- The Washington Times - Friday, December 16, 2005

Museums at Fort Gordon, Ga., and Fort Meade, Md., contain collections based on technologies that had an important role to play in the American Civil War.

These museums portray the history of military communications and cryptology, two distinct yet related fields. The Signal Corps Museum at Fort Gordon and the National Cryptologic Museum at Fort Meade provide an opportunity to view firsthand the methods used to conduct and secure communications since our national upheaval over 140 years ago.

Prior to the Civil War, military units communicated with one another primarily by courier. When hostilities broke out in 1861, the need for faster and more reliable communications led to the formation of Confederate and Union signal corps units. At the same time, the combatants recognized the necessity to develop a more methodical approach for protecting these communications and gathering information about the enemy.

Albert J. Myer, an Army physician, had developed a signals system before the war with the assistance of a young officer named E. Porter Alexander. When the Confederacy was established, Alexander went south and created a signals unit for the Southern army, while Myer eventually took charge of the Union Signal Corps. In both cases their mission was twofold: employ flags to transmit and receive messages using a special code, and observe the movements and intercept the communications of the enemy.

The North as well as the South used flags of various sizes and colors to send messages from one station to another. They did this while perched on the highest geographic position available, such as a building or a hill, for good visibility. Signal Corps headquarters were located in the respective capitals of Washington and Richmond, while operational units performed with the armies in the field.

In time, both sides became adept at intercepting messages sent by these signals, which led to the need for enciphering. Once military commands began using codes and ciphers, skills in code breaking became a necessity in order to read enemy communications. The mission of the Signal Corps and Cryptologic museums is to tell the story of the evolution of these technologies through their exhibits and displays.

The Signal Corps Museum honors Albert Myer, who pioneered the visual “wig-wag” system that required waving a flag either left or right to signify the letters of the alphabet (using a torch at night). In “Getting the Message Through: A Branch History of the U.S. Army Signal Corps,” Rebecca Robbins Raines explains how Myer developed, tested and organized this system, and became the Army’s first signal officer.

Mike Rodgers, an exhibits specialist at the Signal Corps Museum, says Myer is the focus of their collection in order to acknowledge that he was the founder of the U.S. Army Signal Corps. On display are a variety of Myer’s personal items, including his sword, telescope, canteen, powder bag and pocket compass.

Since the telegraph became an important aspect of military communications during the Civil War, the Beardslee Electromagnetic Magneto Telegraph is also featured at the museum. This is a hand-crank-powered machine that Myer preferred using as a method to send messages by wire.

A Civil War-era telegraph key, relay and sounder, and a mock-up of a cipher disk are also included in the collection. Other signal and telegraph exhibits illustrate these functions in some detail. A plaque describes the establishment of the Confederate Signal Corps under the guidance of Porter Alexander, and the fact that it became the first independent branch of professional military signalmen.

The National Security Agency at Fort Meade established the National Cryptologic Museum as its gateway to the public for learning about the cryptologic profession, particularly encryption and code-breaking activities. Its curator, Patrick Weadon, believes that the Civil War was a watershed for cryptologic innovation.

The telegraph, which he noted could be seen as a more primitive version of the Internet, was one of the most important developments of the time. During the Civil War, both sides realized that the invention could be used not only as a communication device, but also as an instrument of war.

Included in the National Cryptologic Museum collections are embryonic devices employed during the Civil War such as a code book and a cipher cylinder. A rare U.S. Army signal flag with a star in the center that includes important battles denoted on its points is on display. That both museums recognize Albert J. Myer for his contributions is emblematic of the nexus between the two disciplines of communications and cryptology.

A quilt exhibit reflects the belief that slaves in the early and mid-1800s developed a code using quilts as signals. An example is the “flying geese” pattern that symbolized the need for information on how to escape to freedom. The quilts purportedly were useful in identifying safe houses and conveying methods to avoid capture.

The Civil War displays in these two museums are a prelude to larger collections of Signal Corps and cryptologic equipment and techniques employed over time in defense of the United States and its allies. According to Mr. Rodgers, the primary mission of the Signal Corps Museum is to preserve and protect its collection and use it for instruction about the history of this branch of the service. It provides training and education to soldiers, military dependents and the general population on all aspects of the history of the corps. The museum hosts about 25,000 visitors each year.

The National Cryptologic Museum advertises itself as a place where “visitors can catch a glimpse of some of the most dramatic moments in the history of American cryptology: the people who devoted their lives to cryptology and national defense, the machines and devices they developed, the techniques they used, and the places where they worked.” Mr. Weadon, the curator, says that its mission is “to impart the critical role that cryptology has played in protecting our nation’s national security both in the present day and throughout history.” As many as 70,000 people view these collections annually.

A visit to these institutions provides a better understanding of the importance of communications and cryptology to our nation’s security from the Civil War period onward. For information about the Signal Corps Museum, check their Web site, www.gordon.army.mil/ ocos/museum, or call 706/791-4793. For information about the National Cryptologic Museum, go to www.nsa.gov/museum or call 301/688-5849. The Web sites contain considerable data about the collections.

Thomas J. Ryan is a former Department of Defense intelligence officer who lives in Bethany Beach, Del. He is vice president of the Central Delaware Civil War Round Table in Dover, and can be reached at pennmardel@mchsi.com.

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