A book could be written about what to-day's "... SigC reenacting community...recommendations [are] on uniforms for signalmen doing a circa 1863 Army of the Potomac
impression." I can say that Western signal re-enactors could well go by some of the same standards as the Eastern theatre signal re-enactors when it comes to arms and also to uniforms. Surprized at my comments? In addition to army engineers, signalmen also moved back and forth between the two fronts as frequently as orders might have dictated. You could have signallists raised and trained in the East going out to the Trans- Mississippi and Westerners coming East after being trained a Paducha and elsewhere. It became a real shell game in a hole plugging sort of way. As you will see below, unlike many norms related to the various branches of service during the Civil War, history has blessed we signal re-enactors with a lot of latitude.
Rifles vs. Carbines
Aside from the few cases where long arms can be seen as props in Red Hill training camp images, signalmen were not known to generally carry long arms into the field. For re-enactors, however, this should not be interpreted as don't carry long arms into the field. Unlike the period, re-enactor signalmen find it difficult to attract armed escorts for their scouting or isolated station parties. One should not wish to turn down free help with impression weapons who may also be potential future flag floppers either. In 1863 signal-men would have been supplied with carbines of the Sharpes repeater model. Spencer carbines came later.
Swords & Sabres
Page 199 in Brown's Signal History shows Lieut. Owen posing with Flagmen Patrick Carle (return'd to 38th. NY on May 29th. 1863) and Edward G. Redner, with 1860 light cavalry sabers. While commissioned officers could wear whatever edged weapon they may have chossen to bring onto the field (they bought and paid for their own) they could also be issued enlisted sabres, side arms, swordbelts and supporting leathers (boxes, etc.) for campaigning , along with their optics and signal kits (yes the officers not the enlisted men were issued the kits). Officers signed for them but the enlisted men cared for and carried them.
Since we want to focus in on "reality re-enacting" lets look at a few simple facts. Not all signalmen carried sabres all of the time, as they were not always mounted all of the time as they were not in the field all of the time. (Let's save 1861-65 signal usage of wall and sibley tentage by enlisted men for another topic thread) The same holds true for re-enactors and their varied events. You don't want a sabre dangling dangerously between your knees while traipsing through the fields and dells on foot. Then again, you might want to depict Federal signallists carrying McClellan saddles over their shoulders during certain amphibious landings on the Atlantic coast. Army of the Potomac was a relative term when the top brass decided to re-asign you to a fleet bound expedition.
Page 662 in Brown shows what appears to be four signalmen on the roof of a building within Fort Corcoran over looking the Potomac River across from Washington City. While they all appear to be wearing short roundabouts and lighter colour'd trowsers (which may well be all of the mounted pattern as far as I know) weapons and accoutrements are noteably absent. Re-enactors should know the type of event they are going to and make their plans accordingly.
Pistols on the Field
Should flagmen carry pistols during battle re-enactments? Most event co-ordinators have a fix'd vision, which they inherit mostly from previous event registration forms. These forms say no dismounted participants (sometimes they insert the wording 'except officers') may carry side arms onto the field. Should re-enacting signalmen wish to challenge this rule at any given event, they would do well doing so prior to the event. They should also make their appeal known through the 'established CSO's' on either side of the engagement not directly to the event hosts, sponsors or over-all field commanders. We could write volumes on blatant disregard of the re-enacting chain-of-command by would-be communicators and walk-on signalmen who arrive, 'as they themselves believe,' ready (but un-announced) to handle all of a commander's communications needs but I won't go into it here. I'd like to mention one last word on firearms especially pistols. If you've ever seen a pistol chain fire (all cylinders discharge at once account of a dirty weapon) you won't forget it. Ken may well know this but for others who may not, DON'T let in-experienced re-enactors carry loaded weapons onto the field until you are satisfied they won't hurt themselves and others. Many events ban all pistols because their mishandlings have caused many accidents.
Simply put, there was no 'authorized' Signal Corps jacket which would have been available in 1863. This would drive some infantry re-enactors nuts but needn't do so for signallists. Te only thing uniform about signal uniforms is that there wasn't any uniformity. Throughout the entire war period the signal corps had no uniform requirements. there are sutlers who carry signal jacket patterns and some produce the waist coats as part of their product line. In many cases, they have latched onto an original roundabout which some signalman had tailor made, that's what these folks are offering as being a 'signal corps' style jacket. The beauty that the re-enacting experience holds for we communicators on both sides of the issue (Norht and South) is that we don't have to fit the cookie cutter mold, our restrictions are few and our recruiting possibilities are thus greatly enhanced.
I think we, as signal re-enactors, should take advantage of the many photographs showing enlisted men in dark (as in mid-night) blue trowsers. We have examples of enlisted Federal trowsers as being darker than light blue (see page 157 of the Federal side of Echoes of Glory) Incidentally, the Federal private signallman Hamilton D. Clark (shown on p.157) has a ten button front while the other two jackets on the same page show eleven button fronts. Aside from the nine button fronts, I've seen twelve button fronts too.
Federal (as well as Confederate) signalmen were continuously rotated in and out of the ranks as needed. As the war progressed, many of the better signallist were never sent back to the their parent ranks but may have never been enlisted into the regular signal corps either. In other words, they remained on detached service 'til the end. A non-commissioned officer would not have had to change the colour of his chevrons as he was on temporary 'detached' service. On the other hand, I seem to remember seeing the image of a known infantryman who, after being assigned to the signal corps, chose to donn cavalry sergeant chevrons with crossed flags. I've seen originals of crossed flags above infantry sergeant chevrons. I've yet to see cross'd flag'd artillery sergeant chevrons (but that's the extent of my personal research) and I've never ever seen original examples of cross'd flags within corporal stripes of any service branch. Has anyone?
To answer your question, "...what were they [Federal Signallists] wearing in 1863?" the best I can tell you is what they brought with them from their regiments as noted on their descriptive lists (uniforms, hats, kepis, bummers, McDowells, boots, bootees). They did not bring weapons, accoutrements, leathers, canteens waistbelts or knapsacks with them. These items staid with the regiment and were held accountable to that regiment.
Does this clear things up a bit? Lets use our lack of uniformity to our advantage, the enlisted signal-men of the early 1860's certainly did. By the way, who's your tailor these days? ;)