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Signal Corps Equipment in the Civil War

The Army inflated the first balloon built in the U.S. for military use in Washington, DC on 21 July 1861 under Myer’s command. The balloon sustained damage en route to the headquarters of McDowell’s Union forces in Virginia, and Myer continued on to serve (without it) as the only Signal Officer of the Union forces during the Battle of Manassas-Bull Run. The Signal Corps used balloons more successfully, though infrequently, later in the war. For example, on 1 June 1862, a Union observer used a telegraph instrument aboard a captive balloon to report aerial observations of the Battle of Fair Oaks to his headquarters on the ground. This was the first use of telegraphy from a balloon, and the first air-to-ground communication during the war. Not for decades would a balloon section be established in the Office of the CSO in Washington (1892). A balloon obtained from France became the first operational Army Signal Corps balloon.

Fair Oaks, VA: Prof Thaddeus S Lowe observing the battle from his balloon "Intrepid," Photo from Library of Congress

Union forces began erecting lines of high wooden towers for use as signal stations in August 1861. Using flags and torches atop the towers, these became the first fixed lines of signal communications. The Signal Corps used the towers with great success, cementing the unquestionable significance of signal communications toward victory in warfare.

A Signal tower in Jacksonville, Florida, c. 1864. US Army photo

The War Department procured the first telegraph train for military use in August 1861. Known as the “flying train,” it consisted of horse drawn wagons equipped with Beardslee magneto-electric telegraph sets, field wire, flags, rockets, and other equipment. The Beardslee magneto-electric telegraph set was the first electrical signaling device designed and developed specifically for use by the military in the field.

Beardslee telegraph, US Army photo

Note: This blog entry adapted from an unpublished article by Melissa Ziobro.  Edited/posted by Chrissie Reilly.

Posted in Civil War, From the Archives.

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