Last week we highlighted a Gettysburg Campaign related letter found by our research intern Nick Welsh in the Pennsylvania State Archives. The letter, while intriguing, was completely unreadable as a result of the 151 year old cipher in which it was encoded. Wishing to solve this Gettysburg mystery, we turned the challenge of figuring out its contents over to the readers of this blog. A number of you responded with thoughts and suggestions, though we are most indebted to the expert sleuthing of Ranger and Law Enforcement Officer Maria Brady. Ranger Brady rose to the challenge and has humbly submitted the work below, proving that even old mysteries can be solved.
I love mysteries, puzzles, codes and ciphers. When I saw the blog post about the enciphered message Nicholas Welsh found, I was hooked. I had to find out what the message said, and I decided that knowing who the sender and receiver were would be a good starting point.
I began by entering G. W. Baldwin from Baltimore, MD into Ancestry.com, but that provided very little information. So I moved on to O. W. Sees in Pennsylvania and was rewarded with Oliver W. Sees, born about 1836, living in Harrisburg, PA in the 1860 United States Census. Occupation – telegraph operator. That sounded like a good match. Further online investigation brought me to a transcribed entry from the Historical Review of Dauphin County, provided by the Dauphin County Genealogy Transcription Project for Major Oliver Washington Sees, born October 27, 1835 in Philadelphia, PA. Sees began working as a messenger in Harrisburg’s first magnetic telegraph office at the age of 12, and over the course of time became a proficient telegraph operator himself. So good was he at his job, that on December 23, 1861, PA Governor Andrew Curtin appointed him Chief of Telegraph for the state, with the rank of major. He was later named Chief of Transportation in addition to his telegraph duties. During the Gettysburg Campaign, Sees was appointed to the staff of Major General Darius Couch, in command of the Department of the Susquehanna, and stationed in Harrisburg, PA.
My research then led me to telegraphy in the Civil War, specifically the United States Military Telegraph Corps. While the name implies that this was a military operation, it was not. Civilian operators were assigned to armies and general staffs, but reported directly to the War Department, functioning outside the immediate authority of the military officers to whom they were assigned. The USMT strung telegraph lines and manned telegraph keys for the Union Army, with the main telegraph office located in the War Department. Numerous articles about the USMT referenced a book published in 1882 by W. R. Plum, a former telegrapher with the USMT, entitled The Military Telegraph During the Civil War in the United States, With an Exposition of Ancient and Modern Means of Communication, and of the Federal and Confederate Cipher Systems, of which I purchased a copy. In it, Plum mentions G. W. Baldwin, assigned in June of 1863 to General Schenck’s headquarters in Baltimore, MD. Baldwin had been involved with the USMT since at least June of 1861, and would serve until the end of the war, ending as one of the four primary cipher operators in the War Department office.
At this point in the war, the USMT was sending messages using the Stager Cipher, developed by Anson Stager, Department Head of the USMT. Stager began his career as an apprentice printer, but when his employer switched from printing to telegraphy, Stager did as well, becoming the first General Superintendent of the consolidated Western Union Company in 1856. Once the Civil War broke out in 1861, Stager was requested by Ohio Governor William Dennison to devise a cipher that would protect telegraphic communications between Dennison and the Governors of Illinois and Indiana. Word of the cipher reached General George McClellan, who asked Stager to devise something similar for military communications. By December of 1861, Stager had been appointed general manager of military telegraph lines by the War Department, and one year later was named the Superintendent of all telegraph lines and offices.
The Cipher itself is based on writing the message in a matrix of varying sizes, and then assigning a route through the matrix that would comprise the transmitted message. Simple, right?
I thought I was ready to tackle the message itself. I wrote each word on a numbered index card so I could keep track of the routes I was using. Having found a number of routes on the Internet, and having the complete Cipher #9 as an appendix in Plum’s book, I thought it would be relatively easy. It was not.Not so fast. In addition to the route through the matrix, the messages also contained “key” words, which designated which Cipher was to be used for that message; “null” words, which were extraneous words thrown into the message to confuse anyone trying to decipher it; and “code” words or “arbitraries”, which were substituted for terms, people, and places deemed too sensitive to transmit in the clear. Over the course of the Civil War, ten different cipher groups were created, each one more complex than the last.
The next day I spoke with Nicholas about the message and found that he had a number of deciphered messages from the same record group at the State Archives. He provided me with copies of them in hopes that I could apply the “routes” from those messages to our mystery transmission. Looking at the dates, senders and recipients of the messages, one caught my eye: a message from General Meade to General Couch, dated June 30th. Upon opening and reading this message, I realized that the words sounded very familiar to me. I knew I was on to something when I saw the word “physique”. Really, how many military telegrams were floating around in 1863 using that particular word? I began comparing the solved message to the enciphered message and lo and behold, that was it.
The message is actually broken into five different ciphers, using the key words: Wise, Halleck, penny, Sibley, and guard. The code words are after, Francis, Mohawk, Ida and leghorn, which stand for General Couch, 11 AM, Washington, Baltimore, and Philadelphia. In the transcription below, the key words are marked in orange, the null words in blue, and the code words in green.
Wise thirtieth in advancing hold between three my northern well speed day trains with force me brigades Chambersburg hill enemy Emmitsburg after water Taneytown I + the Cashtown their are + is all eleven the moving my between five + P the between for coal Francis position upon a Gettysburg to right central concentrated that this the tolerably the on cavalry pass enemy Westminster am June Halleck to in in Ewell to am July physique soft of without the the front good your local push is be + as I + number the definite whereabouts latter of spirits relief Cambridge the we the presume long positive will order men + of I you + or caps shall army to street information bear roads penny movements dispositions you I likely indicate + information the flag enemy we while as to am + of so pirate as enemy information to to prudent the during circumstances first engagement + the marches + ultimate hear of + [ ] far the get anxious lead most on receive as hunger of the day may most success from the his Sibley movement Susquehanna line to I or them do if otherwise should be of as may address my the the accumulated Mohawk communication know Frank you with like thrown the circumstances make cloth advisable require central me + Ida in hand are leghorn supplies to northern may most Blake or or on spies + Telegraph you guard Eckert Meade am enemy my the communications to house period the with Cavalry right from very major boats to G I the on by my dispatch B please general him of can crossing respectfully Gen’l apple sent George river keep enemy interrupted chief my miles communicate in are the you the signed have fifty.
Translated, this becomes (punctuation added for ease of reading):
Taneytown, June thirtieth, 11 AM, for General Couch. I am in position between Emmitsburg and Westminster advancing upon the enemy. The enemy hold (A P Hill) Cashtown pass between Gettysburg and Chambersburg. Their cavalry, three to five brigades, are on my right between me and the Northern Central. My force is tolerably well concentrated moving with all the speed that the trains, roads, and physique of the men will bear. I am without definite and positive information as to the whereabouts of Long Street and Ewell, the latter I presume to be in front of you. The army is in good spirits and we shall push to your relief or the engagement of the enemy as circumstances and the information we receive during the day and while on the marches may indicate as most prudent and most likely to lead to ultimate success. I am anxious to hear from you and get information of the disposition of the enemy and his movements so far as you know them. If you are in telegraph communication or otherwise with Philadelphia, Baltimore, and Washington, I should like supplies and spies accumulated to be thrown to me on the line of the Northern Central of the Susquehanna as circumstances may require or my movement may make most advisable period. Please communicate my dispatch to the General in Chief. My communications with him are interrupted by the cavalry of the enemy on my right. Can you keep the enemy from crossing the river? I am, very respectfully, signed George G. Meade, Major General. Have sent to Eckert.
Eckert was Major Thomas Eckert, in charge of the War Department telegraph office.
My problems with solving the cipher stemmed from three areas. First, I had mis-transcribed about half a dozen words, two of which were key words, leaving me unsure as to where to split the message into its component parts. Second, the key words and code words in Cipher # 9 did not match up exactly with this particular message. Wise, for example, should have started a six column, nine row matrix, but actually started a 6×10 matrix. Third, I missed out on valuable clues on the handwritten copy of the message. The null words were all marked with an “x”, and the key words with a kind of loop. I was having too much fun playing with my index cards.
Cipher #9 was issued in January 1863, and used through February 1864, so it was possible that this message was using Cipher #9, but the number of differences is too great. While “Francis” does denote 11 AM, the remaining code words found in the message have very different meanings. For example, Ida would have been Abingdon, leghorn would have been Helena, and Mohawk would have been Newburn. As mentioned above, the key words are found in #9, but they do not denote the same matrices as #9. I do not have access to Ciphers #10 and #12, which would also have been in use at this time, so I cannot determine exactly which codebook was used.
Given enough time, I’m sure I could have cracked it on my own.
No, really, I could have.
- Maria Brady, Park Ranger