Local reenactors to provide an important communications role in Gettysburg 'battle'
“The True Eyes and Ears of the Military” — That's how Sam Foster's business card describes the Union Army Signal Corps.
Foster, who portrays a lieutenant in the Department of the Susquehanna Federal Signal Corps, has participated in Civil War reenactments for more than 10 years.
Soon the retired Postal Service worker will depart his home in the Indiana County village of Clyde, traveling some 130 miles east to the crossroads town of Gettysburg.
Once there, Foster and his squad, known as the Union Army Signals, will set up for business on the promontory of Little Round Top on the Union Army's left flank, where bullets and cannon shot as thick as a swarm of hornets sliced through the air 150 years earlier.
It will be their duty to provide real-time battle communications between that point and the vicinity of U.S. General George Meade's equestrian memorial, about 1 1⁄4 miles away on Cemetery Ridge.
With Foster in command, the unit will take part in the official National Park Service observance of the 150th anniversary of the Battle of Gettysburg, July 1-3. As part of a living history program, the unit will demonstrate signal corps communications for park visitors 9-5 July 1 and 2 and 9-noon July 3, camping overnight on the historic battlefield. The unit also is scheduled to perform a nighttime signal demonstration in conjunction with a lecture on the evening of July 2.
The Union Army Signals will remain in Gettysburg July 4-7 to take part in a large-scale reenactment of the Battle of Gettysburg that is expected to draw thousands of participants to the town. Staged by the Gettysburg Anniversary Committee, the simulated battle will take place on farmland just outside of Gettysburg.
Another recreation of the famous battle, captured on film, sparked Foster's interest in the Civil War.
“I was inspired to learn all I could about the Civil War after seeing the movie ‘Gettysburg' for the first time. I read everything I could about the war,” he said.
Merely reading about and visiting memorials to the Civil War soon proved less than satisfying.
“I wanted to see what it felt like to be a soldier in the middle of the late 1800s,” Foster said. “My great-grandfather, Richard Thomas, fought in the Civil War with the Pennsylvania 148th Volunteer Regiment, and I wanted to experience a little bit of what he had gone through.”
Foster also wanted to share his enthusiasm for the Civil War with others, so he enlisted as a private in a reenactment group and was assigned to be the number three man on an artillery piece within Hampton's Battery of the Pennsylvania First Regiment. He experienced his first battle reenactment in the summer of 2003, during an event at Idlewild Park near Ligonier. Gaining proficiency with the gun, he eventually was placed in charge of it and promoted to the rank of sergeant.
After six years of working with the artillery, he began looking for a different niche in reenacting. He wanted to bring to life an aspect of Civil War military life that wouldn't be familiar to the average witness to a simulated battle.
That's when he discovered the signal corps, and there was no turning back.
“The birth of the Signal Corps took place when Army surgeon Albert Meyer saw Indians signaling each other over a distance by holding a spear over their head and dipping it to the right, left and center,” Foster explained. “He developed a code incorporating a flag on a long pole, duplicating those positions, and called it aerial telegraphy. Because of the way the flag is moved from side to side, it is commonly called wig-wagging.
“During the Navajo campaign of 1860, he got to test his system, but the U.S. Army turned it down. Except for two fellows who saw its usefulness and practiced it under the guideline of Meyers in upstate New York.”
According to Foster, those men were J.E.B. Stuart and E. Porter Alexander, who would soon become Confederate officers when the Civil War broke out. Alexander served as Confederate Chief of Signals during the war's first major engagement, at Bull Run. “After their defeat at Bull Run, the U.S. Army finally saw the benefits of a Signal Corps and the Department of Federal Signals was born,” Foster noted.
The main requirement for becoming a member of the signal corps was an ability to read and write, so most members were recruited from colleges, with a large number coming from Gettysburg College. Others who qualified were recruited from infantry, cavalry and artillery units.
The signal corps had no specific uniform, so members wore whatever uniform was available. Foster wears an artillery uniform, sometimes complemented with an infantry greatcoat. Signal corps members are identified only by insignia worn on their hats. Foster explained that a signal kit consisted of seven flags of different patterns and sizes as well as metal torches, to be used for night signaling. The kit was transported in a wagon.
Unlike in the actual Union Army of 1861-65, Civil War reenacting units are not averse to having women in the ranks. In fact, there are two female members in Foster's unit. The only stipulation is that any woman who portrays a soldier must be indistinguishable from her male counterparts at a distance of 25 feet.
Foster has participated in many battles and reenactments at various campgrounds and civic events. As the Civil War's 150th anniversary has unfolded, he's been signaling orders, troop movements and information at the battles of Manassas, Fredericksburg and Antietam. At the Battle of Manassas, or Bull Run, he was “galvanized.”
Galvanizing is what the reenactment community calls it when a person portraying a combatant on one side of the conflict is needed to instead fight on the opposing side.
At Manassas, Foster was galvanized to the Confederate Army because, at the time of the original battle, the Union had no signal corps. “I had the opportunity to receive and transmit the order for the first cannon to fire, starting the battle,” he said.
Like any good officer, Foster is continually on the lookout for additional stalwarts to join his unit. He found such a recruit when he crossed paths with David Kukura, an Eagle Scout from Black Lick, in Burrell Township.
Kukura, who just completed his junior year at Blairsville High School , says he became enamored with the Civil War during a trip to Gettysburg four years ago. He realized he was in the midst of miles of rolling farmland that once had been soaked in blood.
“I felt a need to be part of it, to live it,” he said.
Before he learned how to use the period flags of the Civil War signal corps, Kukura was concerned with the proper handling of the modern U.S. flag. A member of Blairsville's Boy Scout troop, he created a local flag retirement box as an Eagle Scout project so that U.S. flags too worn to be displayed can be respectfully disposed of. Flags that are placed in the box in the lobby of the Blairsville Borough municipal building are retired from service with a fitting ceremony.
Kukura now has a new role, as a private in the Union Army Signals Department of the Susquehanna, First Pennsylvania Regiment, First Battalion, Birney's Division. He came under fire for the first time and sharpened his skills as a signalman during a spring muster held this year at Chambersburg.
Just like the young soldiers of yore, Kukura's uniform is made up of bits and pieces that he could gather here and there, lending authenticity to his appearance.
And, like his commanding officer and mentor, Foster, he speaks with enthusiasm about the signal corps.
“It was the military's first means of communication, and the South used if first,” Kukura noted. “You stand up sending signals and waving a flag, and you don't even have a rifle. As far as I'm concerned, it's even more exciting than being in the infantry.”
Those who can't make it to Gettysburg for next month's anniversary activities can see Foster's Union Army Signals in action during a Civil War reenactment beginning at 2 p.m. today at Old Bedford Village, 220 Sawblade Road, Bedford.
Closer to home, the signal corps unit will take part in the town of Bolivar's 150th anniversary observance, Aug. 17 and 18, and the annual Brush Valley Days celebration, Sept. 21 and 22.
To find out more about Foster's reenactment unit, visit www.unionarmysignals.com.
Ed Kelemen is a freelance writer.