ACKEN (ed.): Service with the Signal Corps (2015)

Service with the Signal Corps: The Civil War Memoir of Captain Louis R. Fortescue edited by J. Gregory Acken.  University of Tennessee Press, 2015.  Cloth, IBSN: 978-1621901259.  $48.50.

The U.S. Veteran Signal Corps Association published The Signal Corps in the War of the Rebellion in 1896. In this 900-page tome, J. Willard Brown, who served as both an enlisted man and officer in the corps, described signal operations in each geographic department within the Union military system. Since Brown’s opus arrived on the scene, few first-hand sources dealing with Union signal activity had become available until J. Gregory Acken discovered the letters, diary, and memoir of Louis R. Fortescue.

Fortescue was an adept and perceptive writer who viewed the world through a critical yet affable lens. A keen observer, he pointedly depicted and evaluated individuals from the lowest to the highest ranks.

Selection for signal duty required passing a rigid examination, including a test in literature, the arts, views of various authors of poetry and prose, orthography, the elementary principles of arithmetic, ancient history, and military knowledge especially Napoleonic campaigns. Although promotion was limited compared to the infantry, the Signal Corps was desirable because it operated independently, had the status of a select service, and both officers and enlisted men were mounted.

Fortescue describes the purpose, procedures, equipment, and systems that made signal communications an integral tool for effective military strategy and tactics during the war. He also focuses on the alternate mission to observe and reconnoiter enemy positions and movements, and to transmit this information to military commanders in a timely manner.  Included are details of the Signal Corps in action during the Shenandoah Valley, Cedar Mountain, Second Manassas, Antietam, Fredericksburg, Chancellorsville, and Gettysburg campaigns.

The memoir elaborates on the viability of long-distance communication using signal flags during the day and torches at night. One line, for example, extended from stations located in Maryland at Maryland Heights, Point of Rocks, Sugar Loaf Mountain, Poolesville, and Seneca Mills, from west to east a distance of 34 miles. This allowed commanders to operate with mobility in an expansive geographic area while maintaining communications among various detachments. Using telescopes and binoculars, the station on Maryland Heights was able to observe enemy activity within a 50-mile radius.  The Signal Corps employed alternate means of communication by telegraph using existing landlines or field wire, and by courier.

Although disinterested or skeptical at first about this means of communication that army surgeon Maj. Albert J. Myer invented just prior to the Civil War, commanders came to depend on the Signal Corps for continuous observation of enemy activity. Generals such as George Thomas, William Sherman, and George Custer were effusive in their praise for the service to military operations that the Signal Corps provided. Certainly, Maj. Gen. George G. Meade owed a debt of gratitude to the signal station on Little Round Top that caused Lt. Gen. James Longstreet’s countermarch, delaying an attack on the Union left flank at Gettysburg.

Fortescue’s tenure in the Signal Corps included time spent on the Upper Potomac River in December 1861, on through the Battle of Gettysburg in July 1863. Following the latter conflict, Confederate cavalry captured his signal party near an isolated outpost at Jack’s Mountain, west of Fairfield. This resulted in incarceration in Southern prisons.

Fortescue discusses techniques used to maximize the ability to observe the enemy and communicate intelligence to commanders while maintaining security at the post. Whenever possible, methods were employed to shield their signal flags from enemy view, and for personnel to remain out of the line of fire of nearby sharpshooters.

Of interest are Fortescue’s experiences in manipulating the logistical necessities of Signal Corps operations — an essentially isolated endeavor in hostile territory. He often had to rely on Southerners of varying political leanings for basics such as food and shelter. This demanded ingenuity as well as vigilance to avoid the ever-present danger of rebel soldiers lurking nearby.

Requirements for information often kept signal personnel operating on a 24-hour schedule. Normally, parties of six personnel (two officers and four enlisted men) worked in shifts to meet these demands. The stress of an intensive work regimen and constant exposure to the elements took a heavy toll on signal personnel, as Fortescue himself experienced. He developed symptoms of typhoid fever in March 1862, and by April he was forced to take leave and seek medical attention.

Fortescue did not hold a high opinion of Army of Potomac commanders George B. McClellan, Ambrose Burnside, and Joseph Hooker, and he requently commented on the ineptitude of the military hierarchy. He dejectedly relates Burnside’s disastrous “Mud March” up the Rappahannock River in December 1862. He records colorful descriptions of the people, landscapes, and situations he encounters during military service.

Surprisingly, Fortescue does not mention Col. George H. Sharpe’s Bureau of Military Information, General Hooker’s intelligence staff established in early 1863. This staff collated information from a variety of sources, including the Signal Corps. However, he does mention “Captain Cline” (assigned to Capt. Ulric Dahlgren’s “Jessie Scouts”) conducting operations at Fredericksburg. This is most likely Sgt. Milton Cline, who became the BMI’s chief scout.

J. Gregory Acken merits our appreciation for unearthing these important documents. He skillfully depicts Fortescue’s experiences with appropriate annotations for clarification. Civil War specialists will gain knowledge about the vital but little known field of signal operations. The general reader will enjoy Fortescue’s candid perspective on military life and the personnel he encountered during service with the Signal Corps.


Thomas J. Ryan is the author of Spies, Scouts, and Secrets in the Gettysburg Campaign: How the Critical Role of Intelligence Impacted the Outcome of Lee’s Invasion of the North, June-July 1863 (2015).

Leave a Reply

WAUGH: Unforgettables (2024)

In “Unforgettables,” John C. Waugh draws short biographical sketches of the characters who have stood out to him personally during his many decades of study.