Decoding the Invasion: A Gettysburg Mystery

Over the years Gettysburg National Military Park has had the great fortune to work and partner with a number of local colleges and universities. Chief among these is Pennsylvania State University. The staff and faculty at Penn State have graciously assisted us with a multitude of projects and events over the years, and have also sponsored an annual public history internship at the park. The Penn State / Gettysburg interns have been responsible for some fantastic interpretation conducted on the battlefield and many have gone on to permanent jobs in the National Park Service and at leading academic  and public history institutions.

This year, in addition to our interpretive intern, Penn State has graciously provided us with a researcher. Nicholas Welsh, a class of 2015 history major, has done some tremendous work traveling to archives and repositories all over the east coast gathering Gettysburg related documents for our park research files. His journey has taken him to the National Archives in Washington D.C., the Pennsylvania State Archives in Harrisburg, the Army Heritage and Education Center in Carlisle, PA, and a number of other fine institutions. Nick has developed a fantastic working knowledge of Gettysburg historiography and has been able to identify a number of previously unpublished and unutilized Gettysburg documents, which will now be made available to park staff and park researchers. While it is difficult to say anything that is fresh or new relating to Gettysburg, perhaps these documents will play a role in shaping how we think about the events of June and July, 1863.


Nicholas Welsh, Penn State Research Intern for Gettysburg National Military Park

Over the summer Nick has discovered what so many who have undertaken the study of the Gettysburg Campaign already know: Armies on campaign produce massive amounts of paperwork. Much of this has been preserved for posterity, though little of it dramatically changes the way we think about the battle or the campaign. This veritable ocean of paperwork encompasses everything from mundane orders and requisitions, to crucial telegraphs, reports, and circulars that have become ingrained in the legend of the Gettysburg story. Nick has uncovered a little of everything this summer, from dispatches sent by Col. Sharpe of the Bureau of Military Information, to a report of an escaped slave who overheard Lt. Gen. A. P. Hill say to his staff on June 2nd, 1863 that, “they were going to throw dust in the eyes of the Yankees .”

That being said, perhaps the single most interesting document Nick has uncovered comes to us from the Pennsylvania State Archives in Harrisburg. It is a dispatch from what appears to be a “G. W. Baldwin” written to an “O. W. Sees.” The date on the document is July 2nd, 1863 and it was apparently written from Baltimore, Maryland and clearly deals with the military situation then existing in Pennsylvania. Those are the only concrete facts that can be gleaned from the document, everything else is speculation.

When Mr. Baldwin penned his letter he encoded it, with the intention no doubt of keeping its contents a secret that only Mr. Sees, with his key, would be able to decipher. In this effort Mr. Baldwin was more successful than he could ever have imagined. Not only were the possible Confederate spies or sympathizers stymied by the seeming nonsense of the document, so too are historians a century and a half later.

While other such documents in the collection of the Pennsylvania State Archives have been decoded, the contents of the July 2nd Baldwin letter have not.  It is an easy enough letter to transcribe and there is no complex system or collection of numbers, symbols, and dots. The words are generally clear and legible, but placed in such a sequence that they lose all meaning and context. Take for example the first paragraph:

“Wise thirtieth in advancing held between three my northern well speed day trains with force [?] brigades Chambersburg hill enemy Emmitsburg [?]  water Taneytown I + the Cashtown there are + is all eleven the morning…”

Lacking a background in sleuthing or cryptology, we turn this Gettysburg mystery over to you. If any of you have the skill, patience, or ability to help us decode this century and a half old Gettysburg mystery, let us know. You will certainly have our thanks. The letter, in its entirety, appears below.

Christopher Gwinn, Acting Supervisory Historian


Cipher 1


Cipher 2

(Image courtesy of PA State Archives)



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3 Responses to Decoding the Invasion: A Gettysburg Mystery

  1. Al Mackey says:

    Usually only certain words are part of the actual message. It could be every third word, every fourth word, etc. Sometimes there was a template that was placed over the letter which revealed only the words of the actual message, which didn’t correspond to any pattern. What has to be done is try to figure out which words make up the actual message, which is a pretty difficult task.

  2. Clara Schlegel says:

    From the research that I have done, I have come to the conclusion that this is a “route cipher”. With this cipher, “null” words were used within the message to make the message more confusing because they made no sense.
    The “key” was usually a word in the message that “told” the recipient how to decipher the message……how many columns and how many lines to use. Null words were cast into the last column and disregarded.
    I agree with AL Mackey about the use of every third, fourth word, etc. I could be wrong but, this appears to me to be the method used in this message.

  3. greg bayne says:

    Hi. This is all very intriguing. Is there a transcription of the letter? I would love to challenge my Round Table to solve it but I would need a typed version.

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