19th Century Tech Woes

p1160341-signal-corps-closeupTechnology is an amazing thing. Perhaps more amazing is the way we take it for granted. We gripe all too quickly when it doesn’t work, but how often do we think about how fascinating it is to be able to click a mouse and have something happen on the screen, all communicated by…well, I don’t even know!

During the Civil War, communication depended on couriers (who could be shot) or the telegraph (whose wires could be cut). There was no WiFi. There were no radio signals. If the courier was killed, the orders never got there, and fighting units ended up stranded.

Before the war, Albert Myer and E.P. Alexander developed a communication system that could be used by an army when the distances were too great for a courier on horseback. It was a 19th Century cell phone: fully mobile, it could travel with the army and did not require setting up a landline (telegraph wires). Encryption was necessary though–at the war’s start, Alexander when South and Myers went North, which meant both sides had the technology and could read the messages!

What was this new-fangled tech, you ask? The Signal Corps or “wig-wag” system. A typical station involved three men: one to use a flag to send coded messages, one to read incoming messages, and one to write it all down. The system used a series of numbers. A dip of the flag to the left was a 1, a dip to the right was a 2, and a dip straight in front was a 3. “3” was used to signal the end of a word (3), sentence (33), or message (333). “1” and “2” were used in combinations to represent letters or words.

  • “1 3 12 33 11222 3 111 333” = “Advance artillery. Resume attack.” (using set phrases)
  • “Jump.” = 2211 [J] 221 [U] 2112 [M] 2121 [P] 333 [end of message]. (spelling it out)

Stations could be set up miles from each other, thanks to telescopes, and they could work at night, using torches instead of flags. The system worked quite well. Except for the weakest part: the humans.

Sending messages only worked if the crew on the receiving end noticed the continuous wig-wagging meant to get their attention. On July 3, 1863, a signal station on a mountain miles away from Gettysburg noticed the Confederates moving an awful lot of cannons into position along Seminary Ridge. Frantically, the station signaled to its relay with the Union army. They were never noticed, so their warning was never delivered!

Fortunately for the Union army, the ensuing smoke caused the Confederate artillery to overshoot, inflicting less damage than intended and allowing for a Union repulse of Pickett’s Charge. As it turned out, the breakdown in communication technology did not end in the Union army’s destruction. But I imagine there was a soldier cussing out his limited technology!

Some things never change.

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