A Civil War Biography

Albert James Myer

Myer was born 20 September 1829 in Newburgh, New York. Orphaned at the age of 7 he went to live with his aunt in Buffalo, New York. He studied medicine at Buffalo Medical College graduating in 1851. In 1854 he entered the army as an assistant surgeon. He served on the western frontier where, inspired by the signaling system used by the Indians, he developed a fascination for visible codes. His interest originally was focused on a communication system for deaf-and-dumb patients but eventually, along with Edward P. Alexander, a future Confederate brigadier general, developed the "wig-wag" military signaling system. The system was adopted for use by the US military in 1858. On 27 June 1860 Myer was promoted to major and appointed Chief Signal Officer and head of the newly established Army Signal Corps. He first used the new signaling system during the Navajo expedition in late 1860.

Myer remained in command of the Signal Corps when the war erupted. The wig-wag system was first used in combat in June 1861 to direct artillery fire against Confederate positions opposite Fort Monroe, Virginia. Myer attempted unsuccessfully to use the signaling system from a balloon during the battle of First Bull Run. When the US Congress authorized a regular Signal Corps for the duration of the war on 3 March 1863 Myer was promoted to colonel. As the telegraph became more and more widely used conflicts developed between the Signal Corps and the Military Telegraph Service. The more modern technology won out and Myer was sent west on 10 November 1863. His commission as a colonel was revoked on 21 June 1864 and his rank reverted to major. At Allatoona, Georgia on 5 October 1864 a relief column was sent after Myer used the wig-wag system to alert Union commanders to the need. Myer then took part in the operations against Mobile, Alabama finishing his active military service during the war. Having received brevets of lieutenant colonel and colonel previously he was brevetted brigadier general in the regular army on 13 March 1863.

Following the war Myer remained in the US army. He resumed duties as an assistant surgeon until 1870 when he was assigned to command the Army Signal Corps then stationed at Fort Whipple located on Arlington Heights, Virginia. The fort, part of the Washington defenses, was named in May 1863 for Union Major General Amiel Weeks Whipple, a division commander killed at Chancellorsville. Myer, promoted to brigadier general shortly after taking command of Fort Whipple in 1870, remained in command until 1880. He is often referred to as the founding father of the US Weather Bureau which he established while at Fort Whipple. Myer died 24 August 1880 while staying at the Palace Hotel in Buffalo. Shortly after his death Fort Whipple was renamed Fort Myer, the name it still holds today.

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