American Civil War Battlefield Communications

Battlefield communications took a dramatic leap forward during the American Civil War when Union and Confederate signal organizations were organized and deployed. Both armies utilized flag waving techniques known as "wig-wagging" to convey vital messages in binary code. This helped both armies enjoy successes in the field.

The war was already long and exceptionally bloody by the time Northern and Southern troops started to mass in farm fields near a little town called Gettysburg, Pennsylvania. The Union, arriving on the scene first, grabbed the high ground of Little Round Top, and set up a signal post.

When General Robert E. Lee's legendary Army of Northern Virginia arrived they came galloping in with the hopes of the Confederacy and the possibility of ending the war. This one battle had the ability to make or break their 'nation.'

With so much on the line, Lee sent Lieutenant General James Longstreet and his men to make an unexpected visit to the Union flank. But when Longstreet caught sight of enemy signal personnel, he feared his plans would be discovered and transmitted. He attempted to elude their gaze and maintain his edge by leading his men in a lengthy countermarch.

But it was too late. The Union Signal Corps had seen Longstreet and wig-wagged the news. Every dip of the signal flag lowered the flag of the Confederacy into history.

The Civil War signal flag that permanently resides at the museum is an extraordinarily rare example. That's because the single red star on a gold field is adorned with the sewn names of five battles commemorating where the flag had been in service: West Point, Po River, Oakton, Antietam, and Fredericksburg.

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