Capt. Edward Porter Alexander, Signal Officer, Army of the Potomac, On the Signal Corps in the Campaign

9 07 2020

THE FIRST SIGNAL MESSAGE.
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It Was Sent at Bull Run by Gen. E. P. Alexander, C. S. A.
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BY. BRIG. GEN. E. P. ALEXANDER, C. S. A.
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In September, 1859, I was a Second Lieutenant of Engineers, U. S. Army, and was on duty with the Corps of Cadets at West Point as Assistant Instructor in Practical Engineering. Here, on Sunday morning. I became acquainted with Dr. Albert J. Meyer, Assistant Surgeon, U. S. A., and learned from him of the system of military signals which he had devised and which he was then under order to develop and bring into practical operation.

Surgeon Meyer had been authorized also to select some young officer to assist him in his experiments, and our accidental acquaintanceship resulted in his making application for me to be relieved from duty at West Point and assigned to duty with him.

This was done, and I remained on duty with Surgeon Myer from Oct. 3, 1859, until March, 1860. The first three months were spent about New York Harbor, experimenting and perfecting our apparatus by daily and nightly signals, between Fort Hamilton, on the Narrows, and Sandy Hook, and Navesink Highlands. Then, everything being satisfactory, we went to Washington and exhibited the system to the Military Committees of the House and Senate, which resulted in the passage of a law creating a Signal Corps, of which Surgeon A. J. Myer was the head, with rank of Major.

I, at my own request, was returned to duty in my old corps, where I continued to serve until after the secession of Georgia, my native State. On May 1, 1861, I resigned, being then on duty at San Francisco, and I returned East via Panama, and arrived in Richmond on June 1.

WITH THE CONFEDERATE ARMY AT MANASSAS.

Confederate armies were being formed at that time in West Virginia in the Shenandoah Valley, at Manassas Junction, at Yorktown, and at Norfolk. On my arrival I was promoted Captain of Engineers, and several applications were made for me for different positions; but President Davis had been Chairman of the Military Committee of the Senate when Maj. Myer and I had appeared before it, on a number of occasions, exhibiting the military signals; so he refused all applications to me, and after making me put in operations a little factory of flags, torches, etc., on July 1, I was ordered to take myself and my system of signals to the army of Gen. Beauregard at Manassas Junction.

On June 24, Gen. McDowell had submitted to the War Department a plan for an advance upon Manassas Junction, to be begun on July 8, which had been accepted. Most fortunately for the Confederates, however, the Federal army, with all its resources, was not ready to start until July 16. Twenty miles of marching, and a preliminary skirmish, and only on July 21 was the battle delivered.

ORGANIZING A SIGNAL CORPS.

On my arrival at Manassas, July 2, 1861, I really had much more time to install my system of signals than I expected; for “rumors of the foe’s advance” now swelled upon almost every breeze, and I lost no time. I had brought with me from Richmond all the necessary flags, torches, glasses, etc., and the first thing was to select men. I soon made acquaintances among the officers, and got the names of about 15 young privates who might later be promoted as Signal Officers, and I had them detailed and assigned to me for duty. They were at once put upon a course of instruction and practice.

Meanwhile I procured a horse, and between times began an exploration of the country which was to be our theater of action, to find out what facilities it offered to establish lines of signal.

The topography was very far from favorable; the country was generally flat and gently rolling. There were but few large bodies of woods, but very many medium sized ones, and very much second growth pine. Our line of battle had been chosen along the stream of Bull Run, about three miles north of Manassas, and the course of the stream was generally wooded and bordered with small fields and pastures, giving very few open stretches. I was not at all sanguine that I would be able to render any valuable service, but, fortunately, I had the time to make a thorough search of the whole country, and as will be seen, one line which I opened up disclosed the vital secret of the enemy’s strategy in time to allow it to be successfully met.

LOCATING SIGNAL STATIONS.

About a mile east of the little village of Manassas, on the farm of a Mr. Wilcoxen, I found a high, rocky point, covered with cedars, but having a good outlook over a valley to the north and west. I made this point a central station, and by clearing it off, and by some clearing at other points, I got two straight six-mile ranges; one northwest to a bluff over Bull Run Valley, on our extreme left, a short way above the Stone Bridge (by which the Warrenton Turnpike crossed Bull Run), and the other north to Centerville, about three miles beyond the Run, opposite our center. Another station was found near the Run, opposite our right center; and a fourth near our headquarters in the village. This was the utmost that the topography permitted, and I established them and set the men to practicing by day and by night.

It is not necessary for me to refer to the operations preceding the 21st. Early that morning McDowell’s turning column was approaching Sudley Ford, two miles above the Confederate left at Stone Bridge; and after a very early breakfast, Gens. Beauregard and Johnston, with their united staffs, started to the front opposite their center. They had sent orders to Ewell, on their extreme right, to advance and turn the enemy’s left, but these orders miscarried in some way, and were never received; consequently there was no action on our center, which was waiting in vain for the right to begin, and ample time was allowed McDowell’s turning column to complete its long march and make the fight upon our left.

And now I may introduce the incident which this paper records in detail for the first time.

As the rather large party, with an escort of couriers, moved down the road soon after breakfast, Gen. Beauregard called me to him, and directed me to take a courier and go to my central signal station on the hill near Wilcoxen’s house, and to remain there in general observation and to send him messages about anything that could be seen. I was far from pleased at the receipt of this order, for I had hoped to accompany the two Generals throughout the day, and the chances of seeing anything important from this place seemed infinitely small. There was no help for it, however, and Beauregard deserves credit for the thought of taking every possible means of acquiring prompt information. If we had had a balloon this would have been the time to send it up.

By rare food luck the Wilcoxen Hill had a particularly good outlook beyond the Stone Bridge. From it could be seen our signal station on the bluff in rear of Stone Bridge, six miles off, and then beyond that for miles the level valley of Upper Bull Run, with its fields, fences, pastures, etc., was foreshortened into one narrow band of green. I arrived on Wilcoxen’s Hill about 8 a. m. After a careful study, I fixed the glass upon the Stone Bridge station and got from the operator there some details about the developments of the morning.

M’DOWELL’S FLANKING COLUMN DISCOVERED.

While I was reading the motions of his flag, the sun being low in the east, and I looking toward the west, from up in the narrow band of green above the flag, the faintest twinkle of light caught my eye. My eyes were always remarkably quick and good, and I had had long training with a glass. It was but a single flash, but the color was that of brass, and the shape a horizontal line. It could be nothing but the reflection of the morning sun from the side of a brass gun. I brought my glass very carefully to bear exactly, and presently made out a little swarm of still fainter glitters, and I knew that it was a column of bright musket barrels and bayonets.

It was about 8:45 a. m., and I had discovered McDowell’s turning column, the head of which at this hour was just arriving at Sudley, eight miles away. I at once appreciated how much it might mean, and I thought it best to give Gen. Evans, in command at the Stone Bridge, immediate notice, even before sending word to Beauregard. So I signalled Evans quickly, “Look out for your left; you are turned.” Gen. Evans afterwards told me that the pickets which he had at Sudley, being driven in by the enemy’s advance guard, had sent a messenger, and the two messengers, one with my warning and one with the report of the picket, reached him simultaneously. The two reports coming together from different sources, thoroughly impressed him with the gravity of the situation, and he acted immediately and with excellent judgement. He left four companies of his command to occupy the enemy (Tyler and his three brigades) in his own front, and with the remainder of his force (six companies of the 4th S. C. and Wheat’s La. Battalion), he marched to oppose and delay the turning column, sending word at the same time of his movement to Col. Cocke, next on his right. In his official report Evans warmly thanks Col. Robt. Wheat (who had been an old Filibuster) for sound advice on the field, and I have no doubt that Wheat was consulted and advised with here. Poor fellow, he fought as well as advised, and fell shout through both lungs. He recovered, but in his next fight, Gaines’s Mill, 11 months later, he fell, leading a charge and could only exclaim: “Bury me on the field, boys.”

Having sent Evans my brief notice of his immediate danger, I wrote a note to Gen. Beauregard, which I can quote, I believe, verbatim, as it was framed after my idea of what the reports of reconnoitering officers should be – the exact mathematical truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth. I kept no copy of it, but its impression upon my own brain was very vivid, and it was about as follows: “I see a body of troops crossing Bull Run about two miles above the Stone Bridge. The head of the column is in the woods on this side. The rear of the column in in the woods on the other side. About a half mile of its length is visible in the open ground in between. I can see both infantry and artillery.”

When I had it written, it looked very tame for notice of the great event I took it to be: but I gave it to my courier and sent him off at a gallop, with some two and a half miles to go.

Untitled

SEASONABLE AND MATERIAL ASSISTANCE.

Gen. Beauregard, in his report of the battle, does not mention the receipt of this note, but says generally that I gave him “seasonable and material assistance early in the day with the system of my signals.”

Gen. Johnston is a little more explicit, and says: “About 8 o’clock, Gen. Beauregard and I placed ourselves on a commanding hill in rear of Gen. Bonham’s left. Near 9 o’clock the Signal Officer, Capt. Alexander, reported that a very large body of troops was crossing the Valley of Bull Run, some two miles above the bridge. Gen. Bee, who had been placed near Col. Cocke’s position; Col. Hampton, with his legion, and Col Jackson, from a point near Gen. Bonham’s left, were ordered to hasten to the left flank.”

Bee’s force comprised the 4th Ala., 2d Miss., and the 7th and 8th Ga. The Hampton Legion was one regiment, and Jackson had five regiments, the 2d, 4th, 5th, 27th and 33d Va. So in all, 10 regiments, with an average distance of about three miles to go, were now en route to reinforce Evans with his one regiment and a half.

I need proceed no further in the history of this battle, though it included the sending of several other signals, and other matters of interest which concerned our knowledge of what was taking place.

It is known of all men that the delay made by the troops above mentioned gave time for the arrival of the brigades of Early and Kirby Smith and two regiments of Burnham’s, and that their arrival changed the defeat into victory. As the sending of these troops to the left was caused by the timely warning of the approach of the enemy upon that flank; it must fairly be attributed to the operation of the system of signals. And as to the value of that victory in moral effect upon the Confederate army and people, those who have fully appreciated the immense power given by “morale” to any army, will realize that that victory laid a foundation of morale without which our subsequent victories – prolonging the war for four years – would have been almost, if not quite, impossible.

The National Tribune, 1/8/1903

Clipping Image

Contributed by Michael Pellegrini

Edward Porter Alexander at Wikipedia 

Edward Porter Alexander at Ancestry.com 

Edward Porter Alexander at Fold3 

Edward Porter Alexander at FindAGrave 


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