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The Signal Corps in the Civil War

Albert James Myer, an Army doctor, first conceived the idea of a separate, trained professional military signal service. He proposed that the Army use his visual communications system called “wigwag” while serving as a medical officer in Texas in 1856. When the Army adopted his system June 21, 1860, the Signal Corps was born with Myer as the first and only Signal officer.

MAJ Myer first used his visual signaling system on active service in New Mexico during the 1860-1861 Navajo expedition. Using flags for daytime signaling and a torch at night, wigwag was tested in Civil War combat in June 1861 to direct the fire of a harbor battery at Fort Calhoun (Fort Wool) against the Confederate positions opposite Fort Monroe. Until March 3, 1863, when Congress authorized a regular Signal Corps for the duration of the war, Myer was forced to rely on detailed personnel. Some 2,900 officers and enlisted men served, albeit not at any one time, in the Civil War Signal Corps.

Myer’s Civil War innovations included an unsuccessful balloon experiment at First Bull Run and, in response to McClellan’s desire for a Signal Corps field telegraph train, an electric telegraph in the form of the Beardslee magnetoelectric telegraph machine. Even in the Civil War, the wigwag system, dependent upon line-of-sight, was waning in the face of the electric telegraph.

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