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OR XLII P1 #354: Report of Major James F. Milligan, Signal Officer, Independent Signal Corps, Oct 1-Dec 31, 1864

No. 354. Report of Major James F. Milligan, Signal Officer, C. S. Army, of operations October 1-December 31.1

Petersburg, Va., January 1, 1865.

GENERAL: In accordance with orders, I beg leave to submit the following report for the quarter ending December 31, 1864:

The Independent Signal Corps consists of two companies. The First Company consists of 119 men, rank and file, on duty as follows: At Drewry’s Bluff, 1 sergeant and 5 men; at Chaffin’s Bluff, 1 sergeant and 6 men; at Battery Brooke, 1 sergeant and 4 men; at Battery Semmes, 5 men; at Battery Dantzler, 5 men; on special duty in deciphering enemy’s signal messages, 2 men. The above men form a signal line from Drewry’s Bluff to Battery Dantzler, on James River, and co-operating with our fleet under Commodore Mitchell. This district is under command of Second Lieutenant J. B. Smith of the Second Company, Lieutenant S. C. Wells of the First Company having tendered his resignation in consequence of continued ill health. In connection with the above men there are fourteen men of the company on duty upon the James River fleet and under command of Corporal Handy. In Pickett’s front, from Battery Dantzler to Swift Creek, there are twenty-two signal-men, stationed at various points, who watch and report the movements of the enemy from lookouts. This duty is extremely arduous and not without much danger. The men perform it cheerfully and with much satisfaction and information to General Pickett. This line is in command of Sergeant Rooney, of the First Company. On the Nansemond and lower James River there are sixteen men under Lieutenant Woodley (in charge on the scouts of this department). These men watch and report the movements of the enemy and their peculiarities along the lower James and Nansemond; cross to the north side of the James and get information from Old Point, Newport News, Yorktown, and Williamsburg. This is an important connection, and great care and are necessary to keep it up. The scouts upon this service are able and true men, and have performed their duties with credit to themselves and the satisfaction of the various generals commanding this department. The importance of their services has been duly appreciated, and credit accorded to them for their operations, by General Lee, which will be referred to in his report under the head of these operations. Stable guard, 1 man; signal office, 5 men; an adjutant, commissary clerk, and couriers; courier-line between Petersburg and Fort Boykin, 3 men; forage detail, 1 man; quartermaster department, 1 man; sick, 3 men; prisoners of war, 2 men. On furlough by War Department, 1 officer, Lieutenant Cannon: on furlough by Navy Department, 2 men; on furlough from headquarters Army of Northern Virginia, 3 men. Detailed by order of War Department, 22 men.

The Second Company consists of 117 men, rank and file, on duty as follows, Lieutenant R. A. Mapp commanding the company: The First Signal District, Lieutenant R. A. Forbes commanding, consists of four posts, viz: At the custom-house, in Petersburg, 1 sergeant and 4 men; post I, at Blandford, 1 sergeant and 5 men; post G, at General A. P. Hill’s headquarters, 5 men; post L, at General Ransom’s headquarters, in the trenches, 3 men. The Second Signal District, along the immediate front of Petersburg, consists of 4 posts: Post K, at Dunn’s Hill, 6

men, post D, at Whitehead’s, Chesterfield County, Va., 7 men, an important post as it reports all movements of the enemy’s train in the rear of their defenses from City Point to the Weldon railroad; post E, at Cumming’s battery, 3 men; post B, at Fort Clifton, 9 men; stable guard 3 men; headquarters-as clerk and acting assistant surgeon, 2 men. On courier-line, 3 men; teamster, 1 man; scouts with Lieutenant Woodley and Sergeant Emmell, 20 men. Absent with leave, 4 men; absent without leave, 2 men; absent sick, 9 men. Detailed by order of War Department, 12 men. Prisoners of war exchanged but not reported, 1 officer, Captain De Jarnette, and 4 men; prisoners of war, 10 men. The Second Company for the last quarter have been performing signal duty in our front at Petersburg and extending to General Pickett’s right in Chesterfield. Connection has been at all times kept up between the posts; the number of men performing this duty is 46, and the majority are excellent operators. This company, since the 8th of October, have been furnished as well as the First Company, with clothing complete, with the exception of overcoats, which have never been issued to the corps as an organization, about forty having been drawn in all upon special requisition.

The arms and equipments of the corps are good, but owing to the exchanged prisoners not having been furnished, and the arms of the sick having been turned over last summer, the corps lacks some the Enfield rifles in the Second Company and some few Austrian rifles in the First Company. The corps has been at all times prepared to render able and efficient services in the trenches or wherever else called upon to do duty as soldiers. As operators and signal men, they stand on their own merits, and can compare favorably with the best in the service. Feeling a deep interest in the success and utility of the signal organization and its deportment, if I find a man worthless as an operator I report it at once and request his transfer to some other branch of the service, where he can be made more efficient to the public interest. The men detailed upon the blockade-runners from Wilmington from the Independent Signal Corps are highly spoken of for efficiency and ability by Lieutenant Wilmer, in charge of marine signals (stationed at Wilmington.) This is highly gratifying, and conclusively proves that where harmony prevails duty and co-operation are appreciated. It affords me infinite pleasure to record the courtesy and laudable interest of the Signal Bureau in Richmond, under charge of Captain Barker, Signal Corps, C. S. Army, who shows at all times a lively interest in the utility of the service by suggesting and perfecting improvements of great service to its successful operation, both in the field and the security of our communications from the scrutiny of the enemy.

On 1st of October I introduced a new system, with an entire change of alphabet, which, experience has developed works with ease and satisfaction to all concerned. The system consists in a series of arbitrary abbreviations, contractions, and combinations, which have the advantage of speed and security from the enemy. By a slight preconcerted signal agreed upon every message can be sent by a different key-word or letter. I have, therefore, fully demonstrated the fact that abbreviations do not sacrifice certainty to speed, and I feel confident of proving it to any intelligent mind in the signal service not blinded by prejudice or incapable of judging upon the merit of the system by success. The operations of the scouts of the Independent Signal Corps in this quarter have been confined to the lower James and Nansemond Rivers; their duties have been dangerous and onerous; onerous from the fact that their movements have to be concealed; no fixed abode or camp; cross-

ing James River at great personal risk of capture from the guard and picket-boats, and engaging parties of the enemy purposely landed to capture and break them up but without success. These scouts are under the command of Lieutenant J. R. Woodley, of the First Company, Independent Signal Corps, a man of cool and collected courage, untiring in energy and zeal for the cause, prudent and cautious, keeping up his connections and performing his duties under the most trying circumstances, to the satisfaction of all, forwarding regularly tri-weekly to headquarters his report of the enemy’s movements and the result of his scouts’ observations, both along James River and about Old Point, Newport News, and wherever else occasion may offer an opportunity to collect information for the information of the commanding general and the department. On the 12th of November Lieutenant Woodley, with a party of scouts, left Day’s Neck for Surry County, by my orders, to endeavor to suppress the unlicensed marauding of the negroes and white-livered vandals of the Federals, whose depredations upon the unarmed and defenseless inhabitants of that once happy region cried aloud for help. The wily foe did not attempt to come while the lieutenant and his gallant party were on their track.

On the 14th of November Lieutenant Woodley returned from Surry to Isle of Wight just before day; the moon shining bright, his suspicions were aroused by noticing a number of tracks as he crossed the road coming up from the mill at Burwell’s Bay. Taking the trail along the road leading toward Fort Boykin by Wrenn’s upon the main road, he found that the party had kept on as if toward Wrenn’s Mill; having but seven of his men with him, the rest being on other duty, he took a short cut through Wrenn’s field to head the party off if they purposed visiting Fort Boykin. Just this side of Fort Boykin, at Mr. Bourne’s house, he dismounted his party, cached his horses, and waited for them to come up, which they did in a short time, and throwing out a long line of skirmishers and flankers, swept the woods and took the horses of the party. Another party coming up from Fort Boykin totally surrounded Woodley and his party. “Every man for himself,” was the order silently passed, “and, as you get out, rendezvous at our camp.” The signal men got out with the exception of one man, who disobeyed the lieutenant’s orders and was taken; the night, or rather morning, being very cold and the party being up all night in Surry looking for the vandals, he slipped into Bourne’s kitchen to warm and when the enemy came up was thus captured. As the signals men got out of the “surround”, and rallied under orders of their lieutenant, they were determined to retrieve their misfortune, no matter what force the enemy were in. This gallant band of Woodley’s, consisting of nine men all told (three having joined the lieutenant from camp), ambuscaded the enemy in their triumphs and recaptured every horse but one, which was killed in the action; took 5 prisoners and killed 1; the rest took flight and embarked under heavy fire for their gun-boats. The force of the enemy was 150 men, landed at three points from as many gun-boats, viz, at Burwell’s Bay, Rock Wharf, and Day’s Neck. The commanding general, R. E. Lee, complimented Lieutenant Woodley for his gallantry in retrieving the misfortunes of the day.

On the 4th of December a detachment of signal scouts, getting information that a band of Yankees and negroes would cross from the north shore to the south side for the purpose of plunder, repaired to Lyon’s Creek, under Sergeant Dilworth. About midnight four boats entered the creek loaded with negroes; the sergeant let the two leading boats pass, and then opened upon the boats with a preconcerted signal. One boat was

sunk, two captured, and 18 negroes were killed, wounded, and captured, and two white men were afterward found dead, who, no doubt, were in company with the negroes. Sergeant Dilworth, being some distance from camp, with the enemy raiding through the country in detached parties, deemed it advisable to give his negro marauders lynch parole. This summary treatment has had a very good effect. That portion of Surry County has been quite quiet, and the marauders, who are nothing more than villainous negroes have been pretty shy how and where they land. The lower portion of the James River is patrolled by steamers attached to Graham’s naval brigade. They are a dastardly and villainous set, and are easily whipped with a determined party. The enemy have used every means to capture Lieutenant Woodley and his party that subterfuge could invent. They have landed at various points and scouted the country with cavalry, but have never taken but one signal man of the scouting party under Lieutenant Woodley, and had he obeyed orders he would not have been taken.

Respectfully, your obedient servant,

Major and Signal Officer, Commanding Independent Signal Corps.

General S. COOPER,
Adjutant and Inspector General, C. S. Army, Richmond, Va.


  1. The War of the Rebellion: A Compilation of the Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies, Volume XLII, Part 1 (Serial Number 87), pages 867-870
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