The Signal Camp of Instruction

 

Red Hill, Georgetown, D.C., October, 1861; Albert J. Myer is the seated officer with a double row of buttons. 

 

 

At the first battle of Bull Run, Maj. Albert Myer, Chief Signal Officer of the Union army, observed that the enemy was using the very system of signals that Myer had invented a few years earlier: Edward P. Alexander, the Confederate signal officer, had been Myer’s assistant before the war.

In the aftermath of that defeat, Myer was given the task of setting up a network of signal stations up and down the Potomac River, to give the capital timely warning of any threat. He was also to set up a school to train the men who would man those stations; this was done on August 30, 1861. The place chosen, for the station and the school, was Red Hill, overlooking Georgetown, from which one could see twenty miles into Virginia. This was the birthplace of the Army Signal Corps. (The hub of the signal network would be on the roof of the War Department.)

One of the signal stations at the camp was called Kengley’s House, i.e. Kengla’s. Which Kengla was intended is unclear, but Jacob H. Kengla is a plausible candidate; his house, at the northwest intersection of what is now Wisconsin and Garfield, stood on a high point, and may have been under construction, or unoccupied at the time. The other was on the opposite side of the road, at Weston, and was called Causten Station, in honor of Manuel C. Causten, one of the first Union prisoners of war. Causten Station may have been taken advantage of a prominent tree later referred to as the “signal oak”.  (Records of the Columbia Historical Society, 9:209)

About 80 officers and 160 men––many detailed from Pennsylvania regiments camped in Tenleytown––formed the first contingent at the Signal Camp of Instruction. Accommodations consisted of two large hospital tents, and a hundred two-man tents; later in the war, two frame barracks––one for officers, one for enlisted men––were built, as well as a small hospital.

Instructions were given in every conceivable type of signaling, including the use of flags, torches, flares, and signal rockets. Officers were issued telescopes and binoculars, to read signals from distant stations, and were instructed in codes and ciphers. When training was complete, signal officers would be detailed to every command, each accompanied by two or more non-commissioned officers trained to assist him.

(There was also the portable telegraph called the Beardslee Machine, a wagon train of transmitters, receivers, batteries, and about eight miles of insulated wire that constituted the earliest battlefield electronics.)

In theory, an officer was supposed to dictate his message in code, which his enlisted man would send without knowing its meaning; but, in practice, it was impossible to prevent a smart enlisted man from picking up the code as he went along. As a result, officers as well as enlisted men could send messages, not only with flags and torches, but also, as occasion arose, by wagging fingers, winking eyes, and stroking moustaches.

There were not many opportunities to go to town. Enlisted men played football, and in the evenings the Germans among them sang. The camp bugler sometimes went across the road to Weston and serenaded the Causten household. The Guard Book of the Signal Camp tells of soldiers put under guard for disrespectful language to an officer, being drunk at their post, or being absent without leave. On one occasion some Signal Camp men who had helped themselves to a stretch of fence one winter night––presumably for firewood––were punished for despoiling loyal Americans. On another, guards at the Signal Camp arrested four New York Zouaves stealing chickens in the neighborhood.

Because of the top-heavy ratio of officers to men, the Signal Camp was described––with only slight exaggeration––as being all lieutenants commanded by a lieutenant; as a result, their passes sometimes struck the military police as fishy. The interaction of the officers with neighboring civilians was considerable. Officers boarded with the elderly German engraver Conrad Schwarz at Greenwood, and took meals at the house of the prosperous butcher, Charles Homiller, or at James Causten’s country house Weston. Lieutenant Benjamin F. Fisher, a Pennsylvania Volunteer detailed to the Signal Corps, became engaged to Alice Causten in April, 1862.

 

 

Southworth

E.D.E.N. Southworth

Signal officers sometimes called on E.D.E.N. Southworth, the popular novelist who had encouraged Harriet Beecher Stowe to write Uncle Tom’s Cabin; according to one Signal Corps veteran, Southworth’s cottage overlooking the river (at 36th and Prospect Street, NW) saw many games of whist on long winter evenings. Near the end of the war the band of the Signal Corps serenaded Mrs. Southworth on her birthday (Star, January 9, 1865; “The Rambler”, Star, January 5, 1913. See also, Ann Beebe, “E.D.E.N. Southworth’s Civil War Washington”, Washington History, Fall 2015, Vol.27, No.2, pp. 27-39)

 

 

In the first year of the war the reports of the signal network established by Colonel Myer had often concluded with the words: all quiet along the Potomac––a phrase that critics of Union inaction considered only too apt. But, in 1864, when General Early did threaten the city, signalmen on the clock tower of Soldiers Home had him in clear view, and the Confederate general found that he could make no move without Union troops responding. (Jubal Early, Memoir of the Last Year of the War for Independence in the Confederate States of America, 1867, p.58)

 

 

A network of signal stations ringed the city and extended up and down the Potomac, by which the capital received word of enemy movements. The signal station at the Camp of Instruction can be seen just north of Georgetown. The network of stations around Washington included one on the Capitol Dome. (The Signal Corps in the War of the Rebellion)

 

The Signal Camp was in line-of-sight communication with a tower eight miles upriver, at Peach Grove (now Tyson’s Corner), and with the main signal station, on the roof of the Winders Building, next to the White House. Messages were conveyed by waving a flag to the right or left in a binary code. At night, turpentine torches on long poles took the place of flags. All signals made in view of the enemy were in cipher. (The Signal Corps in the War of the Rebellion)

 

The clerks, invalids and convalescents who marched through Georgetown and Tenleytown to Fort Stevens would have been no match for the Confederates that day, so it must have been with more than casual interest that they watched the Signal Corps flagmen flapping their flags. At last a signal officer read out the message that seasoned Union reinforcements had landed from Virginia, and were marching up Seventh Street Road; then he congratulated the defenders of Fort Stevens on their close call, and rode away.

(When the Sixth Corps arrived on the scene, Early knew by their effective fire that there was nothing more to be done, and called it a day. About ten days later the troops that had saved the Union’s bacon were paid, and Alice Causten Fisher wrote to her husband that the road in front of Weston was full of drunken soldiers.)

The Signal Corps suffered no casualties in the defense of Washington, but elsewhere the war took a toll. Thanks (presumably) to sharpshooters, more Signal Corps men were killed than wounded; Miller’s Photographic History of the Civil War gives the ratio as 150 per cent. “With his little flag flying, he made a special target for the enemy, and to capture him was deemed a great prize, for there was always the hope of finding in his possession some orders or papers which would give information of movements of troops, or some knowledge which could be taken advantage of by the captors.“ (Capt. W. W. Rowley)

Major Myer was only a political casualty. He was relieved of his duties as Chief Signal Officer by the Secretary of War; the bone of contention was control of military telegraphy. When the Signal Camp was closed in 1865, Myer was photographed with some of the men who served under him: he is the one in civilian clothes. (Myer was later reinstated, after Secretary Stanton’s temper had cooled.)

(See The Signal Camp in Pictures)

 

Red Hill, Georgetown, D.C., August, 1865; Albert J. Myer is in civilian clothes, holding the flag.

 

 

Post-war Compensation Claims

 

The extent of the Camp of Instruction is uncertain, but it is sure to have occupied the open ground between Wisconsin Avenue and Tunlaw Road, and from the crest of Red Hill at Fulton Street to its foot at Calvert Street. (The fact that everyone at the camp had to take riding lessons––and that a dropped minie ball was found south of Benton Street––suggests that the camp may have been larger.)

 

 

Minie Ball, Caliber .58. This “drop”or “pocketspill”––i.e. a bullet not fired, but merely lost––was excavated in a back yard in the southwest quadrant of Benton Street and Tunlaw Road, and may indicate the southern extent of the Signal Camp of Instruction.

 

In 1983 Susan D. Kengla researched the compensation claims submitted to the government by Lewis C. Kengla, and by Henry Kengla, for the use of their land during the Civil War, from which it emerges that Signal Camp of Instruction extended comprised at least 59 acres.

 

National Archives, RG 92

Claims Register, Quarter Master General Office, 1865

Vol. 104, No. 64, Entry 799, p.219

 

Lewis C. Kengla, Georgetown Heights

Referred by Adjutant General

War Department Book 6, A432K31

Received September 9, 1865

 

For exclusive use of Spring house and spring by the Signal Station for four years at $100 per year––$400

For repair of front line fence destroyed––$100

For 10 months use of lot for Hospital––$100

For removal of fence for hospital, and to replace––$50

[Total]$650

 

[Claimant] states that, if the Government will give him the hospital that now occupies his ground, he will sign a release for all claims for rent and damages.

Report to the Secretary of War, recommending the petition be granted October 9, 1865.

 

 

Henry Kengla

Referred by War Department

War Department Book 6, W1734K75

Received November 10, 1865

 

For the use and occupation of 17 town lots, Georgetown, D.C., by the U.S. Signal [Camp] as a drill ground and for four years at $50 per acre––$3400

For 80 panels fence destroyed––$80

For use of spring 4 years––$100

[Total]$3,580

 

 

 

 

January 26, [1874]

To the Hon. The Secretary of War, Washington, D.C.

 

Sir:

I have the honor to submit herewith the papers in a claim of Henry Kengla of Georgetown, D.C., for rent and [  ], stated at $19,110, and invite attention to the report of Major [ ] Myer’s report [  ] Washington D.C. containing the facts.

 

It is proposed to recommend to the Third auditor the settlement of the claim for Quarter Masters, under Act of July 4th as follow:

23,060 ft. old lumber @ $.15 per––345.90

2,000 ft. new lumber @ $.30 per ft.––60.00

21 cords of wood @ $3 per cord––63.00

6 tons of hay @ $20 per ton––120.00

7 perches of stone @ $15 per perch––105.00

Total––$1,593.90

 

The facts in regard to the claims for rent are set forth by a report of Major Myer, I believe that it is proved that 59 acres were occupied as [herein?] stated; but think that six per cent per annum on the assessed value is as much as the Quarter Masters department ought to pay for rent. I consider that much of the rent claimed in these cases is rather in the nature of damages than use.

In this case, claimant asks $19,110.00. The officer investigating the case recommended in all $2,702.00 (to wit: rent $1109.00 + $1593.00 QMasters); but on reference to the ruling in the “Belt” case, increased his recommendation to $3,540 rent; which addition to what is believed to be equitable under the law of July 4, 1864 ($1,593.00) would make a total allowance of $5,133.90.

 

Very respectfully, Your Obedient Servant, Quartermaster General

(Claimants attorneys notified, February 4, 1874)

 

 

 

The Signal Corps Reunion

 

HISTORIC SCENE AT OLD “RED HILL”

WIG-WAGGING BEING DONE THIS WEEK AS DURING THE CIVIL WAR

(Star, September 30, 1915)

 

In 1915, fifty veterans of the Union Signal Corps, in Washington for the encampment of the Grand Army of the Republic, held their association meetings at Mt. Tabor Church, 35th and Wisconsin Avenue, NW.

Prof. Herman Meyer, on Tunlaw Road (at about Calvert?) furnished his front lawn for a signal station, and signals were exchanged between stations around the city and in Virginia.

The local committee for entertainment of the Signal Corps included: Prof. Herbert Morgan, US Naval Observatory; Rev. Ralph Wright, Mt. Tabor Church; and Rev. Charles W. Skinner, Superintendant, Industrial Home School. (Star, September 29-30, 1915)

 

 

Sources

 

Capt. W. W. Rowley, U.S.V., “The Signal Corps of the Army during the War of the Rebellion”, War Papers Read Before the Commandery of the State of Wisconsin, May 3, 1893

J. Willard Brown, The Signal Corps in the War of the Rebellion, 1896

Miller’s Photographic History of the Civil War, 1911

Paul Scheips, “Union Signal Communications: Innovation and Conflict”, Civil War History, Vol.IX, No.4 (December, 1963)

Paul Scheips, Albert James Myer, Founder of the Army Signal Corps: A Biographical Study, Phd. Dissertation, Ann Arbor, Michigan; American University, 1966

Records of the Signal Camp of Instruction, Georgetown, DC, Record Group 111, National Archives

Manuscript Division, Carlisle Military History Institute

 

___________________________________________________________

 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.