Tag Archive | officialrecord

Laughing Matter

mssEC_18_167_Aug. 26

To McCaine
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

Decoded, reads:

To McCaine
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. Augur


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.

R.R. McCaine

Robert Rezin Redman McCaine, 1833-1873


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. mssEC_46_007_Blind words


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.”


What is up with the OR?


Since we launched Decoding the Civil War at the end of June a number of our volunteers have noted that some of these messages have been published elsewhere. In particular they point to the Official Records of the War of the Rebellion (OR), published in the 1880s and 1890s. We are aware that some of these telegrams do exist in plain text in the OR, however, we ask that our volunteers refrain from consulting the OR in their transcriptions.

Why, you may ask? Many documents in the Official Records were edited and “cleaned up” and may be different from the telegrams in Decoding the Civil War ledgers. Please remember that an important aspect of this project is recovering the original texts of the telegrams that were sent and received, so researchers can compare them to later compilations, like the OR. Additionally, we estimate that about a third, or perhaps more, of the telegrams in the ledgers never made it into the Official Records.

An example of this comparison was pointed out by the Decoding the Civil War volunteer cynlynten, who noted that the below page appeared almost the same in the OR and then added:

Interestingly, they were not transcribed entirely accurately; can’t tell if this is because the record is of a RECEIVED telegram (the fault of the telegram operator), or if it was just transcribed inaccurately from the same original we are seeing here. Wonder what effect mistakes like this have (or had)?

That is an excellent question and the whole point of the transcription, to allow researchers to find and debate those differences. The page in the ledger from the project reads:


1130 AM Baldwin Balto Martinsburg June 13 63
A scout has just received here
from Milroy left Winchester Eleven last
night reports Ewells whole corps in
and around Winchester from 15000 to
18000 strong, Jone’s and Imboden force
unknown, there also, fought yesterday with
success but quite a loss on
both sides  Milroy advises Smith to
be on guard he apprehends a raid
on Martinsburg  & Harpers ferry  Woodhull

1140 am Martinsburg June 14 63
Martinsburg June 14th 11 am to
Gen Schenck Milroy reports that he was
attacked yesterday by Gen Ewell with
from 15  to 18 thousand men
that he sustained himself notifies us
to look out for Harpers ferry
and Martinsburg  Danl Tyler Brig Genl

The same two messages also found in the OR (available through The Ohio State University, at http://ehistory.osu.edu/books/official-records) read:

“MARTINSBURG, June 14, 1863-10. 50 a. m.

“Major-General SCHENCK:

“A scout has just received here from Milroy ; left Winchester 11 last night ; reports Ewell’s cavalry corps in and around Winchester, from 15,000 to 18,000 strong. Jone’s and Imboden’s force unknown; also fought yesterday with success, but quite a loss on both sides. Milroy advises Smith to be on guard, he apprehends a raid on Martinsburg and Harper’s Ferry.


” Assistant Adjutant-general . ”

” MARTINSBURG, June 14, 1863 -11 a. m.

“Major-General SCHENCK:

” General; Milroy reports that he was attacked yesterday by General Ewell with from 15,000 to 18,000 men ; that he sustained himself. Notifies us to look out for Harper’s Ferry and Martinsburg.


” Brigadier-General . ”

These messages appeared as part of a report, possibly a court martial, and were given into evidence by General Schenck. Had they not been part of this report, there is the possibility that these messages would never have made it into the record. I leave the date discrepancy for the historians.