Alternate history is fun. It is very satisfying to imagine what would have happened if Alexander the Great had not died young, or Napoleon had succeeded in cobbling together a world empire. It is no wonder that alternative history has evolved into a rich genre that allows its practitioners to indulge in historical fantasies or offer dire warnings.
Since the early 1900, the American Civil War has been occupying a sizeable chunk of this literary real estate, producing its own genre of Civil War alternate history (CWAH) –see Renee de Groot’s wonderful article Divided We Stand: “Confederate” and Civil War Alternate Histories.
This CWAH narrative admittedly is a bit repetitive as it tends to hinge on the Confederacy winning the war. This “what-if-ism” occasionally takes somewhat amusing forms: in his Man of War: My Adventures in the World of Historical Reenactment (Penguin, 2013), journalist Charlie Schroeder recounts his stint at the two-day annual reenactment the Brooksville Raid: on Saturday the Union troops win, but on Sunday, it is the Confederates turn, because, as one reenactor told journalist, the event’s coordinator, a Baptist minister, “wants the Confederates to win on the Lord’s day.”
CWAH traditionally entailed a rosy picture of the flourishing independent South inhabited by benevolent planters, graceful and tenderhearted females, and happy slaves. This fantasy was not the sole domain of the exponents of the “Lost Cause.” In his (exceedingly boring) novel Hallie Marshall: A True Daughter of the South (1900), Frank Purdy Williams, a progressive reformer, held up this imaginary “Southland” to contrast with the horrible labor conditions in the Gilded Age America. Ernest Howard Crosby, wrote “If the South Had Been Allowed to Go,” (1903) to speculate that if it had not been for the imperialist North, slavery would collapse in the South organically, without “the evils which we have entailed upon ourselves by the manner of its abolition.” Winston Churchill offered that if the Confederacy had triumphed, it would forge a “new fundamental relationship between master and servant” instead of the effort to “graft white democratic institutions upon the simple, docile, gifted African race belonging to a much earlier chapter in human history.”
At the turn of the last century, the picture of a Confederate victory took a darker turn. Harry Turtledove’s The Guns of the South (1992) has a supply of AK-47 delivered to the struggling Confederacy by a time-traveling group of South African racists. It became even more jarring as historians dispelled the once common assumptions that that the Union victory was preordained or that slavery would have ended on its own. CWAH embraced and rather realistic image of a United States resting on slavery and white supremacy, most vividly and chillingly portrayed by Ken Willmott’s in his mockumentary CSA: The Confederate State of America (2004) or in Ben Winters Underground Airlines (2016).
CWAH tends to think grand, largely in terms of great battles and great men. But what if we think on a less grandiose scale? For example, what if Anson Stager’s parents had decided to move South and the inventor of the USMT code had been born in Virginia rather than New York?
On one hand, he might not have even made it in telegraphy. He would not have been apprenticed to Henry O’Reilly at the Rochester Daily Advertiser, and quite possibly had no one to introduce him to telegraph business. Stager certainly would have never made it as the first general superintendent of Western Union.
On the other hand, had Stager been born in Virginia, entered telegraphy, and shown the same promise, he could have risen to the top of the American Telegraph Company which had lines in the North and South. (Western Union lines lay entirely within the Union). He could have associated with Dr. William Sylvanus Morris (1823-1893) of Lynchburg, Va., and, like him, become a Southern director for the company. Stager could have been present at the emergency meeting of the company’s executives on May 12, 1860 which split the American Telegraph Company into Southern and Northern branches. And, as a superintendent or even president of the Southern Telegraph Company, he would have taken an oath of loyalty to the Confederacy.
And, of course, it could have been the governor of Virginia John Letcher rather than Ohio’s William Dennison to ask Stager to develop the codes for the Confederate army. In the fall of 1861, Stager could have used his organizational talents to build up the Confederate Military Telegraph that would report directly to Jefferson Davis and his Secretary of War Judah P. Benjamin.
With the Confederate command in possession of superior telegraph communications and unbreakable ciphers, its chances of winning would have increased exponentially. It would certainly have minimized a possibility of Union soldiers coming across battle plans wrapped around some cigars, as it happened with Robert E. Lee’s orders to General D.H. Hill before the battle of Antietam. More importantly, it would have afforded unprecedented level of battlefield and logistical communications not to mention infinite possibilities to mess with the increasingly bitter partisan divisions in the North.
Could a simple accident of birth have changed the course of history? Is it impossible to imagine that should Stager’s life have taken a different turn, alternative historians would now be speculating what would happen if the North had won the war? Is it inconceivable that we could be now living in a world where Willmott’s CSA was an honest to goodness documentary?
Olga Tsapina, Norris Foundation Curator of American History, Huntington Library.
I’ve often felt that that the vocabulary of archival description could benefit from some content designators. When it comes to ciphered telegraphic messages, the term “bonkers,” as applied to the telegram above, seems very apt.
The USMT cipher men indeed appear to have been on a mission not dissimilar to the staff of the “Confuse-a-Cat” outfit from the Monty Python sketch.
The ciphers were constantly changed, modified, updated, and otherwise fiddled with. The first version of the cipher, developed by Anson Stager for Governor of Ohio in April 1861, was so short that it fit on the back of a business card. The last iteration to be used during the war, cipher No. 4, contained some 1500 arbitraries. The ciphers were numbered out of conventional sequence: the ciphers developed early in the war were numbered 6 and 7, followed by the series of 12, 10, and 9, then 1 and 2, and, towards the end of the war, 3, 4, and 5. These series did not replace each other but rather were often used simultaneously. Occasionally they had to discarded. No. 6 and 7 were discontinued in August 1862, after Nathan Brooks was captured by John H. Morgan’s men, and No. 12 followed suit after Stephen L. Robinson fell to guerrillas in July 1864. The cipher No. 1 which, according to William R. Plum was used to send “more important telegrams,” had to go after James E. Pettit and John F. Ludwig were captured by Forrest’s men in September 1864.
The arbitraries were confusing enough. But there were also the blind or check words, used solely to confuse the interceptor, that could be thrown in either at the end of each column or after every sixth word; commencement words that could indicate the number of either words or lines, and key words concealing different routing techniques for the entire telegram or its parts, coded by columns, numbers assigned to each square made by the column lines, or both.
All these were in constant flux. After he met a “reformed gambler” on a train, Stager updated the routing instructions in cipher No. 12, to include a mnemonic devise revealed by that venerable gentleman. All you had to do was to memorize the formula “K 842 W 795 M 361 B,” or “The King had 842 women, 795 men and 361 boys” and use it to shuffle the deck to know the exact location of every card. The numbers stood for the spotted cards, with 1 designating the ace. “Boys” indicated a ten spot; “Women,” the Queen, and “Men,” for Jack. Stager appropriated the formula, replacing the king, queen, jack, and ten-spot with numbers 13,12,11, and 10, to scramble a message following the sequence 13- 8-4-2-12-7-9-5-11-3-6-1-10. Ciphers No. 9 and 10, adopted for the use of the Western Departments, relied on a further elaborated version of this technique, with each word numbered and counted from the top or of the bottom of a column, with X standing for a check word.
What we see in the “bonkers” message is the process of finalizing a new cipher. The message itself was of no particular importance. As seen from this publication in OR, it merely informed Assistant Quartermaster Captain H.C. Hodges to take charge of Sherman’s supplies.
Stager, Stafford G. Lynch, and other cipher men used this message as a guinea pig for testing various routing instructions being developed for a new cipher. What they were working on was Cipher No. 4, the last cipher to be used during the war. Its predecessor, known as No. 3, was devised by Samuel H. Beckwith in winter of 1864 and included a new set of arbitraries which, among other things, addressed the problem of a “stuck” sounder by avoiding certain letters. (A stuck sounder often resulted in making dashes instead of dots and which, on one memorable occasion turned “pacific” into “fairfye.”) Beckwith’s cipher was unveiled on December 25, 1864 but, for some reason, saw little use.
The top message, first addressed to Stafford G. Lynch, was instead sent to Stager, with the instructions to return it “by train of or in Some confidential manner.” Two different ciphers of the same message were also sent to John Horner in New York.
The result of this work was sent to the operators at Grant’s, Sherman’s, and Thomas’s commands on March 23, 1865. The final product, known as Cipher No. 4, numbered some 1608 arbitraries; the key proper comprised 12 pages, each differing in the words used and the route employed. Significantly, the book contained no directions for the use of the cipher; if captured, it was of little use to the anyone who was not a USMT cipher man, including, I am afraid, archivists.
There is one additional takeaway from the story of the “bonkers” message: the fact a message appears in OR certainly does not diminish its historical value.
Olga Tsapina, Norris Foundation Curator of American History. The Huntington Library.
Man all Stations!
530 Nov 7
Cleveland Nov 7
Stevens will be on hand
and if feasible Ward via Parkersburg
If weather is fair shall do as
well or better tomorrow night
for you than at State Elections
Horner will furnish NY State
returns Brooks will give Penna
I will send all west of NY
The evening before the Election of 1864 Stager wires Eckert to let him know which telegraphers are in place to forward election results to him. This was all part of Eckert’s efforts to have all the results and news sent to him speedily and efficiently. As noted earlier, in the message between Sanford and Eckert, it was important to get these pieces in place. It is interesting that Stager appears to be hand picking certain operators for the task. Were these Lincoln men, or were they simply fast and competent? Those answers are for others to ferret out. However, it is clear that by dawn of November 8, 1864, Eckert, along with Stager and Sanford, had all hands on deck. The tension of that contentious election season was about to snap and all were at their stations ready to relay the news: Lincoln or McClellan.
“Folks Considered Him Blockhead”
Stager Cincinnati Sept 19 ’62
Our friend has not changed his
base but Keeps on the even
tenor of his way. tell me
distinctly what proportion of rebel army
McClellan is fighting or is it
the whole of main body everybody
here is McClellan man nor is
Wright much of man no confidence
felt in him how he assembled
all troops in whole Northwest to
fight Enemy whose strength he took
no steps to find out &
of whom from first to last
has Knew less about than anybody
else did folks considered him blockhead
The accumulative nature of this collection allows us to see some events from various points of view. Most of the telegrams from Cincinnati around this date are sent by General Wright himself (like yesterday’s), but this message comes from a far more obscure individual. Thanks to the memo book of operators and their locations (which is available in the Huntington Digital Library), we are able to identify “Davenport” as Charles Davenport, a superintendent for Western Union, and know that he was in possession of codebook 9. It’s messages like this one, which does not seem to be in the The War of the Rebellion (previously the primary source of Union Civil War telegrams), that offer us insight into the lives and opinions of everyday people.
Harpers Ferry Surrenders
9 PM Col Stager Frederick Sept 16th 1862
Jackson in person was in command
at Harpers Ferry Genl A P
Hill remained to conclude terms of
surrender Jackson left there in the
morning going up the Valley troops
were crossing the Potomac all last
night and going towards Winchester with
out stopping supposed about forty thousand
of all arms crossed during the
night passed their Pickets at Knoxville
McClellan’s promise of rescue from the 14th came to nothing, and Colonel Miles’ troops surrendered to the combined forces of Major Generals Stonewall Jackson and A.P. Hill (though Miles himself may already have been dead by the time this telegram was sent). Jackson was on his way to Antietam, and the estimation that he was bringing 40,000 troops probably only fed McClellan’s belief that his side was outnumbered.
Secrets on the Wire: Anson Stager, Ciphers, and the U.S. Telegraph Office
By Olga Tsapina, Norris Foundation Curator of American Historical Manuscripts at the Huntington Library, Art Collections, and Botanical Gardens
Anson Stager was born on April 20, 1825, in Ontario County, N.Y.; as a teenager he joined the telegraph business which was growing rapidly in the middle of the nineteenth century. He became one of the most important people in telegraphy, and he created the most widely used, and the most successful, secret code employed during the Civil War.
As a teenager, Stager was apprenticed to Henry O’Reilly, the publisher of the Rochester Daily Advertiser and the local postmaster. O’Reilly became involved in telegraph construction, and in the course of doing so he hired Stager, a self-taught telegrapher, to operate the lines for one of his companies. Stager was appointed to the stations in Lancaster, Harrisburg, and Pittsburgh. In 1848, he was promoted to chief operator of the Cincinnati office of the Pittsburgh, Cincinnati & Louisville Telegraph Company. Stager proved to have a fortuitous combination of skills and interests, and combined his telegraph operating abilities with an interest in electrical engineering. He was known for his technical improvements, most notably a method of operating multiple telegraph lines from a single battery.
In 1852, Stager was appointed general superintendent of a company that would be reorganized as the Western Union Telegraph Company in 1854. In this position, Stager developed a system coordinating the building of the telegraphic lines with railroads. As railroads adopted his system, Stager acquired the exclusive rights-of-way for his company. It was largely due to his efforts that Western Union had grown into one of the largest American companies on the eve of the Civil War.
In the first days of the Civil War, Governor of Ohio William Dennison, wishing to secure Ohio’s border with Virginia, invited Stager to devise a cipher system for telegraphic communication between regional managers. George B. McClellan – whose organizational abilities and popularity brought a much-needed morale boost to the Union cause – was appointed to command the Department of the Ohio, which was responsible for the defense of Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Western Virginia, and later the western part of Pennsylvania. McClellan invited Stager to become his superintendent of the military telegraph operations for the entire War Department; he also adopted Stager’s code for all telegraphic communications. Suddenly, Stager found himself with full authority over all telegraph lines in the region, including those belonging to his competitors.
By late 1861, Stager had reorganized the military telegraph office, and his plan was recommended by Thomas Alexander Scott, the Assistant Secretary of War, to President Lincoln, who agreed. Stager’s plan envisioned an expressly civilian company operated by business managers and reporting directly to the Secretary of War. However, the Office of the Quartermaster would release supplies only to commissioned officers. If the company remained a civilian enterprise, its managers would be personally responsible for all government funds advanced to it, a potential liability. Stager and his managers received officers’ commissions; their subordinates were civilian employees.
On November 11, 1861, Stager was commissioned as a Captain and appointed Assistant Quartermaster. On November 25, special orders assigned him “to duty as general manager of the Government telegraph lines,” with Thomas T. Eckert as his assistant. Under Simon Cameron’ tenure as Secretary of War, Stager’s outfit was known as the Telegraphic Bureau. In February 1862, Congress authorized President Lincoln to take possession of any or all telegraph lines in the country and place them under military control. The administration did no such thing, instead expanding the power of the civilian managers.
On February 26, 1862, the new Secretary of War, Edwin M. Stanton, reorganized the agency as the United States Military Telegraph; Stager became the Superintendent in charge of lines and offices. He was given full authority over the construction of military lines,
purchase of material, and appointment and removal of officers and operators. No Army officer, even a general in the field, could interfere in any way with operation of a telegraph post without Stager’s approval.
The United States Military Telegraph was dissolved in February 1866, and Stager returned to Western Union, which had grown into a virtual monopolist in telegraphic communications. With his wartime credentials, Stager promptly moved up the ranks, becoming the company’s vice-president in 1878, but after Jay Gould took over Western Union in 1881, tendered his resignation. Stager was one of the founders of Western Electric Company and served as its president until 1884. In 1882, he became president of Western Edison Electric Company, a position that he held until his death on March 26, 1885.
Wash’n Jan’y 27th /63
Enter the name of Joseph
Hooker cipher the bottom word
on page ten of no
nine to Borgia and berry
are the arbitrary words given
Sometimes changes to codebooks required entirely new printings, but occasionally the cipher clerks would only need to add a single entry. In the case of General Joseph Hooker, this late addition may have occurred because he was not commissioned immediately at the start of the war, and only rose to prominence during the Peninsula Campaign of 1862.
How Much to Sink the Merrimack?
W. B. Dinsmore N.Y. March 14th
Send this to C Vanderbilt
market strictly Confidential. The Secretary
of War directs me to
ask you for what sum
you will contract to destroy
the Merrimac or prevent her
from coming out from Norfolk
you to sink or destroy
her is she gets out
answer by telegh as there
is no time to be
lost John Tucker Asst Secy
The CSS Virginia (again referred to as the Merrimac) is perhaps one of the most famous ships of the Civil War, and the panic that it caused the Union is evident in this telegram sent to Cornelius Vanderbilt, asking how much it would cost to sink or disable it. This came barely a week after the Battle of Hampton Roads (see yesterday’s post), when the Merrimac fought the USS Monitor to a stalemate. Vanderbilt responded the same day that he could not estimate the cost, but that he would come to Washington to confer. As it turned out, he donated his steamer, the Vanderbilt, to the Union Navy, who used it to bolster the blockade at Hampton Roads.
Keeping Secrets, Part 2: Route Ciphers
By Daniel Stowell, Director and Editor of the Papers of Abraham Lincoln at the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum.
Maintaining the secrecy of high-level political and military communications during the American Civil War was a necessity for both the Union and the Confederacy. In the previous post, we learned that the Union had the advantage of a simple but ingenious system developed by Anson Stager, the civilian superintendent of the Western Union Company in Ohio. Early in the war, Stager developed a cipher system for use by the governor of Ohio and Union generals in the area. When he became the head of the United States Military Telegraph in October 1861, Stager brought his cipher system with him and used it throughout the Union high command.
Stager’s system depended on absolute secrecy, and not even top civilian or military officials were allowed to see the cipher codes. The cipher Stager developed relied on two key principles. First, a cipher telegrapher replaced key nouns and verbs for persons, places, and military terms with arbitraries, or code words, known only to his counterpart at the other end of the telegraph line. Although this technique was effective, so long as the cipher remained absolutely secret, over time, dedicated Confederate agents who intercepted such messages might be able to guess at the true meaning of many or most arbitraries.
However, Stager’s system had another key component. It was also a sophisticated “route cipher.” At its simplest, a route cipher simply reorders the words in a message from their ordinary reading order. For example, a backwards route would simply reverse the order of all words in the message, and the recipient could read the message from the end to the beginning to understand it. The system employed by the Union during the American Civil War was substantially more complicated.
The key to decoding a route cipher is to place the words in the proper number of rows and columns, similar to a modern-day spreadsheet. The key unit in Stager’s system was the word, not the letter. So, a cipher telegrapher would take a message and write it out in a series of rows and columns. If the message did not end on the last column of the last row, he would add additional “null words” to fill out the grid. These null words could be nonsense or they could even send a short message to his counterpart on the other end of the line, such as “Nab those Rebs” and “Rained nicely tonight.”
After the message was arranged in a grid, the cipher telegrapher chose a route through the grid to reorder the words. For example, if the message was 10 columns wide by 11 rows long, then the cipher telegrapher could use the commencement word “Morton” (among others) to indicate that the message had 10 columns and the commencement words “Next” or “News” to indicate that it had 11 rows (2 rows + 9 rows). The receiving cipher telegrapher consulted his cipher 1 code book and knew that the incoming message of 110 words should be arranged in 10 columns and 11 rows. Then, he placed the words in their proper order by reading the route indicated in cipher 1: down the sixth column, down the tenth column, up the first column, down the eighth column, up the second column, down the fourth column, up the seventh column, down the third column, up the fifth column, and down the ninth column.
Reading the words in this manner placed them in their proper order, but the receiving cipher telegrapher still needed to replace the arbitraries in the message with their clear counterparts, either words or punctuation. The telegrapher also stripped out the commencement words and the null words to leave only the words of the message.
The scrambling of words through the route cipher method made Stager’s system far more difficult to decipher than using arbitraries alone. In fact, the Confederates never broke any of the Union ciphers, and the ability for political and military leaders to communicate important information securely was important to the overall success of the Union war effort.
Fortunately for researchers, none of the telegrams in the Thomas T. Eckert Papers are scrambled in the route in which they were originally sent. Even those with arbitraries for words and punctuation are in their proper order, making decoding them a much simpler task than Confederate agents faced in the 1860s.