How the North Won

Communication is the Key to any Wartime Victory

An Introduction to New Communication Technologies in the 19th Centry

The development of communication during the early 19th century greatly advanced the way Americans communicated.  With the invention of the telegraph and Morse code by Samuel F.B. Morse, communication allowed for messages to be sent quickly and over long distances, something that had never seemed possible. 

Samuel Morse attended Yale University at the early age of fourteen to listen to lectures on electricity and electrical devices.  After his domestic studies, Morse traveled abroad to Europe.  There he watched Hans Christian Orsted demonstrate an early telegraph.  Morse took the basics of his teachings at Yale with the experiments demonstrated by Orsted to create the first modern telegraph. 

Morse displayed his invention to members of Congress, all of whom immediately backed the further advancement of the telegraph.  

The first telegraph line connected Washington, D.C. to Baltimore, Maryland.  Within one year of the Congressional demonstration, over one thousand miles of telegraph cables spanned the eastern seaboard and further plans expanded the system to the Western United States. 

The actual telegraph functioned by a series of on and off connections that traveled across a wire from the sender to the receiver.  Those connections moved a needle up and down in rapid succession.  This needle movement created short and long dots or dashes.  Samuel Morse had successfully developed the first type of digital language using these short and long dashes.  The idea of this digital language, something Morse aptly named after himself, can be seen with today's modern computer programming codes.

Major Albert J. Myer, the inventor of signal flags and founder of the United States Signal Corps, joined Morse among the forefathers of military and civilian communications.  Myer studied at the Geneva College and later the Buffalo Medical College to obtain his medical degree.  Myer wanted to develop a means of communication for the hearing impaired.  Through various experiments, Myer eventually invented the signal flag communication system. 

The military took notice of Myer’s creation and wanted to use his invention for military purposes.  Myer agreed and formed the United States Signal Corps.  The Corps had the simple – yet daunting – task of operating Myer’s system.  Both the Union and the Confederate developed a Signal Corps and both guided military communication throughout the war.5

Another basic, yet important, form of communication during the Civil War existed many years before but had only taken shape during the Civil War.  Balloon signaling, lead by a team of expert balloon signalers, served mainly as a back-up or emergency communicator; however, certain situations required a close range communicator.  In most cases, the number and color of the balloons represented the amount of troops and the direction in which those troops traveled. 

The watchtower, built  quite easily from wooden boards and lumber, stood several stories high.  The look-out guard, usually a Signal Corpsman, stood on the top of the platform and sent and received messages from other signalmen on the ground and from other watchtowers.  These watchtowers ran along roads and surrounded battle fields as to give an overlooking view upon the entire field of battle.

Finally, with the invention of the photograph to keep picture records of current events and daily occurrences, advanced communication technology proved to be a major but overlooked aspect of the American Civil War. 

Implementing New Communication Technologies into Battle

Communication during the Civil War revolutionized how generals and commanders for both the Union and the Confederate made decisions on the battle field as seen in the formation of the Signal Corps, the battle of Chancellorsville, the battle of Gettysburg, the battle of Bull Run, and the Peninsula Campaign.

The Battle of Bull Run, the first major battle in the Civil War, took place in 1861 in Fairfax County, Virginia.  General Irvin McDowell, the commander of the Army of Northeastern Virginia, lead the Union forces during the battle.  McDowell’s plan involved two of his commanders staging fake attacks on Stone Bridge and Blackburn’s Ford Bridge.  While these two brigades feigned an attack, the main battalion would march around the Confederate troops and storm the rear.

For the Confederate, General P.G.T. Beauregard plan’s consisted of one main goal: do not move.  With Confederate reinforcements from southern Virginia, General Beauregard’s troops held firm.  The end of the battle resulted in a Confederate victory because of their ability to manage communication better than the Union.

Major Albert J. Myer headed the Union Signal Corps and one of his duties included guiding the corpsmen throughout each key battle.  Myer never arrived at the Bull Run battlefield.  His beliefs included a strong, centralized Signal Corps that communicated with the capital and each individual commander.  At such an early stage in the war this system did not exist.  Myer abandoned all hopes of victory at Bull Run before the actual battle took place and instead focused on developing the Signal Corps upon a national level.  Although the battle was lost for the Union, this grand vision would pay dividends for future Union victories.

The Confederate forces, however, had developed a more organized Signal Corps than their Union counterparts early on in the way.  The Confederate Signal Corps leader, E. Alexander Porter, had assisted Albert Myer in the early developmental stages of the signal flag communication system before the Civil War began.  Porter had taken the knowledge given to him by Myer and created his own language of "wigwag."

Before the Battle of Bull Run, Porter scouted the terrain surrounding the river and bridges.  He instructed several soldiers to build watchtowers at four strategic locations around the entire battlefield.  This way Porter would have up to eight Confederate signalmen watching Union troop movements throughout the battle. 

Although Porter’s signal flag language appeared very basic, the lack of Union corpsmen allowed the Confederate corpsmen to remain unnerved without the threat of Union soldiers intercepting messages.

During the battle, Confederate troops quickly learned of the false attacks staged by the Union forces.  The signalmen led the brunt of Confederate troops towards the main Union attackers.  Union forces never overcame the fact that Confederate troops knew the exact location of the attack point.  The much more highly developed Confederate Signal Corps and the lack of a Union corps decisively won the battle for the Confederate.

The Camera Takes Center Stage

After the battle newspapers reported the specific details of the battle.  Photographers did not take pictures of the actual battle (because the equipment took too long to set up and the picture-taking process lasted almost half and hour.)  However, intelligent photographers positioned deceased soldiers in positions worthy of the front page.  Although these images disturbed many readers; newspaper publications went up during the Civil War era.

The most intriguing articles of the newspapers appeared when journalists reported the location of and took pictures of the opposing forces.  In many ways, the Civil War journalists were the first modern battlefield reporters as they stayed with troops as they traveled across the country. 

These revealing articles bothered Myer in particular.  Myer took it upon himself to talk with the newspapers about the articles.  After several meetings a resolution passed that stated that newspapers could no longer print specific details of troop movements.

The Peninsula Campaign

The Peninsula Campaign, one of the Union’s earliest offensive attacks, took place over a series of months along the northern peninsula of Virginia.  General McClellan led his Union troops up through the Chesapeake Bay and down the smaller and narrower rivers and canals in inland Virginia. 

General McClellan decisively won battles along the Virginian coastline and in coastal towns.  However, once McClellan’s troops moved further inland, they could not defeat Confederate troops because of their lack of knowledge of the terrain in the heart of Virginia.  General Robert E. Lee, on the other hand, used the same tactics as Beauregard did during the Battle of Bull Run for the first half of the Peninsula Campaign.  Then, for the latter half of the campaign, General Lee used his knowledge of the terrain and surroundings to mount counterattacks against the 
Union forces. 

After two months of fighting with no clear victor insight, both forces abandoned the battle to move towards new engagements.

The Union forces relied heavily upon ships and boats to mount attacks on the sea against the Confederate land soldiers.  This tactic eliminated the use of the telegraphs entirely because the cables could not be strung from moving ships to stationary forts along the shoreline.  Signal flags and balloon signaling helped communication efforts tremendously and provided the backbone for communication. 

Professor Lowe, a professor at the Geneva College was the foremost signaler of balloons during the Civil War.  Where the Potomac meets the Chesapeake, Lowe and Union troops built a watchtower to signal the location of Confederate troops to Union ships entering the river.  With the constant movement of Confederate troops, this task generally required constant surveillance.

Once Union forces moved passed the coastal towns, communication seemed an impossible task.  The lack of knowledge of the surroundings required the Union Signal Corps to position watchtowers dreadfully close to each other allowing for more chances for Confederate soldiers to interception messages. 

The tall pines of the area made balloon signal obsolete for the troops on the ground as they could not see above the canopies.  Also, the area inland did not contain any developed cities and thus did not have any telegraph lines within seventy miles of the nearest camp. 

The Confederate forces claimed victory in the second half of the Peninsula Campaign based purely on the fact Union troops could not operate or communicate in the foreign land.  Fortunately, the Union victories at sea early in the campaign allowed the Union to pull away with a stalemate instead of a loss. 

These losses and setbacks further stressed the importance of communication during the Civil War.

The Battle of Chancellorsville

The Battle of Chancellorsville took place between April and May of 1863.  This battle called ‘Lee’s perfect battle’ due to his risky but successful division of his army in the presence of much larger enemy forces, the battle pitted U.S. Major General Joseph Hooker's Army of the Potomac against an army half its size, Confederate General Robert E. Lee's Army of Northern Virginia. Lee's audacity and Hooker's timid performance in combat combined to result in a significant and embarrassing Union defeat.

Both the Union and the Confederate had well developed Signal Corpsmen, yet the Confederate upheld one extreme advantage over their Union counterparts.  After months of examination, Confederate signalmen had intercepted and successfully interpreted the Union signal flag language.  For two months Confederate forces met Union troops and defeated all of them in a series of minor battles.  Union commanders did not learn of the Confederate interception until they interrogated an imprisoned Confederate corpsmen. 

The Union Signal Corps (including Myer as leader) did not panic.  In fact, they used this new knowledge to their advantage.  Union forces secretly set up camp in Chancellorsville while sending false messages intended for Confederate interception.  The messages contained false information of Union troop relocation.  Confederate forces took the bait and traveled to those two false locations while the Union forces sat comfortably at Chancellorsville.

The Union comfort did not last long as the Confederate commanders learned from an imprisoned Union signalmen that the Union had delivered false messages and developed a new alphabet system.  General Lee, the commander of the Confederate  forces at that time, ordered for his troops to march immediately upon Union soldiers stationed at Chancellorsville. 

General Lee won a decisive and swift victory at Chacellorsville.

The Telegraph Goes High Tech

During this engagement at Chancellorsville, a revolutionary breakthrough developed for the telegraph.  An automated Morse code reader was developed that required no human assistance whatsoever.  The automated reader recorded the message on pieces of paper.  Signalmen no longer had to wait for messages around the clock.  The automated reader worker like the original telegraph reader.  The difference between the two manifested itself in the automated reader’s use of the metallic pen tabulating the dots and dashes on a piece of paper.  The original telegraph’s metallic pen vibrated against a metallic object to echo off the dots and dashes. 

This development made telegraphing the most effective way of communication during that time period.

A major battle appeared emanate as one had escaped the confines of both sides for the months following the Battle of Chancellorsville.  General Lee, however, did not show any signs of concern.  In fact, he welcomed the rest and relaxed his troops and the number of security guards stationed around his camps. 

Union spies discovered the lax of Confederate security and scavenged their telegraph records in search for recorded messages.  Because of the invention of the automated telegraph reader, messages were stowed away in a hidden location.  Union spies stumbled upon and stole those messages.  The messages contained information from the President of the Confederacy directly to General Lee informing him to station his troops at Gettysburg, Pennsylvania.  The Union forces quickly relocated to the hilltop overlooking the city of Gettysburg. 

The Battle of Gettysburg

The Battle of Gettysburg remains the largest battle ever fought on North American soil.  Considered as the turning point in the Civil War, the Union forces (after suffering many key losses) managed to defeat the Confederate troops in a brilliant performance that paved the way for a Union victory in the War. 

General George G. Meade had replaced General Hooker after his loss in the Battle of Chancellorsville.  General Meade set up camp upon the highest grounds surrounding the city of Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, forcing Confederate troops to march uphill towards the Union soldiers. 

General Lee again commanded the Confederate troops.  Lee remained stubborn throughout all three days of battle and continuously marched his troops uphill towards the Union forces.  Each day the Union forces grew stronger as the Confederate army grew consistently weaker. 

After the battle had ended, the Union troops celebrated in their most noteworthy victory of the war.

The path to Gettysburg contained many rural Union towns.  Major Myer instructed civilians to operate a basic system of signal flags from blankets and sheets placed out of second story windows.  Confederate soldiers remained completely oblivious to the basic form of signaling conducted by the civilians.  With the help of civilians, Union soldiers prepared for battle earlier than any other battle throughout the entire war.

During the actual battle, the Union forces held an extreme advantage over the Confederate soldiers.  Not only did the Union have several watchtowers positioned around the entire battlefield, but the only telegraph lines that existed belonged to the Union.  When compared with the Peninsula Campaign, the Battle of Gettysburg appeared as if a different Union army was fighting.

With the continuing demise of the once well developed Confederate Signal Corps, the Confederate forces stood little chance against the heavily prepared Union forces.

After the three deadliest days of battle on American soil, Union forces emerged victorious.  Newspapers ignored the request of Myer at the beginning of the war and took many liberties with articles and photographs.  Most journalists penned this battle as the end of the Confederate troops.  The following articles gave more and more praise to Union commanders and in part greatly demolished the Confederate army as well as any of their chances at another decisive victory in the war.

Paving the Way for Today's Modern Warfare Technology

Prior to the Civil War, the lack of instant communication caused a major delay in troop movements and overall war development.  However, with the inventions of the telegraph and Morse code, instant communication allowed generals to make decision on the battle front with current and updated information.  In various fights during the Civil War, ranging from the sloppy Confederate victory at Bull Run to the decisive Union victory at Gettysburg, commanders made decision based on current information.  Communication during the Civil War marked for the first time in history when man conversed instantly with other men over long distances.  This trend paved the way for future military intelligence and communication techniques used all over the world today.