The Signal Camp in Pictures

The Signal Corps of the United States Army was born in 1861 on the pastures of Georgetown Heights. Here, at the Signal Camp of Instruction, Union signal officers and enlisted men underwent training in horsemanship, codes and ciphers,and signaling with flags, torches, flares, and rockets.

Overlooking the camp, on the crest where the Russian Embassy is today, a signal tower was erected, where signal officers learned how to relay wigwag messages between similar high points in the city and the surrounding countryside.

The early Signal Corps combined the functions of reconnaissance and communication, and suffered casualties accordingly. As bearers of valuable information, signal officers were a prize to be captured, when possible; if not, they were a preferred target of enemy sharpshooters.

 

 

The Signal Camp of Instruction, 1861. The photographer would have been standing in what is now the 3800 block of Calvert Street, NW, looking south toward Georgetown. Holy Rood Cemetery is at the upper left, separated by a sunlit fence from Tunlaw Road. The cedars on the horizon mark the present site of Duke Ellington High School. (Miller’s Photographic History of the Civil War (1911), Vol.8, p.306)

 

 

The photograph of the “Signal Camp of Instruction, near Georgetown, D.C.”––taken in the fall of 1861 by Mathew Brady, or one of his assistants––shows a group of officers, including Maj. Albert J. Myer, Chief Signal Officer of the Army (seated, double row of buttons); behind him, with a full beard, Lt. Benjamin F. Fisher. (National Archives)

 

 

Some officers are cradling one of the tools of their new calling: telescopes for reading distant signals and tracking enemy movements. (Brady’s Incidents of the War, National Archives)

 

 

Looking south from Red Hill. (Brady’s Incidents of the War, National Archives)

 

 

Signal Officer and Orderly (Miller’s Photographic History of the Civil War). The photo––taken on Georgetown Heights––shows a signal officer of the Union army demonstrating the reading of a distant message, using his saber to steady his thirty-power telescope. An enlisted man holds the signal party’s mounts. The third horse is that of another enlisted man who will “wigwag” the reply.

 

 

An artist’s conception of the view from Red Hill, overlooking the city of Washington: a Union signal officer reads incoming messages through a telescope, while an enlisted man with his signal flag stands ready to send a reply. (Battles and Leaders of the Civil War, 1884)

 

 

Looking South from Red Hill; there appear to be two sheep in the foreground. (Carlisle Military Institute)

 

 

Looking South from Red Hill. In the foreground, Maj. T.H. Miles and an enlisted man. At right, what may be the Britt farm, at about 39th and W Streets.  (Carlisle Military Institute)

 

 

Taken together, the two photographs above form a panoramic view of the future site of Glover Park.

 

 

View of the camp with a signal tower at the crest of Red Hill.

 

 

In 1864 the Signal Camp of Instruction was improved by the construction of two two-story frame barracks, one for officers (seen here) and one for enlisted men, and by a small hospital.

 

 

The enlisted men’s quarters, built in 1864.

 

 

The arrangement of the officers’ and enlisted men’s quarters.

 

 

The Signal Camp hospital, on the occasion of the closing of the Signal Camp, August, 1865. Col. Benjamin F. Fisher, Chief Signal Officer of the Army, is seated in front of the whitewashed tree. The seated man to his left, wearing a white vest and a civilian coat, is his predecessor, Albert Myer, who had been relieved of his command. (Myer has occasionally been misidentified as Charles Sabin Taft. The confusion may have arisen because of Myer’s civilian clothes, and because Taft––a military surgeon who was at Ford’s Theater when Lincoln was shot––is known to have spent the day of the assassination at the Signal Camp hospital.)

 

 

Flag Lowering at the Signal Camp, August 1865. Albert Myer (seen grasping the lowered flag) is wearing clothes identical to those of the seated figure in the photograph of the Signal Camp hospital. He is not in uniform because competition with the Secretary of War for control of military telegraphy had cost him his command. (Library of Congress)

 

 

Flag Lowering at the Signal Camp, August 1865 (Library of Congress). The ceremonial final lowering of the flag was apparently performed twice. At far left, hand tucked in coat, is Benjamin F. Fisher, who escaped from a Confederate prison in 1864. Seated, second from the left, is Col. William Nicodemus. Like Myer, Nicodemus ran afoul of Secretary Stanton; and, like Fisher, Nicodemus married a local girl.

 

 

___________________________________________________________

 Carlton Fletcher

 The citation and acknowledgement of my research is greatly appreciated.

All rights reserved.

 

 Questions and corrections may be directed to

carlton@gloverparkhistory.com

 

The support of the Advisory Neighborhood Council (3B) is gratefully acknowledged.