General Nelson Miles' Use of the Heliograph

From: Chapter 37 of General Nelson A. Miles' Personal Recollections and Observations of General Nelson A. Miles, published 1896.

On April 3, 1886 General Miles was put in command over the Department of Arizona with orders that "the most vigorous operations looking to the destruction or capture of the hostiles [Geronimo and his band] be ceaselessly carried on. ... It is deemed advisable to suggest the necessity of making active and prominent use of regular troops of your command." (Orders from Army headquarters in Washington, D.C.)

I had it in my mind to utilize for our benefit and [the Apaches'] discomfiture, the very elements that had been the greatest obstacles in the whole country to their subjugation, namely, the high mountain ranges, the glaring, burning sunlight, and an atmosphere devoid of moisture. I therefore requested the chief signal officer at Washington, General Hazen, to send me a corps of skilled officers and men, and the best instruments and appliances that were attainable. I also directed my engineer officer to block out the country in such a way that we might establish a network of points of observation and communication over that entire country. Posts were established over the country most frequented by the Apaches, a district some two hundred miles wide by three hundred miles long, north and south. On the high mountain peaks of this region, I posted strong guards of infantry supplied with casks of water and provisions enough to last them for thirty days in case of siege. They were provided with the best field glasses and telescopes that could be obtained, and also with the best heliostats.

A heliograph station

The heliostat is a little invention by an English officer which had been used in India many years before. My attention was first directed to it nearly twenty years ago when in the office of the chief signal officer of the army, General Myer, who then had six of these instruments. As they were not being used, I suggested that he send them to me at the cantonment on the Yellowstone, now Fort Keogh, Montana, and I there established the first line in this country, from Fort Keogh to Fort Custer. I afterward used them experimentally in the Department of the Columbia between Vancouver Barracks and Mount Hood a distance in an air line of fifty miles. I now determined to test them to their full extent and make practical use of them in the Department of Arizona.

I was much gratified to receive the hearty support of General Hazen in sending me skilled men; and within a short time these stations were fixed on the high mountain peaks. It was remarkable what advantage they gave us in observing the movements of the Indians or of the troops in the valleys below, and in reporting promptly to the central station or headquarters; also in communicating with the various commands, posts and stations in the field. At one time, when the system was in full operation, to test its efficiency a message of twenty-five words was sent from the extreme eastern to the extreme western station, over a zigzag course of four hundred miles, and the answer was received in four hours, the total distance traversed being about eight hundred miles. Between these two points for a part of the distance there was telegraphic communication, yet the message could not have been sent by telegraph and courier and answer received as quickly as it was by this method.

The importance of the work done by the heliostat in the Apache campaign makes it worthy of a more extended notice than has as yet been accorded it. The method of signaling is very simple. By alternately interposing and removing some object in front of the mirror which forms the principal part of the instrument, long or short flashes of light are made to indicate words and letters to the eye in the same way the telegraph indicates them to the ear. The mirrors are usually mounted on a tripod and the distance through which this method of communication may be carried depends on the clearness of the atmosphere and the size of the mirrors.

At the beginning of the campaign, Lieutenant A.M. Fuller of the Second Cavalry was placed in charge of the division of Arizona, and Lieutenant E.E. Dravo of the Sixth Cavalry, in charge of the division of New Mexico for the purpose of establishing heliograph stations at suitable points, and the success of the system was largely due to the able and judicious manner in which these officers performed their duties. The stations were generally situated on high mountains, some of them being six or seven thousand feet above the level of the sea. They were manned by two or three operators according to the amount of work to be done, and were usually provided with from one to five guards, according to the dangers of the situation. Couriers were also furnished wherever needed. Sometimes it was necessary to establish these stations a mile or two from water, which in that case was brought to them on the backs of mules. Rations were usually supplied by the month from the most convenient military post.

Besides the heliographs these stations were fitted out with field glasses, and usually also with a telescope, and all day long the lookout scanned the country for signals form undetermined points. Whenever possible the station was so situated as to afford a dark background, as it was found that a flash from such a station could be much more easily seen than from one where the sky formed the only background.

In the division of New Mexico there were thirteen of these stations, and in that of Arizona there were fourteen. The work was systematized from the very beginning. All details, changes and instructions were made by regular orders, and each station was provided with the necessary material for keeping records. Weekly reports were rendered by each station as to the number of messages sent and received, and weekly reports of the weather were also required. As the number of members of the signal corps was limited, much work was performed by enlisted men, who proved themselves to be very intelligent and apt, some of them being competent to go on a station after but two weeks' instruction. Naturally, the telegraph operators found it much easier to learn the system than others did.

Heliograph system

Map of the heliograph system showing Ft. Huachuca (19) and Ft. Bowie (28)

Some of these stations communicated with but one other, while some communicated with as many as five, as in the case of the one at Bowie Peak, Arizona Territory, or the one at the extreme northern point of the Swisshelm mountains. The average distance between these stations was in a direct line of about twenty-five miles, but Fort Huachuca, which communicated with three other stations, was thirty-one miles distant from the nearest.

In the division of Arizona the total number of messages sent from May 1, 1886 to September 30, of the same year was 2,264. The greatest number of messages from one station (802) was from Fort Bowie, and the next greatest numbers (284 and 241) were from the stations at Rucker Canyon and at Antelope springs, near the south end of the Dragoon mountains. From Cochise's Stronghold on the west side of the Dragoon mountains, there were only eighteen messages sent, though this station repeated one hundred and twenty-five messages. The station at Bowie Peak repeated 1,644 messages, and the whole number of messages repeated was 4,463. The average number of words contained in these messages was about fifty, though there were cases where there were more than two hundred.

The country was subdivided into districts of observation, and each district was occupied by an efficient command fully supplied with transportation, field equipment, guides, scouts, trailers, etc., and Captain Thompson, of the Fourth Cavalry, an experienced and efficient officer, was appointed adjutant-general in the field.

From: Miles, Nelson. Personal Recollections and Observations of General Nelson A. Miles. (Chapter 37). Originally published 1896 in Chicago by Werner publishing.

The Southwest Museum of Engineering, Communications and Computation in Glendale, Arizona has devoted a page on its website to the heliograph. There you can view pages from the Manual of Instruction in Army Signaling, 1886, and other heliograph memorabilia.

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