Semi-phonetic Reversal Cipher Used in Lincoln's Telegram

A simple transposition cipher was used in President Lincoln's telegram of 3 April 1865, reporting the evacuation of the last Confederate stronghold Petersburg. It is so simple that Friedman says it is "hardly worthy of a schoolboy's initial effort at preparing a secret message" (p.71) but it would indeed be a fun for schoolboys and other hobbyists in that it relies on not only letters but also pronunciation.

See another artilce for regular Federal ciphers during the Civil War.

Lincoln's Telegram (3 April 1865)

Cipher Telegram

Lincoln's cipher telegram of 3 April 1865 is as follows (Bates p.63, Plum p.35, Friedman p.71).

Headquarters Armies of the U.S., City Point,
8:30 A.M., April 3, 1865.
To Charles A. Tinker, War Dept., Washington, D.C.

A. Lincoln its in fume a in hymn to start I army treating there possible if of cut too forward pushing is he is so all Richmond aunt confide is Andy evacuated Petersburg reports Grant morning this Washington Sec'y War.
(Signed) S.H. Beckwith.

(Charles A. Tinker and Samuel H. Beckwith (Wikipedia) were cipher operators at the War Department and Grant's headquarters at City Point, respectively.)

Basically, this is a simple transposition cipher writing the words backwards. However, even if one reads from the back to the beginning, it does not make sense.

This morning Grant reports Petersburg evacuated Andy is confide aunt Richmond all so is he is pushing forward too cut of if possible there treating army I start to hymn in a fume in its.

Actually, some words have to be transformed according to their pronunciation (or re-division of spelling).

This morning Grant reports Petersburg evacuated and he is confident Richmond also is. He is pushing forward to cut off if possible the retreating army. I start to him in a few minutes.


During the last months of the Civil War, the focus of action rested on Petersburg, defended by the Confederate General Robert E. Lee. Petersburg was crucial for supply to the Confederate capital Richmond.

On 24 March, Lincoln went to Grant's headquarters at City Point responsive to Grant's invitation "for a day or two". Lincoln heard of latest development from Grant (e.g., 29 March) and relayed them to Washington (e.g., 1 April).

While Lincoln stayed longer to see the outcome of the campaign (30 March), Grant finally cut off communications of Petersburg from the outside. After the battle on 2 April, Petersburg surrendered at dawn on 3 April. The above telegram was sent at this point to inform those in Washington of the final success (Bates p.8).

Lincoln visited Grant in Petersburg on this day (The Lincoln Log). Richmond was evacuated on that evening. It was on 9 April that General Lee surrendered at Appomattox.

Why Not the Regular Cipher?

Cipher No. 4 was used during Lincoln's stay in City Point (Bates p.58). Then, why was this simple reversal used on this occasion instead of the regular cipher? Apparently, it was simply because Lincoln did not marked it "cipher", which can be seen in the facsimile (printed in Century Magazine, vol.74 (1907 May to October), p.295 (HathiTrust)). Bates' explanation that use of this simple mode was to avoid attracting attention of telegraph operators on the route from City Point to Washington might be understood in this light.

While Lincoln wrote most of his telegrams by himself (Bates p.123), presumably he marked "Cypher" when he thought enciphering appropriate, as seen in an image printed in Bates p.170. Probably, Beckwith, the cipher operator at Grant's headquarters thought some measures for secrecy was appropriate and used this simplest mode of scrambling. (Phonetic and irregular spelling are used even with regular ciphers (15 July 1863, Cipher No. 4; 19 June 1864, Cipher No. 2; 12 April 1865, Cipher No. 1, see another article) and cipher operators were accustomed to this.)

It is noted that this message is not marked as "Cipher" in Collected Works, while some others (8 March, 20 March, 21 March, 23 March) are. It is wondered whether other messages not marked "Cipher" were enciphered in a similar scheme.

Other Semi-Phonetic Reversals

This scheme was used on other similar occasions (Bates p.59).

Fredericksburg Campaign (1862)

A similar scheme had been used as early as November 1862 when the President considered visiting General Burnside. The message as transmitted was as follows according to Bates' recollection (Bates p.61).

Washington, D.C., November 25, 1862.
Burnside, Falmouth, Virginia: Can Inn Ale me withe 2 oar our Ann pas Ann me flesh ends N. V. Corn Inn out with U cud Inn heaven day nest We roe Moore Tom darkey hat Greek Why Hawk of Abbott Inn B chewed I if.

Reading backwards and restoring phonetic spelling (and remembering that "flesh" is a synonym for "meat"), the following plaintext should be obtained.

If I should be in boat off Aquia Creek at dark to-morrow (Wednesday) evening, could you, without inconvenience, meet me and pass an hour or two with me? A. Lincoln
(OR vol.21, p.797)

This time, use of this simple scheme was resorted to because Burnside's cipher operator was temporarily absent from his post (Bates p.59).

Burnside had just taken over command of the Army of the Potomac from McClellan, whom Lincoln considered was not aggressive enough. Burnside planned to pass Robert E. Lee's Confederate army south of the Rappahannoch River and strike the Confederate capital Richmond further south. However, seeing the slow movement of the Union army, Lee concentrated his army toward Fredericksburg, a town on the Rappahannock. (Wikipedia).

The above telegram, proposing a meeting on a boat in Aquia Creek (map at Wikipedia), a tributary of the Potomac north of Fredericksburg, was sent at this timing. Lincoln did have a meeting with the general (Lincoln Log).

Whatever exchanges were made on this occasion, the Battle of Fredericksburg on 11-15 December 1862 ended in a disaster for the Union army.

Similar Scheme

Another cipher using pronunciation is described by Thicknesse, A treatise on the art of decyphering (1772), whereby a sequence of French words when pronounced by an Englishman sound like an English sentence. The scheme is used in a short story by Lilian dela Torre, "The Stolen Christmas Box."


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

David Homer Bates, Lincoln in the Telegraph Office: Recollections of the United States Military Telegraph Corps during the Civil War (1907) (Internet Archive) (The facsimile of Lincoln's plaintext draft is printed in Century Magazine, vol.74 (1907 May to October), p.295 (HathiTrust))

W.F. Friedman, "History of Cryptology" (pdf)

The Papers of Ulysses S. Grant, Volume 10: January 1-May 31, 1864 (PUSG) (Mississippi State University Libraries, Google)

The Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln, vol.8, the 3 April telegram

Abraham Lincoln Papers, Reply to the 3 April telegram

The Lincoln Log

©2015 S.Tomokiyo
First posted on 13 October 2015. Last modified on 14 December 2015.
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