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The Military Telegraph

Civil War Era

Myer was already knowledgeable about electric telegraphy when he became signal officer in 1860 because of his experience as an operator in Buffalo. This background may explain why he interpreted his duties under the 1860 legislation to include electrical signaling. Another factor may have been the formation early in the war of an organization known as the US Military Telegraph. Despite its name, the Military Telegraph employed civilian operators, and its supervisory personnel received military commissions in the Quartermaster Department so that they could disburse funds and property. Anson Stager, an official of the Western Union Telegraph Company, became its general manager. After President Lincoln took control of the nation's commercial telegraph lines in February 1862, they became available for use by Stager's organization.


Although technically under the Quartermaster Department, the Military Telegraph was actually controlled by Secretary Stanton. As a former director of and attorney for the Atlantic and Ohio Telegraph Company, Stanton, like Myer, possessed considerable knowledge about telegraph operations. He placed the telegraph office next to his own in the War Department, and one of his biographers described the operators as Stanton's "little army ... part of his own personal and confidential staff." Myer saw this organization as a rival and believed that Stanton and the telegraph companies conspired against the Signal Corps. Whether collusion existed or not, Myer took on a formidable adversary when he challenged Stanton, a man whom one historian has described as a "stubby, whiskered, ill-tempered conniver."


In June 1861 Myer first sought to gain control over electric telegraphy in addition to aerial signals. Such a request merited consideration, because Myer's visual signaling system was restricted to use in good weather over relatively open terrain with favorable atmospheric conditions. Message transmission by flag or torch was also slow, averaging about three words per minute with a range of ten to fifteen miles. By contrast, electrical signals were faster and less affected by the weather.


Myer's 1 August 1861 proposal to the secretary of war for the organization of a signal corps had specified that it have control of all telegraphic duty within the Army, both aerial and electrical. On 6 August he again wrote to Cameron, this time requesting a "Telegraphic or Signal Train to accompany the Army on the march." The train would carry all the equipment needed for both aerial and electric signals and would include among its personnel "selected electric telegraphists." Myer's plan received favorable endorsements from Generals Irvin McDowell and George B. McClellan. On 14 August Assistant Secretary of War Thomas A. Scott authorized Myer to purchase a small telegraph train.


When using the term train, Myer was not referring to a vehicle that ran along tracks, but to light wagons drawn by horses. The wagons carried the telegraph sets and other necessary items, such as reels of insulated copper wire and iron lances, for stringing temporary field lines-called "flying telegraph lines." Each train was to be equipped with five miles of wire and two wagons, each with a telegraph instrument. In battle, one wagon remained at the starting point as a receiving station, while the other traveled into the field with the sending instrument.


Myer contracted with Henry J. Rogers, a telegraphic engineer from New York City, to construct a model train. Rogers had assisted Samuel E B. Morse in building the first commercial telegraph line between Washington and Baltimore in 1844, and his arrangement with Myer began a tradition of civilian-military cooperation in the development of signal equipment that continues to this day.


Find out more in "Getting the Message Through" at








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