For some fifteen years I have indulged in, enjoyed, sweated, froze, gotten drenched, cursed and regaled the public in the hobby of Civil War Reenacting. I first started out with the 15th Alabama Infantry of Washington State but soon realized that marching and drill weren't in these old bones. So I graduated into the more genteel world of the Artillery. I have been a member of the Rockbridge Artillery for the past twelve years. So instead of marching in ankle-deep mud while carrying a rifle I now help push 1000 pound cannons through ankle-deep mud. It seems after this time an even more genteel persona is in order, that of a Confederate Signal Service (or Signal Corps if you prefer) Sergeant. I have a small collection of telegraph equipment and the services of the Internet for information on the role of telegraphy in the Civil War. So without further ado I present my replicas I have recently built, my collection, and information on the art of telegraphy.
I have perused information on pre Civil War and Civil War era equipment and its usage in the great conflict. This was the first major war where electric communications were routinely used. The Union Army organized the US Military Telegraph which utilized civilian operators whereas the Confederacy operators were military personnel. As I am with a Confederate unit and as Washington State already has a Union signal corps, I am in the process of building the equipment that the Rebels could plausibly have used. The pieces I am building follow the form of equipment of the era but are made from materials available to a material-strapped economy. The Confederate States did not have the industrial base that the North enjoyed. I hope you will agree that the items shown are in the spirit of the era.
The Telegraph Key
This is a "straight-lever" key made from pieces of brass stock that could have been available to the Confederates. It is simpler than the the more well known "camelback" key of the era and would have been much easier to make. The bearing frame is brass sheet bent to shape and finished with file work. This was before the more robust "Triumph" key design that did not appear until after the Civil War. This style of key was prone to damage from side pressure by the operator. Instead of a spring for tension it uses a curled piece of phosphor-bronze as a spring. Early keys also aggravated an operator with "wrist paralysis", which we know today as carpal-tunnel syndrome.
(left) An original Western Union Sounder and (right) my interpretation of a Confederate copy. Early sounders were different in that they had the tension spring underneath the sounder arm. It passed between the two coils and was adjusted at the "clacker" end. It also utilized the same type of bearing as in early keys which was more subject to wear. It does however make a pleasant (to the operator at least) noise. Compare its construction to the E.F. Johnson sounder (seen in the collection) who's design did not appear until well after the Civil War.
A Pocket Relay:
The pocket relay was a useful tool to the telegraph lineman. It was a complete telegraph station that could be carried literally in one's pocket and be used to test telegraph lines and to communicate with the "home office" It contains a receive relay that would tap out the code being sent. While the clicks were faint one could hold the case to their ear and easily hear the clicks. A tiny telegraph key and shorting bar completed the ensemble. This is an interpretive unit based on an image of one in the Museum of the Confederacy. These little gems were also handy for intercepting messages by the opposing armies and even confusing the enemy communications. So "jamming a signal" is by no means a "Cold War" invention.
A "Camelback" Key:
This is a camelback key I built several years ago for use on amateur radio "Straight-Key Night" and to communicate with K6KPH, The curators of the Marine Telegraph Station at Bolinas, California. camelback keys were beautiful but I found this one was awkward above about ten words a minute. I do not intend to use this key in the field - it's too "purty".
Fort Stevens, Oregon Reenactment, Labor Day Weekend, 2010
This was my first setup as a display and demonstration of a Civil War telegraph station. The setup was simple, the other station being ten feet away on the other side of the "fly" (tent awning). This enabled the public and other reenactors to see how the system worked. The public reacted very favorably - many had no idea that telegraphy was even used at that time. I am hoping next year to expand the "system", perhaps to link the two headquarters together by telegraph. There is a fellow in Washington that does a Union telegraph impression. We have discussed linking up as our stations are compatible. Here are a couple photos of my setup at Fort Stevens:
And now, my (very) humble collection:
A "Sounder" is the piece of equipment that made the distinctive "click-clack" telegraph noise heard in many cowboy movies. This particular sounder has been through a lot. It was given to me by a telegrapher from the Western Union office in San Diego. It is the first item that started my collection and also into Ham Radio. It was also lucky enough to survive my childhood.
The Manhattan Electric Supply unit on the above right is known as a Key-On-Board, or KOB. These placed the key and sounder on one convenient platform useful for training.