Each letter of the wig-wag alphabet was represented by a certain position or movement of the flag. In wig-wag code, messages were spelled out according to a letter-number code. Each letter of the alphabet was represented by a combination of numbers, and the numbers corresponded to flag movement. A
movement to the left of the center meant a "1," and a movement to the right of center meant a "2." The letter A, for example, was "11," which is two movements from the left to the center in a row. Dipping the flag forward one or more times signaled the end of a word, sentence, or message.
Both Confederate and Union signal corps units became very skilled at sending messages via wig-wag. Of course, since the system was visual, both sides could also "read" each other's messages, so each side developed wig-wag codes so the other side couldn't understand the messages being relayed. One way signalers tried to confuse their enemies was to use a pre-assigned letter for certain common or pre-arranged phrases—kind of a secret shorthand—followed by the signal for the number three to show that the single letter or double letter stood alone. For example, the letter "A" could be agreed-upon code for "artillery," so the signalman would signal, "1 1 3." The enemy would know it was the letter "A," but not what the A stood for. Both the signal flag stars
While most signal flags had a square in the middle, some Signal Corps officers were awarded a signal flag with a red star in the center. These were special flags given to officers who had done a great job in combat. The points of the star sometimes had the names of specific battles written on them where the Signal Corp unit had been especially effective in battle.
Union and Confederate Signal Corps spent lots of time and energy inventing new codes and trying to break each other's codes.
The Confederates first used the wig-wag signaling system in combat during the Battle of First Manassas (known to the Union as the First Battle of Bull Run). A signalman who was standing on a hilltop saw the shine of bayonets and signaled to his fellow soldiers, "Look out for your left; you are turned." His signal helped the Confederates win the battle.
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