Cryptologic Bytes

"On This Date in History" Calendar

1860: Albert J. Myer, developer of flag "wig-wag" code appointed Signal Officer.

Thursday, June 27, 2024

On 27 June 1860, Maj. Albert J. Myer, founder of the "wig-wag," or aerial telegraphy, flag signaling system, was appointed first chief of the U.S. Army Signal Corps. Myer's flag "wig-wag" code was first used in the first Battle of Bull Run or Battle of First Manassas. The code was used extensively by both the Union and Confederate armies throughout the war.

Myer designed the flag signaling system when working in American Indian territory in the 1850s. He noticed Native Americans communicating across long distances by waving staffs to each other. Adding a flag to the staff and then a square on the flag so that it could be better seen, the system came to be accepted as the line of site communication system used extensively during the Civil War by Union and Confederate forces. Ironically, it was first used at the Battle of First Manassas by Edward Porter Alexander, who was Myer's aide who helped develop the system before the war. During the battle, Alexander positioned himself at a signal station on what is now known as Signal Hill. When he saw a flash of light reflecting from a brass cannon, he saw the impending movements of the enemy. Federal troops were about to flank Col. Nathan G. Evans of South Carolina. Alexander grabbed a signal flag and sent a message to Evans, "Look to your left, you are turned," thus indicating that the colonel's regiment was going to be flanked on his left. After receiving this message, Evans took the necessary movement to defend against the Union's flanking attack.

See links at the end of this page to NCMF Acquisitions related to Civil War signaling and a Civil War Signals Video.

About Myer - from Wikipedia: Myer engaged in private medical practice in Florida and then sought a commission as a U.S. Army assistant surgeon (lieutenant), entering service September 18, 1854, posted at Fort Duncan, Texas, and Fort Davis, Jeff Davis County, Texas. His major interest of the time, besides medicine, was to devise a system of signaling across long distances, using simple codes and lightweight materials. This system of codes using a single signal flag (or a lantern or kerosene torch at night), known as wig-wag signaling or aerial telegraphy, would be adopted and used by both sides in the Civil War and afterward.


Check out the Cryptologic Bytes Archives for a wide variety of articles on all topics related to cryptology, codes and ciphers, related publications, Museums, and more.