As befits students, we had to do a book report here at WOBC. God forbid we read a whole book though – we each were assigned a chapter. Here’s mine, in case anyone wants to read it.
The first chapter of Getting the Message Through, entitled “The Birth of the Signal Corps,” describes the advent of our branch as the vision of one man, Albert J. Myer. American political and military leaders of the mid-1800s – including none other than future Confederate president Jefferson Davis – viewed his concept of a dedicated military communications organization with skepticism at first, and it was only with great perseverance on Myer’s part that Congress agreed to his plan at all. Myers’ ideas proved timely, however: less than a year later, the Civil War erupted, giving the newly-formed Signal Corps a chance to demonstrate its viability. These two themes – misunderstanding and skepticism of the role of the Signal Corps, and going to war with unproven but innovative technology – continue in the post-Global War on Terror period of the 21st century.
Albert J. Myer may have seemed an unlikely candidate for the father of the Signal Corps; he was neither an engineer, nor a scientist. Rather, he joined the Army in 1854 as an assistant surgeon, and quickly turned his efforts to the development of a military signaling system, based on his dissertation entitled, “A New Sign Language for Deaf Mutes.” Over the next six years, he alternated between developing his signaling system called “wigwag,” and lobbying for the its adoption before Congress and the War Department. While Getting the Message Through glosses over the details of Myers’ lobbying activities, it is clear that his bureaucratic achievements are nearly as impressive as his technical and organizational ones, since in six years he managed to not only secure funding for his program, but also to have himself placed in charge of it. On 21 June 1860, Myer became first signal officer of the United States Army. But his lobbying work was far from complete; his next cause was the creation of a separate Signal Corps, responsible for the training of Signal Soldiers, fielding of equipment, and serving with units in the field. Once again, his efforts were successful, and on 3 March 1863 President Lincoln signed a bill into law that formally established the Signal Corps.
The wigwag technology developed by Albert J. Myer was an innovative way to communicate across long distances, using a single flag (during daylight) or a torch (during nighttime). Signal Soldiers used a code comprised of flag movements to the right or left, strung together in series to represent letters. The Signal Corps even developed a system of communications security (COMSEC), by means of a substitution cipher, whereby one letter would be substituted for another, in order to prevent the Confederate Army from reading the messages in transit. Thus, secure communications are the very foundation of the mission of the Signal Corps, making the watchwords not just “getting the message through” but rather “getting the message through securely.”
The early Signal Corps dealt with electric telegraphy as well as visual communications, and in this arena the Corps faced its first “turf war” over control of communication technology, a theme that will be familiar to 21st century Signal Soldiers who have faced the staggering array of systems fielded by countless contractors, agencies, and Army branches. Myer sought to obtain control over the Army’s telegraphy systems, but another organization had already been established for that function: the Military Telegraph. The two organizations used competing equipment: the Signal Corps used the Beardslee telegraph, while the Military Telegraph used the Morse telegraph. The conflict in the roles of the two organizations was amplified by the personal rivalry between Albert Myer and Secretary of War Edwin Stanton, who controlled the Military Telegraph. While the Beardslee device of the Signal Corps proved to be a failure, and the Military Telegraph largely assumed telegraphy duties during the Civil War, ultimately the Signal Corps survived, whereas the Military Telegraph did not. Thus, the US Army became the first military organization in the world to have a dedicated branch for communication, making for a legacy of innovation that is echoed today by our 21st century doctrine of “net-centric warfare” and “information dominance.”
The pairing of flag and torch lives on as our branch insignia, a callback to our origin during the Civil War, and the design of the regimental flag likewise recalls this period with the wigwag in its center. What is also noteworthy, however, is the way the Signal Corps fought for relevance, funding, and a place on the battlefield from its very inception – a fight that continues now during this period of rapidly-shrinking defense budgets. The Signal Corps is central to the modern Army’s method of warfighting, and yet is perpetually misused and misunderstood by commanders at all levels. The current emphasis on “cyber capabilities” is just the latest such example: it’s a function firmly within the “wheelhouse” of the Signal Corps, and yet the issue is so hot that every other branch and agency wants a piece of the cyber pie. Indeed, the Army’s first “Cyber Brigade” is a military intelligence unit, not a Signal Corps one. Bureaucratic infighting is hardly the most productive use of our time, but such fights are inevitable if the Signal Corps is to remain relevant. Perhaps we can channel the tenacity and resourcefulness of Albert J. Myer as we face the new landscape of 21st century defense challenges, and move forward with a vision as singular as his: to make the US Army Signal Corps not only the first in the world, but also the best in the world.