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Emmitsburg during the Civil War

Signal Operations of Emmitsburg During the Civil War

John Allen Miller

Emmitsburg was not only important to the cavalry operations of the Union Army, but it also served as an important role in communications and observing battle maneuvers in Gettysburg.  Indian Lookout was a very important landmark during the battle of Gettysburg for the Union Army.  It served Union officers who could see the positions of the armies on the battlefield.  It also served as a communication center via dispatches and telegraph for the Union Army.   

Using the highest point in the Emmitsburg area, Indian Lookout became a land mark.  This area situated near Mount Saint Mary's College held the most spectacular view of the battle of Gettysburg.  A letter reprinted on March 25, 1976 from the Emmitsburg Chronicle a gentlemen only known as A.J.B. wrote about the Battle of Gettysburg as seen from Indian Lookout directly behind Emmitsburg. There he writes about the battle as he saw it.

“I should spare some of that talk for describing the battle of Gettysburg as seen by us from Indian Lookout.  Truly we are at that place (Indian Lookout) almost the whole time during the three days battle.  We had plenty of glasses viz telescopes, spy, and opera glasses. We had a clear view of the field and could see so as to make the men in their lines, attending cannon, the cannon themselves, making charges, officers riding along about their lines, and in a word the whole scene was spread out to our view.

We could distinctly observe the changes in the position of the armies: sometimes one army would slowly give way, but seeming to dispute every inch of ground with as much energy and determination as if the fate of the Nation depended on its holding or yielding its position again rallying and driving the foe headlong before it for some distance. When the retreating body either reinforced some fresh troops or perhaps reinforced with courage, the battle would become terrific.”  

The Union Army had several ways of communicating and delivering orders.  Situated on the highest point they would translate or send out messages. The Signal Corp had two flags that were squared and colored red and white.  One flag would be red with a smaller white square in the center, while the second was all white and a smaller red square in the center.  Each movement of the signal flags represented a letter.  The signalmen would wave these flags while the intended party who was observing these flags would look through a telescope calling out the letters and another man would write the letters down.  The second way of communicating was by telegraph.  The armies had what was called a Flying Telegraph battalion or company. They would set up near the signal corps or where they would best serve the commanders.

An article reprinted in 1951 from the Emmitsburg Chronicle gave a sharp description of the Union cavalry and Signal Corps that was stationed at Emmitsburg during the time of the battle of Gettysburg:

“Small flags waved and dipped from the tower of the old Lutheran Church, used as a signal station by the army. Bearers of dispatches and squads of cavalry dashed madly through the town. The long roll of drums and the blood-stirring bugle calls filled the air; the fields were alive with soldiers. To the untrained eye it looked like a great mob, but it was not a mob in any sense, for in a very short time the men fell into orderly lines and in full marching swing, pressed forward across the fields toward Gettysburg, towards victory and also many of them toward death."  

As the battle of Gettysburg commenced, Signal man Aaron Jerome, turned his telescope toward Emmitsburg. Around quarter after nine in the morning, he saw movements of troops approaching Gettysburg. From his location on the Lutheran Seminary steeple he could see the company colors waving in the wind. As the wind shifted the flags he recognized the emblems of Reynolds Corps.  He knew help was on the way.  

During the battle of Gettysburg, Indian Lookout and Round Top served as one of many lines the Federal Army had.  These are the official reports written by the men stationed at Indian Lookout during the battle of Gettysburg, and how the signal stations were organized during the Union occupation of Emmitsburg along with communication difficulties:

"Signal Station,  July 2, 1863

Major-General Butterfield:

Communication with Emmitsburg is still open, but no communication yet with Gettysburg.

L. B. Norton, Captain, and Chief Signal Officer


General Slocum

A message confirming the above was received, via Washington, late in the afternoon by the commanding general from General Tyler, at Maryland Heights. On the 25th, all signal communication was discontinued upon the removal of the army corps, and the signal telegraph line withdrawn. Two officers made separate reconnaissance for General W. S. Hancock, while two others performed the same duties for General J. F. Reynolds.

On the 26th, general headquarters moved to Poolesville. By direction of the general commanding, three signal officers were ordered to report for duty to Major General A. Pleasonton, commanding Cavalry Corps.

On the 27th, the headquarters of this army moved to Frederick, and an attempt was made to open communication between this point and the station on Sugar Loaf Mountain, which proved unsuccessful, on account of the unfavorable condition of the atmosphere. A station of observation was established at Middletown, and communication opened from that place to another point of observation at South Mountain Pass, and the results reported to Generals J. F. Reynolds and O. O. Howard.

On the 28th and 29th, no signal operations were found necessary. On the 30th, general headquarters removed to Taneytown. A signal station was placed in the church steeple at that place, and a party sent to Emmitsburg for the purpose of opening a line between General J. F. Reynolds and headquarters. Communication was not opened this day on account of the haziness of the atmosphere. The signal officer with General John Buford, who occupied the town of Gettysburg, took position in the steeple of the college, and reported to General Buford the whereabouts and movements of the enemy. The officers attached to the First Corps, from a station of observation on the mountain (Indian Lookout) back of Emmitsburg, made a telescopic reconnaissance toward Gettysburg, reporting the results to the general commanding that corps.

In order that these instructions might be promptly and successfully fulfilled, signal telegraph trains were sent to Frizellburg, and everything held in readiness to extend the wire at a moment's notice to the points desired by the commanding general. During the whole of this day, endeavors were made to open the signal line between general headquarters, Emmitsburg, and Round Top Mountain, but on account of the smokiness of the atmosphere, the desired result was not obtained until 11 p. m., when the first message was received. These lines were kept open during the subsequent battle.

On July 6, the lines between Round Top and Taneytown and Emmitsburg and Taneytown were discontinued. The two officers attached to the First Corps made a telescopic reconnaissance from the hill back of Emmitsburg, and sent the information obtained to Major General John Newton. The same officers subsequently occupied signal stations at Turner's Gap and Washington Monument, and reported the result of their observations of Hagerstown and vicinity to Generals Sedgwick and Newton.

July 7, the headquarters of the army moved to Frederick. The signal officer who had been previously assigned to duty with the detached command under General Neill made a reconnaissance near Waynesborough, Pa., discovering the whereabouts and movements of the enemy.

On July 8, in the afternoon, general headquarters moved to Middletown. A party of signal officers, under charge of Captain W. J. L. Nicodemus, arrived from Washington, for the purpose of working in conjunction with the signal corps of this army. Captain Nicodemus opened a line of communication between Frederick and South Mountain Pass.

On July 9, headquarters of the army moved to Turner's Gap. A station was occupied near this place, communicating, through others at Middletown and Crampton's Pass, with Maryland Heights. This line, appearing of little importance on account of telegraphic facilities, was abandoned the same day, and its officers ordered to more active duty in the front. A station of observation was established on Washington Monument, near South Mountain Pass, from which Hagerstown and the whole valley could be seen. On July 10, the general commanding and his staff removed to a bivouac near Beaver Creek crossing, west of Boonsborough.

On July 30 and 31, the communication opened on the 29th remained intact. In summing up the operations of the signal corps of this army for the month and a half herein recorded, I find that sixty-seven signal stations of observation and communication were occupied, eight signal telegraph lines established, and seventeen extra reconnaissance’s made. I have stated as concisely as possible the amount and character of the work performed. When it failed in a signal point of view it has been noted; but of the real value of the information obtained by the corps and the importance of other services rendered, the commanding general and the corps commanders are best able to judge. A map is herewith enclosed, *indicating by the signal flags placed upon it the majority of the points at which stations were occupied; by dotted red lines where communication by flag signals was established, and by plain red lines where the signal telegraph was used. "  

On the morning of July 5th, General JEB Stuart made his way from the fields of Gettysburg to Emmitsburg. There was a sharp skirmish fought at the Farmer's Inn as seventy Union men and their Captain were taken prisoners. General Stuart stopped long enough to study maps and feed and water the horses. After General Stuart traveled to Mechanicstown, he learned of the mountain passes guarded by General Merrit's Cavalry.  General Stuart then traveled back into Emmitsburg.  A skirmish erupted south of Emmitsburg as General Stuart and his cavalry passed Mt. Saint Mary’s College. It was here, General Stuart ran into a small body of Union cavalry. In the skirmish the Confederates pushed the Union troopers back into town taking some prisoners. Some of the Union prisoners taken at Emmitsburg by General Stuart’s Cavalry on July 5th were those belonging to the Signal Corps.  In this report to General Slocum, it tells of the small ordeal: 


General Slocum:

During the late movements of the army, 3 signal officers and 6 flagmen were captured by the enemy. The only reported injuries were those of 2 flagmen slightly wounded at the battle of Gettysburg. The capture of Captain B. F. Fisher, chief acting signal officer, has been previously mentioned. Captain C. S. Kendall and Lieutenant L. R. Fortescue, acting signal officers, were taken at Emmitsburg, where they had been on station, by Stuart's cavalry upon their retreat from Gettysburg, July 5.  

The following officers are entitled to mention for the active part taken by them in the late operations of the corps, and for the prompt and efficient manner in which they discharged every duty, both under the fire of the enemy and on the march: Captains James S. Hall and P. A. Taylor, serving with Second Army Corps; Captains P. Babcock, jr., and T. R. Clark, serving with Eleventh Army Corps; Captains Joseph Gloskoski and Richard Dinsmore, serving with Cavalry Corps; Captain F. E. Beardslee, in charge signal telegraph train; First Lieutenants J. C. Wiggins and N. H. Camp, serving with First Army Corps; First Lieutenant George J. Clarke, serving with Sixth Army Corps; First Lieutenant J. E. Holland, serving with Twelfth Army Corps. First Lieutenants William S. Stryker, adjutant, and A. B. Capron, acting assistant quartermaster and acting ordnance officer of Signal Corps, have discharged the duties of their respective positions throughout the campaign with a care and faithfulness which entitles them to commendation. I take pleasure in still further mentioning Captain D. E. Castle, of this corps, for distinguished gallantry and close attention to duty under most trying circumstances.”

Read other articles by John Miller