Joseph L. Hallett — U.S. Signal Corps

Joseph L. Hallett Res.: Springfield Occ.: Accountant  (Image courtesy Special Collections & Archives, Frost Library, Amherst College)

Joseph L. Hallett
Res.: Springfield
Occ.: Accountant
(Image courtesy Special Collections & Archives, Frost Library, Amherst College)

The Signal Corps was an independent organisation, closely allied with the Engineers, and did much useful work in the war of the rebellion. General Orders were issued by the Commanding Generals acknowledging the very valuable services rendered by the Signal Officers and the parties under their charge.

To become proficient in the art of signalling required much time and close application. Each officer was sworn not to reveal the code.

The Headquarters of the Signal Corps and the Camp of Instruction were at 66 Gravier Street in a prison-like building that had been used for a cotton warehouse. The enlisted men occupied the first three floors and the officers the fourth, where no eye could penetrate to surreptitiously gain knowledge of the secret code. Canes or rude sticks were used to learn the mystical manual. The discipline was severe, for hours at a time not a word was spoken, thoughts were conveyed by the rod, slow at first, but after a few days of practice the operator became so proficient that messages were conveyed as rapidly as by the telegraph code.

Each officer was assigned three flag men with horses. They were equipped with a set of flags of different size and color, some white with red centre, others dark with a light centre, to be used according to the shade of the background which was usually the sky; also torches for signalling at night. Both flags and torches were attached to a ten foot pole manipulated by the enlisted men as the numbers were called. In the field, during battle, the handkerchief or even the waving of the hand would serve as well as flags. Communication by sound, as the tap of drum, firing of musket or cannon, also flashes of light, though seldom used, were readily interpreted.

When we had learned the “art” of signalling, stations were established on the roof of the U. S. Custom House at New Orleans, Algiers, Chalmette and at Carrolton; the latter was erected in a tree on the levee and was some twenty feet from
the ground.

Many wild rumors of the enemy advancing on the City came from these outposts. From the Custom House, an extensive view was had of the surrounding country: Lake Pontchartrain on the west, the city and plains of Algiers on the east, the old Jackson battleground and long stretch of the Mississippi River north and south. From this station came the first report of the approach of the mail steamers, McClellan, Washington, Potomac and other boats, which so gladdened the Comrades heart for it meant letters from the dear ones at home, the distribution of which was the one oasis in the soldier’s life. We were glad however, when the time came for quitting New Orleans and vicinity.

January 11th, 1863, we boarded the Chinese steamer Che Kiang. A letter written January 13th contains this comment:
“The Che Kiang is a fine new boat built for the China trade, now chartered by the U. S. Government. It brought troops from New York for General Banks. After eight months sojourn in the Crescent City, we are off for more active campaign work in the field, a little nearer the Rebels and what is likely to be close work. The weather is fine, scenery delightful, the river is  rising rapidly and large logs, trees, and branches obstruct the way, making it difficult for the steamer to proceed. While enjoying a quiet sleep last night, the guard ran through the cabin crying, “Fire! Fire!” He opened my stateroom door and exclaimed, “Lieutenant the ship is on fire forward.” Hurrying on deck we concluded we had got “under fire” sooner than we had anticipated for a sheet of flame was pouring up from, the hatches. What made it more frightful there were thirty tons of ammunition on board. Fortunately, good discipline and ample fire appliances speedily checked the flames and we arrived safely at Baton Rouge next morning.

Here we established a signal station on the ruins of the State House and later at Plaquemine, distant twenty-three miles. The State House had been completely gutted by fire and naught remained but blackened walls. With difficulty, cross timbers were built in the walls of the tower and the apex boarded over. It took nerve to make the ascent by rudely
constructed ladders and especially to “stand duty” from the dizzy height when a strong breeze was blowing. As a matter of record, [I] would here say my flagmen were Franklin D. Heston of E. Co., Luke Harvey of E. Co., both of the 31st, and Otto Bulher [Buhler?] of the 13th Maine. They were exceptionally fine men, ever alert and never complained when their duties called for hazardous or extra hours of labor.

February 11th, 1863, by order of General Grover, I joined an expedition under General Paine consisting in part of the 8th New Hampshire, 4th Wisconsin, 133rd and 173rd New York, to operate West of the River. Arriving at Plaquemine, we sought for church spires and roofs of the tallest building to sight through the telescope the signal station at Baton Rouge, but the obstructions were too many. We were compelled to go across the bayou some distance from the tower where, from the roof of the sugar house on the plantation of Major Schlater, we could observe the other station. The Major was a Union candidate for some office before the state seceded, but “policy” demanded that he should go with the majority when the collapse came and he joined the Reble [sic] army. He was a good sort-o-rebel to meet, welcomed me to his house, insisted on my eating at his table and occupying the guest chamber. Before rising in the morning, a cup of black coffee was brought to the room by a servant and boots found polished like a mirror. I shall never forget the baked corn cake, roasted sweet potatoes, rice fritters, and delicious broiled chicken. I always had a suspicion that the Major had a selfish motive in his seemingly hearty welcome to a federal officer. He knew the failing our soldiers had for chickens and thought the presence of an officer might prevent summary raids on his property. The bipeds disappeared all the same.

The house was a large colonial mansion, with large halls, parlors and chambers, looking out on to a broad piazza, elegant trees and shrubbery, flowers and well kept lawn. The Kitchen and servants’ quarters were detached from the house.

Major Schlater believed in slavery and would talk for hours about the benefits of the institution. Occasionally, the negroes were gotten together for a dance and under the inspiration of the music and “break down,” their black faces would shine and tongues rattle with mirth. But the 640 acres in the plantation under cultivation showed it was not all play, and the overseer’s wicked eye and rawhide told a partial story of the inhuman side of the question. There was no doubt how the women sided and the lines were pretty well drawn at Mason and Dixie [sic: Dixon] line. The ladies of the family, two handsome Misses, one seventeen, the other nineteen, were bitter secessionists in sentiment and expression; both had sweethearts in the Confederate army. The blockade had cut off many supplies, so I bought a barrel of flour and some pickles of the Commissary and gave to the Major. It was a luxury to have wheat biscuit brought on the table, but the ladies could not be prevailed on to touch them; their conscience would not allow of their eating Yankee flour, or Northern pickles.

While at Plaquemine, we were entertained with true Southern hospitality and began to think it was a misnomer to speak
of the unpleasantness as a “cruel war.”


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