Buffalo Soldiers Research Museum

The Old Guard

Fort Myer
History of Fort Myer

Fort Myer began as a Signal Corps post in 1861. Major A. J. Myer began work at Georgetown, District of Columbia, with a small group of volunteers but the Corps eventually grew to 300 officers and 2,500 men. Authorized as a separate Corps by an Act of Congress, on March 3, 1863, its organization was not completed until August 1864. The outcome was an embodiment of the Army saying that “one campaign in Washington is worth two in the field.”

Signal messages were sent by means of flags, torches, or lights, by combinations of separate motions. The flag or torch was held upright. To signal, the flag was waved to the left or the right, or waved/dipped to the front. When letters were composed of several figures, the motions were made in rapid succession without pause. Letters were separated by a very brief pause, and words or sentences were distinguished by one or more dip motions to the front. There were also more than 20 combinations of colored lights which permitted an extended system of prearranged signals. White, red, and green rockets and white flags with a square red center were most frequently used for signaling purposes. When snow was on the ground, a black flag was used; and, with varying backgrounds the red flag with a white center could be seen at greater distances than the white.

To secure secrecy, all important messages were encoded with a cipher disk. Two concentric disks, of unequal size and revolving on a central pivot, were divided along their outer edges into 30 equal compartments. The inner and smaller disk contained in its compartments letters, terminations, and word-pauses, while the outer, larger disk contained groups of signal numbers. Sometimes this arrangement was changed to ensure the secrecy of messages.  In every important campaign, the Signal Corps’ flags flaunted defiantly at the forefront, speeding orders of advance, conveying warnings of impending danger, and sending suggestions of defeat. Throughout the Civil War, they were seen on the advanced lines of Yorktown, Petersburg, and Richmond, in the trenches at Charleston, Vicksburg, and Port Hudson, at the battles of Chickamauga and Chancellorsville, before the front-crowned crest of Fredericksburg, in Sherman’s march to the sea, and with Grant’s victorious Army at Appomattox and Richmond.

On August 4, 1886, an Act of Congress called for the re-establishment of Fort Myer as a military station and called for the Signal Corps School to vacate the Fort. The Signal Corps is now located at Fort Gordon in August, Georgia. On July 6, 1887, Fort Myer became a cavalry post. On July 15, 1887 Troop B of the 4th Cavalry from Fort Huachuca, Arizona arrived at the fort. This change required new stables, new troop barracks, and eventually a riding hall. Over the next 30 years, Fort Myer transformed from a region of aging frame structures into elegant brick buildings, many of which still stand and house companies of The Old Guard.

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