The Battle of Monterey Pass: The Signal Corps During the Pennsylvania Campaign

In 1854, Albert J. Meyer was commissioned as an Assistant Surgeon in the Army. In 1856, Meyer drafted a memorandum on a new system of signals and obtained a patent letter on it. Two years later the War Department recognized the possibilities of Meyer’s system and appointed a board to examine it. In 1860, the United States Army adopted the Meyer system of signaling. Because Meyer’s system of signaling used flags that seemed to swing around in no particular manner to the untrained person, the term wig wag was given to the flags.

There were two basic wig wag flags, one flag was a red square with a smaller white square in the center, while the second flag was also square but was all white with a smaller red square in the center. A combination of movements of the signal flag 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 numbers. Another man would translate the numbers and write the letters down using a cipher wheel. Meyer’s code for signaling was used until 1886 when the international Morse code system was used. After 1896, Meyer’s wig wag system was again used until 1912 and was eventually replaced by the Semaphore flag.

A United States Army signal party could be as small as one officer and two privates. Only the officer in charge was authorized to decipher the code relayed from other signal stations. The officer was responsible for encoding and decoding all messages that were transferred to their station. Enlisted men were responsible for flagging the signals and reading the incoming signals but never the translation. Being communications experts was only one of the signalman’s job duties. They also assisted their commanders by performing reconnaissance and surveillance. The signal corps, using a 12 foot staff and 4 foot flag could signal to their stations a distance of 8 miles, except in rainy or foggy weather conditions. On clear days their signals could be read as far as 15 miles. Weather conditions and time of day signified what color flags were used. At night flying torches, which were special torches fueled with turpentine were used to send signals. Telescopes and field glasses were also an essential part of the signalman’s equipment as well as a cipher disc that was used to encrypt the messages. This disc was actually two discs made of either brass or cardboard, one disc contained the alphabet and the other disc contained numeral combinations. By rotating these discs and changing the alignment of the numbers and letters the codes could easily be changed.

The Union Army’s Signal Corps used Jacks Mountain, Indian Lookout on the Catoctin Mountain, Emmitsburg and Monterey Pass and South Mountain during the Pennsylvania Campaign. Due to the communication and observation advantages, both the Union and Confederate Armies needed to obtain and protect their positions using mountain gaps and overlooks. In July of 1864, from High Rock, Union Signal Corps reported that Chambersburg was burned.

General History of the Battle of Monterey Pass

During the morning hours of July 4, 1863, Confederate Major General Robert E. Lee ordered the withdrawal of his Confederate Army from Gettysburg. General Grumble Jones volunteered for the task of escorting General Richard Ewell’s wagon train as it traveled through the South Mountain pass of Monterey to Williamsport. Under his command, General Jones had 50 men from Captain George Emack’s 1st Maryland Cavalry, Company B who took the lead and the 6th Virginia Cavalry. Assisting Captain Emack were portions of Pogue’s and Carter’s batteries, who were serving as couriers and scouts. Through the driving rain, General Ewell’s wagon train rumbled out of Fairfield traveling toward Jack’s Mountain, taking a portion of Iron Springs Road, then through Fairfield Pass by way of Maria Furnace Road to Monterey Pass to Waynesboro and then onto Leitersburg.

During the afternoon of the 4th, as the Confederate Army began retreating through South Mountain, seven miles to the east of Monterey Pass at Emmitsburg, Maryland, General Judson Kilpatrick’s Cavalry Division came into town. Kilpatrick’s Cavalry Division consisted of General George Custer’s and Colonel Nathaniel Richmond’s Brigades and they were ordered to attack the wagon train that was moving through South Mountain. At Emmitsburg, Kilpatrick was reinforced by Colonel Pennock Huey’s Brigade and a battery. Kilpatrick left Emmitsburg and headed toward the mountain.

After arriving at Monterey and seeing the eastern portion of the summit near Monterey Pass was unguarded, Confederate Captain William Tanner ordered one Napoleon cannon to be deployed while the rest of his battery continued westward toward Waynesboro. Captain Tanner ordered the cannon to be deployed in front of what would become the Clermont House facing the village of Fountain Dale. The men of Tanner’s Battery unlimbered the cannon and waited for further orders. The lone cannon had only 5 rounds of ammunition in the limber chest.

Toward evening, near the hamlet of Fountain Dale, Charles H. Buhrman, a local farmer learned of the Confederate retreat at Monterey Pass as well as the capture of several local citizens. He mounted his horse and traveled toward Emmitsburg looking for any Federal soldiers in area. He came across one of General Custer’s scouts and reported the situation on top of the mountain near Monterey Pass.

It was about sundown when General Custer’s Brigade was at the base of the mountain. The 5th Michigan was the first of Kilpatrick’s Cavalry Division to climb the mountain. As darkness began to set in with worsening weather conditions, Custer’s men were blinded by the surprise muzzle blast from Tanner’s cannon. The first shot was fired directly into the head of the 5th Michigan Cavalry, causing confusion and chaos in the ranks of the cavalrymen. Two more shots were again fired by Tanner’s men. After the confusion subsided, Emack’s small squad charged and drove the Federals back, where Kilpatrick’s Artillery was stationed.

Fearing another Union advance, Captain Emack redeployed his entire force near the Monterey Inn. Orders came to have the cannon redeploy 100 yards from its current position to near the Monterey Inn where Emack’s troopers were positioned on both sides of the road. Meanwhile, Captain Emack rode back toward the road that the wagons were on, trying desperately to get them moving as fast as they could, while struggling to get the other half of the wagon train that was approaching the pass to stop.

General Custer’s Brigade reorganized and advanced toward the summit. For the next several hours in the rain and darkness, the opposing forces engaged in some of the most confusing and chaotic fighting of the Civil War. In some instances, the soldiers could only tell where the enemy was by flashes of the muzzle from their guns, the cannon or lightning in the sky that illuminated their positions.

Gaining the eastern side of the summit, Kilpatrick ordered the 1st Vermont Cavalry to Leitersburg to attack the Confederate wagons as they came off of South Mountain. He also ordered a portion of the 1st Michigan Cavalry to attack Fairfield Pass, one mile east of Monterey Pass.

Near the Monterey House, General Kilpatrick deployed a section of artillery and shelled the Confederate battle lines that were positioned near the modern day Lion’s Club Park. By 3:00 am, along a creek just west of the Monterey House, Custer’s men, supported by artillery, dismounted and attacked Captain Emack who was near the Tollgate house. Fighting raged in the woods near the modern day intersection of Route 16 and Charmain Road, leaving Captain Emack wounded by shell, shot, and a saber. As the battle of Fairfield Gap came to a close, Captain Emack was finally reinforced by a portion of the 6th Virginia Cavalry and the 4th North Carolina Cavalry as Custer’s men approached. During the thickest of the fight, General Jones ordered his couriers and staff officers to get into the fight as well as the wounded that could fire a gun. The 6th Virginia Cavalry soon fled the scene as the 1st North Carolina Sharpshooters arrived. Charges and counter-charges were made near Red Run. The North Carolina Sharpshooters threw up breastworks near the toll house and went to work.

The 6th Michigan and 5th Michigan Cavalry was ordered to dismount, leaving the 7th Michigan and two companies of the 5th Michigan in reserve. While Custer was rallying his men, a bullet struck his horse. It was at this time that the 1st West Virginia Cavalry and a portion of the 1st Ohio were ordered to the front to support Custer’s bogged down battle line. The West Virginians charged the Confederate cannon, tumbling it down the embankment and began destroying wagons and taking on prisoners.

As soon as the West Virginians cleared the pass and began its charge down the mountainside, Custer and his troopers finally began storming through the long line of wagons, “like a pack of wild Indians” overturning many wagons and setting fire to others as the Union cavalry collected their bounty until dawn. In some instances, panic stricken horses with no where to go fell off the mountain cliffs and overturned into the steep ravines. The fight continued into Maryland, making this battle to be the only one fought on both sides of the Mason and Dixon Line.

Once Kilpatrick was at Ringgold, Maryland he ordered his cavalry to halt. The wagons that were not destroyed were burned in the open fields at Ringgold. A portion of the 1st Vermont Cavalry met Kilpatrick at Ringgold after the destruction they caused at Leitersburg. Realizing that he was in dangerous territory, Kilpatrick ordered his cavalry to move south into Smithsburg where later in the day it was attacked by General JEB Stuart’s Cavalry, crossing South Mountain at Raven Rock Pass. Kilpatrick gives up the fight and withdraws from Smithsburg. He will head to Boonsboro where General William French is in possession of Turner’s Gap.

The Battle of Monterey Pass: Foot Troops at the Pass

Not too many people realize that the infantryman played a very vital role during the Battle of Monterey Pass. It was due to the arrival of the infantry that forced Union General Judson Kilpatrick and his cavalry division to abandon the fight at Monterey Pass, thus securing Monterey Pass for the main Confederate Army to safely begin its march back to Virginia. During the Confederate Army withdraw, several thousand infantrymen bivouacked at Monterey Pass. But to the newer enthusiasts learning about Civil War history, it may be confusing for that person to grasp what the role of the infantry was or perhaps, what did he wear. It is simple questions like this, the the newer Civil War enthusiasts are afraid to ask in front of a group. So who was the infantryman? What did he wear? And how did he play a major role during the Battle of Monterey Pass or the Confederate withdrawal from Gettysburg? I’m going to give a brief summary of the basic infantryman.

The infantry was the most important aspect of the army, making up most of the army and serving on the front line of the battlefield for both the Confederate and Union Armies. Marching and fighting drill were part of the daily routine for the Civil War soldier. Leisure activities were similar in both armies and most of it was spent writing letters home. Free time consisted of card games, reading, pitching horseshoes, or team sports such as the fledgling sport of baseball. Sickness and disease was the scourge of both armies and more men died of disease than in battle because the sanitation conditions in camp were very poor.
Organization of the Confederate and Federal Armies during the Pennsylvania Campaign consisted of an infantry corps, which was commanded by a major general and was made up of two to five infantry divisions. A division was commanded by a major or brigadier general and consisted of three to five brigades. One brigade was commanded by a brigadier general and was made up of three to five regiments. A colonel commanded the regiment which could have up to ten companies, while battalions commanded by a major or lieutenant colonel were made up of four to seven companies. One infantry company was commanded by a captain and usually had about 64 to 100 men.

Each portion of the army, whether it was a corps, or a regiment had a structured command staff. For example, the command staff for an infantry regiment was one colonel who commanded one lieutenant colonel, one major, one adjutant, one quartermaster, one surgeon, two assistant surgeons, and a chaplain. Regimental non-commissioned officers consisted of a sergeant major, quartermaster sergeant, commissary sergeant, hospital steward, and two principal musicians. Whereas a company consisted of one captain who commanded one first lieutenant, one second lieutenant, one first sergeant, four sergeants, eight corporals, two musicians, and one wagoner. Company officers were elected in most volunteer units.

Both the Confederate and Union armies had their own specialty departments that often worked with the infantry and their commanders. They consisted of a Quartermaster Department, an Engineer Corps, and Signal Corps as well as supply wagons that were organized by the quartermaster into wagon trains. The artillery and cavalry also supported the infantry in their own organizational structure as needed.

The infantryman of the Civil War wore a variety of uniforms made of kersey, a woolen and cotton weave material known as jeans-cloth, woolen flannel, cotton, cassimere and satinette materials. His uniform consisted of a forage cap, French influenced kepi or slouch hat for protection from the weather and sun. He was issued a jacket and trousers from the clothing bureau depot system. His under garments were a military issue shirt or a civilian style shirt and a pair of under drawers. He would have also worn wool or cotton knitted socks and brogans or boots.

The soldier’s accouterments were the same in both armies. The infantryman would have worn a leather waist belt that carried his percussion cap box and scabbard for his bayonet. If the cartridge box was not worn around the shoulder by a sling, then it would have been worn on the soldier’s belt. He would have been issued a haversack carrying the rations, tin cup, fork, knife and spoon combination, as well as a tin plate, and a canteen. In addition to leather, the Confederate Government had accouterments produced in painted linen or canvas, and also relied on imported goods from Europe, mainly England.

Infantry soldiers were also issued a knapsack to carry an extra pair of clothes including socks, shirts, under garments and other personal items, such as a blanket, ground cloth, shelter half, camp needs, and his great coat if it was during the cold weather season. Some soldiers preferred to wear a blanket roll that was worn around the body instead of a knapsack. Valuable items would have been rolled inside of the blanket roll and tied off with a piece of leather or rope to keep them from falling out while the soldier was on the march. He was issued a rifled or a smoothbore musket made by numerous manufacturers, and both armies used a variety of small arms. The Springfield was a common infantry small arm used by the Union Army. The Enfield (from England) and Richmond (copied from the Springfield) rifled muskets were common in the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia.

Also included in the infantry were sharpshooter units. They were armed and uniformed the same as that of an average infantryman. Their weapon of choice was that of the two-band Enfield rifled musket and when they were in short demand, the regular three-band Enfield would be used. For a sharpshooter, the conditions at Monterey Pass would have made his job extremely hard to accomplish. During the day, a sharpshooter may have judged distances based on the following. I found this listed on the Authentic Campaigner web site and found it to be very useful:

2,000 yards: Infantry will appear as a black line
1,200-1,500 yards: Ranks of infantry can be distinguished
1,000 yards: The lines of heads and legs are visible
800 yards: The upper outline of men can be distinguished
600 yards: Men are distinctly visible, but color can not be determined. Head dress can be recognized
400 yards: The ornaments on headdress can be seen, and colors are distinguishable
200 yards: The men’s heads are visible
100 yards: The line of the men’s eyes are visible
80 yards: Men’s eyes are distinct
25 yards: The whites of the eyes are visible

On July 4th, during the Confederate withdraw from Gettysburg, there were several infantryman assigned to guard General Richard Ewell’s wagon train. They consisted of roughly one hundred and twenty-five men from the 1st North Carolina Sharpshooter Battalion, and at least fifty men from an Alabama unit. These infantrymen served as the provost guard, and with them were several Confederate soldiers under arrest, four of which were to be condemned to death upon arrival in Virginia. Among the wagon train were Confederate infantrymen from Ewell’s Corps that were wounded during the Battle of Gettysburg. As the advance of the wagon train cleared South Mountain, it would slowly make its way to Hagerstown. When the rear of the wagon train was set in motion it was here where the infantrymen would play anessential role in helping to defend the mountain pass known as Monterey Pass.

During the Battle of Monterey Pass, as the Confederate cavalry and artillery were holding back Kilpatrick’s cavalry, the 1st North Carolina Battalion of Sharpshooters and the Alabamians provided much needed reinforcements, as well as support. As Kilpatrick’s cavalry broke through the Confederate battle line and began destroying wagons, two pieces of artillery were turned toward the road where the wagons were coming from. The 3-inch ordinance rifles threw several rounds of case-shot at the oncoming infantrymen. The provost guard, realizing that a heavy engagement lay ahead, asked the Confederate prisoners if they would redeem themselves and throw themselves into the fight. All of which did, including those four that were to be condemned to death.

Pushing further toward the main intersection of Maria Furnace, Mentzer Gap and the Emmitsburg and Waynesboro Turnpike, the infantrymen got into the fight. Upon their arrival at the tollhouse, the 1st North Carolina Sharpshooters were supported with additional artillery. This additional support gave them the opportunity to dig in and establish breastworks. This resistance forced Kilpatrick to withdraw from Monterey Pass, and the infantrymen secured the area for the main Confederate Army.

From July 5th through the midmorning of July 6th, the infantrymen from General A.P. Hill’s Corps entered Monterey Pass from Fairfield Gap, with General James Longstreet’s Corps coming up from the east via Fountain Dale, converging on Monterey Pass at the same time. Longstreet’s Corps would take the lead down South Mountain into Waynesboro. Followed behind Hill’s Corps was General Richard Ewell’s Corps. The muddy roads and mountain terrain made the march extremely difficult. Their bluish gray, gray, and butternut uniforms made from jeans-cloth, tattered from the hard campaign in Pennsylvania, were now covered with mud and soaking wet from the heavy rain. Any soldier who wrote about the march from Gettysburg through Monterey Pass summarized their experiences as “Mount Misery or Mount Quagmire.” Their words will always be remembered and told; the difficulties that they experienced will be admired for many years to come.

Photographs courtesy of the LOC
The first is the famed three Confederate prisoners captured at Gettysburg. It shows how the average Confederate soldier may have looked during the Pennsylvania Campaign.
The second shows a typical Union encampment during the early fall months.
I want to thank Lee Sherrill for the information on the 1st North Carolina Battalion of Sharpshooters.