Now, Jesse …
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.
Surrender of Johnston
910 am 28th Raleigh Apl 26th 1865
Raleigh 730 pm 26th Maj Eckert Sherman & Johnston
had another interview today and Johnston has
surrendered on same terms Lee accepted .
I think the great bulk of the army will
start for Washn over-land in few days
I will be guided by circumstances in the
absence of any instruction from you . I
think we will hold on here some time
R. O’Brien Chf Opr
After the original terms that Sherman offered to Johnston were rejected, the two opposing generals met again, and on this day in 1865 Johnston surrendered all of the Confederate troops in North and South Carolina, Georgia, and Florida. This time the terms were approved (Sherman stuck exclusively to military matters).
Following the surrender, Sherman prepared to return to Washington with his troops. They would participate, with other Union Troops, in a Grand Review, which was held on the 23rd and 24th of May. Sherman and Johnston were friends following the war, and both served as pallbearers in U.S. Grant’s funeral in 1885. In fact, Johnston died of pneumonia in 1891, caught while serving as a pallbearer at Sherman’s funeral.
Grant Defends Sherman’s Truce
7 P.M. Raleigh N.C. Apl. 24. 1865.
Raleigh Apl 24th 9 AM . Secry of War – Sir I
reached here this mng & delivered to Gen Sherman the reply
to his negotiation with Johnston He was not
surprised but rather expected their rejection – word was
immedy sent to Johnston terminating the truce & information
that civil matters could not be entertained in any
Convention between army Comdrs – Gen Sherman has been guided in
his negotiations with Johnston Entirely by what he thought
was precedent authorized by the Prest – He had before
him the terms given by me to Lees Army
& the call of the rebel legislature of Va authorized
by Gen Weitzel , as he supposed with the sanction
of the President & myself – at the time of the agreement
Gen Sherman did not know of the withdrawal of authority for the
meeting of that legislature – the moment he learned
through the papers that authority for the meeting of the
Va legislature had been withdrawn he communicated the fact
to Johnston as having bearing on the negotiations,
In early 1865, Union General William Tecumseh Sherman had gained a great deal of momentum. He and and his army rolled north from Georgia, pressuring the South as Grant was pressuring them in Virginia. So when he met with Confederate General Joe Johnston in early April to discuss terms of surrender, he was probably feeling pretty sure of himself. A little too sure of himself, it turned out, because the deal that he hashed out with Johnston was promptly rejected, and Sherman was excoriated publicly by Secretary of War Edwin Stanton.
Sherman reacted to this public condemnation about as well as you would expect, and it is interesting to note that Grant himself carried news of the terms’ rejection to Sherman. In this telegram, Grant defends Sherman’s actions, in particular the rights that he negotiated in civil, non-military, matters. This may have kept Sherman out of hot water, but his feud with Stanton lasted for years.
Tell Us How You Really Feel, Cump
12 pm 15th Big Shanty Ga June 15 1864
Near Kenesaw June 15th 630 pm for Halleck Washn I will
have the matter of Sturgis critically examined and if he
be at fault he shall have no mercy at my
hands – I cannot but believe he had troops enough
I know I would have been willing to attempt the
same task with that force but Forrest is the very
devil and I think he has got some of our
troops under cow – I have two Officers at Memphis
that will fight all the time – A J Smith
and Mower – The latter is a young Br Genl of
fine promise & I commend him to your notice –
I will order them to make up a force &
go out & follow Forrest to the death if it
cost ten thousand lives & breaks the treasury – there
never will be peace in Tennessee till Forrest is dead
– We Killed Bishop Polk yesterday & have made good
progress today of which I will make a full report
as soon as one of my aids come from the extreme right
flank Gen Grant may rest easy that Johnston will not
trouble him if I can
help it by labor or
thought sig W T Sherman
In spite of his fierce reputation, William Tecumseh Sherman was generally on fairly cordial terms with Confederate generals – see for example his later relationship with Joe Johnston – but he had nothing but bile and invective for Nathan Bedford Forrest. Although he was prone to hyperbole, Sherman seems to have despised Forrest with a particular intensity.
This telegram was sent only a few days after Samuel Sturgis’s forces were defeated by a Confederate force that they outnumbered more than 2 to 1 in the Battle of Brice’s Crossroads. This disastrous outcome marked the end of Sturgis’s involvement in the Civil War, though Sherman must have softened towards him at least partially, for he returned to service in the Indian Wars of the late 1860s and 1870s.
Thanks to Zooniverse user SuzanneNY for bringing this message to our attention!
The Death of General McPherson
10 Pm Near Atlanta Ga
July 24. 1864
24 3 Pm for Halleck the Sudden
loss of McPherson was a heavy blow to me
– I can hardly replace him but must have
a successor – after thinking over the whole matter
I prefer that Howard be ordered to command the
Army & Dept of the Tenn – If this meets
the Prest approval notify me by telegraph when I
will put him in Command & name others to
fill the vacancies created Logan as Senior Command
the Army of the Tenn for the present – after
we have taken Atlanta I will name officers who
merit promotion, in the meantime I request that the Prest will
not give increased rank to Any officer who has
gone on leave for sickness or cause other than
wounds in battle – W.T. Sherman
General James McPherson died at the Battle of Atlanta on this day in 1864, the second highest ranking Union soldier to die in the war (John Sedgwick, the highest ranking Union fatality, had died in May of the same year). Sherman mourns the loss of an able commander but, ever the pragmatist, moves on quickly to the task of replacing him. It’s interesting to note how adamant he is about not promoting officers who aren’t in the field.