William Norris Leads Confederate States Army as Chief Signal Officer
In the winter of 1860-61 pro-Confederate sentiment was strong in Baltimore.
Norris made no secret of his southern sympathies and with the outbreak of war he and his family left for Virginia. There he volunteered as a civilian aide on the staff of Brigadier General John Bankhead Magruder.
After Magruder sent Norris to learn signals in Norfolk under Captain Milligan,Milligan gave Norris a book of his system of signals and On July 18. 1861, Magruder gave Norris authority to establish a system of signals on the Peninsula and across the James River . Norris set up a network which employed flags and colored balls raised on poles. Due to his efforts on the signal system Norris was commissioned as a captain.
Norris also commanded the Secret Service Bureau, a unit within the Signal Corps. The Secret Service Bureau oversaw a communications network whose missions included the running of agents to and from Union territory and the forwarding of messages from Confederate officials in Richmond to contacts in Canada and Europe.
William Norris finally achieved the rank of colonel on April 26, 1865 and became the Commissioner of Exchange (of prisoners of war) replacing Colonel Robert Ould. Within a week Norris was in Union hands. Norris was held in detention in Richmond but eventually cleared of charge. On June 30, 1865 Norris swore allegiance to the United States.
The Confederates operated at least two other intelligence networks in Washington, both run by cavalrymen and probably set up by the Secret Service Bureau, a clandestine unit within the Confederacy’s Signal Corps. The bureau, a part of the Confederate War Department in Richmond, was commanded by Major William Norris, a former Baltimore lawyer. The Signal Corps ran the army’s semaphore service while the Secret Service Bureau oversaw a communications network whose missions included the running of agents to and from Union territory and the forwarding of messages from Confederate officials in Richmond to contacts in Canada and Europe.
One of the bureau’s most important tasks was the obtaining of open-source material, especially newspapers, from the North, primarily through sympathizers in Maryland, including postmasters. The newspapers provided information—and, occasionally, agents’ messages hidden in personal columns.