Civil War message opened, decoded: No help coming

Discussion in '1800-1914' started by syscom3, Dec 25, 2010.

  1. syscom3

    syscom3 Pacific Historian

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    From todays Yahoo news

    Civil War message opened, decoded: No help coming - Yahoo! News

    By STEVE SZKOTAK, Associated Press Steve Szkotak, Associated Press – 1 hr 1 min ago

    RICHMOND, Va. – A glass vial stopped with a cork during the Civil War has been opened, revealing a coded message to the desperate Confederate commander in Vicksburg on the day the Mississippi city fell to Union forces 147 years ago.

    The dispatch offered no hope to doomed Lt. Gen. John C. Pemberton: Reinforcements are not on the way.

    The encrypted, 6-line message was dated July 4, 1863, the date of Pemberton's surrender to Union forces led by Ulysses S. Grant, ending the Siege of Vicksburg in what historians say was a turning point midway into the Civil War.

    The message is from a Confederate commander on the west side of the Mississippi River across from Pemberton.

    "He's saying, 'I can't help you. I have no troops, I have no supplies, I have no way to get over there,' " Museum of the Confederacy collections manager Catherine M. Wright said of the author of the dispiriting message. "It was just another punctuation mark to just how desperate and dire everything was."

    The bottle, less than 2 inches in length, had sat undisturbed at the museum since 1896. It was a gift from Capt. William A. Smith, of King George County, who served during the Vicksburg siege.

    It was Wright who decided to investigate the contents of the strange little bottle containing a tightly wrapped note, a .38-caliber bullet and a white thread.

    "Just sort of a curiosity thing," said Wright. "This notion of, do we have any idea what his message says?"

    The answer was no.

    Wright asked a local art conservator, Scott Nolley, to examine the clear vial before she attempted to open it. He looked at the bottle under an electron microscope and discovered that salt had bonded the cork tightly to the bottle's mouth. He put the bottle on a hotplate to expand the glass, used a scalpel to loosen the cork, then gently plucked it out with tweezers.

    The sewing thread was looped around the 6 1/2-by-2 1/2-inch paper, which was folded to fit into the bottle. The rolled message was removed and taken to a paper conservator, who successfully unfurled the message.

    But the coded message, which appears to be a random collection of letters, did not reveal itself immediately.

    Eager to learn the meaning of the code, Wright took the message home for the weekend to decipher. She had no success.

    A retired CIA code breaker, David Gaddy, was contacted, and he cracked the code in several weeks.

    A Navy cryptologist independently confirmed Gaddy's interpretation. Cmdr. John B. Hunter, an information warfare officer, said he deciphered the code over two weeks while on deployment aboard an aircraft carrier in the Pacific. A computer could have unscrambled the words in a fraction of the time.

    "To me, it was not that difficult," he said. "I had fun with this and it took me longer than I should have."

    The code is called the "Vigenere cipher," a centuries-old encryption in which letters of the alphabet are shifted a set number of places so an "a" would become a "d" — essentially, creating words with different letter combinations.

    The code was widely used by Southern forces during the Civil War, according to Civil War Times Illustrated.

    The source of the message was likely Maj. Gen. John G. Walker, of the Texas Division, who had under his command William Smith, the donor of the bottle.

    The full text of the message to Pemberton reads:

    "Gen'l Pemberton:

    You can expect no help from this side of the river. Let Gen'l Johnston know, if possible, when you can attack the same point on the enemy's lines. Inform me also and I will endeavor to make a diversion. I have sent some caps (explosive devices). I subjoin a despatch from General Johnston."

    The last line, Wright said, seems to suggest a separate delivery to Pemberton would be the code to break the message.

    "The date of this message clearly indicates that this person has no idea that the city is about to be surrendered," she said.

    The Johnston mention in the dispatch is Gen. Joseph E. Johnston, whose 32,000 troops were encamped south of Vicksburg and prevented from assisting Pemberton by Grant's 35,000 Union troops. Pemberton had held out hope that Johnston would eventually come to his aid.

    The message was dispatched during an especially terrible time in Vicksburg. Grant was unsuccessful in defeating Pemberton's troops on two occasions, so the Union commander instead decided to encircle the city and block the flow of supplies or support.

    Many in the city resorted to eating cats, dogs and leather. Soup was made from wallpaper paste.

    After a six-week siege, Pemberton relented. Vicksburg, so scarred by the experience, refused to celebrate July 4 for the next 80 years.

    So what about the bullet in the bottom of the bottle?

    Wright suspects the messenger was instructed to toss the bottle into the river if Union troops intercepted his passage. The weight of the bullet would have carried the corked bottle to the bottom, she said.

    For Pemberton, the bottle is symbolic of his lost cause: the bad news never made it to him.

    The Confederate messenger probably arrived to the river's edge and saw a U.S. flag flying over the city.

    "He figured out what was going on and said, 'Well, this is pointless,' and turned back," Wright said.
     

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  2. comiso90

    comiso90 Active Member

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    I almost posted this too. I didnt know Vicksburg didnt celebrate the 4th of July fo 80 yrs
     
  3. Aaron Brooks Wolters

    Aaron Brooks Wolters Well-Known Member

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    Very interesting Syscom. Thank you for posting.
     
  4. syscom3

    syscom3 Pacific Historian

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    Sore losers!

    :lol:
     
  5. davparlr

    davparlr Well-Known Member

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    thoughtless and uncompassionate comment
     
  6. syscom3

    syscom3 Pacific Historian

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    Lighten up.

    :lol:
     
  7. vikingBerserker

    vikingBerserker Well-Known Member

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    That's pretty fascinating.
     
  8. davparlr

    davparlr Well-Known Member

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    Nothing in that event earned any laughter by anyone. Women and children were starving to death in caves. Sieges, be it Vicksburg, Stalingrad, Leningrad, or Moscow, were brutal on the inhabitants and leave a devastating impact on those who are caught, especially civilians. To me, finding reactions to a siege funny is strange.
     
  9. Gnomey

    Gnomey World Travelling Doctor
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    Interesting find, thanks for sharing!
     
  10. RabidAlien

    RabidAlien Active Member

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    Excellent find, thanks for posting!
     
  11. parsifal

    parsifal Well-Known Member

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    I agree the comment was perhaps not so well thought out. But wars are terrible, and should not be entered into lightly. If people understood that, there would be less of them I think.

    The South (and the North) entered the war with a sense of carnival in the air. They enthusiastically chose war over common sense. Vicksburg was one of the fruits of that naivete
     
  12. syscom3

    syscom3 Pacific Historian

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    The people of Vicksburg were rebels and supported the secession of their state. In most countries, once they surrendered, they would have been executed or had their city burned. But nothing of the sort happened.

    Then they refuse to celebrate the 4th of July for a several decades because they were still "angry" about it. Well boo hooo hooo. Cry some tears for me. Considering what could have happened to them, and didn't is testament to the benevolent policies of the Union.
     
  13. davparlr

    davparlr Well-Known Member

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    War is terrible and inhumane. The Germans started a war and committed terrible things and reaped the whirlwind, but laughing at the plight of the burned civilians of Dresden, and the horrible plight of the citizens of Vicksburg, is tactless. How do the residence of Hiroshima feel today about the Americans dropping the atomic bomb. I feel it saved many millions but I would not make a joke about their resentment, their experience was horrible.
     
  14. DerAdlerIstGelandet

    DerAdlerIstGelandet Der Crew Chief
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    Agreed as well. It is not as black and white as syscom makes it out to be, nor is it funny in any way what so ever. But then again most of us are mature adults...
     
  15. Messy1

    Messy1 Well-Known Member

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    Great story! Thanks for posting it, very interesting.
     
  16. syscom3

    syscom3 Pacific Historian

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    Vicksburg was given multiple offers to surrender. They didn't, therefore they paid the consequences.

    Simple as that.
     
  17. Messy1

    Messy1 Well-Known Member

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    I would have made a terrible curator. I would have opened that bottle up the first time I came in contact with it, not decades later.
     
  18. parsifal

    parsifal Well-Known Member

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    Sys, and Dav

    I can actually see and agre with both sides of this debate. The South were willing participants in secession, and the race to war, and proved to be dogged in their battles, of which Vicksburg was one of those battles.

    But I also see the horror that the battle carried with it. Americans were fighting Americans, but this seemed to get lost in the battle. I dont understand why, in the context of the Civil war, it was necessary to retain the civilans in the battle. Why couldnt they be allowed to pass? The war was fought in a different age to WWII, when armies were meant to fight armies, bot civilans particulalry since those civilans were of the the same country as the Union, I see the confederacy as states that strayed from the course, but were still Americans. They should have been trated as such, in my view....instead this battle seemed to have been fought with a great deal of prejudice....

    I hope this observation, as an outsider, is of not too great offence....
     
  19. timshatz

    timshatz Active Member

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    Odd that such a simple code took the codebreaker that long to decipher. Not a particularly hard one to figure out, the letters repeat in pattern just like they do in regular words (the "e" being the most common).

    Figure a crypto guy would crack it in about 5 minutes.
     
  20. renrich

    renrich Active Member

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    The War Between the States was a tragedy. Particularly for the South. Unfortunately, as in all wars the history books pretty much reflect the views of the winner. The North emerged victorious, with banners flying and in spite of the more than 350000 deaths of their young men, their economy was booming and actually energised by the war. Their cities were intact, their factories and railroads were undamaged and their way of life remained pretty much the same except they were even more industrialised.

    On the other hand, the South was in shambles and prostrate. Around 25% of their draft age men were dead. The American South are the only Americans who have ever lost a war. They were occupied militarily and the men who fought for the South were disenfranchised. At the same time that ( to use the modern term) African Americans were not only allowed to vote in Texas but were rounded up and "voted" by Northern politicians and soldiers, African Americans were denied the vote in New York. When Texas elected new congressmen and sent them to Washington, they were rejected and sent back and people selected by the Military government were sent in their stead. It is not really understood by most Americans but the Southern economy did not really recover until the Second World War.

    Like most Americans, I was taught (even in Texas public schools and even in college in Texas) that the CW was fought to eliminate slavery, Lincoln was a great man, (probably our greatest president) and the South pretty much deserved what they got, for attacking Fort Sumter and trying to secede from our glorious Union. I accepted all that as the gospel but as I have gotten older and become a little better read I have had some rather serious questions pop into my head.

    Firstly the seeds of conflict which ignited the CW came over beginning in the 1600s on the ships primarily from England. There were serious differences of attitude and opinions between the people who inhabited and settled the North and South. The Scotch Irish who were the most numerous of all the various immigrant groups before the American Revolution and the last to arrive from 1700-1775 and who primarily settled in the South did not like or get along with the English and some historians make a convincing argument that Revolution against Britain would not have taken place without the Scotch Irish ( I know it should be the Scots Irish but usage has made Scotch Irish OK) many of these SI immigrants came over as indentured slaves.

    Secondly, the most populous and powerful states in the South, including Virginia, Tennessee and North Carolina had not seceded when Lincoln called up 75000 militia which included the militia of Virginia. If he had not ordered the resupply of Sumter and called up those militiamen, it is possible that some peaceful solution may have been found. The issue of freedom for the slaves did not come front and center until Lincoln proclaimed emancipation after Sharpsburg(Antietam) in late 1862. That was a political move to alienate the sympathies of France and Great Britain from the South. Lincoln's aim, plain and simple was to coerce the South back into the Union with brute force.

    Lastly (at last:)) I believe that any kind of slavery is an an abomination and should be banished forever from the Earth. The worst event that ever took place in American history was when that first boatload of slaves were unloaded in the harbor at Newport Rd Island. I am glad that the Union came back together(although I wish in a little bit different form.) I do wish that Texas had stayed a Republic with it's old borders and not ever joined the Union. What makes me wonder though is why when the British subjects in the New World decided to revolt from Great Britain, all my history books say that The American Revolution was a great and wonderful thing but when the South said that they did not like the way things were going and decided to secede from the US, it was good that Lincoln said we are going to bring you back in dead or alive. Where does it say in the Constitution that the Federal government has the right to bring fire and sword on a state that voluntarily joined the Union and now wants to quit.

    Please don't tell me it is impracticable to have a union of states that can quit anytime they want to because I realise that is true. The CW was tragic and perhaps with cooler heads and judgment on both sides could have been avoided. However it is probably good that the Union was preserved. However, when someone says that those Southerners who suffered and fought and died deserved what they got because they were rebels and traitors, I say, "Shame on you!"
     
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