Signal Station on the Pamunky River

  • strict warning: Declaration of cck_facet::build_root_categories_query() should be compatible with faceted_search_facet::build_root_categories_query() in /home1/firstha3/public_html/sites/all/modules/cck_facets/cck_facets.inc on line 16.
  • strict warning: Declaration of author_facet::build_root_categories_query() should be compatible with faceted_search_facet::build_root_categories_query() in /home1/firstha3/public_html/sites/all/modules/faceted_search/author_facet.module on line 236.
  • strict warning: Declaration of date_authored_facet::build_root_categories_query() should be compatible with faceted_search_facet::build_root_categories_query() in /home1/firstha3/public_html/sites/all/modules/faceted_search/date_authored_facet.module on line 182.
  • strict warning: Declaration of taxonomy_facet::build_root_categories_query() should be compatible with faceted_search_facet::build_root_categories_query() in /home1/firstha3/public_html/sites/all/modules/faceted_search/taxonomy_facets.module on line 400.
  • : Function ereg() is deprecated in /home1/firstha3/public_html/includes/file.inc on line 895.
  • : Function ereg() is deprecated in /home1/firstha3/public_html/includes/file.inc on line 895.
  • : Function ereg() is deprecated in /home1/firstha3/public_html/includes/file.inc on line 895.
  • : Function ereg() is deprecated in /home1/firstha3/public_html/includes/file.inc on line 895.
  • : Function ereg() is deprecated in /home1/firstha3/public_html/includes/file.inc on line 895.
  • : Function ereg() is deprecated in /home1/firstha3/public_html/includes/file.inc on line 895.
  • : Function ereg() is deprecated in /home1/firstha3/public_html/includes/file.inc on line 895.
  • : Function ereg() is deprecated in /home1/firstha3/public_html/includes/file.inc on line 895.
  • : Function ereg() is deprecated in /home1/firstha3/public_html/includes/file.inc on line 895.
  • : Function ereg() is deprecated in /home1/firstha3/public_html/includes/file.inc on line 895.
  • : Function ereg() is deprecated in /home1/firstha3/public_html/includes/file.inc on line 895.
  • : Function ereg() is deprecated in /home1/firstha3/public_html/includes/file.inc on line 895.
  • : Function ereg() is deprecated in /home1/firstha3/public_html/includes/file.inc on line 895.
  • : Function ereg() is deprecated in /home1/firstha3/public_html/includes/file.inc on line 895.
  • : Function ereg() is deprecated in /home1/firstha3/public_html/includes/file.inc on line 895.
  • : Function ereg() is deprecated in /home1/firstha3/public_html/includes/file.inc on line 895.
  • : Function ereg() is deprecated in /home1/firstha3/public_html/includes/file.inc on line 895.
  • : Function ereg() is deprecated in /home1/firstha3/public_html/includes/file.inc on line 895.
  • : Function ereg() is deprecated in /home1/firstha3/public_html/includes/file.inc on line 895.
  • : Function ereg() is deprecated in /home1/firstha3/public_html/includes/file.inc on line 895.
  • : preg_replace(): The /e modifier is deprecated, use preg_replace_callback instead in /home1/firstha3/public_html/includes/unicode.inc on line 345.
  • : preg_replace(): The /e modifier is deprecated, use preg_replace_callback instead in /home1/firstha3/public_html/includes/unicode.inc on line 345.
  • : preg_replace(): The /e modifier is deprecated, use preg_replace_callback instead in /home1/firstha3/public_html/includes/unicode.inc on line 345.
  • : preg_replace(): The /e modifier is deprecated, use preg_replace_callback instead in /home1/firstha3/public_html/includes/unicode.inc on line 345.

Signal Station on the Pamunky River

Mary Kate McAdams, Boston College ‘12

Signal Station on the Pamunky River (see figure 1) is quite a professional drawing. It has a decidedly resolved look, and the artist clearly possessed a firm sense of lighting. Despite the light background, the viewer concludes that the scene takes place at night because the dark shadows at the backs of the signal corps soldiers indicate that there is a light source (in this case the torch held by one soldier). According to my research, the Army Signal Corps used a variety of motions and colored lights as well as rockets and flags.  The artist also had a strong sense of value; the backs of the signal service men are darkest and the ink gets lighter as the eye travels to the ship in the distance to indicate depth. In addition, like the great paintings of the Civil War era, my drawing is full of historical significance.

Strangely, the Signal Corps was originally met with opposition because Albert .J. Myer, its founder, was initially a surgeon and non-combatant.[1] The Signal Corps had to fight to receive recognition from the Union Army, and they did not receive it until 1863. Meyer was then officially instated as a General in the Union Army. Later, the Signal Corps was employed to set up telegraph lines, becoming instrumental in the nation’s technological development. Myer served as Chief Signal Officer of the Army of the Potomac during the Peninsular Campaign of 1862. The Museum of Underwater Archeology’s “Maritime Archaeological and Historical Society: Pamunky River Project” site indicates that the Union Army used the Pamunky River as a “major supply artery” to ship cargo and troops. According to the Pamunky River Project, historical records show that many Union supply-ships sunk in the Pamunky. These ships were either schooners or canal boats. The ship in the distance in the drawing has sails and a structure that resembles a schooner. Unless a Confederate schooner somehow managed to sneak its way through the heavily Union-occupied Pamunky, it is reasonable to assume that the ship and the Signal Corps depicted in the drawing are part of the Union. The Museum of Underwater Archaeology’s website also notes that the Pamunky became a major strategic asset in 1862: 

The river became a battleground during the Civil War. In early April 1862, the Union army under General George McClellan landed at Fort Monroe to begin the "Peninsula Campaign" against Richmond. After the occupation of Yorktown by Union forces on May 4, Confederate forces retreated up the York to Williamsburg and beyond. Watercraft used to supply Yorktown were taken up the Pamunkey. Union forces continued to advance up the peninsula and rivers, conquering point after point.[2]

It would seem that the Signal Corps pictured in the drawing was most likely signaling to a ship transporting soldiers for mobilization to battles in the Peninsula Campaign. Also, the Signal Corps used the telegraph train (light horse-drawn wagons that carried telegraph sets) in the field of battle, and it was particularly helpful during the Battle of Fredericksburg since the fog and smoke of a nearby town made visual signaling difficult.[3] In short, the Signal Corps was yet another technological innovation that changed war and modern society, and if it was indeed depicted in Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Weekly or Harper’s Weekly, it might have been used to highlight an arm of the military that deserved attention. 

A photograph in a historical photo database by James F. Gibson, dated May 1862, helps explain the action in the drawing[4].  It shows the Federal encampment of thousands of pitched tents along the Pamunky. In a diary entry of May 13, 1862, the day after my drawing was penned, soldier Alfred Lewis Castleman, stated that 70,000 Union troops assembled at Cumberland Landing Castleman. He wrote:

Again pulled up stakes and moved five or six miles, and brought up at Cumberland Landing, on the Pamunkey River. Here, on a large plain, surrounded by an amphitheatre of bluffs, were collected about 70,000 of our troops, presenting from the high ground a most magnificent sight. Spent the afternoon and night here.[5]

It turns out that Albert J. Myer served as Chief Signal Officer of the Army of the Potomac during the Peninsular Campaign. A battle at Hanover Court House was fought on May 27th and the other battles near the Pamunky occurred in late June. Led by General McClellan, the Peninsular Campaign’s objective was to capture the Confederate capital of Richmond by outwitting the rebel army in northern Virginia. Brigadier General Fitz John Porter's V Corps fought in the battle of Hanover House, so the signal officers in the drawing could be part of that corps.      The Signal Corps’ flag system became increasingly important on the battlefield. They were used to order troops to advance or run from danger in the heat of battle. According to the Signal Corps Association, the flags

“…Were seen on the advanced lines of Yorktown, Petersburg, and Richmond, in the saps and trenches at Charleston, Vicksburg, and Port Hudson, at the fierce battles of Chickamauga and Chancerllorsville, before the fort-crowned crest of Fredericksburg, amid the frightful carnage of Antietam, on Kenesaw Mountain deciding the fate of Allatoona, in Sherman's march to the sea, and with Grant's victorious army at Appomattox and Richmond. They spoke silently to DuPont along the dunes and sounds of the Carolinas, sent word to Porter clearing the central Mississippi River, and aided Farragut when forcing the passage of Mobile Bay.”[6]

Contrary to the dismissive attitude of the soldiers who felt that the Signal Corps was a softer aspect of the military, the Signal officers risked death everyday during their work. According to the Signal Corps Association, fatality rates for the Signal Corps were much higher than for the other branches of the army.  It would seem as if the Signal Corps was unfairly underappreciated until May 1863 when they were finally recognized as a branch of the Federal Army.

The Signal Corps used a wide variety of signals. Flags became a kind of low-tech apparatus as Meyer and his men developed more advanced signal systems. The Signal Corps reports:

Signal messages were sent by means of flags, torches, or lights, by combinations of separate motions. The flag (or torch) was initially held upright: ‘one’ was indicated by waving the flag to the left and returning it from the ground to the upright position; ‘two’ by a similar motion to the right, and ‘three’ by a wave (or dip) to the front. Where a letter was composed of several figures, the motions were made in rapid succession without any pause or delay. Letters were separated by a brief but definite pause, and words or sentences were distinguished by one or more "three's" (or dips motions) to the front.[7]

My drawing depicts a signal officer bearing a torch. He is moving it to the left, indicating a “one.” He was most likely signaling to the schooner in the distance the location of the encampment of 70,000 troops.

Despite the significance of the Signal Corps later in the Civil War, my drawing never made it to the pages of Frank Leslie’s. Due to the political unpopularity of the Signal Corps (in some cases, the army was openly hostile towards it), it makes sense that my drawing was never published. In May 1862, the Signal Corps was still a separate and unofficial entity.

It has been difficult to pin down the identity of the drawing’s artist. However, there are clues embedded in its style. Using a process of elimination based on the fact that certain artists were not in Virginia in May 1862, I was able to rule out Edwin Forbes, William T. Crane, Henri Lovie, Andrew McCallum, William R. McComas, Edward Mullen, and James E. Taylor. After pouring through all the ink drawings in the Becker Collection, I found that the style of my drawing is very similar to that of Edward Hillen. Upon consulting Artists in Virginia before 1900 by R. Lewis Wright, I found that two sketches Hillen made in 1862 were published in Harper's Weekly. The key part of my finding was that he was in Virginia at the time of my drawing. It turns out that he did not draw for Frank Leslie's until 1863. Hillen was part of the 34th Regiment of the Ohio Volunteer Infantry.[8] The regiment was in Virginia in 1862.

Next, I compared the style of my drawing and Hillen’s drawings by focusing on specific elements, namely the shadowing and the way the trees are drawn. Strong shadowing on the figures shows the direction of the light source (the torch). If we look at the figures in Hillen’s Arrival of Rebel Prisoners to Stockade Prison at Stevenson, Alabama (see figure 2), we can see similar shadowing.

Also, I compared the trees of both drawings. The artist creates simplified shapes with light ink before adding defining limbs in an upright position over the brushwork. In my opinion, this method of drawing trees seems the same in both images.

While Signal Station on the Pamunky River was never published, it carries a great deal of historical significance. Its exclusion from the news merely underscores the Corps’ obscurity during its time. Clearly the Signal Corps contributed to the battles fought and the technological development of telegraph communications. I can only hope that my research sheds some light on a branch of the military that lost many of its men and fought long and hard to be recognized as a venerable arm of the army that won the Civil War.

 

Appendix

 Figure 1

Figure 1.  Unknown. Signal Station on the Pamunky River, May 12, 1862. From Becker Collection.

Figure 2

Figure 2. Arrival of Rebel Prisoners to Stockade Prison at Stevenson, Alabama, November 30th, 1863. Edward Hillen. From Becker Collection. 

 

 

Bibliography

Becker Collection Site.

“The American Civil War: Letters and Diaries.” http://solomon.cwld.alexanderstreet.com/cgi-bin/asp/philo/cwld/getdoc.pl....

"civilwarsignal.org."

“Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper” slides.

General Meyer’s letters.

Getting the Message through: A Branch History of the U.S. Army Signal Corps. Raines, Rebecca Robbins. Center of Military History, United States Army Washington D.C., 1996.

“Harper’s Weekly” slides.

“Maritime Archaeological and Historical Society: Pamunkey River Project.” “http://www.uri.edu/artsci/his/mua/mahs1.html.” (January 27, 2009). www.old-picture.com

“Signal Corps Association (1860-1865)” (Marley Creek Archives). “http://www.civilwarsignals.org/pages/signal/signal.html.” (March 10, 2009).

Wright, Lewis. Artists in Virginia before 1900.

 


[1] “Signal Corps Association (1860-1865)” (Marley Creek Archives). “http://www.civilwarsignals.org/pages/signal/signal.html.” (March 10, 2009).

[2] “Maritime Archaeological and Historical Society: Pamunkey River Project.” “http://www.uri.edu/artsci/his/mua/mahs1.html.” (January 27, 2009).

[3] Getting the Message through: A Branch History of the U.S. Army Signal Corps. Raines, Rebecca Robbins. Center of Military History, United States Army Washington D.C., 1996.

[4] www.old-picture.com

[5] “The American Civil War: Letters and Diaries.” http://solomon.cwld.alexanderstreet.com/cgi-bin/asp/philo/cwld/getdoc.pl....

[6] “Signal Corps Association (1860-1865)” (Marley Creek Archives). “http://www.civilwarsignals.org/pages/signal/signal.html.” (March 10, 2009).

[7] “Signal Corps Association (1860-1865)” (Marley Creek Archives). “http://www.civilwarsignals.org/pages/signal/signal.html.” (March 10, 2009).

[8] ‘Internet Archive”

“http://www.archive.org/stream/greenecountysold00owen/greenecountysold00owen_djvu.txt.” (March 10, 2009).