Signals at Tazewell

So, I have found myself with an intense interest in the Signal Corps of late.  I have known about the legendary George Ellsworth of John Hunt Morgan’s Cavalry for a while.  I have also read about various telegraph operators and flag waiving Signal Corps soldiers in the past.  My interest now, however, has turned to the more technical side of the craft.  While perusing Albert Myer’s _A Manual of Signals_ I was reminded of an incident that took place during the 1862 Cumberland Gap Campaign.  While not officially Signal Corps, two men from the 42nd Ohio Volunteer Infantry made great use of the skill and daring nature of the men of the Signal Corps.

August 7th, 1862 found the 42nd Ohio Volunteer Infantry on the east side of Tazewell Tennessee in an attempt to secure provisions for the hungry forces at Cumberland Gap.  Colonel DeCourcy had started this expedition the day previous and marched through Tazewell unopposed.  I’m sure he found this strange and expected to stumble upon a large Confederate force at any moment.  Sergeant Owen Hopkins* and Private Joseph Andrews both of Company K were detailed for a little adventure that is worth sharing.  The following is from Otto F. Bond’s book, _Under the Flag of the Nation_ which is a collection of diary entries from Sgt. Owen Hopkins:

Lieut.-Col. Pardee of the Forty-second ordered the
writer and a private, Joseph Andrews, of the same company,
to crawl quietly to a high ridge covered with young shrubbery
and blackberry bushes, a quarter of a mile in advance of the
skirmish line, and to watch the Rebels’ movements and communicate
by certain signals the same to him.

He cautioned us against making ourselves visible to the
enemy and to use every care against capture, but, if captured,
to remain stubbornly reticent with regard to the exact number
of our force. We were not to fire unless absolutely necessary
to preserve our lives.

The code of signals was unique in the extreme. If the enemy
were cavalry alone, we were to get down on our hands and
knees. If cavalry and infantry both, one was to stand while the
other remained on all fours. If advancing, we were to make
a feint of retiring to the rear. If stationary, a drop of the
cap so denoted.

On reaching the designated spot, we suddenly caught a
startling view of the whole Rebel army, cavalry and infantry.
The former were dismounted at a farmhouse by the roadside
nearly a mile away, their pickets stationed a good distance in
advance at a spring, from which we could see men filling their
canteens. At some distance to the right and in the rear of the
cavalry, was the infantry force of the Rebels; their arms
stacked at the edge of a wood glistened in the sun, and the
dirty gray uniforms flitting here and there were plainly distinguishable
with the naked eye.

Keeping close under cover, we signalled all this to the rear,
where Colonel Pardee was now reading out our signals to
De Courcy, surrounded by other officers. The breaking of a
twig to be held up was the signal in case the enemy had artillery;
this also was communicated, as we could discern several
pieces of brass ordnance planted near the farmhouse.
This piece of news was scarcely necessary, for we had no
sooner imparted it than one of the guns was manned and
trained in our direction. A curl of white smoke wreathed
from its muzzle, and a shot came whizzing high over our
heads, and striking the ground in our rear, burst and scattered
dust and dirt in all directions. This was apparently fired to get
the range, and seemed satisfactory, for it was not tried again
while we were on the lookout. As near as we could make out,
the enemy were about 5,000 strong, infantry and cavalry, with
a battery of field pieces. Watching their movements for nearly
two hours, we at last saw about 200 of the cavalry mount and
ride towards us. Making the fact known by moving to the
rear on all fours, we saw our men hastily form into order of
battle. Lanphear’s battery was placed into position, supported
by the Sixteenth Ohio, while the Forty-second on the left
guarded the road leading up the valley.

Private Frank Mason of Company A, 42nd Ohio witnessed this event and writes in his Regimental History:

In order to improve his opportunities for observation Col Pardee detailed
Sergeant OJ Hopkins of Company K, a zealous and clever soldier, to ascend
a high hill to the left and front of the main position, and communicate the
results of his observations by means of signs previously agreed upon. Certain
gestures and attitudes were specified to indicate the approach of infantry,
cavalry or artillery. Hopkins climbed to his perch and mounted watch. This was
shortly before noon. About one o clock he began to display extraordinary
activity. First he made the sign to indicate the approach of cavalry, then infantry
was signalled, and finally artillery. All the signals were repeated with great vigor
for some minutes when a column of cavalry appeared winding down the road to
where Company C was posted.

I can only imagine the spectacle of these two men, well in advance of their own pickets, trying to communicate back that the whole Confederate Army was not more than a mile away from them…and then advancing!

* I’m guessing on the rank of Hopkins at the time of the Tazewell Expedition.  While Mason clearly states Hopkins was a Sergeant I like to get followup with proper documentation if I can find it.   The Official Roster of the Soldiers of the State of Ohio in the War of the Rebellion 1861-1866 (you don’t find titles of books like that anymore do you?) has Hopkins mustering out as  Quartermaster Sergeant having been promoted from Sergeant of Company K on September 14, 1864 which matches what Mason mentions so I went with it.

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