combinations of them into letters, numbers, and punctuation. This “Morse Code” specified that there would be two types of pulses used:

· a very short pulse, symbolized by a “dot”

· a pulse that was three times as long, symbolized by a “dash”

The Code also specified the different combinations of dots and dashes that represented each character:

· Dot Dash (*-) was the letter “A”

· Dot Dash Dash Dot (*- -*) was the number “1”

· Dot Dot Dash Dash Dot Dot (**- - **) was a Period

Entire words and messages could thus be translated into Morse Code and sent over the wires to their destinations.

Originally, the swings of a needle on a device at the receiving end indicated the symbols of the pulses (ie. a swing to the right indicated a Dot, two swings to the left indicated a Dash). However, it was somewhat difficult for the telegraph operators to jot down the symbols at the same time they watched the swings of the needle. By 1860, a “double-plated sounder” was invented to remedy that situation. This device emitted a sound for each swing of the needle. When the needle swung to the left, a high pitched “ting” was emitted. A swing to the right gave a lower pitched “tong” sound. In this way, a well-trained (and not tone-deaf) telegraph operator could keep his eyes on his message pad and write down the message by the sounds emitted.

Early Morse Telegraph Machine
Early Morse Telegraph Machine
Sketch - troops string telegraph wire
Sketch - troops string telegraph wire
The Army's telegraph service: telegraph poles are erected and telegraph wire is suspended from them
The Army's telegraph service: telegraph poles are erected and telegraph wire is suspended from them
Sketch - telegraph operator
Sketch - telegraph operator
Telegraph wagon, most likely with a battery inside
Telegraph wagon, most likely with a battery inside
Early Morse Code (about 1837)
Early Morse Code (about 1837)
Sounder
Sounder
Simplified diagram of the operation of a telegraph machine at sending and receiving locations
Simplified diagram of the operation of a telegraph machine at sending and receiving locations

Communications - Signals

Another department, the US Army Signal Corps, made use of at least two communications methods: Signal Flags and Signal Torches.

Each Signal Team needed:

· A Signal Flag and/or Torches

· A Tower or natural high ground for ease of visibility

· A Telescope

Once in position, members of a Signal Team communicated orders or military intelligence to the various army units by wags of the signal flag or torch.

One member of a Signal team held a signal flag or torch on a regulation staff of some sort. In the case of torch signals, which were for nighttime messages, a second torch was placed in a stationary position, at the foot of the Signalman, as a reference point. If an intended recipient of a message saw the front torch, he could then determine the left and right wags of the signal torch. If no front torch was seen, then the wags of the signal torch were not intended for that viewer.

Another member of the team, usually an officer, gave to the signaler the needed message to convey. By various waves and front dips of the signal flag, numbers (1 through 5) were signed. Each set of numbers corresponded to a Character: a letter of the alphabet, or a digit, or a special character such as an Ampersand (&):

Each set of characters spelled out the message to be conveyed, including:

· a Suffix – a common set of letters at the end of a word, like “tion”

· a Phrase – a common, short message, like “I Understand”

Front Dips stood for the end of a word, sentence, or the message as a whole.

As these signal methods were usually visible to the enemy, methods to keep the enemy deceived were devised. Ciphers were used to change the meanings of each set of Numbers. Signal Team leaders determined, ahead of time, the arrangements of the Number sets, and the ciphering could have changed as often as every few hours in order to waylay enemy attempts to decipher the messages.

The telescope, in each Signal team, was needed so the signals could be read from greater distances, or to spot events of interest. If threatened with capture by the enemy, the telescopes were to be thoroughly destroyed. Rebel factories were not able to manufacture telescope lenses, so the destruction of them prevented the rebels from the gain of any advantage.

Signal Station with Signal Flag ready to be wagged by a Signal Team member
Signal Station with Signal Flag ready to be wagged by a Signal Team member
Sketch - a Signal Torch Station and Signal Team
Sketch - a Signal Torch Station and Signal Team
Diagram of the method to send signals by flag / torch
Diagram of the method to send signals by flag / torch
Signal Cipher
Signal Cipher
A Signal Station and Signal Team - an officer peers through his telescope to see the signals sent his way
A Signal Station and Signal Team - an officer peers through his telescope to see the signals sent his way

Communications - Messengers

Mounted and un-mounted messengers were the most common way for communications to be conducted in an army in the field. Written orders, or verbal orders if there was no time to write, were given to the messenger. He tucked the written order under his waist belt, or memorized and recited the verbal order, and rode or ran to the officer to receive the message. This duty was very hazardous at night or in rough country as it was difficult to find the intended recipients of the messages. It was also too easy ride into the enemy’s lines.

Sketch - a mounted courier prepares to ride
Sketch - a mounted courier prepares to ride
Messenger Bag
Messenger Bag

Communications - Other

Commanders often followed the progress of battle by the sound of combat. While not the most accurate way, it often gave commanders an idea of how their units fared. If the sounds of battle moved, it meant that a victorious advance, or a defeat-and-retreat, occurred. If the sounds of battle remained stationary, it meant units held firm, or failed to dislodge the enemy. Music was also an ersatz communications device. The songs played by regimental bands often denoted the arrival of troops onto the field or the direction in which they moved. At least one Union commander used music rather deviously. He ordered the regimental bands in his command to move close to the front lines and play music that was popular to the rebel listeners. After the song(s) ended, the rebel soldiers often cheered. The commander noted from where these sounds emanated, and used that information to aim his artillery!

The Brass Band of the 2nd WI Volunteers
The Brass Band of the 2nd WI Volunteers

Afterword

There was no end to the manner in which contentious armies met each other, or to the manners in which communications within the army were conducted. Everything was dependent on the alertness and ingenuity of the commanders on the field, and those at headquarters, in order to forestall any possible disaster and to get their forces ready for the combat to follow.

The next article in this series is called American Civil War Life: Union Infantryman - Life On Campaign VIII

Sketch - a column of troops marches up toward the battlefield
Sketch - a column of troops marches up toward the battlefield

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