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Table of Contents
  Evolution to the Signal Service Years (1600 - 1891)
  Professor Cleveland Abbe
  Isaac M. Cline
  H. B. Boyer
  D. G. Benson
  Henry Calver
  Ford A. Carpenter
  Norman B. Conger
  Henry J. Cox
  John P. Finley
  H. C. Frankenfield 
  Glynn Gardner
  John S. Hazen
  C. F. von Herrmann
  J. W. Smith
  Richard H. Sullivan
  Wilford M. Wilson

signal service years

Personal View of Henry J. Cox

After graduating from Harvard College in June, 1884, I enlisted in the Signal Service at Washington the first of the following August. I was rather surprised in having to undergo a critical physical examination, even to the noting of a little mole on my back. I found this precaution was taken so that I could be more readily identified should I desert from the Corps.

I successfully passed the ordeal and was routed for Ft. Myer in the afternoon of that day in a government ambulance, drawn by two mules, the first government mules to come under my observation. The fort in those days was not imposing and its mediocrity in strong contrast with the pretentious post of the present day.

Upon arrival at headquarters, and just before disembarking, I heard a faint call from a distance, and this call, unintelligible to me, was repeated two or three times. I asked the driver what it was and he replied that the boys over on the barracks veranda were calling "Fresh Fish."

"And what does that mean," I asked.

He replied, "That means you. You are the fresh fish. So are termed all recruits who come here."

Such was my introduction to Fort Myer, often called by connisseurs who have passed through its portals, making both debut and exit, "The Signal Service Training School."

My experience at the Fort, with its rigid discipline and fixed hours for everything from reveille until taps, was in strong contrast with my easy-going life at Harvard during the previous four years.


My experiences at the Fort were much the same, doubtless, as those of others of the boys in the old Signal Corps. The chief burden of the fellows in my class was the super abundance of second Lieutenants present at the time who were taking the course prescribed for officers. We had to help them out with their military signalling, in addition to doing our own, and this help was not always confined to merely waving flags and swinging torches, but sometimes included reading the messages from the opposing stations.

Two of my experiences in signalling with officers come strongly to mind.

In one of these Kimball and I were the poor privates accompanying the 2nd Loot (Lieutenant). We drove off one morning late in the fall of 1884 in an ambulance to the designated point , Munsons, Va. We were to be absent merely for the day and were to signal to another party located at the Soldiers Home in Washington. The ambulance did not remain after taking us to Munsons, but returned to the Fort, with the understanding that it would come back at 10 p.m. However, after we got through signalling, the ambulance was not at hand and it did not show up finally until 2 or 3 o'clock the following morning. It seems that the sergeant in charge of the stables had forgotten about the signalling party being out, and it was not until after the wife of the Loot in charge of our party, missing her husband, stirred things up, that the ambulance was sent on its way to our rescue.

Our return journey, however, was not without mishap. In crossing a wooden bridge over a small stream, one of the mules partly broke through, and the more we tried to extricate him, the farther down he went. We finally found the easiest way was to let the mule slide down all the way into the water in the stream below, having first removed the harness and while we were attempting to extricate the first mule, the second one broke through the bridge. Our experience with him was much the same as with the first one. We were forced to let him down into the water also. We then drove the both out onto the road and re-harnessed them to the ambulance and went on our way, reaching the Fort just as the bugler was sounding reveille.


As my class was organized in midsummer of the year 1884, the course naturally closed in the following midwinter. Examinations were held soon after New Years and it was understood that there would be a period of some three weeks thereafter before the papers were marked and the assignments to stations made. Word came early, however, that three of the fellows would be ordered immediately to the Central Office for clerical duty, pending transfer to stations; and when the orders came my name was included. How we were envied by the rest of the class as we left the Fort, bound for Washington! Our classmates had, previous to the examinations, been relieved from guard duty, etc. their places having been taken by regular Army guards, but now that the examinations were ended our fellows had to go back and take their turn walking post, doing police duty, and all the other beautiful and desirable things that befall to buck privates; and this too in midwinter.

How enjoyable were those three weeks at the Central Office! How we fellows enjoyed ourselves in not having to be routed out by a bugle call in the cold of the January morning! I can remember even now the big room on the top floor of 2020 G. St., which we occupied. In Washington we were in absolute comfort, and when we awoke in the morning, we could turn over and take another snooze until 8 o'clock.

We often acted as hosts for our envious companions left at the Fort when they made the journey to Washington on pass.

Finally the orders of assignment came to the entire bunch, including those on temporary duty in Washington - about 22 in all. And on the last night in January we were shipped out to all corners of the country, to the Atlantic and Pacific, on the Great Plains and the Great Lakes, and in the South - never to meet again. My assignment happened to be Chicago.

picture of a line of wagons  

Signal Service transportation at Jacksonville, Flordia (1898).


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