Tag Archive | codedmessages

Hunting for Mosby

april 28 - mssEC_19_334 - hunting for mosby - code 4.jpg

Hd Qrs M M Divn
RR McCaine Winchester  Apl 28th 1865
Plug Richard Harriet David for Consent Regent Parsons
can trifle of course now that Booth pimple
caught dog The Panther wishes you to try
and hunt up Elder If more money is
needed it canby had upward C H Morgan

Decoded, using cipher 4
Hd Qrs M M Divn
RR McCaine Winchester  Apl 28th 1865
Head Quarters Middle Military Division 11 AM 28th for A.T.A. Torbert Major Governor
can return of course now that Booth has been
caught ; The general wishes you to try
and hunt up Mosby If more money is
needed it can be had signature C H Morgan

Whoever was encoding the messages for General Morgan appears to have gotten a little carried away. I can understand obscuring “Mosby”, but did “has been” really need to be replaced by its arbitrary, “pimple”? And the operator made an error by using the arbitrary for Governor, Parson, instead of the second arbitrary for General, Paradise, which is the line above in the cipher. Perhaps it was like a child who has received a new toy, and wants to use it at any opportunity?

Whatever the case may be, with John Wilkes Booth dead and most of his associates in custody, the Union army continued the business of wrapping up the war. Here we have General Morgan, who was Chief of Staff to General Hancock at this point, altering the short term goal of General Torbert’s command from capturing Booth to capturing Confederate Colonel John Mosby. It is perhaps unsurprising that Mosby, the “Gray Ghost”, evaded his pursuers for another month and a half before turning himself in.


I’m Not Sure of His Name, But He’s in Trouble

mssEC_15_037 - colonels behavior is quite disgraceful.jpg

Feb 16 62 1130 AM
Humboldt Col Amgangils conduct is very
disgraceful Remove him at once from
his command I will advise Secy
of War to drop him from
the rolls Release the young boys
on their parole send prisoners to
Camp Chase notifying Comdg officer Has
Muhlenberg started if not hold him
until I can communicate with Anthon

As far as I can tell, Amgangil is not a real name, but it’s also not one that I have come across in working with coded messages or ledgers. This appears to be in an early cipher, 6 or 7?, access to which we do not have. Equally frustrating is that this message doesn’t appear to be in the OR. A great challenge, as several of our volunteers have pointed out, in transcribing messages in cipher is that they lack the logical context that we rely on as readers. Whoever he was, Colonel Amgangil caught the attention (and ire) of his superiors, and seems to have been headed for a world of hurt.


Send it in Super Extra Secret Code

mssEC_10_112 - extra special encoding - red_mtn.jpg

7 P.M.  N.Y. Apl 19. 1864
street, signed, J. R. Giddings, 430 PM
likely stop at sixty five wall
for New York tomorrow and will most
in this city and will leave
of the rebel secret service is
Secy of State Washn Thos E Courtney Capt
Mon-tre-al April 19th

Zooniverse volunteer red_mtn has hit the jackpot lately in finding interesting telegrams! In this particular instance, red_mtn pointed out that the message, which seems like gibberish at first, actually makes sense when read from the bottom up! Rearranging the text, we get

7 P.M.  N.Y. Apl 19. 1864
Mon-tre-al April 19th
Secy of State Washn Thos E Courtney Capt
of the rebel secret service is
in this city and will leave
for New York tomorrow and will most
likely stop at sixty five wall
street, signed, J. R. Giddings, 430 PM

The reason for this strange subterfuge may be that Joshua Reed Giddings, serving as U.S. Consul General in Canada, did not have any of the codebooks that were distributed to the Military Telegraph operators, and had to devise something on his own. Here he is passing on information about the movements of Thomas Courtenay, a Captain in charge of the recently formed Confederate Secret Service. A little over a month later, Giddings died while playing billiards in Montreal.

Foiling a Great Escape

mssEC_18_278 - getting ready to escape.jpg

John Horner, New York. [insertion](1)[/insertion] Washington D.C. Jan 20. ’65 [insertion]11. A.M.[/insertion]
Kasson unity I am informed that the iron
bars or grating protecting the window in cell
number plug are sawed or filed off at
top and bottom a few inches from the
mason work so that one man can easily
remove them The sent ry has been bribed
and gift prisoners now in the cell are
waiting a favorable opportunity to escape zodiac Please
have it attended to at once walrus Insanity

The 16 prisoners in cell number 1 are about to make a break for it! This telegram from Charles Dana to General Dix warns the general of an impending escape attempt using cipher number 1 (as indicated by the “(1)” at the top of the page). This is another situation where it would be great to know whether anything came of this intelligence or not. In the second phase of Decoding the Civil War we will ask volunteers to identify information such as sender, recipient, date, location, etc., which will make it much easier for us to search across the separate ledgers to find related messages.

Coded Nonsense

mssEC_17_284 - the bethune desires that you cropped.jpg

The Bethune desires that you
will prepare to tablet Whack Tappan and
at all hazards make a Pigeon raid
to break the Saginaw at or near
Kiss and at such other places as
may be practicable period

Project member Daniel Stowell recently pointed out to me the amusing and nonsensical statements that often result from text being encoded. It makes sense, of course, since a word substitution code is supposed to confound readers who don’t have the codebook, but sometimes the messages end up sounding like 19th century Mad Libs. We’ll be posting some of these over on Twitter, so be sure to follow along. And if you come across any #19thcentmadlibs while you’re transcribing telegrams, please share them!

Daniel Stowell is Director and Editor of the Papers of Abraham Lincoln at the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum.

Anatomy of a Telegram

The heart of Decoding the Civil War is the 15,971 telegrams in the Thomas T. Eckert Papers at the Huntington Library. These telegrams were written in 35 large ledgers, and range from short-a single sentence-to very long-5 or more pages. Typically a message is six or eight lines long, written in five to eight columns. The columns were necessary for the encoding and decoding of the message which required scrambling the message by routing up and down columns. In addition there needed to be an equal number of words per line.

Below is a typical example:


Most telegrams contain the time received, date, and origin of the telegram at the top of the message. In the yellow box is a message that was actually transmitted via the telegraph. The recipient, in this case General Meade, is usually named at the beginning of the message in the first line, and the sender, D.N. Couch, at the end. The time the message was sent is also in the first line, following the recipient; 9:30 am in this case. Note that if a telegram is in code the time comes before the recipient, as well as the location where the message was written.  There are “null” words after the sender’s signature, “the End”, in this instance, as each line needed to have the same number of words. This example also includes two addenda, “give a Copy of this to SecWar” and “Sent to Fredk & Balto 1:30 PM”. An addendum is less common, and usually contains instructions to send the telegram on to some other party or to make a copy–in this case both.

Some of the messages are in code. If we are lucky, the code number is written above the message, but in most cases we are not so fortunate. In some cases the name of the operator is attached at the bottom of the telegram; many have “Sheldon” some “Eckert”. In other cases there will be “Maj. Eckert” or “Col. Stager” at the top of the messages. This may have meant that a copy was to be kept by these men, or that the message was to be routed to them. The message below is an example of a coded text:

mssEC_04_206 - cropped.jpg

The message translates, using Cipher Book 9, into the following plain text, with the arbitraries replaced in green:

Ft. Monroe July 1st [1863]

Maj. Eckert

W H July first 8 A.M. to H.W. Halleck I have sent General Getty today with a cavalry artillery and infantry force to Hanover County with the hope of destroying the railroad bridge of the Salisbury and Fredericksburg Railroad over the South Anna and of capture the troops by which it is guarded Major Major General E. D. Keyes makes a demonstration at Bottoms bridge also today Jno. A. Dix not much use


19 Chg WD

At first glance the recipient appears to be Maj. Eckert and the sender Sheldon. The message, however, is actually to General Halleck from General Dix. The telegrapher was Sheldon, who was stationed at Fort Monroe; Maj Eckert was on the receiving end in Washington, D.C. There is one more thing to note with this telegram. The place the message was telegraphed from is Ft. Monroe. The place the message originated from is in the first line, “W H”. This is White House, Virginia north of Ft. Monroe up the Pamunkey River.

Telegrams in the Eckert collection will vary in length, number of columns used, whether they are in plain text or in code, and whether they have addenda or not. In this project we want all the text transcribed, and the all the correct parts, sender, recipient, location, etc., identified (that’s coming in the second phase of DCW!). The key is to recognize the different parts that are present.

Telegram Tails

As Daniel Stowell discussed in his post on routing, it was sometimes necessary to add null words to the end of messages to ensure that every line was the same length. The person who composed the message didn’t care how long the telegram was, so it was up to the telegraph operators to fill in the blank space. When confronted with a message like this:

for Adam the ninth Walpole
corps are under orders to
join you the first Raleigh
are embarked ready to start
signed Borgia Lucy

the operator had to add two words to round out the line. In this situation the operator chose the mundane option:

for Adam the ninth Walpole
corps are under orders to
join you the first Raleigh
are embarked ready to start
signed Borgia Lucy good evening

There are plenty of examples of niceties being passed over the wires, but there are also some delightful insights into the personalities of the operators. I call these little discoveries Telegram Tails, and will be sharing them regularly on Instagram and Twitter using the hashtag #telegramtails. If you find any good examples, be sure to post them on a talk board or put them on social media!