“When Lilacs Last In The Door-Yard Bloomed”

By Peg Brown

When lilacs last in the door-yard bloom’d

And the great star early droop’d in the western sky at night,

I mourn’d—and yet shall mourn with ever-returning spring…”

–Walt Whitman, summer, 1865, on the assassination of President Abraham Lincoln on April 14, 1865

As I approached the soldiers’ encampment on May 16th, led by Capt. Richard Henry Toller Adams, Signal Officer, Army Corps, and Lt. Edmund Burke, we skirted a mature, fully bloomed lilac bush. I could only think how appropriate this setting could be. The event, held in conjunction with the opening of a new Smith-Appleby Exhibit of Smithfield’s role as an important link in the east coast railroad system of the 1870s, was a fully staged Civil War encampment including Union and Confederate soldiers and their civilian followers who had turned the lawn of Smith-Appleby into an authentic 1863 Civil War venue.

My escorts were in reality Ted Urbanski, Willington, CT, in his role as Chief Signal Officer, and Daniel Costa-Dupre, North Providence, in his role as Lt. Burke, whose character had enlisted at age 16. When I questioned enlistment at such an early age, Lt. Burke responded, “You only had to have two things to join the ranks—be over sixteen and have two opposing teeth so you could bite the tip off the rifle cartridge.”

The encampment was a tribute to the critical role the signal corps played on both sides during the war, featuring the technology that the 2nd RI Signal Corps helped to pioneer and implement. An Army surgeon, Major Albert J. Myer, is credited with founding the signal corps in June of 1860 when he finally convinced the US House of Representatives to approve $2,000 for the “manufacture or purchase of application for field signals.” Congress also approved one additional staff person for the Army to oversee the Corps.

The early Civil War signaling system relied on an elaborate code using flags. However, the tasks assigned to this unit including battlefield observation, intelligence gathering, and direction for the artillery, required a better system. The technology advanced rapidly, allowing telegraph “trains” (aka horse-drawn carriages) to travel long distances, and string “flying telegraph lines” transmitting information as far as 15 miles. As Lt. Burke explained, telegraph coders that could fit in a pocket (like a cell phone!), allowed individuals to scale a pole and tap into any line, usually along key railroad routes.

As with modern technological advances, special training was required. Both the Union and the Confederacy were forced to recruit officers from other tasks to be trained. In total, the Union eventually fielded 1,500 members of the signal corps; the Confederacy, 3,000. The Union strung over 53,000 miles of wire, allowing for the rapid transfer of information to Washington, DC. Lt. Burke cited, for example, the list of causalities from Gettysburg could be received at central headquarters in as little as 12 hours.

Also travelling with the troops were “sutlers” or “contractors” who often paid a bribe to be allowed to provide items not issued by the armies. These could include brandy for the officers, beer for the enlisted, paper, pen, powdered ink, utensils, and canned vegetables. Portraying a sutler at the Smith-Appleby encampment was Steven Salisbury a descendent of Salisbury family from Worcester whose ancestral home is now a museum. As with many of the reenactors, Steven often assumes other historical roles for other reenactments. For 46 years, he has been playing roles from the French and Indian War, King Philips War, and the War of 1812 among many others.

In 2011 there were over 30,000 individuals who participated in Civil War reenactments. Over 50,000 participated during the 150 Anniversary of the start of the war. Reenactors also often appear in movies, such as Gettysburg. As the film director stated, “they not only come with their costumes and weapons, but also with the stuff in their hearts and their heads.”

Author’s Notes:

  • The Signal Corps motto: “You can talk about us, but you can’t talk without us.”

  • Charles M. Latham, a member of Providence High School’s 1859 graduating class, was a member of the US Signal Corps. He was given a medal for bravery when he and 13 other Signalmen were sent to the Dakota Territory. During battle he was wounded in the heel and died of lockjaw in Fort Leavenworth, Kansas.

  • The 2nd RI Volunteer Infantry Regiment fielded 409 men at the Battle of Gettysburg. One was killed, five wounded and one reported missing.

  • During the battle of Gettysburg, the Signal Corp largely provided battlefield observation. There is a monument to the Army Signal Corp at the site of Little Big Horn.

  • There are several Civil War cemeteries in Rhode Island including RI Veterans’ Cemetery and a cemetery in Pascoag.

Return to Top ▲Return to Top ▲