Monday, February 15, 2016

Acken, ed.: "SERVICE WITH THE SIGNAL CORPS: The Civil War Memoir of Captain Louis R. Fortescue"

[Service with the Signal Corps: The Civil War Memoir of Captain Louis R. Fortescue edited by J. Gregory Acken (University of Tennessee Press, 2015). Cloth, maps, photos, illustrations, notes, bibliography, index. Pages main/total:310/410. ISBN:978-1-62190-125-9. $48.50]

The law of diminishing returns seems to apply more than most are willing to admit when it comes to the historiographical value of published letters, diaries and memoirs of Civil War company officers, NCOs and common soldiers. But even the most jaded reader will immediately see something different when opening the pages of Service with the Signal Corps: The Civil War Memoir of Captain Louis R. Fortescue, ably edited by J. Gregory Acken.  According to the publisher, this volume is "the first full-length, published memoir to deal with Civil War Signal Corps service," and indeed it offers richly informative firsthand insights into the rarely penetrated world of a small but important military support service. The Signal Corps was less than a year old by the time of the Civil War but the flag communication system devised by army surgeon Albert Myer would quickly overcome high command skepticism and become a valued tool throughout the war.

Editor Gregory Acken sets the stage nicely with a thorough general introduction to the volume and he does a fine job of introducing each chapter, as well, while also offering helpful gap coverage and transitional pieces within. In addition to dutiful source documentation and provision of background information on persons, places and events mentioned in the main text, Acken's notes are heavy with well researched commentary. Useful maps and illustrations are also incorporated into the book.

Not much is known about the early life of Louis Fortescue but he was a first lieutenant in the 29th Pennsylvania Volunteer Infantry Regiment when invited to join the Signal Corps on detached service in 1861. Apparently, he took to it well and even refused promotion opportunities in order to remain in the corps, perhaps unwilling to part with the often comfortable lifestyle that also afforded a certain degree of independence from the strictures of army discipline. On the other hand, protective escorts were infrequent and isolation held dangers of its own, as Fortescue would discover to his chagrin later in the war.

First attached to the command of Nathaniel Banks and later to John Pope, Fortescue spent the early part of 1862 in the Shenandoah Valley (his account of Kernstown is the highlight of the period) and the summer months in northern Virginia participating in the Second Manassas Campaign. During the ensuing Maryland Campaign, his signal team returned to the Upper Potomac, where they escaped the fate of the surrounded Harpers Ferry garrison. Fortescue linked up with the main army again at South Mountain but it was another Signal Corps detachment stationed atop Elk Mountain overlooking the Antietam battlefield that signaled Army of the Potomac commander George McClellan and corps commander Ambrose Burnside during the battle. 

Fortescue's memoir is particularly noteworthy in its willingness to "talk shop" regarding specific duties and technical features of the service. His detailed discussion of Signal Corps training, equipment and techniques  enables the reader to readily understand the nuts and bolts of the "wig-wag" flag system (or torch system if used by night). He also mentions improvements made during the war, like the changes to the system that were implemented between Fredericksburg and Chancellorsville that significantly sped up message transmission.

Before the Battle of Fredericksburg, in November 1862, Fortescue was assigned to lead one of the sixteen Signal Corps "sets" [each set composed of 2 officers and 4 enlisted flagmen]  attached to the Army of the Potomac, his fellow Set D officer being Captain Charles Kendall. Prior to the Rappahannock crossing, Fortescue viewed closely the bombardment of the town and the bridging of the river from the Lacy House. Crossing the bridge into the city, for the first time in the war he was truly on the front line of action. During the main battle, his set was employed in observation posts all over the city. After the Union failure to carry Marye's Heights, Fortescue was posted in the courthouse cupola and tasked with observing the Confederate artillery positions. Directing the aim of Union guns located across the river, he came under severe artillery fire himself after a fellow officer foolishly exposed his theretofore carefully concealed position. In addition to exploring a new facet of the battle, this section of the book also provides an uncommonly sympathetic assessment of Ambrose Burnside's conduct of the Fredericksburg battle and subsequent "Mud March." Finding little fault with Burnside's management of the Fredericksburg front, the memoir instead attaches primary blame for the disaster to the rampant "McClellanism" of Left Grand Division officers like William B. Franklin. The officer cabal that attempted to undermine Burnside at the conclusion of the campaign is similarly deprecated.

Throughout the memoir, Fortescue's opinions of famous generals are freely offered and often contradict the popular impressions of today's readers (ex. drawing from his personal experiences, Fortescue has a very negative view of the officiousness of the supposedly affable John Reynolds). Exactly how much expressed opinion can be attributed to the antipathy felt toward West Pointers (and their cliquish nature) by many Civil War volunteer officers is impossible to know but with Fortescue it seems to have been at least a small factor. It is curious that the memoir is so vehemently contemptuous of McClellan but has nothing particularly negative to say about far less accomplished Virginia theater generals like Banks, Pope and Burnside. One wonders whether lingering bitterness from presidential candidate McClellan's association with the 1864 Democratic Party, its national election platform much reviled by large segments of the rank and file, played a significant role in this.

With Joe Hooker now in charge after Burnside's relief, Fortescue manned a post that was part of a chain of signal stations connecting army headquarters to the rest of the Rappahannock line during the spring of 1863. He accompanied the Averell Raid and describes in his memoir the rocket signalling ("parachute pyrotechnics") system that was used on that expedition. During the Chancellorsville Campaign, his signal post was again located opposite the town of Fredericksburg.

Throughout his memoir, Fortescue also mentions the activities of his officer colleagues so his writing can also serve as a more general resource for Signal Corps history. However, in doing so, Fortescue sometimes seems to conflate his own experiences with those of other officers or provides the impression that his personal role was more active than it really was. As an example, Acken employed a bit of detective work in comparing Fortescue's memoir with his own diary written at the time (as well as some other sources), coming to the conclusion that the writer's experience of Chancellorsville was far less interesting than what was presented in the memoir, the account therein surmised to have been a synthesis of the battlefield actions of other Signal Corps members that accompanied Sedgwick's Corps in the successful attack at Second Fredericksburg.

In summer 1863, Fortescue trailed the Army of the Potomac during the Pennsylvania Campaign, setting up a signal post with Capt. Kendall atop Jack's Mountain roughly ten miles southwest of Gettysburg. Atmospheric conditions allowed the pair to observe the battle (and also receive news from other signal stations) but their position was in the rear of the Confederate army and the whole team was captured by Rebel cavalry during Lee's retreat. As with Chancellorsville, Acken found some inconsistencies with the story of the capture but the transcription from memory of Fortescue's interrogation by Jeb Stuart, if true, is amusing. Unfortunately for Fortescue, he would remain in southern prisons until March 1865.

The memoir was penned decades after the war, which raises the usual questions about the cloudiness of distant memory and retroactive application of distilled opinion, emotions and motivations. Some of the apparent discrepancies uncovered by the editor regarding truth vs. reality were discussed above. Beyond a consistent hatred of all things McClellan, Fortescue's memoir reserves absolute disdain for any and all Confederates, including Virginia civilians. Whereas many other Union veterans expressed at least a grudging appreciation for the fighting qualities of southern heroes, Fortescue would have none of that, even in retrospect. To him, Stonewall Jackson was a "miserable Rebel and traitor" of greatly exaggerated martial ability.

Service with the Signal Corps is an important memoir handled with appropriate care and expertly edited by Gregory Acken. In addition to its richly informative nature, the often cleverly biting satire (especially that directed toward Confederate soldiers and civilians) and bitterly ironic sense of humor displayed in the memoir will appeal to many modern readers. The volume is certainly highly recommended reading for anyone specifically interested in the Signal Corps but it should also appeal to those more broadly curious about Civil War communications and in viewing the campaigns and battles of the eastern theater from a new angle.

More CWBA reviews of UT Press titles:
* Confederate Generals in the Trans-Mississippi, Vol. 2: Essays on America's Civil War
* To Live and Die in Dixie: Native Northerners Who Fought for the Confederacy
* To Retain Command of the Mississippi: The Civil War Naval Campaign for Memphis
* Confederate Generals in the Trans-Mississippi - Volume 1: Essays on America's Civil War
* Rethinking Shiloh: Myth and Memory
* Ruined by This Miserable War: The Dispatches of Charles Prosper Fauconnet, a French Diplomat in New Orleans, 1863-1868
* The Knoxville Campaign: Burnside and Longstreet in East Tennessee
* To the Battles of Franklin and Nashville and Beyond: Stabilization and Reconstruction in Tennessee and Kentucky, 1864-1866
* Confederate Generals in the Western Theater, Vol. 3: Essays on America's Civil War
* Confederate Generals in the Western Theater, Vol. 2: Essays on America’s Civil War
* Great Things Are Expected of Us: The Letters of Colonel C. Irvine Walker, 10th South Carolina Infantry, C.S.A.
* Confederate Generals in the Western Theater, Vol. 1: Classic Essays on America’s Civil War
* Crimson Confederates: Harvard Men Who Fought for the South
* Yale's Confederates: A Biographical Dictionary
* The Battle of Shiloh and the Organizations Engaged
* The Final Battles of the Petersburg Campaign: Breaking the Backbone of the Rebellion
* Echoes of Thunder: A Guide to the Seven Days Battles
* Little to Eat and Thin Mud to Drink: Letters, Diaries, and Memoirs from the Red River Campaigns, 1863–1864
* Earthen Walls, Iron Men: Fort DeRussy, Louisiana, and the Defense of Red River
* Through the Howling Wilderness: The 1864 Red River Campaign and Union Failure in the West

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