Thursday, August 8, 2013

Civil War 'Walkie-Talkie' - The Messenger

Signal display on July 2, 2013 for visitors during the 150th
Anniversary of the Battle of Gettysburg.
Note: You can just barely make out the signal flag on
Little Round Top in the distance.
Battlefield communication is one of those subjects imperative to the outcome of every conflict in history.  Many visitors to Civil War battlefields have been introduced to the importance of communications in command and control of the era.  They are introduced to signal communications on the more famous battlefields like Gettysburg, done with a wig-wag flag system (there is a great display in the museum).  They hear of the telegraph, which also played an integral role in many of the war's greatest campaigns.  In some cases it was the lack-there-of, or transmission speed that made the bigger impact.  Studies of acoustic shadows have been released in publication form and the impact of auditory senses on the battlefield made for some interesting scenarios in many instances.  Historian Garry Adelman of the Civil War Trust has been quoted to say, "imagine the difference it would make if there was one 'walkie-talkie' on a Civil War battlefield."

At the fundamental level, simple transmittal of orders on a Civil War battlefield is seemingly primitive especially when compared to our modern military systems, but vital none the less.  As simplistic as methods of the period may seem, their importance in the collaboration of a command structure during key moments in a campaign made all the difference.  Little has been written about the job of Civil War staff officers and their paramount role on the battlefield.  In this brief post we will meet a few of these messengers who communicated the important clips of information from unit to unit under the demands of their superior officers, and try to better understand their role.  Ultimately these men helped to dictate the outcome of the Civil War.

The position of a messenger in the Civil War was a very dangerous job and the success, or failure, of these individuals in a time-sensitive combat situation could completely alter a battle scenario.  Indeed there are many stories of these messengers being wounded or killed, the transmittal of orders being delayed or lost, and whole regiments being nearly annihilated because of the failure of transmission, all an obviously important part of the communication system from top to bottom.  Likewise, when not in the midst of combat, the paperwork committed by these individuals was far ranging and in some cases probably quite monotonous, although extremely necessary logistically speaking.

Special Order No. 15 issued to Graham's Brigade,
naming Henry Tremain as Aide-De-Camp for
General Daniel Sickles.  "He will be obeyed and
respected accordingly." -signed by Captain
and A.A.G. Fitzhugh Birney, April 24, 1863
Author's Collection
To get an idea of the character of these individuals it is only necessary that we understand their titles.  Let us first look at the regimental level.  In the thick of a fight it was indeed most common place for orders to be transmitted via line officers through a superior officer.  That superior officer was in many cases the regimental adjutant.  The adjutant was technically a floating rank and a position of honor.  Not necessarily on the ladder system of rank, it served a technical function within the regimental staff.  This means that a regimental adjutant would carry their official rank as a subtitle to adjutant.  For example, an adjutant could be a 2nd Lieutenant, 1st Lieutenant, or whatever pre-induction rank they held.  That being said, an adjutant held much more sway than someone of equal rank, but on the line.  They were the direct link to the authority of the commander of the regiment to which they served.  They not only dictated orders from the regimental commander as a sort of enforcer, but were also the comminique with surrounding units.  They were the 'walkie-talkie' on a  Civil War battlefield.  When not in battle, they were the authority in charge of regulating camp life and carrying out the orders directed to the regimental commander.  They kept paper records or reports, wrote out orders, and transmitted those orders.  They were, the messenger.  Likewise, a regimental adjutant was in many cases the personal choice of the regimental commander.  If the regimental commander were to be promoted to brigadier general, it was not uncommon to see them move up the chain of command together. 1

As we move up the unit nomenclature chart of a Civil War army beyond the regimental level, there are also brigade, division, corps and army adjutants known in rank as 'Adjutant General' (A.G.), 'Assistant Adjutant General' (A.A.G.), or 'Acting Assistant Adjutant General' (A.A.A.G.).  There is also the position of 'Aide-de-Camp' (A.D.C.) which is similar to those previous, but more closely affiliated with a particular officer or unit commander as an assistant or aide to that commander.  For instance, if a brigadier general was promoted to major general, in many cases he would take his aide-de-camp and other staff members with him.  This was not always the case, but very often was.  It is also not uncommon to see a high ranking officer who would use these positions to the benefit of a sibling or family member (Example: Major General David Bell Birney and his half-brother Fitzhugh Birney).  This in no form indicts these individuals of copping out of front-line duty.  As previously mentioned, no matter how you look at it, these were dangerous jobs.  Basically the duties of the A.G., A.A.G., A.A.A.G. and A.D.C. were the same as that of the regimental adjutant, but they were dealing with a larger body of control.  These men could hold sway over some fairly large units. 2

For example at Gettysburg, General Samuel Zook (commanding the 3rd Brigade, 1st Division of the 2nd Corps) was taken by Major General Daniel Sickles' aide-de-camp, Major Henry Tremain, to assist the 3rd Corps at the Peach Orchard on July 2, 1863.  Viewed by Zook as an obstruction to his current orders, he asked that the order be transmitted by General Sickles himself.  Tremain gave Zook his word that the order came from his corps commander and they both rode of to meet with Sickles.  After conferring, Zook and his brigade filed off to destiny towards Stoney Hill, where he was shortly after mortally wounded. 3

Indeed, while some of these messengers played a major role in how battles were waged, they exposed themselves to terrific dangers as well.  They were all in the line of fire, from regimental to army command.  It was a dangerous undertaking and statistically their chances of being wounded or killed were within the same realm of every other front-line soldier.  At Gettysburg the Army of the Potomac's infantry staffers on brigade level or higher suffered 14% casualties.  The overall casualty rate for the army's infantry was about 29%.  If we were to include regimental adjutants, the staff percentage would most certainly come close to the army's overall percentage. 4

Order issued May 1, 1864 by General Hays only
a few days before his death in the Wilderness,
written by Captain and A.A.G. George Painter
Corts, the man with whom he triumphantly
rode on July 3 at Gettysburg after the charge.
Author's Collection. 
We need to look no further than the famous action in Herbst Woods at Gettysburg on the first day of the battle, which pitted the 24th Michigan against the 26th North Carolina in a violent death struggle in which the North Carolinians eventually prevailed.  Captain Westwood McCreery was on the staff of General James Johnston Pettigrew and had given McCreery a message to transmit to the 21 year-old "boy colonel" of the 26th North Carolina during the fight, Henry Burgwyn.  The message was this;"your regiment has covered itself with glory."  After passing along the message to Colonel Burgwyn, McCreery saw the regimental flag go down and in an act of gallantry, placed the flag aloft once more.  He was immediately felled with a shot through the chest, his crimson blood staining the banner with which moments before, he had been waving on high.  The regiment was nearly destroyed at Gettysburg. 5

By the same token, these soldiers, or messengers, also shared in all the spoils of victory.  On July Third, after the repulse of Pickett's Charge, General Alexander Hays (commander of the 3rd Division of the 2nd Corps) was handed some captured Confederate battle flags.  Not being able to handle them alone, he handed one to each of the staffers he had with him.  These two lesser known men were Captain George Painter Corts and Lieutenant David Shields.  They then rode"along the ridge, dragging captured Confederate battle flags on the ground. Hays's jubilant veterans were emitting "cheer after cheer” as the three riders passed through their ranks.  They would encircle the entire division's line before halting.  Shields, whom Hays had kissed on the cheek when the Rebels had fled, called it "the grandest ride men ever took."  Both Corts and Shields remained in their staff positions during the duration of the war, always carrying out their duties to the utmost. 6

This is but a tiny sampling of the duties of "messengers" or staff officers during the Civil War, but there are some amazing stories yet to be discovered.  Dodging shot and shell, risking life and limb, these adventurous and interesting soldiers truly experienced the war from the driver's seat.  Their perspectives witnessed some of the national turning points and most intricate of situations during America's most deadly conflict.    

View from Cemetery Ridge near the 111th NY Monument towards the Codori Farm.
It was in this area that Hays, Corts and Shields made "the grandest ride men ever took."
1. Craighill, William P. "Articles 16-19." The 1862 Army Officer's Pocket Companion: A Manual For Staff Officers in the Field. Mechanicsburg, PA: 2002. Pages 45-50 cover nomenclature of army staffs.
2. Ibid.
3. Jorgensen, Jay. Gettysburg's Bloody Wheatfield. Shippensburg, PA: White Mane Books, 2002. 90.  Pfanz, Harry W. Gettysburg The Second Day. Chapel Hill and London: The University of North Carolina Press, 1987. 269-270. 
4. Busey, John W., and David G. Martin. Regimental Strengths and Losses at Gettysburg. Fourth. Hightstown, NJ: Longstreet House, 2005. 125-143, 345, 458. Using staff numbers from this compilation of statistics, a total of 384 staff officers served at Gettysburg from brigade level up in the Army of the Potomac's infantry corps.  This does not include the escort bodies.  Of those 384 men, 53 are listed as casualties which rounds to a rate of 14%. The overall casualty rate is based on a total infantry strength of the Army of the Potomac.
5. Gragg, Rod. Covered With Glory: The 26th North Carolina Infantry at the Battle of Gettysburg. Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 2010. 129. 
6. Wert, Jeffry D. Gettysburg Day Three. First. New York, NY: Touchstone, 2001. 245.

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