Were there union army scouts during American Civil War?

This is an 1891 letter to General John M. Palmer of Illinois that mentions that an African American man was an "ex-union scout". Were there people who did that and/or had that title?

Also what does this veteran of the 13th Regiment, West Virginia, Union Army, mean by "signal service"? Thanks for any help anyone can provide.


    Thank you for posting your question on History Hub!

    First, in answer to your general question, there were indeed men who served as scouts in the Union Army during the Civil War. Some were enlisted personnel but many were also employed as civilian scouts. They were generally skilled horsemen with particular knowledge of local areas who could operate behind enemy lines and gather intelligence, such as enemy locations and troop strengths, for the Union Army. For scouts who were enlisted soldiers we should have Compiled Military Service Records for them in the Records of the Adjutant General's Office (Record Group 94). Civilian scouts were usually employed through the Quartermaster Department. The main source we have for them would be the series "Reports of Persons and Articles Hired, 1818-1905" (entry NM-81 238; NAID 656447) in the Records of the Office of the Quartermaster General (Record Group 92). The series, with an accompanying name index, is described in more detail in the National Archives Catalog at catalog.archives.gov/.../656447.

    In answer to your other question regarding the meaning of "signal service," there are two possible explanations. First, signal service could certainly refer to employment in the U.S. Signal Corps during the Civil War. However, it seems less likely in this case because the Signal Corps usually did not have any specific need for scouts. Their main function was to maintain telegraph lines and signal stations to relay specific messages brought to them from various Army commands. They would not have been employed in gathering information. The second explanation of the meaning might be that the term "signal" in the 1891 letter was being used by the author as an adjective to describe the type of service rendered by ex-Union scout. In this context the term "signal" can be a synonym for "exemplary" or "outstanding." It would have been a common nineteenth-century turn of phrase to indicate that the scout provided very good service to the Army. Ultimately, it is probably quite difficult to discern the exact meaning the author intended without knowing more information or context about the scout's military service.

    We hope this assists you with your research!


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  • That is very helpful. I know this "ex-Union scout" testified in 1872 that he was employed by the Quartermaster in Alexandria as a teamster during the Civil War. That is interesting given what you wrote about civilian scouts working through the Quartermaster. There is an oral history about this scout using his knowledge of Prince William County, Virginia to help a Union group repel a Confederate raid to protect a wagon with gold in it. The link you provided doesn't seem to work. This is what happens when I click on it: