Service In The Confederate Signal Corps By Michael Thomas
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Posted : October 25, 2020
Service In The Confederate Signal Corps
By Compatriot Michael Thomas
Service in the Signal Corps has rarely been addressed by historians. Formed in April 1862, less than 1,600 men served in its ranks. Though most of its records are lost, sufficient documentation is found showing its composition and nature of service.
Led by 23-year-old 1st Lieutenant Frank Markoe, the Corps in Charleston was comprised almost entirely of enlisted men detached from various infantry, artillery and cavalry commands. Each could be returned to his unit when no longer needed or when recalled by his parent command. The men, all Privates, were energetic and bright. Taught how to send signals by flags in the day and by lights & torches at night, these signal operators worked in teams of 3 or 4 men at stations all around Charleston. Additionally, 2 men were often assigned to each of the ironclad gunboats in the harbor. In July 1863, Lt. Markoe reported that of the 46 men on his roster, six were temporarily serving in another district and five others were sick and unable to resume field duty for some time. He added that the bare minimum to operate adequately with was 38 men. It is apparent that while the Corps was essential, it was quite small.
Because of the difficulty in providing rations to the men, they received a per diem of 75 cents per day, later raised to $3.00. The Corps offered no room for promotions but did allow a limited number of men to be designated “Lance Sergeant”, a temporary rank allowing a Private to act as a Sergeant but at the pay of a Private. The few given this rank earned it by demonstrating leadership, proficiency and courage at the highest levels. Members of the Corps, whatever their rank, had access to senior officers at all times. Enduring the same hardships and dangers as everyone else in their various stations, the men of the Signal Corps were recognized for their courage as well as their work and routinely given the same respect a commissioned officer might receive.
Each month thousands of signals around Charleston were sent and received. Handling such volumes required the signal posts to be alert 24 hours a day regardless of weather or hazards such as enemy shelling. Team members worked closely together to allow for proper rest, meals and other needs. Two men were required to send or receive a message. When receiving, one would call out the observed signals while the other wrote them down. When sending, one signaled while the other called out the appropriate signal to send. High volume stations required frequent rotation to keep teams from becoming exhausted. All in all, their work was demanding and vital and these Privates overcame many hardships, challenges and dangers in carrying out their tasks.
Accomplishments of The Confederate Signal Corps In Charleston
The Signal Corps in Charleston was well led, highly energetic and gained the complete confidence of area commanders. Comprised mostly of young Privates detached from infantry, artillery and cavalry commands and trained as Signal Operators, their work allowed area commanders to reliably communicate with each other at crucial times. Reports and orders were sent by the thousands each month by these capable young men through signal flags by day and lights at night.
They were instrumental in another way. In April 1863, they cracked the signal code being used by Union commanders and began a close monitor on those communications. Union messages were read regularly until September 1863 when a new cipher was put in use. Confederate commanders feared that the Yankees had learned that the previous code had been broken but were relieved when the old code was reinstated a short while later. From that point on, most Union messages were read until Charleston was evacuated in February 1865. Commanders of Forts Sumter, Moultrie and Johnson, as well as Batteries Wagner and Gregg, were often forewarned when targeted for direct assault or for close bombardment from Union ships. Given time to prepare their positions against these threats, the posts were able to meet and frustrate well laid plans by Union commanders.
Signal operators were expected to send and receive messages during the foulest of weather conditions. They were also expected to perform in the heat of battle. Numerous records attest that the operators carried out their roles during the heaviest of actions at Battery Wagner, Fort Sumter & elsewhere. Disregarding bullets and exploding shells, the men stood in exposed positions to send their vital messages. From mid-July through mid-September 1863 at least a dozen members, nearly one-third of the Signal Corps in Charleston, were wounded. At Battery Wagner where their service was especially crucial and equally dangerous, Corps members were cited several times for heroism and efficiency amidst the worst of the fighting. Five of the Corps, each a South Carolinian, were named to the Confederate Roll of Honor in acknowledgement of their individual deeds of valor at that position.
The Signal Corps in Charleston enjoyed a fine reputation. Though its members may never have fired a gun, their contributions to the defense of Charleston warrant the highest respect.