What Did The CS Signal Corp Need These Items For


Lt. Colonel
Forum Host
Regtl. Quartermaster Shiloh 2020
May 7, 2016
Ive been doing some research on Captain C A King who was head of the CS Signal Corp for Gen. Pemberton at Vicksburg. I found these to requisitions made by Capt King. So, What was the 40 gallons of turpentine, 5 lbs of cotton yarn and the black flags for.
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King, C A.jpg

Rhea Cole

1st Lieutenant
Nov 2, 2019
Murfreesboro, Tennessee
Visual Signaling at Night

Waud sketch turned into woodblock etching signal with torch copy.jpeg

At night, signalists would roll up their flags & get out their torches. A person with normal vision can see a lit candle at the range of one mile. The torch was a copper tube with a cotton wick filled with turpentine. In the illustration by William Waud, you will note that the flagman has a torch burning at his feet. If there is no fixed point, it is impossible to accurately follow the movements of the torch. At Stones River NB living history volunteers have made the Signal Corps one of their specialties. It is quite surprising, but we found that you really can't follow the signals if there isn't a fixed torch. We use the strands of cotton mop heads for wicks.

In the Waud drawing, you can see the turpentine can & canteen ready to refill the torches at the base of the flagman's platform. The officer in the greatcoat standing behind the "spy" at the telescope is either calling out signals to the flagman or writing down the signal received by the spy. The officer was the only member of the team who had access to the cyphers or messages. The signalists only had access to to the combination of 1, 2 & 3 that made up the messages. Signal stations of observation, repetition & at headquarters were interconnected to provide near real time intelligence & messages at an unprecedented speed.

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These are "contrabands" (message intercepts) from General Johnston's CS signal station on Kennesaw Mountain. The Union signalists were very adept at breaking the cyphers & codes used by CS signalists. When General Sherman returned to his HQ near near where the HQ signal station perched on the roof of the cotton house at Big Shanty, he had a stack of Johnston's messages to read through during his evening meal. image CIA museum.

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If you look carefully at the top of the tree, there is a tiny figure of a signalist standing on a platform. This is the Fort Negley Station on the edge of downtown Nashville TN. It was much easier to see torches than flags. On brilliantly cold clear winter nights, from Fort Negley to the station at Fort Transit, ten miles east of Murfreesboro TN, it was possible to signal directly between those stations. The 41 mile connection is the longest made during the war. Very large fixed telescopes made that remarkable feat possible.

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This is the kit signalists were issued. This is a U.S. kit, but CSA equipment would have been similar. Figure #5 is the turpentine can. #6 is the copper canteen holding a gallon of turpentine. #7&8 are the two torches. The funnel, scissors, & pliers were used to fill the torch & adjust the wick. #2 is the pole that fit together like a large surf fishing rod. It was 12 feet long when fully assembled. Apart from the turpentine can, & canteen, all of the equipment could be rolled up in the #3 canvas roll. Signal teams were mounted & highly mobile.

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Image the author at Chickamauga NB.​

The red, white & black flags had no special meaning. They were used depending on the background. At Stones River, we have found it ideal to be standing against the sky or dark cedar tree. If the flag is passing between a light & a dark background, it is very hard to follow. Depending on the back lighting, the dark or white square in the center of the flag is what shows up. The black flag, mentioned in the document at the head of this thread, was used against a background of snow or bright clouds. Different sized flags were used depending on distance. On a windy day, even very hefty signalists like me can't wave the largest flag, it simply has too large a sail area.

As you might imagine, the turpentine torches were the source of some adventures. During the Battle of Chattanooga, the flagman at Moccasin Point accidentally set the grass on fire. For a very uncomfortable period of time, he was the focus of pot shots by Confederate infantry & artillery from across the Tennessee River.

You might expect Signal Corps duty to be a plumb job. Officers had to be college graduates & the men were older, steady & often well educated. The six man teams were mounted & moved about at will. They had army level orders to subsist (draw rations & supplies) from any unit they encountered. They often operated independently for days or even weeks at a time. Often, they drew rations by purchasing meals from farm families along their route. On the other hand, there really is a certain, "Here I am please kill me!" quality about waving a flag on a battlefield. Signalist suffered 10 killed for every man wounded... not a typo. It was dangerous duty.

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