Civil War: An important key to victory

July 29, 2007, Mike West, The Murfreesboro Post

Modern electronic communications was an important tool that helped the United States win the Civil War. “Come to the key” was a message Union commanders received with increasing frequency.

Modern electronic communications was an important tool that helped the United States win the Civil War.

“Come to the key” was a message Union commanders received with increasing frequency.

The key in question was a telegraph key, the switch-like device used to transmit Morse code messages from one point to another. By 1862, Union telegraphs connected Murfreesboro to Nashville and Nashville to St. Louis, Bowling Green, Ky., Decatur, Ala., and other points culminating at the telegraph “shack” where President Abraham Lincoln spent most of his time.

In the Shiloh campaign Gen. Don Carlos Buell carried a line from Nashville with him, meeting midway one from Gen. U. S. Grant, who was at Pittsburg Landing, so that Grant, Buell and Gen. Henry Halleck were in telegraphic communication on the night before the Battle of Shiloh.

When Nathan Bedford Forrest raided “Murfreesborough” on July 13, 1862, Forrest captured the Union telegraph station on the Square and the telegrapher who manned it and reported that to Richmond … by telegraph.

Yes, Confederate military leaders were very aware of the power of electronic communications to the point where they used telegraph lines to collect information and to spread disinformation. In fact, Union forces in Kentucky had already been alerted about Forrest’s attack on Murfreesboro days before it happened. The source was no less a personage as Confederate raider John Hunt Morgan, who posed via telegraph as Union provost marshal.

The wily Morgan had his own telegrapher, a Canadian named George Ellsworth who was a graduate of Samuel Morse’s telegraph school. His use of the telegraph to spread disinformation to Union forces was declared by the London Times as the greatest innovation to come out of the American Civil War. Morgan had Ellsworth tap into Union telegraph lines near Horse Cave, Ky., and send the following message:

Nashville, July 10, 1862

To Henry Dent, Provost Marshal, Louisville:

General Forrest, commanding a brigade, attacked Murfreesboro, routing our forces, and is now moving on Nashville. Morgan reported to be between Scottsville and Gallatin, and will act in concert with Forrest, it is believed. Inform the general commanding.

Stanley Matthews

Provost Marshal

The spurious message could have brought disaster to Forrest, who was still two days away from Murfreesboro when it was sent, but it didn’t. It did, however, give Morgan a major edge on his first big Kentucky raid. He and Ellsworth continued their misinformation throughout the raid. When they seized the telegraph office in Lebanon, Ky., they discovered a message sent from Lebanon’s garrison commander to Louisville asking for reinforcements because 400 hundred “marauders” were approaching.

Ellsworth quickly telegraphed Union Gen. J.T. Boyle in Louisville, saying the Lebanon garrison had encountered Rebel raiders under the command of Capt. Jack Allen and that the rebels had been routed. Several follow-up messages convinced Boyle the problem had been handled.

Soon it became obvious to both sides that it was necessary to use code, or ciphers, to send messages on the telegraph lines. Various methods were used to encode messages with the cipher wheel and code book being the most commonly used. A code changes a word or phrase into a different word, phrase or number group; a cipher substitutes each individual letter for a different letter, number or symbol. Both were very effective. In the Union army, telegraphs and other communication devices fell under the control of the Army Signal Corps.

Dr. Albert J. Myer, an Army physician, invented the wigwag system of communication using line-of-sight signal flags. It was used during the Indian Wars in the West, but didn’t become commonplace until the Civil War. Ironically, it was the Confederacy who first used wigwag signal flags.

Capt. Edward Porter Alexander, who helped Myer develop the system, joined the Confederate war effort and used wigwag signals at the First Battle of Bull Run. Alexander, from his hilltop vantage point, spotted the glint of Union bayonets, and wigwagged a message that the Confederate army was about to be flanked.

That early warning gave the Rebel army the edge in the first major battle of the war.

Union forces in Middle Tennessee used telegraph, flag and torch signaling to great effect. Murfreesboro’s Courthouse was the hub of the Army of the Cumberland’s communication system. When Gen. William S. Rosecrans reorganized the army he established a signal corps, placing Capt. Jesse Merrill in charge.

Telegraph and signal flags were used to keep the army in close communication as it moved toward Murfreesboro on Dec. 27, 1962.

Once, Murfreesboro was captured, Merrill devised an elaborate system. Signal officers with corresponding troops were sent to Cripple Creek and Readyville, which were eight and 12 miles, respectively, from Murfreesboro.

Between those two outposts, Fort Transit was constructed on the peak of Pilot’s Knob between Kittrell and Readyville. Pilot’s Knob (also called Peak’s Hill) had a commanding view making it possible for signal officers to report instantly to the central station at the Courthouse. Soon signal posts also connected the Courthouse to Triune, Franklin and Nashville by line of sight.

There were two signal posts in the cupola of the Courthouse. One faced Fort Transit. The other faced Triune.

Powerful telescopes were focused on those two signal stations and were manned around the clock. Outside the opening was a signal platform on which the soldier signaling with flag or torch stood. While it took about five minutes to send a 20-word message, using signal flags was many more times faster than sending a courier on horseback.

The Army of the Cumberland’s Signal Corps got a major boost when Albert Myer sent a signal telegraph train to Murfreesboro. The train consisted of six heavy wagons containing a telegraph, tools, axes and reels. Three of the wagons held five miles of telegraph wire. A generator powered the telegraph.

The field telegraphs accompanied the army to Chickamauga, Chattanooga and throughout the rest of the war. A number of the Army of the Cumberland’s field commanders became strong supporters of the signal corps.

Library of Congress: Union signal corps workers stretch a telegraph line.

Brig. Gen. William B. Hazen is a perfect example, using the technology at Chattanooga and Missionary Ridge. Hazen continued to rely on the signal corps after joining Gen. William T. Sherman’s Army of the Tennessee during the Atlanta campaign and during the march to Savannah, Ga.

Interestingly, Sherman cut his army free from the federal supply chain, but not from the line of communications. He maintained almost constant telegraphic communication with Lt. Gen. U.S. Grant. When Hazen was selected to storm Fort McAllister south of Savannah, he used signal flags to communicate with Sherman, who was also in communication with the U.S. Naval fleet, which was ready to resupply Sherman’s army.

To reach the fort from land, Hazen’s men had to remove a series of torpedoes (improvised explosive device). This tried Sherman’s patience. It was nearly dusk when Sherman wigwagged him reminding Hazen the fort must be taken that day. Hazen answered that McAllister would be taken in 15 minutes.

After getting the go-ahead from Sherman, Hazen quickly attacked and soon wigwagged the message “fort taken” to the impatient general.

“Fort McAllister was taken, and the good news was instantly sent by the signal-officer to our navy friends on the approaching gunboat,” Sherman wrote. The March to the Sea was over.

But it was Grant who used the telegraph and other signal devices to best use. As general in chief, he was able to coordinate action in Virginia and the West in addition to keeping the War Department and President Lincoln informed.

“There was perfect concert of action between the armies in Virginia and Georgia in all 1864; hardly a day intervened when General Grant did not know the exact state of facts with me, more than fifteen hundred miles off, as the wires ran,” Sherman wrote in his memoirs.

Thanks to the telegraph, Grant was able to save the day during the Chattanooga campaign by transferring in 23,000 soldiers and their equipment from Virginia to Chattanooga in 11 days.

When he was named general in chief, Grant, via telegraph, was able to maintain direct control of more than 500,000 soldiers over a territory of 800,000 square miles.

And by concerted action and timely movements, Grant prevented the reinforcement of Lee’s army and so shortened the war. He was the first modern general and the first in the history of the world to be able to control both tactics and maneuvers from hundreds or thousand miles away.

If the concept of “command and control” was developed during the Civil War, you can also trace the origins of groups like the National Security Agency to the Signal Corps. In fact some of those rare Civil War era code books and cipher wheels are among the treasures at the agency’s National Cryptologic Museum.

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