Sunday, December 26, 2010

A forgotten Civil War message comes to light

The Daily Mail reports:

A glass vial from the Civil War has been opened, revealing a coded message to the desperate Confederate commander in Vicksburg on the day the Mississippi city fell to Union forces 147 years ago.

. . .

The encrypted, six-line message was dated July 4, 1863, the date of Pemberton's surrender to Union forces led by Ulysses S. Grant, ending the Siege of Vicksburg in what historians say was a turning point midway into the Civil War.

The message is from a Confederate commander on the west side of the Mississippi River across from Pemberton.

'He's saying, 'I can't help you. I have no troops, I have no supplies, I have no way to get over there,' ' Museum of the Confederacy collections manager Catherine M. Wright said of the author of the dispiriting message.

Wright asked a local art conservator, Scott Nolley, to examine the clear vial before she attempted to open it. He looked at the bottle under an electron microscope and discovered that salt had bonded the cork tightly to the bottle's mouth.

He put the bottle on a hotplate to expand the glass, used a scalpel to loosen the cork, then gently plucked it out with tweezers.

The sewing thread was looped around the 6 1/2-by-2 1/2-inch paper, which was folded to fit into the bottle. The rolled message was removed and taken to a paper conservator, who successfully unfurled the message.

But the coded message, which appears to be a random collection of letters, did not reveal itself immediately.

Eager to learn the meaning of the code, Wright took the message home for the weekend to decipher. She had no success.

A retired CIA code breaker, David Gaddy, was contacted, and he cracked the code in several weeks.

A Navy cryptologist independently confirmed Gaddy's interpretation. Cmdr. John B. Hunter, an information warfare officer, said he deciphered the code over two weeks while on deployment aboard an aircraft carrier in the Pacific. A computer could have unscrambled the words in a fraction of the time.

'To me, it was not that difficult,' he said. 'I had fun with this and it took me longer than I should have.'

The code is called the 'Vigenere cipher,' a centuries-old encryption in which letters of the alphabet are shifted a set number of places so an 'a' would become a 'd' — essentially, creating words with different letter combinations.

The code was widely used by Southern forces during the Civil War, according to Civil War Times Illustrated.

The source of the message was likely Maj. Gen. John G. Walker, of the Texas Division, who had under his command William Smith, the donor of the bottle.

The full text of the message to Pemberton reads:

'Gen'l Pemberton: You can expect no help from this side of the river. Let Gen'l Johnston know, if possible, when you can attack the same point on the enemy's lines. Inform me also and I will endeavor to make a diversion. I have sent some caps (explosive devices). I subjoin a despatch from General Johnston.'

. . .

For Pemberton, the bottle is symbolic of his lost cause: the bad news never made it to him.

The Confederate messenger probably arrived to the river's edge and saw a U.S. flag flying over the city.

'He figured out what was going on and said, 'Well, this is pointless,' and turned back,' Wright said.

There's more at the link.

One does wonder how the messenger must have thought, arriving at the Mississippi and seeing the enemy's flag flying over the breastworks he'd probably left a few days (perhaps only a few hours) before. It must have been a very bitter moment for him, knowing that he couldn't complete his mission or carry out his orders. Still, that's war . . .

General Grant, the Union commander at Vicksburg, would soon be appointed to command of all the Union armies, and in less than two years would lead them to victory, forcing the whole of the South to follow Vicksburg in surrender. His success and rapid advancement aroused much jealousy among other Union generals, of course, leading to a whispering campaign against him in an attempt to undermine his influence. Fortunately, President Lincoln was inured to such tactics. When rumors reached him, in November that same year, that General Grant was an alcoholic, he tartly rejoined, "Tell me the brand of whiskey that Grant drinks. I would like to send a barrel of it to my other generals." That silenced most of the critics!



Radagast said...

See here for the decryption technique.

Toastrider said...

Ironically, the whispering campaign Peter mentions attempted to push forward Sherman (yeah, /that/ Sherman) as a replacement for Grant.

Evidently, the conspirators hadn't been paying attention, as Grant and Sherman were good friends.

I think Sherman said it best:

"Grant stood by me when I was crazy, and I stood by him when he was drunk, and now we stand by each other."