4:30 pm Washn. Aug. 26th 1864
Katy Nabob The provisional battalion of Pacific belonging
to Greggs quitman which is tower upper
Attica saddling the Windsor while the Platina Andover
Panama is absent pekin has been ordered to
Blubber stop This will leave me without means
of saddling the windpipe while the paddle Andover
is absent stop Taunton Waite whites wedge that
he cannot get his whip ready to Talbot
before Monday zebra The forges coal &c had
toby sent from here I think he will
get ready Persia possible unity If you think
it advisable I will send out the Gas
Amos sligo direction of Aldie They cannot raise
more perfume prolong forth field & they cannot
go to Laughter Sheffield zodiac they may wolf
about Aldie & pick up rumors Cork = screw
Draw off your water out of town
4:30 pm Washn. Aug. 26th 1864
4:30 P.M. P. H. Sheridan The provisional battalion of Cavalry belonging
to Greggs Division which is over the upper
Potomac guarding the River while the 8 Illinois
Calvary is absent comma has been ordered to
City Point stop This will leave me without means
of guarding the River while the 8 Illinois
is absent stop Major Waite reports today that
he cannot get his Regiment ready to movement
before Monday period The forges coal &c had
to be sent from here I think he will
get ready as soon as possible period If you think
it advisable I will send out the 16
New York in the direction of Aldie They cannot raise
more 3 hundred for the field & they cannot
go to Snicker Gap period they may scout
about Aldie & pick up rumors Augur
Draw off your water out of town
On August 26, General Christopher Columbus Augur, the commander of the the defenses of Washington, D.C., sent a ciphered telegram to Phillip Sheridan who was in the process of planning an expedition against John S. Mosby’s men. Major John M. Waite of the 8th Illinois Infantry was charged with leading the force. He, however, needed some time to assemble the men: the regiment, formally part of Augur’s XXII Corps, had been scattered on all over Virginia and Maryland: six companies were assigned to Lew Wallace at Baltimore, four were guarding the Potomac between Great Falls and the Monocacy, another was at Port Tobacco, and one was with the army of the Potomac. Augur, still reeling from Jubal Early’s raid on Washington on July 11, was not overly enthusiastic about the arrangement. The best he could to reinforce the expedition was the 16th New York which had already been cut up by Mosby’s men.
As with many telegraphic communications between generals, this telegram was published in the Official Records of the War of the Rebellion, after the deciphered recipient’s copy.
Our telegram, which appears in the USMT ledger of sent messages (EC 18), is not just the ciphered version of the OR publication. For one thing, it was sent from the USMT office at the War Department an hour and a half after the original message went out from the headquarters of the XXII Corps, located on the corner of Fifteenth and a Half St. and Pennsylvania Avenue. The message is addressed to R.R.R. McCaine, Sheridan’s operator, rather than Little Phil himself.
And then there is the strange appendix involving a cork screw and instructions to “draw your water out of town.” In fact, the message offers a glimpse into how codes were modified and adjusted, which often happened on the fly.
The message had been ciphered a variation of Cipher No 1. This version, found in EC42, EC44, and EC46, features significant and apparently recent changes. The term “commencement word” was replaced with “blind word” which indicated the number of columns rather than lines.
As seen from the handwritten corrections made in EC 46, “the sum of the numbers set the opposite the next two words” indicated the number of lines. “Town” equaled to 6 lines, and “water,” to 10, which translates into sixteen lines of the eight-column message.
Instead of simply instructing McCaine to add the values, however, his Washington counterpart opted by a coded message involving the “cork-screw” and drawing off, i.e. “decanting,” his “water out of town,” and added a few words at the top and bottom of the message. When the operator followed the respective routing instructions, he saw a tip to “use tower for on the Not Received letter.” (The value of the arbitrary “tower” as listed in the code book is “over the.”) Most likely, this message was not even intended for Sheridan’s eyes, but rather served as a test case for changes and modifications in ciphers.
It should be noted that the term “Cork=screw” is a triple play on words. The message was sent by Augur, a homophone of which is “auger”. An auger is a helical screw, often used for boring holes in things. A short step sideways and you have “corkscrew,” split in two to fit the columns. (Thank you MEinaudi for this find. I must confess, my knowledge of drilling equipment and terminology a bit limited; I was thinking more along the lines of an augur as in the ancient Roman priest. This, of course, would be very hard to code).
And another thing. Because there was no arbitrary for Snickers Gap, Va., the operator had to improvise: Snickers was replaced, of course, with “Laughter.” I would probably go with “Chortle” or “Giggles.”
4:20 P April 1
The Magruder msg come from
Montreal by the Canada line, to Portland –
here is the reply.
You will see it is a Naval
Halifax Commodore G.A. Magruder
Montreal – I sail today for St. Thomas
arrives in Havana the fifteenth (15) or twentieth
(20) Expect to meet you. Letters not recd
(signed) G.A. Magruder Jr.
It is probable that neither of these parties
are aware that the telegraph line runs
through W.U. Territory & an international
question of great interest to telegraph companies
may be involved in this case.
The message is retained at Portland subject
to order of the Dept, or Gen Dix.
If referred to him. I Conjecture that young
Magruder is bearer of dispatches from
abroad. I have sent to Halifax to make
certain whether the word “expect” is correctly
written, It may have been expected to meet you.
What do you do when an enemy communication just falls into your lap?
On March 31, 1864, a puzzled Edward S. Sanford sent a message from the New York office of the American Telegraph Company. The Company’s office in Portland, Maine had received a telegram addressed to “Maj. G.A. Magruder at Halifax.” The sender was Commodore George Allan Magruder (1800-1871), the former chief of the U.S. Bureau of Ordnance and Hydrography of the Navy Department who lived in Montreal ever since he resigned from the service in April 1861. The recipient was his son and namesake, Major George Allan Magruder, Jr., (b. 1842), a Confederate officer on the staff of his uncle, John Bankhead Magruder. Since October 1863, the younger Magruder acted as a special envoy of the Confederate State Department and carried diplomatic dispatches to Europe and Cuba.
How did a message sent from Montreal to Halifax end up in Portland? Sanford thought “it was not sent by Magruder in person but brought to Portland by some one [who] had orders to forward from first telegraph station.” This theory fell through the next day, when the Maine operator received the response. Magruder informed his father that he was about to sail for St. Thomas, to arrive in Havana in two to three weeks, adding that he had received no letters.
Sanford shouldn’t have been so puzzled. Right before the war, his own company, the American Telegraph Company had engineered a long-term lease of two major Canadian companies, the New Brunswick and Nova Scotia Electric Telegraph lines, thus linking Nova Scotia and Maine. Apparently, the Magruders used the Nova Scotia company unaware that it was operated by Sanford’s outfit.
The messages were not intercepted. Neither the USMT nor Sanford, who was serving as “military supervisor of telegraphic messages,” had anything to do with obtaining this piece of intelligence. It’s just sort of wandered into an office of a private commercial telegraph line.
The realities of the Civil War often run contrary to our ideas of what war-time communication lines are supposed to be. There was, of course, no unified system of military telegraph. In February 1862, Congress had authorized President Lincoln to “take possession of any or all the telegraph lines in the United States, their offices and appurtenances.” The Lincoln administration did no such thing. Instead, the War Department created what historian Joshua D. Wolff called “a mixed military economy” which relied on private contractors and “public enterprises.” (Western Union and the Creation of the American Corporate Order, 1845-1893 (Cambridge University Press, 2013).
The system created numerous problems. The USMT leadership retained their positions of executives of communications companies, raising suspicions about a conflict of interest. The leadership of Western Union and the American Telegraph Company painted themselves as selfless patriots. The reality was more complicated: serving as government officials while overseeing their own businesses, the companies’ managers not only turned the United States government into their customer, but also harnessed the military necessity to extract the unprecedented level of protection, public funding, and material support.
The overlapping commitments more or less erased the boundaries between public service and private interest. For example, Stanton’s directives that military supervisors did not interfere with “private business” could jeopardize military secrecy, as with no provisions for an eventuality of said business located in a border or even a Confederate state.
As it turned out, it was also possible that an American commercial company could transmit messages sent and received abroad. No wonder Sanford was stumped. There was neither precedent nor proper chain of command. Eckert was to contact Charles A. Dana, newly appointed Assistant Secretary of War, to find out “to whom we can refer similar cases when they require alert action.”
There were also international implications to think about. Was it legal for a party in a civil war to intercept messages originating in another sovereign nation, especially if such intercept was done by a private company? With some relief, Sanford remarked that because it was “probable that neither of these parties are aware that the telegraph line runs through W.U. [Western Union] Territory,” an “international question of great interest to telegraph companies may be invalid in this case.” (Western Union did not have any holdings in Canada). In other words, finders keepers.
Hurrah for our volunteer JustStardust for spotting this!
Olga Tsapina, Norris Foundation Curator of American History. The Huntington Library.
Olga Tsapina, Norris Foundation Curator of American History, Huntington Library.
From Washington May 11th 5 P.M.
4 PM. Butterfield About what
distance is it from
from the Observatory, we stopped
at last Thursday to
to the line of Enemys
you ranged the glass upon for me
Lincoln Honest Old Abraham
Quite a few telegrams in the Eckert ledgers have little messages from operators that filled up empty spaces at the end of the last line. Most of these notes are greetings of various degrees of jocularity (“wake up Charles!”), brief remarks about the ever so popular subject of the weather (“hot here” in the telegram on this page), reports of incidents (“Lawrence lost his cap”), observations the fighting, which often read like weather reports, or market tips. This telegram ends with a breathless tribute to Lincoln.
The telegram is part of the ledger EC 23 which comprises messages, mostly in cipher, sent from the War Department to the Headquarters of the Army of the Potomac and Fortress Monroe during the disastrous battle of Chancellorsville (1863, Apr. 30 – May 6), and its immediate aftermath.
The disaster was in large part caused by a breakdown in communications. Hooker’s battle plan hinged on complex system on the telegraph and flag signaling, which, ideally, would provide him with an unprecedented mode of instant communication. The USMT operators were to handle strategic communications between the army and Washington. The Signal Corps was charged with tactical communications between the army’s wings and units provided by the traditional flag signaling system and new Beardslee Patent Magneto-Electric Field Telegraph machines. Hooker’s chief of staff, Daniel Butterfield, was charged with overseeing all the communications.
The plan fell apart almost immediately. Beardslee machines were easily “disarranged,” which resulted in hours-long delays and messages garbled beyond recognition.
For some eighteen hours, the right wing of Hooker’s army was plunged into a communications blackout. On May 1, Butterfield dispatched USMT operators to take over. By then it was too late.
All the while the president and the War Department were kept in the dark. Hooker had instructed Butterfield not to wire anything to Washington. It was only at 8:50 a.m. on May 3 when Butterfield informed Lincoln that “a battle is in progress.” By then Washington was already awash in increasingly panicky rumors. At 1 p.m. on May 4, Butterfield wired that the army re-crossed the Rappahanock. Two hours later, Lincoln telegraphed “We have news that that the enemy has reoccupied heights above Fredericksburg is that so?” Hooker conceded: “I am informed that is so, but attach no importance to it.” On May 6, 1863, Hooker ordered the remaining troops to re-cross the north side of the Rappahanock. It was over. Lincoln received the word at 3 p.m. An hour later, Lincoln and Halleck boarded a steamer for the Army of the Potomac.
The president spent Thursday, May 7, at Hooker’s headquarters. At the end of the day, Lincoln refused to blame anyone and expressed his full confidence in the general. The War Department decided to put a positive spin on the defeat: not only “there “has been no serious disaster to the organization or the efficiency of the army,” but thanks to the “brilliant success” of Stoneman’s raid on Richmond, the enemy’s communications “have been cut in all directions.” This was an exaggeration, to say the least. The railroads that Stoneman claimed to have destroyed were fully operational by May 8. Hooker later grumbled: “I might as well have had a wet shirt command my cavalry,” adding: “ Had Gen. Lee’s communications with Richmond been severed, not many of his Army would ever have returned to that city.”
A disruption in the enemy of communications did occur, however. During the battle, the wig-wag signaling played an important role, although not the one intended. When it became apparent that the Confederate signal officers could easily read the Union signals, Butterfield ordered not to use them only to transmit false information.
As seen from this telegram, Butterfield took Lincoln on a tour of the lines of signal-flag stations. The” Observatory” is most likely the central station, known as Station F., located halfway between Falmouth and the Army of the Potomac headquarters. A notorious self-promoter and a loyal ally of Hooker’s, Butterfield, no doubt, worked hard to impress the president with the importance of flag-signals. Four days later, Lincoln was still thinking about how close the enemy lines were. Butterfield helpfully supplied that the distance between the lines was just “about two miles in a direct line.” As we have already seen, in the coming months, Butterfield regularly forwarded intercepted signals to the president. (See The Dust of War https://blog.decodingthecivilwar.org/2017/06/19/the-dust-of-war/)
But why would an USMT operator feel so overwhelmed by this seemingly routine message? Lincoln certainly was no stranger to the USMT office. The president spent hours at the cipher room, (he usually commandeered Eckert’s desk), drafting numerous telegrams and handing them over to the operators.
Curiously, there is no handwritten draft of this message. The draft of the telegram to John A. Dix, sent just before the message to Butterfield, has been preserved and now forms part of the Charles W. McClellan Lincolniana collection at the Brown University. Neither does it appear in the Official Records of the Rebellion, unlike the telegram to Hooker on the bottom of this page.
The editors of the Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln published it after the text in the 1865 Report of the Joint Committee on the Conduct of the War. The Committee was then investigating the Army of the Potomac; the heavily politicized inquiry aimed at replacing George G. Meade with Joseph Hooker and necessarily sought to rewrite the history of the battle of Chancellorsville. The telegram was among a batch of records covering Hooker’s command of the Army of the Potomac assembled by Edwin M. Stanton.
It is possible that Lincoln’s draft was lost, misplaced, misfiled or even destroyed by the clerks who prepared the Joint Committee’s final report. It is also, however, possible, that no draft ever existed and that the telegram was dictated rather than written. This would explain the operators’ gushing note: he was obviously thrilled to transmit “Honest Old Abraham’s” own words as the great man loomed over his desk.
8.40 P.M. New York. July 14, 1863
New York July 14th sixty three
For E. M. Stanton Washington We are expecting
momentarily that our Southern wires will
be cut as the rioters are
at work in their immediate neighborhood
It seems very important for the
United States government to define its
position immediately in this city and
if not done immediately the opportunity
will be lost. Governor Seymour has
sent for is to come here
immediately and he is on his
way the police so far report
themselves as having been successful in
every fight of which they have
had many but they say they
are exhausted and cannot much longer
sustain the unequal contest not less
than ten thousand good native soldiers
ought to be here at this
moment to restore and enforce order
signed E. S. Sanford burning shame
On the day when Edward Sewall Sanford (1817-1882), the president of the American Telegraph Company and the supervisor of the telegraphic messages in the United States, sent this telegram, July 14th, 1863, the New York Times came out with the headline: “A DAY OF INFAMY AND DISGRACE.”
What had begun a day early, on Monday, the 13th as a rowdy protest against the draft, had turned into a riot of mass pillaging, marauding, murder, and pogroms. The rioters, dominated by Irish Catholic industrial laborers, targeted police officers, government officials, prominent Republicans, journalists of Republican newspapers, as well as African-American, German and Chinese residents.
By noon of the 14th, the city was plunged into a full-blown race riot. One eyewitness, school teacher Samuel Morehouse, heard the rioters shouting that “this land is for white men only.” The horrified New York Times reporter described the scenes that “were painful in the extreme, and humiliating to human nature,” as mobs of “foul-looking boys and men” went door to “in pursuit of negroes, who were assailed wherever found.” At 4 p.m. a mob set fire to the Colored Orphan Asylum of Forty-Third Street and Fifth Avenue and blocked the firemen from saving the building or its occupants. At 8 p.m., a crowd of about 400 white men attacked a black coachman with clubs and paving stones, hung him, and set his body on fire.
The Times reporter singled out the “inhuman treatment of the negroes of the City” as “the cunningly-devised cue that had been given to the rioters by the instigators of the outbreak.” This not too subtle hint endorsed a popular suspicion that the riots had been orchestrated by a network of Confederate sympathizers.
Another cue was the fact that the rioters set out to tear up railroad tracks, ferry slips, gas factories, and telegraph lines. Historian Iver Berstein noted that it was this assault on the city infrastructure, rather than the common attacks on draft offices or racial violence, that set the New York Draft Riots apart from other instance of mob violence of the Civil War era (The New York City Draft Riots, Oxford University Press, 1990, p. 34).
To many commentators this certainly looked like sabotage designed to plunge the city into darkness and chaos and thus help the “Southern rebels,” perhaps even enable a Confederate invasion. This was how it appeared to Sanford. Reporting to the Secretary of War, he described the riots as “an organized attempt to take advantage of the absence of military force.” With the state militia fighting in Pennsylvania, the city could count only on a few troops protecting the Navy Yard and harbor forts, the untested Invalid Corps and Provost Guard and the Metropolitan Police.
What worried Sanford most was the fact that, as he informed Stanton on the evening of July 13, “the telegraph is especially sought for destruction.” Several hours later, he reported that rioters had torn down the wires around the Third Street. By Tuesday evening, as seen from the above telegram, the communication with Washington, D.C. was under threat. The lines were still operating, though, for he used them on evening of July 15 to report that he had to receive a telegram from Boston “from New Rochelle by horse-power, our lines up to that point being destroyed.”
Bernstein suggested that by tearing down telegraph lines, the rioters sought to prevent the city authorities to request troops from Albany or Washington. For New York City, the resort to federal troops was unprecedented; neither the Republican mayor, nor the Democratic governor were willing to go that route. Governor Horatio Seymour, summoned from this summer home at Long Branch, announced that the city was “in the state of insurrection” and declared a state of emergency, in part to forestall federal interference.
By the early afternoon of July 14, there was no choice. In a city plunged into chaos, the calls for “an immediate and terrible” display of federal power spread from Republican politicians to merchants and financiers. New York mayor George Opdyke formally asked Secretary of War to send what military force he could spare. Several hundred troops were diverted from the Gettysburg battlefield.
The theory of a Confederate conspiracy, never substantiated, soon dissipated, but the press and the public opinion seized upon the all too familiar image of the Irish Catholic immigrant as the sole culprit of the outrage. Even some Union regiments were suspect. General Henry W. Halleck was told that the only New York regiment that could be trusted with the riot duty was the native-born and Protestant Seventh Regiment of New York infantry. In this Sanford concurred, as seen the telegram, in his calling for “native-born,” i.e. non-immigrant, soldiers.
The New York Draft Riots that came only ten days after the double victory at Gettysburg and Vicksburg shocked the nation. It was, as Sanford’s telegraph operator, bitterly remarked, “a burning shame.”
Olga Tsapina, Norris Foundation Curator of American History. Huntington Library.
From Washn. Oct. 31’62
For Geo H Bangs Adams HdQrs
Madame Williams wife to the Clerk
of Major Cameron Paymaster now with
Army of Potomac passing off is
a South Carolinian was sent for
to join her husband & information
says has letter for the south
quilted in her chemise or skirts
is to go through the lines
& will also Carry intelligence she
ought to be found & searched
As also her husband signed E
J Allen cut open her things
What makes a war civil? The Romans who invented the term ‘civil war’ (bellum civile) defined it as a war among fellow citizens (cives). The same Latin root element that produced the adjective describing the worst and most barbaric type of warfare also created the notions of “civility” and “civilization.”
With the outbreak of the Civil War, these last notions seemed to come crashing down. The values that Americans had long cultivated – national unity, moderation, compromise, aversion to secrecy and subterfuge, and what Abraham Lincoln called the “mystic cords of memory,” were swept away under the combined onslaught of sectional loyalties, disputes over slavery, and military necessity.
Yet some foundations held. The shared bonds of personal friendship, marriage, and family, transcended sectional divides and political interests. Officers and soldiers on both sides held the ties of manly friendship sacrosanct, and both Union and Confederate authorities felt compelled to stick to the norms of “civilized” warfare or at least aspire to it. Among these norms were the respect for the obligations imposed by marriage and family and the codes of behavior dictated by ideals of gentlemanly manliness and feminine gentility.
Thus, despite ever growing concern about smuggling and espionage, neither side attempted to close off the borders and ban traveling and communications between divided families. Regulations put in place by the beginning of 1862 by both sides allowed family members to cross the lines, provided that they obtained a pass from a provost marshal or the Secretary of War. The standards of vetting the applicants were rather loose; often they did not extend beyond having the applicant to give his or her word not to do anything untoward.
The word of a lady carried additional weight. As historian Amy Murrell Taylor (The Divided family in Civil War America, University of North Carolina Press, 2005) shows, women could count on preferential treatment. No honorable man could ignore, or decline, a plea of a dutiful wife, devoted sister, or a loving mother. Treated as “the weaker sex” and urged not to bother their pretty little heads with the filth of politics, ladies could also plead detachment from the war which was, after all, a man’s business. As one woman with admitted Confederate sympathies remarked: “I think inasmuch as ladies did not make this war, they are silly in the extreme to mix themselves up in it.” Being a lady was synonymous with integrity and trustworthiness.
A lady was entitled a respect that no gentleman, Union or Confederate, could fail to honor. Yet there was growing evidence that ladies were deeply involved in the conflict. In early 1862, the New York Tribune, fuming over the fact that “nearly every instance” of a pass granted to a lady ended up in her carrying “letters and other documents” hidden in her clothes, called for a complete ban on the passes issued to women. The Union authorities, however, never went as far as to dismantle the system. The most they could do was to issue fewer passes, even despite what Halleck lamented in 1864, as “a superabundance of female spies among us now.”
With the exception of such celebrities as Rose O’Neal Greenhow, Belle Boyd, Elizabeth Van Lew, or Pauline Cushman, the information about these female spies is hard to come by. A historian is often left with limited information offered by applications for passes, arrest records (in case a woman spy was ever caught), or an occasional mention in a diary of a private letter. For example, a letter from the Huntington’s collection of papers of New Yorker John Burrud relates of “one woman” who was “allowed to go with the army. She is a Capt. Wife on Gen. Sheridan’s staff. She acts as a spie. She is very successful in her business. She will go all through the Rebel army, and is of great service to the Union cause. This must be kept in secret of course.” (John Burrud collection, mssHM 75242 1864, Sept. 23).
The archive of the United States Military Telegraph offers a new and untapped resource for historians. To wit: the above telegram.
The message is addressed to George H. Bangs (1831-1883), a superintendent of the Pinkerton Detective Agency. The sender, “J. Allen,” was Bangs’ boss, Allan Pinkerton. Contrary to Pinkerton’s later claims, he did not head the United States Army Secret Service. Rather, much like Anson Stager, Pinkerton was an entrepreneur contracted to perform a vital service for the Army of the Potomac. In the first months of the war, his old friend George B. McClellan asked him to head his intelligence operations. Because Pinkerton’s name was so familiar, he operated under the pseudonym Major E.J. Allen.
Pinkerton turned out to be patently unqualified to conduct military intelligence. As a private detective, however, he proved very adept at exposing spies and saboteurs. It was he who exposed Rose O’Neal Greenhow as a Confederate spy, a feat that he accomplished by utilizing his surveillance skills honed working divorce cases.
“Madame Williams,” a mere paymaster’s clerk wife, is, of course, harder to place than the Washington socialite. She would have received her pass from the office of the Provost Marshal of Washington D.C., and it’s possible that her application file could still be located among the papers of the Provost Marshal at the National Archives and Records Administration (RG-110.2)
The office was then headed by Lafayette C. Baker who also presided over the National Detective Bureau, another private outfit employed by the War Department. It is possible that it was Baker who had alerted Pinkerton to the danger posed by a clerk’s wife.
“Madame Williams” indeed could do considerable damage. Paymasters, i.e. military accountants charged with distributing soldiers’ pay, reported to the office of Quartermaster General. They were not attached to particular regiments, but rather shuttled between Washington and the various army units. Since her husband’s boss, Major Bruce Cameron, was a paymaster assigned to the Army of the Potomac, “Madame Williams,” a “South Carolinian,” would have ample opportunity to gather and transmit intelligence, as she accompanied her husband on his errands.
No wonder Pinkerton raised the alarm an instructed his employee to dispense with the norms of civility due to a lady and “cut open her things,” including her “chemise and skirts.”
Two weeks later, Pinkerton, who was fiercely loyal to George B. McClellan, would leave the army, to protest his friend’s removal from command.
Thank you Decoding the Civil War Volunteer Stork for finding this gem!
Olga Tsapina, Norris Foundation Curator of American History, Huntington Library.
Olga Tsapina, Norris Foundation Curator of American Historical Manuscripts.
On 10 a.m. July 4, 1863, the United States Military Telegraph transmitted this notice:
“The President announces to the country that news from the Army of the Potomac, up to 10 p.m. of the 3rd. is such as to cover that Army with the highest honor, to promise a great success to the cause of the Union, and to claim the condolence of all for the many gallant fallen. And that for this, he especially desires that on this day, He whose will, not ours, should ever be done, be everywhere remembered and reverenced with profoundest gratitude. ABRAHAM LINCOLN.”
This was the President’s press-release of the victory at Gettysburg. Two hours later, Ulysses S. Grant accepted the surrender of the Confederate army at Vicksburg, Miss. The double victory of Gettysburg and Vicksburg, made July 4, 1863, in the words of historian James McPherson, “the most memorable Independence Day in American history since the first one four score and seven years earlier.”
Yet, apart from the traditional celebrations on the White House grounds, there were few signs of jubilation elsewhere in the Capital. The immediate reaction to the battle of Gettysburg was a mixture of relief and frustration at the failure to capture Lee’s army. It would take three days for the news of the fall of Vicksburg to reach Washington.
The work of the United States Military Telegraph proceeded at a frantic pace, as a team of operators were busy receiving, sending, and routing messages. On 6 p.m., for example, one operator entered a message in his ledger (EC 6), reporting the progress (or rather lack of thereof), General William F. Smith’s unsuccessful pursuit of Lee’s army.
6 P.M. Harrisburg Pa. July 4, 1863
For SecWar Genl Smith on his
march met a flag of truce
two miles from Mt. Holly on
the Bendersville road with two thousand
prisoners which he recd & sent
the escort back trusting that the
exaggerated idea which they had of
his numbers would have a good
effect he delayed his march for
for two hours as his route was
thus discovered he says with
references to news “nothing unfavorable”
Signed L. Thomas Adjut Genl
Sent to Fredk & Baltimore 7 P.M.
At the same time, another operator, his own ledger (EC 8) on his desk, was receiving this message from Dana Couch to General Meade:
6 PM Harrisburg Penna July 4,1863
for Genl Meade Genl Smith’s
advance in the mountain
passes beyond Mount Holly
met two thousand paroled
prisoners from your army
under Escort period Smith
being discovered recd the
prisoners I will send
them to Camp at
West Chester Signed D. N. Couch
Not sent to Meade. One from Thomas gives same information.
Thirty minutes later, Thomas T. Eckert transmitted this cipher from the Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton (Arabia) to William H. Ludlow, the Union commissioner for exchange.
Sheldon Ft Mon. Wash DC July 4, 1863
Rosetta Venus Lud-low you will
if it has not already been
done forward to Adorn by Express
the copy of Jeff Davis’ dispatch
sent him today also my telegram
of this Evening and until you
receive the Adam’s instruction hold no
communication with Mr Stephens or Mr
Ould nor permit either of them
to come within our lines period
Our Victory is complete Lee in
full retreat Arabia Bully
The blotted out “Bully,” (meaning “Well done!”), at the end of the message is one of the few signs of celebration at the War Department.
Yet the telegram showed that the victory at Gettysburg had already born results. Alexander H. Stephens, the vice-president of the Confederate States of America and Robert Ould, chief agent for prisoner exchange of the Confederate Army, were envoys of the President of the Confederate States of America. Jefferson Davis dispatched the two on July 2, in anticipation of Lee’s successful invasion of Pennsylvania. Lee’s victory was expected to force Lincoln’s hand not only in the negotiations over cartel of the prisoner exchange — suspended in retaliation for the harsh treatment of African American prisoners of war — but in recognizing the independence of the Confederate States of America.
Stephens acted as the bearer of the official communication addressed to Lincoln and intended to start international diplomatic negotiations “which public law recognizes as necessary and proper between hostile forces.” The communication was filled with complaints about “numerous difficulties” in “the execution of the cartel of exchange,” for which Davis, unsurprisingly, squarely blamed the Union side. More ominously, Davis accused Lincoln of war crimes: some of “your officers” asserted “a right to treat as spies” and execute prisoners of war, i.e., “the military officers and enlisted men under my command who may penetrate into States recognized by us as our allies.” Davis referred to the execution of William Orton Williams, a staff officer in Braxton Bragg’s command, and a cousin-in-law of Robert E. Lee, and his adjutant, Walter G. Peters. Captured by in Tennessee, while impersonating Union officers, Williams and Peters were hanged on June 9 on the order of William S. Rosecrans.
Rosecrans had acted in accordance with the Instructions for the Government of Armies of the United States in the Field, a.k.a. Lieber Code, the first United States Army field manual, (and a foundation of the Hague Conventions of 1899 and 1907 as well as the 1949 Geneva Conventions). The Code distinguished between a prisoner of war, “a public enemy armed or attached to the hostile army for active aid, who has fallen into the hands of the captor, either fighting or wounded, on the field or in the hospital, by individual surrender or by capitulation” (Section III, Article 49), and a spy defined as “a person who secretly, in disguise or under false pretense, seeks information with the intention of communicating it to the enemy.” (Section IV, Article 88). While a prisoner of war was “subject to no punishment,” nor any acts of “the intentional infliction of any suffering, or disgrace, by cruel imprisonment, want of food, by mutilation, death, or any other barbarity,” a spy was “punishable with death by hanging by the neck, whether or not he succeed in obtaining the information or in conveying it to the enemy.” The execution of Williams and Peters was, in fact, the lead item in the July 4, 1863 issue of the Harpers’ Weekly:
Stephens’ mission hinged on the success of Lee’s invasion of Pennsylvania. But when Stephens and Ould arrived to Fort Monroe in the afternoon of July 4, they were greeted by the news of the Union victory at Gettysburg. When Stanton found out about their arrival, the Secretary of War “swore and growled indignantly.” He then fired off the above telegram, instructing Ludlow to forward Davis’ message to John A. Dix (Adorn) and refrain from any communication with the envoys until he received Lincoln’s instructions.
Lincoln’s instructions were telegraphed a couple of hours later. The President of the United States refused to meet with Stephens. Stating that all questions having to do with prisoner exchange were to be resolved through “Military channels,” he added that “nothing else, will be received by the President, when offered, as in this case, in terms assuming the independence of the so-called Confederate States.” (Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln, vol. 6, p. 315)
On July 7, after the news of the fall of Vicksburg reached Washington, a procession with bands of music marched to the Executive Mansion. The crowd cheered as the President marveled at the double victory in Pennsylvania and Mississippi marking the “birthday of the United States of America. It was no accident that “the cohorts of those who opposed the declaration that all men are created equal” should “turn tail and run” on the very same day when, “eighty odd years” ago “for the first time in the history of the world a nation by its representatives, assembled and declared as a self-evident truth that ‘all men are created equal.'” Lincoln then added as an afterthought: “Gentlemen, this is a glorious theme, and the occasion for a speech, but I am not prepared to make one worthy of the occasion.” He finally delivered that speech on the Gettysburg battlefield on November 19, 1863.
No 47 P.
J. H. Bunnell (1) Washn. Mar 31st 1864 5 P.M
Grapes, Laugh, Plug, March, Lucy, For, Knapsack Embrace
or Bridle Unity I would Quince the Welch
as far to the Ripley of Chart as
possible Zebra It is a good plan to
Pine all the Saints you can when Rapturing
is expected and make all other Territory Tartar
to hold defensible for the smallest possible number
of Whiskey yoke John Lieut Shelter Now Jesse
As with many ciphered telegrams, this message, found in ledger EC 19, looks mostly like gibberish. This was the end product of a complex and sophisticated system of word substitution encoding originally developed by Anson Stager. Words that described sensitive data — names, time indicators, numbers, military terms, places, etc. were replaced by replacement words or arbitraries. The text was broken into squares formed by columns and lines and then scrambled during the transmission. The keys listed not only the arbitraries but also the commencing words and line indicators specifying the number of columns and lines and routing instructions listing the order of the transmission that scrambled the sentences. Thus encoded, the text assumes the appearance of an assemblage of random words, impossible to make sense of, let alone decipher.
This telegram, luckily, can be relatively easily deciphered, as we happened to have a copy of the key to this particular code. This would be the ledger EC 44, titled Cipher for Telegraphic Correspondence; arranged expressly for Military Operations, and for important Government despatches and known as Cipher No. 1. It contains codes for commencing words, line indicators, routing instructions, and arbitraries as developed in 1862 but implemented in February 1864.
For example, as seen on this page, “John” was one of the codes used for Ulysses S. Grant, and “Knapsack” was reserved for William T. Sherman. The entire telegram reads:
J. H. Bunnell (1) Washn. Mar 31st 1864 5 P.M
Washington, 30, 1, March, 5 p.m, For, W. T. Sherman Nashville
or Chattanooga Period I would destroy the railroads
as far to the east of Knoxville as
possible Period It is a good plan to
concentrate all the forces you can when fighting
is expected and make all other Territory necessary
to hold defensible for the smallest possible number
of troops signed U.S. Grant Lieut General Now Jesse
The message is part of a rather anxious back-and-forth between Grant, just two weeks into his tenure as the commander of the Armies of the United States, and Sherman, just appointed the commander of the Division of the Mississippi. The exchange was prompted by Forrest’s raids in the Union occupied Western Tennessee. Grant, who was passing through Washington on his way to Fortress Monroe scribbled this telegram and handed it to a USMT operator. Grant’s original note, now held by the United States Military Academy and published in the Papers of Ulysses S. Grant, reads:
“I would destroy the rail road as far to the East of Knoxville as possible. It is a good plan to make the country to be held to concentrate all the forces you can wher fighting is expected and make all other territory necessary to hold defensible for the smallest possible number of troops. ”
The telegram appears in OR (Ser. 1, vol. 32, part 3, p. 213), but only as part of another telegram from Sherman’s aide-de-camp Lewis Mulford Dayton sent to John Schofield; in this case Grant’s “territory” has been replaced with “preparations.”
But what are the words and numbers that swarm around the message? The telegram was directed to Jesse H. Bunnell (1843-1899), the operator attached to the George H. Thomas of the Army of the Cumberland. The note “Sent from Book 5:20 P.M. Tinker” tells us that the telegram was re-transmitted twenty minutes later by Charles Almerin Tinker (1838-1917). The scribble on the bottom of the telegram appears to indicate that 75 words were charged in total. The main body of the telegram contains 63 words, including “Now Jesse” that the operator managed to squeeze in at the end of the line. Apparently he had more to say. Using the entry in the ledger, Mr. Tinker sent the same message with some additional words and an extra layer of coding intended for Bunnell’s eyes only.
The marks on the lower left side contain the commencing word (Mobile) followed by the line indicator (Horse – Deal). In the cipher key, “Mobile” indicated a nine-column transmission. However, the line indicators called for an eight-column set up, and the telegram is indeed broken into eight rather than nine columns. According to the key, the telegram was to be routed in the following order: up the 8th column, down the 5th, up the 7th, down the 1st, up the 6th, down the 3rd, up the 2nd and down the 4th.
The little numbers indicated the place of the word in the column, with additional words supplied on top and bottom of the columns. For example, the number 4 on top of the 1st column pointed towards the 4th word from the top, i.e. “possible.” The last two words which began the private message (“Now Jesse”) were not included in the count, so the 1st from the bottom in the column 8 is “number” rather than “Jesse.”
If we follow the coded instructions, the embedded message would read: “Now Jesse your number you would full when possible bad good draw and you about Bridle (Chattanooga) Grant here.” This sort of makes sense to us. It certainly made sense for Jesse.
At this point we can only speculate as to the nature of this exercise. Most likely it offered the operators, who, after all, were not supposed to use government communications for their own needs, a way to bypass the rules.
This little puzzle, (which took yours truly some two hours and elicited some highly descriptive epithets), must have been a piece cake for Bunnell. By the ripe age of nineteen, he boasted a six year career with the telegraph, (yes, he became a full-fledged operator at 13), and a speed record which he set in 1860, transmitting President Buchanan’s last message to Congress (14,040 words) in two hours.
Studies of the USMT personnel is one of the new and exciting directions in the Civil War studies offered by the Decoding the Civil War project. I’m certain that historians will find out what Mr. Bunnell and Mr. Tinker were up to in March 1864. Until then, we can simply stand in awe of the ingenuity and the skill involved in this multiple-layered coding and decoding.
Olga Tsapina, Norris Foundation Curator of American History. The Huntington Library.