Benjamin Franklin Fisher

 

(US Army Military History Institute)

 

 

Benjamin Franklin Fisher (1834-1915)––the son of Rev. Peter S. Fisher (1804-1873), a German Reformed clergyman in Sellersville, Pennsylvania––was listed as a student of law in the 1860 census. On June 18, 1861, in the first summer of the Civil War, he enlisted for three years in Company H, 3rd Pennsylvania Reserves (32nd Pennsylvania Volunteers), being formed in Bucks County.

(Two brothers also served: Calvin P.W. Fisher, M.D., was assistant surgeon of the 148th Pennsylvania, 1862–63; Lt. John H. Fisher, 138th Pennsylvania, fell at the Wilderness, May 6, 1864.)

In August, 1861, Fisher’s regiment arrived in Washington by train, marched up Pennsylvania Avenue to Georgetown, and up High Street to their camp in Tenleytown. As they passed the country house named Weston––across from where the Russian Embassy is today––Mr. Causten’s daughters stood at the gate, offering cool drinks of water. Their hospitality was heartfelt: their brother, Manuel C. Causten––called Tom––was in Confederate hands, the first Union prisoner of a war that was only four months old.

(See Manuel C. Causten, Prisoner of War.)

 

Weston, James H. Causten's country place, where Benjamin F. Fisher was a frequent guest, as it appeared in 1886. (Photo courtesy of a descendant)

Weston, James H. Causten’s country place, where Benjamin F. Fisher was a frequent guest, as it appeared in 1886. (Photo courtesy of a descendant)

 

 

Soon after his arrival in Washington, Fisher was detailed to the Signal Camp of Instruction, to assist Maj. Albert Myer in creating the Signal Corps; he was appointed instructor two weeks later. The officers of the Signal Camp were welcomed by their neighbor to the south, Charles Homiller, who was Manuel Causten’s father-in-law. (B.F. Fisher to P.S. Fisher, August 31, 1861)

Relations with the Causten family were particularly warm. One of the two signal stations at the camp was named Causten Station, in honor of the prisoner. Enlisted men were given fruit from Weston farm, and the camp bugler came over after the call to the colors to favor the family with selections of non-martial music. It was not long before Lt. Fisher wrote to his father: “A few evenings since I passed a few hours at Mr. Causten’s, whose daughter is one of the finest performers on the piano I have ever heard.“ (In this letter Fisher also observes that “all the slaves in the South think they will be freed soon, even those in this neighborhood”, B.F. Fisher to P.S. Fisher, October 6, 1861). Alice Causten and Lt. Fisher were soon engaged. (B. F. Fisher to J.H. Causten, April 9, 1862)

In February and March of 1862, Fisher was in charge of detachments on Lower Potomac; during this time Fisher tested signaling from Professor Lowe’s balloon, near Pohick Church, Virginia. He then joined the Army of the Potomac for the Peninsula Campaign, and was in action at Lee’s Mill, Williamsburg, Gaines’s Mill, and Malvern Hill. In September, 1862, Capt. Fisher was appointed Chief Signal Officer of the Army of the Potomac.

 

Benjamin F. Fisher’s Honor Flag (State Museum of Pennsylvania). Unlike regular signal flags, which had a rectangle in the middle, honor flags had a star, which was inscribed with the name of the action in which the star had been won. 

 

Generally, a signal officer’s mission was to produce intelligence reports from “stations of observation”. When the situation was fluid, on the other hand, a signal officer produced them from the saddle. This appears to have been the case as the battle of Chancellorsville was concluding, and Union forces were under orders to make every effort to learn where enemy forces were going next. On June 17, 1863, while shadowing Confederate columns near Aldie, Virginia, Capt. Fisher was captured. (Edwin C. Fishel, The Secret War for the Union, 1996, pp. 457,551)

Sent to Libby Prison in Richmond, Capt. Fisher was soon joined by none other than his future brother-in-law. Lt. Causten, who had been exchanged in 1862, had been captured again at Chickamauga, and was now a prisoner for the second time! On February 9, 1864, 109 prisoners tunneled out of Libby Prison. Fisher led the second party of ten, which included Lt. Causten. Fisher evaded searchers for eleven days, and found his way to Union lines at Williamsburg. Causten was one of 61 men recaptured. (National Republican, February 23-25, 1864)

 

Libby Prison, Richmond

 

“During the movement to Chancellorsville Captain Fisher rendered great service to the commanding general, and again, was the first to detect and report Lee’s movements up the Rappahannock at the beginning of the campaign into Pennsylvania. On the 17th of June, he left the headquarters of the army, then at Fairfax station, to report to General Pleasonton, who was in command of the cavalry near Aldie. He was directed by the chief of staff to make a reconnoissance, under an escort to be furnished by General Pleasonton, to the Blue Ridge, in order to ascertain the location of Lee’s forces; but whilst en route for Pleasonton’s headquarters, he was captured by a band of Moseby’s men, and when next heard from he was an inmate of Libby prison.”

“Captain Fisher, with one companion [Manuel C. Causten], had been admitted into the organized party, and hence came out at about ten o’clock in the evening, and thus had a reasonable prospect for successful escape. They proceeded to the Chickahominy river that night, passing the guard stationed at Meadow bridge; they concealed themselves during the next day under a pine thicket several miles beyond the river. At dark they resumed their journey and continued traveling all night, avoiding the roads and again concealing themselves in the thickets and jungles of the Chickahominy swamp during the day. When they reached the vicinity of the White house they were overtaken by a severe snow storm, and were compelled to lie for two days and one night under a laurel thicket, without stirring lest the rebel scouts, who were searching in every direction, should discover their hiding place. On the evening of the 18th of February they encountered a party of the enemy, were pursued and fired upon; the captain’s companion was recaptured, but he, armed with the desperate determination that had nerved him through all the days of privation and nights of exposure, made good his escape through thickets and swamps, and reached Williamsburg on the morning of the 21st of February, where he with many others was finally rescued by the cavalry sent out by General Butler to search for the escaped prisoners.”

(Josiah R. Sypher, History of the Pennsylvania Reserve Corps, 1865, pp.504-506)

 

 

Married, on March 15, by Rev. Fr. McNally, Capt. Benjamin F. Fisher, U.S. Navy [sic], to Miss Alice Causten, young daughter of James H. Causten, of Washington City. (National Intelligencer, March 18, 1864)

 

Brevetted Lieutenant-colonel for gallant and meritorious services in 1864, Fisher was with the Army of the Potomac from the Rapidan to Petersburg.

 

“Major Benjamin F. Fisher has been made colonel & Chief Signal Officer [of the army], vice Myer, whose term has expired by constitutional limitation.” Fisher’s predecessors, Albert Myer––founder of the Signal Corps––and William Nicodemus had each incurred the displeasure of Secretary Stanton. (National Intelligencer, January 11, 1865)

 

Brevetted Brigadier General, resigned November 15, 1866.

 

After the war Fisher practiced law in Philadelphia. In 1902 a reunion of Signal Corps veterans brought him back to Red Hill, the scene of his wartime courtship. In 1915, fifty veterans of the Signal Corps––but not Fisher––met in Washington for the GAR encampment. They used a front lawn on Tunlaw Road to signal to stations that had been set up around the city and in Virginia.

 

 

Gen. Benjamin F. Fisher Dead––Last Survivor of Band Which Escaped From Libby Prison.––Philadelphia, Sept. 10.––Gen. Benjamin Franklin Fisher, who was chief signal officer of the United States army during the civil war, died yesterday on his farm overlooking Washington’s headquarters at Valley Forge. He was 81 years old and had a picturesque career. He was a lawyer, and after the war became prominent in financial circles.

He was the last survivor of the nineteen [sic] Union soldiers who tunneled their way out of Libby prison and made their way back to their own lines after great hardships. Before he was mustered out Gen. Fisher was brevetted brigadier general of volunteers. He was frequently commended for gallantry. (Washington Post, September 11, 1915, p.4)

 

 

 

Sources

 

Causten Family Papers, Georgetown University Special Collections

Benjamin Franklin Fisher Papers, Carlisle Military History Institute

Benjamin Franklin Fisher Papers, Pennsylvania State Archives

(Inventory prepared by Col. David S. Kyle)

 

 

Josiah R. Sypher, History of the Pennsylvania Reserve Corps, 1865, pp.504-506

Thomas E. Rose, “Libby Tunnel: Colonel Rose’s Story of the Famous Tunnel Escape of 109 Prisoners”, National Tribune, May, 14, 1885

B.F. Fisher, “A Prisoner of War: Life and Experiences in Southern Prisons During the Civil War”, Philadelphia Weekly Times, May 18, 1887

William H. Powell (editor), Officers of the Army and Navy (Volunteer) Who Served in the Civil War, Philadelphia, 1893.

J. Willard Brown, The Signal Corps in the War of the Rebellion, 1896, pp. 164,769)

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

Hunt, Roger D. and Jack R. Brown, Brevet Brigadier Generals in Blue, 1990

Edwin C. Fishel, The Secret War for the Union, 1996

 

See also:

http://www.civilwarsignals.org/

 

 

___________________________________________________________

 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.