Diary describes finest hour of Signal Corps messenger

As he rode on horseback along battle lines, Luther Calvin Furst risked his life to carry crucial messages to Union commanders. But his finest hour came in Pennsylvania, where, as a member of the U.S. Army Signal Corps, he waved flags to send coded messages from the heights of Big Round Top, well above the Gettysburg battlefield.

In a vivid diary that survives, he recounts war's universal truths -- long periods of boredom punctuated by moments of sheer terror in the hellfire of battle between 1861 and 1864.

His job was to deliver messages and the enemy's goal was to kill him.

On July 3, in the prelude to Pickett's Charge, he witnessed the "heaviest and hottest artillery fire of the war. ... From one o'clock until 2 o'clock such a hail of shell shot and shrapnell [sic] I never witnessed," he wrote.

Sgt. Furst warned Union soldiers that the charge was coming.

To notify Union commander Gen. George Meade, who had been promoted to lead the Army of the Potomac just five days earlier, Furst left his position on Big Round Top and rode the whole length of the line with a dispatch.

"The boys would yell out ... 'You better stop orderly, you will never get through' ... but I was bound to try it and putting my horse on a break neck pace, delivered my dispatch to General Meade," he wrote in his diary.

In a later portion of that same entry, Furst realized how lucky he was to be alive.

He wrote: "Today, there has [sic] been 7 men killed and wounded on our Signal Station by sharpshooters from Devil's Den and hundreds on all sides of us by the shrapnell [sic] which was terrific at this point."

Filled with patriotic fervor, Furst began his military career in May 1861 when he walked 20 miles in six hours to Pittsburgh and enlisted at Camp Wilkins. A month later, Maj. Gen. Albert Myer started the Signal Corps and began teaching soldiers how to use color-coded flags to communicate on the battlefield over long distances. A physician, former telegraph operator and student of military history, Myer devised a kind of sign language called wigwag, based on moving a normally centered flag to the left or right.

In August 1861, three months after becoming a soldier, Furst was chosen to join the Signal Corps. He learned how to send signals with a set of flags that could usually be seen from two to five miles away.

Trained at Red Hill in the Washington, D.C., neighborhood of Georgetown, Furst experienced strict military discipline.

"We are kept very busy drilling four hours a day in signaling besides tending to some 100 horses," he wrote in a diary entry dated Aug. 28 to Oct. 18, 1861. "When on guard we are not allowed to stop one moment, smoke, or speak to anyone under penalty of the guard house, or walking in front of the guard with a log of wood on your shoulder for two hours."

Like his comrades, he slept on frozen ground in the winter, bathed and washed clothes in rivers, marched in summer's scorching heat and endured dysentery, hunger, thirst and numbing fatigue. Smart and energetic, Furst had grown up on a farm in Cedar Springs, a Clinton County town 30 miles northeast of State College. He was a student at Jefferson College in Canonsburg, now Washington & Jefferson College, when he traded his books for arms and adventure.

Corps members learned how to build signal stations and memorized the wigwag system of waving flags in patterns to send messages. The code could be changed to prevent interception by the enemy. While both sides in the Civil War used signals, it proved to be more of an advantage for the Union Army.

For Union Army soldiers, reveille sounded at 5 a.m., followed by breakfast at 7 a.m. Companies drilled from 10 a.m. to noon, when they ate a midday meal. Between 2 and 4 p.m., there was regimental parade, followed by dress parade at 5 p.m. After supper at 6:30 p.m., a bugler or drummer sounded tattoo at 9 p.m., calling all men to return to their quarters. A bugler played "Taps" at 10 p.m.

A month before the clash at Gettysburg, in late June 1863, Furst marched for five days with the Sixth Corps under the leadership of Maj. Gen. John Sedgwick. The Sixth Corps had 13,599 men and 48 cannons.

Furst, who saw action at Antietam and Chancellorsville, carried messages to Sedgwick. During the first three months of 1863, he spent six weeks training at the U.S. Signal telegraph office.

On the evening of July 1, 1863, the Sixth Corps headed toward Gettysburg and arrived there at 4 p.m. July 2, the second day of battle.

"We just reached the conflict in time, saving the Round Top Mountain and charging them off of it," Furst wrote.

"Our 6th Corps did some fine charging and we had six lines of battle, sending one in every 20 minutes. We immediately established a Signal Station on Round Top Mountain ..."

That night, the 6th Corps slept on the ground and Furst returned to Little Round Top the next day.

"At 10 a.m. the enemy planted three batteries commanding this hill and three times advanced to try to take it, but were repulsed at every outset," he wrote.

Three years after the war ended, Furst returned to Cedar Springs, married Lydia Jane Kieffer in 1867 and had eight children. With his brothers, Robert and Albert, Furst opened a business that sold flour, feed, salt, coal, grain and general merchandise, according to Jason S. Jones, a history professor who devoted his 2006 master's thesis at Penn State University to Furst's diary.

The diary, which covers most of the war, concludes June 7, 1864. It passed through the family, first to his eldest son, John Furst, who transcribed it in 1932. The diary then passed to his daughter, Julia Furst Morris. Her son, John Norman Morris of Shippensburg, gave it to the United States Army Military History Institute in Carlisle.

One of Furst's descendants, David Furst, grew up in New Castle, and his father often told stories of their famous ancestor. The family prized a Civil War memento -- a white flag with a red square that Furst used to send signals.

David Furst donated the flag to Soldiers & Sailors Memorial Hall & Museum in Oakland. He now lives in Anderson, Ind., outside of Indianapolis.

Right after he got married in 1978, Mr. Furst and his wife camped at Gettysburg on July 2 and 3.

"We sat up on Little Round Top and I read exactly what he had to say," Mr. Furst said. "It was right at dusk. Being there right at dark, that was kind of cool."

state - civilwar - gettysburgstories

Marylynne Pitz: mpitz@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1648. First Published June 30, 2013 4:00 AM


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