A Civil War Dispatch Redeciphered

When General Grant and General Lee were confronting around Petersburg towards the climax of the Civil War, Union forces under E.R.S. Canby was moving to take Mobile, Alabama. In the meantime, another party succeeded in taking Selma, Alabama, on 2 April 1865. Telegraph and cipher operator Henry F. Lines prepared a report in cipher. It was carefully sewed in the lapel of a citizen's coat and a soldier was sent to Canby with it (Plum vol.2 p.287-289).

This report is enciphered with Cipher No. 1, one version of Federal route transposition ciphers, whereby the ordering of words is disarranged according to a specified route in a matrix (see another article).

With the cipher book, it is straightforward to decipher this (and see that the plaintext printed in Plum drops about some words after the word "continuous" through to its next occurrence).

The message, too long to fit in a single matrix, is enciphered in three divisions. (Predictably, the cipher operator chose the largest matrix for the beginning of the message.)

First Division

The first three words "run, parade, note" specifies the size of the matrix and the route. Specifically, "run" indicates 10 columns and "parade" and "note", both meaning 10 lines, indicate 10+10=20 lines.

The page of "ten columns" in the cipher book prescribes the following route.

ROUTE: -- Down the 6th; down the 10th; up the 1st; down the 8th; up the 2d; down the 4th; up the 7th; down the 3d; up the 5th; down the 9th.

The recipient thus prepares a 20-by-10 matrix and writes the words in the ciphertext in the cells of the matrix according to the route, remembering that one word should be discarded after completing every line.

harshfieldsmokys,peach waldoprisonersbesidesoverpeachpurple
toponypurplespitzebraTheconductofmy Whiskey
particularlythat oflongsquincy,whichmade oats,wasmagnificent.

After filling in the matrix, the words are picked up line by line from top to bottom but code words and phonetic (and otherwise irregular) spelling still need to be translated.

snake (Headquarters) pacific (Cavalry) pelham (Corps). gilead (Selma), penny (4), Emily (10 a.m.) for leghorn (Major General E.R.S. Canby) Europe (Mobile) zodiac (.) shelter (General) Pekin (,) my Pelton (corps) took this place by as salt (-sault) late on evening torch (of the) plank (2=second) semi colon (;) we have piloted (captured) harsh (twenty) field smokys (guns), peach (two) waldo (thousand) prisoners besides over peach (two) purple (thousand) in horse spittle (hospital), and large quantity of milly tary stores of all kinds unity (.) the arse nells (-nals) and found dries with their masheen (machin-) nary (-nery) are in my possession intact. I shall burn them wharf (to-day), with every thing else useful to rose (enemy) I have already questioned (destroyed) the iron works torrent (north) of here paddle (eight) or feeble (ten) in all and very extensive unity (.) Halifax (Forrest), Dick Tailor (Taylor), a damns (dams), arm strong and harmony (Roddy) succeeded in getting out sligo (in the) darkness & confusion rambling (following) assault, by wading the swamp ripley (east) torch (of the) city unity (.) The placis (place is) strongly sabled (fortified) with plank (two) continuous lines of parry pet (parapet) and read doubts (redoubts), the outer plug (1=one) withy (with a) continuous stock -aid (-ade) on the glacis extending from windpipe (river) above to windsor (river) below city. They were quivered (defended) by penny (four) pelicans (brigades) of panama (cavalry) and all the plunge (first=1) and second class millyshee (militia) of this sexshun (section), from plague (six) to pony (nine) purple (thousand) spit (men) zebra (.) The conduct of my Whiskey (troops) particularly that of longs quincy (division), which made oats (attack), was magnificent.

The plaintext is as follows. (The underlined portion is omitted by Plum (or the deciphering operator), who had to supply "-s" in "stockades" because of the omission.)

Headquarters Cavalry Corps.
Selma, 4 [April 1865], 10 a.m.
For Major General E.R.S. Canby, Mobile.
General, my corps took this place by assault late on [the] evening of the 2nd; we have captured twenty field guns, two thousand prisoners besides over two thousand in hospital, and large quantity of military stores of all kinds. The arsenals and foundries with their machinery are in my possession intact. I shall burn them to-day, with everything else useful to [the] enemy. I have already destroyed the iron works north of here, eight or ten in all, and very extensive. Forrest, Dick Taylor, Adamstrong and Roddy succeeded in getting out in the darkness and confusion following [the] assault, by wading the swamp east of the city. The place is strongly fortified with two continuous lines of parapet and redoubts, the outer one with a continuous stockade on the glacis extending from river above to river below [the] city. They were defended by four brigades of cavalry and all the first and second class militia of this section, from six to nine thousand men. The conduct of my troops, particularly that of Long's division, which made [the] attack, was magnificent.

Second Division

The above is followed by "McClellan" (8 columns) and "shot wood" (4+9=13 lines).


1) Transcription uncertain.

The following annotates the code words and irregular spelling.

shelby(General) long was wilkes(wounded) slightly stephen(in the) head paradise(Colonel) dobb(Dobbs) penny(Four[th]) abner(Ohio) superb(killed); pandoras(Colonels) miller mac cormick & Biggs wilkes(wounded) zodiac(.) Tis(It's) my desire and intention to hold the place as long as possible. I shall not relinquish my hold upon it except to secure other advantages if I can keep hospital(Forrest) wicoff(west) torch(of the) K haw bay(Cahawba) till I have constructed patent(bridge) tower(over the) ash(Alabama)2), I will tan(move)3) against him or Egypt(Montgomery), as circumstances may determine opera wales(rations) wicoff(west) ward rather than whacks(towards)4) emblem(Montgomery) willin(will, in) my estimation assist you most please hurry forward your shannons(gunboats) and whimpers(transports) withy(with the) utmost rape ditty(rapidity) pekin(.) take possession of this

3) The codebook has "ashland" instead of "ash".

3) The codebook has "tanner" for "movement" but not "tan."

4) Plum (or the deciphering clerk) decodes this as "forward" and his reading around this "I will move against him or Montgomery, as circumstances may determine operations westward rather than forward. Montgomery will, in my estimation, assist you most." seems incorrect (correction underlined below.)

The plaintext of the second division is as follows.

General Long was wounded slightly in the head; Colonel Dobbs, Four[th] Ohio, killed; Colonels Miller McCormick and Biggs, wounded. It's my desire and intention to hold the place as long as possible. I shall not relinquish my hold upon it except to secure other advantages. If I can keep Forrest west of the Cahawba till I have constructed bridge over the Alabama, I will move against him or Montgomery, as circumstances may determine. Operations westward rather than towards Montgomery will, in my estimation, assist you most. Please hurry forward your gunboats and transports with the utmost rapidity. Take possession of this...

Third Division

The above is followed by "Astor" (5 columns), "resign mule" (4+8=12 lines).


The following gives the meaning of code words etc.

place and allow me to finny (fini-) shup (-sh up) hospitals (Forrest's) pacific (cavalry). uptons (Upton) is now after him with plank (2=Second) quincy's (Division) zebra (.) this wilby (will be) handed you by serg^t (Sergeant) bailey pension (4=Fourth) alpha (Michigan) pacific (Cavalry), a brave and dashing sold your (-ier) pause (.)5) please order him a hand some re moony (-mune-) spit (-ration)6), and return him to me peru (as soon as) posse (possi-) bull (ble). youth (Signature) Jay (J) aich (H) will (Wil-) soon (-son) Brevet tappan (Maj.) shelby (Gen'l)

5) Not found in the codebook but may have been understood by operators.

6) While the transcription "spit" may not be quite certain, the code word for "ration(s)" should be "Wales".

The plaintext is as follows.

... place, and allow me to finish up Forrest's cavalry. Upton is now after him with Second Division. This will be handed you by Sergeant Bailey, 4th Michigan Cavalry, a brave and dashing soldier. Please order him a handsome remuneration, and return him to me as soon as possible.
(Signature) J.H. Wilson, Brevet Maj. Gen'l


William R. Plum, The Military Telegraph During the Civil War in the United States, vol.1 (1882) (Google), vol.2 (Internet Archive)

See another article for details on the Union ciphers.

©2015 S.Tomokiyo
First posted on 3 November 2015. Last modified on 3 November 2015.
Articles on Historical Cryptography
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