Naval History and Heritage Command

Naval History and Heritage Command

The Signal Corps in War-Time Brigadier General Adolphus W. Greely, Chief Signal officer, Uited States Army

[The Signal Corps] succeeded (in what many thought impossible) in justifying its right to existence by a series of successes that have won general commendation. An American-made war cable was secretly carried and laid on the Cuban coast.1 A telegraph office for Shafter’s2 army was opened in Cuba before it landed, and the army was given a twenty-minute service with the War Department in Washington. Telephone field-exchanges were opened and lines maintained in the trenches of Manila and Santiago and of the firing-lines in Porto Rico. The fire of the navy was effectively directed at Santiago3 and at Caloocan, Philippine Islands.4 A war balloon, made by the Signal Corps, was transported to Santiago; it was put in air on the skirmish-line, where orders of superiors placed it contrary to advice.5 The cables of our enemies were cut and those of our friends were repaired.6 Whether in Cuba, Porto Rico, or the Philippines, field lines, whenever permitted, were put up as fast as each command moved forward, and the generals or colonels on the firing-lines were kept in touch not with one another, but with the commander-in-chief. All important war information came first through the Signal Corps, from the affair at Cienfuegos7 to the Tagal outbreak at Manila,8 and a daily war map in the White House was made practicable. Its secret-service information9 was so accurate and so trusted by the President10 that its report of the arrival of Cervera’s11 fleet in Santiago harbor, unconfirmed and questioned by others for ten days, alone caused the Santiago campaign, and thus ended happily and speedily the war.12

It is not claimed for the Signal Corps of the army that in every detail its work was faultless, but it is asserted that from Porto Rico to the Philippines there was no demand for its services, whether in camp, in field, or in battle, that was not promptly and satisfactorily met. Indeed, in many cases the corps anticipated the situation and necessity. The approval of its work is to be found in the President’s message,13 the report of the Secretary of War,14 the proceedings of the War Investigation Board,15 and in the special reports of every commanding general of an army. . . .

A photograph of the war-room at the White House has been called, not inappropriately, “Within Five Minutes of Cuba.”16 This arose from the fact that the first message of Colonel James Allen,17 Signal Corps, announcing the opening of the field office at Caimanéra, reached the President in five minutes.18 On reflection, the import of this fact is startling. It means that for the first time in history the chief executive of a nation was able continually to control the operations of and dictate the policy to be pursued by an army fifteen hundred miles distant─not in a civilized region of continuous land, but across an ocean, and the forests of a hostile and barren country. Not only was the commanding general thus reached, but also the army outposts from mountain to sea-shore, and even, by army-signal flag, the White Squadron of our navy.19

The war-room of the White House, the headquarters of Colonel Montgomery of the Signal Corps, was specially interesting;20 but its precincts were necessarily forbidden ground save to a chosen few. Here centered the service wires of the War and Navy departments, the circuits of the Associated and Sun press associations, private wires north to New York and south to Tampa and Key West, the distant telephone to far-off cities, and private circuits to the heads of departments, to cabinet officers, the adjutant-general, the chief signal-officer of the army, and others as necessary. As in olden times all highways led to Rome, so now all lines of communication led to the President. Maps of war conditions in the various fields of actual or possible campaigns were kept up to the very hour or day. Every ship or transport, every regiment, battery, or other command, Spanish or American, was represented by [an] appropriate flag in the place it then held or was supposed to hold, ships crossing the ocean being located daily at noon by dead-reckoning. Scarcely an hour after San Juan heights had been won by American valor, the Stars and Stripes were proudly moved forward on the White House war map of the field of Santiago. Here, in his few moments of hard-earned rest from cabinet consultation and pressing executive duties, the President studied, with an eye trained by his experiences of the Civil War,21 the shifting phases of the war, and planned and surmised for the future.

Source Note Print: Adolphus W. Greely, “The Signal Corps in War-Time,” The Century Illustrated Monthly Magazine XLIV, 6 (October, 1903): pp. 811-13. Brig. Gen. Adolphus W. Greely (1844-1935) was the chief signal officer of the U.S. Army.

Footnote 1: A reference to the laying of a cable between Guantánamo and Daiquiri. Howard A. Giddings, Exploits of the Signal Corps in the War with Spain (Kansas City, MO: Hudson-Kimberly Publishing Co, 1900), 86. For a general history of the Signal Corps, Rebecca R. Raines, Getting the Message Through: A Branch History of the U.S. Army Signal Corps (Washington, DC: Center of Military History, U.S. Army, 1996).

Footnote 2: Maj. Gen. William R. Shafter.

Footnote 3: For more on the bombardment of Santiago de Cuba, see: Joint Operations at Santiago.

Footnote 4: The Battle of Caloocan was fought between the Filipinos and the United States Army in February 1899. C.U. Gantenbein, The Official Records of the Oregon Volunteers in the Spanish War and Philippine Insurrection, 2nd ed. (Salem, OR: J.R. Whitney, State Printer, 1903), 480-81.

Footnote 5: Observers in the balloon were able to locate a trail that proved to be helpful for deploying men and directing gunfire. Giddings, Exploits of the Signal Corps, 58-65.

Footnote 6: The French also owned cable lines and obliged the United States by transmitting information.

Footnote 7: For more, see: Battle of Punta de la Colorados.

Footnote 8: The Tagals were of Malayan ancestry who lived on Luzon. They rose up against Spain in the 1890’s prior to Commo. George Dewey’s victory of 1 May 1898.  When Emilio Aguinaldo returned from exile shortly thereafter he took over their leadership and continued the revolt against the Spanish. He continued the revolt after the United States assumed governing authority over the Philippines. Frederic H. Sawyer, The Inhabitants of the Philippines (London: Low, Marston & Co., 1900), 79-123.

Footnote 9: The news of RAdm. Pascual Cerver y Topete’s arrival at Santiago de Cuba was received in Washington by two sources, through a private telegrapher at Key West who made arrangements with someone in Havana and the U.S. Army Signal Corps. See: John Calvin Willever to Morrell Marean, 19 May 1898; and Chadwick, The Spanish-American War, II, 267-68.

Footnote 10: President William McKinley.

Footnote 11: RAdm. Pascual Cervera y Topete.

Footnote 13: During the summer of 1899, President McKinley commended the Volunteer Signal Corps and others. “Let me call the roll of honor let me name the regiments and battalions that deserve to be perpetuated in the nation’s annals.”  William McKinley, “Address Before the Tenth Pennsylvania Regiment, United States Volunteers, Schenley Park, Pittsburg, August 28, 1899” in Speeches and Addresses of William McKinley: From March 1, 1897 to May 30, 1890 (New York: Doubleday & McClure Co., 1900), 214-15.

Footnote 14: Annual Reports of the War Department for the Fiscal Year Ended June 30, 1898 (Washington, DC: Government Printing Office, 1898), 873-992; and Report of the Chief Signal Officer to the Secretary of War for the Fiscal Year Ending June 30, 1898 (Washington, DC: Government Printing Office, 1898).

Footnote 15: Report of the Commission by the President to Investigate the Conduct of the War Department in the War with Spain (Washington, DC: Government Printing Office, 1899), 96-98.

Footnote 16: An illustration of the McKinley war room was included in this article. see: War Room Image.

Footnote 17: Lt. Col. James Allen of the U.S Army was in charge of telegraphic communications in Cuba.

Footnote 18: A number of documents in this section reveal the inter-service rivalry between the Navy and Army over telegraphic cable jurisdiction and cutting. For more, see: Greely to McCalla, 27 June 1898; and McCalla to Sampson, 25 June 1898.

Footnote 19: During peacetime vessels of the U.S Navy were painted a buff white, but grey was used during war.

Footnote 20: During the hostilities Benjamin F. Montgomery was a captain.

Footnote 21: William McKinley was the last president to serve in the Civil War. He enlisted as a private but left the Union Army as a brevet major.

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