Confederate Ciphers (Other Than Vigenere) during the Civil War

It is well-known that the Confederates used a polyalphabetic (Vigenere) cipher during the Civil War (see another article). The present article describes other codes and ciphers used by the Confederates.

Table of Contents:

Beauregard's Simple Substitution Cipher Etc.

Navy Dictionary Code

Bulloch's Cipher, Sinclair's Keyed Rotating Grille, and Morris' Letter Cipher

Dictionary Code of the Army and the Government

Secretary of War Seddon's Penchant for Caesar Cipher

Simple Polyalphabetic Cipher (Alternating Caesar Cipher)

Hieroglyphic Cipher for Confederate Conspirators (1863)

A Private Cipher (1863)


Beauregard's Simple Substitution Cipher Etc.

A.S. Johnston's Cipher and Beauregard's Cipher

As of 18 March 1862, there were at least A.S. Johnston's cipher and Beauregard's cipher.

A.S. Johnston to Bragg, Decatur, ALA, 18 March 1862
Do you know my cipher or General Beauregard's? Use either in important communications.
(OR, vol.10, p.339)

At least, Beauregard's was a very simple one as seen below.

Beauregard's Cipher Despatch Exposed in Newspaper

Beauregard's cipher was so simple that one dispatch of Beauregard in cipher was read by the Federals on the day it was captured. The cipher was simply "putting the last half of the alphabet first, that is, substituting M for A, N for B, O for C, etc." (Brown p.212) (which seems to be what is known as "rot13" today).

The despatch was dated 9 April 1862 (right after the Battle of Shiloh, in which A.S. Johnston and Beauregard launched a surprise attack on Grant's Union army but Johnston was killed and Beauregard was forced to withdraw the next day, thus failing to block the Union advance into northern Mississippi (Wikipedia)), in which Beauregard appealed to S. Cooper (Wikipedia) at Richmond, Adjutant General of the Confederate Army and a close friend of President Jefferson Davis, to reinforce his army in order to counter the Federals under Buell to defend the Mississippi Valley.

The report of its interception is as follows (OR, vol.10, Part II, p.618, 108).

O.M. Mitchel commanding Third Division to Buell, Huntsville, [14] April 1862
We captured to-day the inclosed dispatch in cipher from General Beauregard. The cipher has proved as little effectual in holding back the Third Division of your army as the destruction of bridges. We have deciphered the cipher and we read as follows: ....

Although the Federals broke Beauregard's cipher, they did not have the wisdom to conceal the fact. The merit of breaking the enemy cipher would be nullified if the enemy knew the fact and changed the scheme (possibly to a more complex one). The deciphered telegram was advertised in the New York Herald of 21 April (ibid. p.440). (This may have been scooped by the newspaper rather than unwisely made public. Bates p.108 mention another instance of "premature publication in the newspapers of important military ovements" in February 1862.)

Nashville, Tenn.,
April 15, 1862.
The latest information from the South is of the utmost importance. Beauregard's army has been terribly demoralized, and, according to his own confession, he has now only 35,000 men. The following telegram has been intercepted by General Mitchel, and is a full confession of the hopelessness of the rebel cause in the West. I append it verbatim, leaving you to comment on its importance:

Corinth, April 9, 1862.
General S. Cooper, Richmond, Va.:
All present probabilities are that whenever the enemy move on this position he will do so with an overwhelming force of not less than 85,000 men. We can now muster only about 35,000 effectives. Van Dorn may possibly join us in a few days with about 15,000 more. Can we not be re-enforced from Pemberton's army? If defeated here, we lose the Mississippi Valley and probably our cause; whereas we could even afford to lose for a while Charleston and Savannah for the purpose of defeating Buell's army, which would not only insure us the valley of the Mississippi but our independence.
G.T. Beauregard.

The article was reprinted in the Examiner, one of the leading Confederate newspapers (Encyclopedia Virginia). Cooper noticed it and, since he had sent the only copy to Robert E. Lee, then a military adviser to President Jefferson Davis, asked Lee to alert Beauregard (OR, vol.10, Part II, p.439-440). While Lee was still suspecting that the Federals had captured a plaintext version, he alerted Beauregard anyway.

R.E. Lee to Beauregard, Richmond, 25 April 1862
My attention has been called to an article published in the New York Herald of the 21st instant, which contains a copy of your telegraphic dispatch of the 9th instant to General Cooper, and which it is stated was intercepted at Huntsville. As the telegram received here was in cipher, I have deemed the matter of sufficient importance to bring it to your notice. It may be necessary to change your cipher or adopt a new one altogether. The only explanation which suggests itself to my mind is the probability that you might have sent two dispatches, one by Huntsville and one by Mobile -- the first being in plain English.

Later References to Beauregard's Cipher

Beauregard distributed his cipher (hopefully revised ones) even after this incident.

F.W. Pickens to Beauregard, Columbia, 5 November 1862
I received yours also as to a cipher to telegraph in, and it may become necessary.
(OR, vol.14, p.667)
Beauregard to W.H.C.Whiting, Charleston, 14 December 1862
I send one of my volunteer aides, Col. A.G.Rice, with a telegraphic cipher for use between us in cases of importance.
(ibid., p.714)
Beauregard to W.H.C. Whiting, Charleston, 4 January 1863
When necessary use my cipher with Smith and myself.
(ibid., p.742)
Beauregard to W.H.C. Whiting (at Wilmington, NC) and Gustavus W. Smith (at Goldsborough, NC), Charleston, 7 January 1863
I cannot read telegram. I send by mail a new copy of cipher.
(OR, vol.18, p.825)
W.H.C.Whiting to D.H.Hill (at Goldsborough), Wilmington, NC, 25 April 1863
As to telegraph, use the cipher for important words. I have both the War Department cipher and Beauregard's.
(ibid., p.1022; OR Navy, vol.8, p.872)

The last quotation above shows there was a War Department cipher besides Beauregard's. The "War Department cipher" may be the Vigenere cipher (see another article), which was mainly used at this time.

Beauregard to W. Porcher Miles, Member of Congress, Charleston, 7 January 1863
I send you herewith a telegraphic cipher for our private use, furnished also to Governors Bonham, Brown, and Milton,
(OR, vol.53, p.271)

Even late in the war, Beauregard distributed "simple cipher" for use in telegrams that are important but are not so important to use "the diplomatic cipher."

Beauregard to Patton Anderson (at Baldwin, Fla.), Charleston, 7 April 1864
I inclose you herewith the following simple cipher for future use in important telegrams to these headquarters. For very important telegrams the diplomatic cipher should be used.

Navy Dictionary Code

The Confederate Navy used a dictionary code from a very early stage of the war.

Lieutenant J.H. North: Cobb's Miniature Lexicon

In May 1861, Lieutenant (later Commander (OR Navy, Series II, vol.2, p.191)) James H. North was ordered to go to England to purchase an ironclad warship from the English or French government (OR Navy, Series II, vol.2, p.70, 107, 168).

Use of dictionary code can be seen in despatches between North and Mallory, Confederate Secretary of the Navy, in OR Navy, Series II, vol.2 as below. The dictionary used is Cobb, Lyman, The Reticule and Pocket Companion, or, Miniature Lexicon of the English Language (HathiTrust) (Wilson and Mckay p.307).

North to Mallory, September 1861 (p.88, 169)

Mallory to North, 28 June 1861 (quoted in a despatch of 20 November 1861; the original acknowledged by North on 16 August) (p.107, 88, 317)

North to Mallory, 7 June 1862 (p.206)

North to Mallory, 6 August 1862 (p.234)

North to Mallory, 30 August 1862 (p.254)

North to Mallory, 2 September 1862 (p.258)

Mallory to North, 20 February 1863 (p.364)

North to Mallory, 20 February 1863 (p.365)

North to Mallory, 11 April 1863 (p.400)

North to Mallory, 6 June 1863 (p.433)

Mallory told North on 13 December 1862 (unwisely in a cryptologic point of view) to use "your cipher only for important words" (p.308; acknowledged on 13 February 1863, p.360).

While the same dictionary was used throughout this period, several formats were used, as seen below.

(156)24(Buy) (447)33(an iron) (183)27(clad) (800)29(war) (674)26(ship) -- if possible; and upon any terms. (Mallory to North, 28 June 1861, quoted on 20 November 1861)

15,576(Plans) 10,99(and) 23,694(specifications) 9,128(being) 5,91(all), 15,620(ready) 1,408(I) 13,388(have) 7,195(commenced) 5,736(the) 26,674(ship) (North to Mallory, 7 June 1862)

163,21(Captain) 32,27(Semmes) 811,18(with) 349,2(four) 537,10(officers) 111,13(arrived) 393,22(here) 817,2(yesterday) 99,10(and) 387,9(has) 114,35(assumed) 736,5(the) 195,1(command). 408,2(I) 630,17(remain) 418,20(in) 738,18(this) 224,12(country) 157,2(by) 396,31(his) 83,31(advice). (North to Mallory, 6 August 1862)

North wasted more than a year because of lack of funds, which in turn was largely due to miscarriage of letters (OR Navy, Series II, vol.2, in passim, e,g., p.215, 229). Then, the British authorities made close inquiries into the destination and purpose of vessels being built in Britain and it became more and more probable that the vessel would be seized once it took to sea (OR Navy, Series II, vol.2, p.517, 502, 520, 581, 595, etc.). In the end, North could not continue to stay in Britain and the vessel being completed was sold to the Danish government in 1864 (OR Navy, Series II, vol.2, p.581, 587, 605, 651; Bulloch, vol.2, p.271).

Commander Semmes: Reid's English Dictionary

Commander Semmes could not find Cobb' Miniature Lexicon in New Orleans and chose Reid's English Dictionary. The example given matches Alexander Reid, A Dictionary of the English language: containing the pronunciation, etymology, and explanation of all words authorized by eminent writers (1857 at Google; 1871 at HathiTrust).

Commander Semmes, commanding CSS Sumter, to Mallory, New Orleans, 14 June 1861
I will, before sailing, transmit you ... the dictionary you speak of, to enable me to conceal my meaning from the enemy should my dispatches fall into his hands.

Commander Semmes, commanding CSS Sumter, to Mallory, New Orleans, 16 June 1861
I have the honor to enclose herewith a copy of Reid's English Dictionary, a duplicate of which I retain for the purpose mentioned in your letter of instructions of the 7th instant. I have not been able to find in the city of New Orleans Cobb's Miniature Lexicon, or any other suitable dictionary, with but a single column on a page. This need make no difference, however. In my communications to the Department, should I have occasion to refer to a word in the copy sent, I will designate the first column on the page A, and the second column B. Thus, if I wish to use the word "prisoner," my reference to it would be thus: "323, B, 15," the first number referring to the page, the letter to the column, and the second number to the number of the word from the top of the column.
(OR Navy, vol.1, p.615)

Instructions to Lieutenant Maffitt

The instructions to Lieutenant Maffitt, commanding CSS Florida, does not specify a dictionary. Letting commanders choose their own dictionaries is beneficial in avoiding using the same code throughout the navy.

Instructions of Mallory to Lieutenant Maffitt, 25 October 1862
For the purpose of communicating with your Government you will proceed as follows: Obtain at Mobile two uniform copies of any small English lexicon or dictionary, one to be retained by you and the other to be sent to the Department. Whenever in your letters or dispatches a word is used which may betray what you may desire to conceal, instead of using that word write the numbers, in figures within brackets, of the page where it is to be found, and also the number of the word on the page, counting from the top. Thus, if you desire to indicate the word "prisoner" and should find this word on the hundredth page of the book and the tenth from the top of the page, you would indicate it thus: [100]10. In this manner you can use a cipher without the possibility of detection.
(OR Navy, vol.1, p.762)

Lieutenant Barney: Webster's Dictionary

Lieutenant Barney, commanding CSS Harriet Lane, chose a Webster.

Lieutenant Barney to Mallory, 23 February 1863
I have sent by a member of General M.'s staff, who goes to Richmond, a copy of Webster's Dictionary for the purpose designated in your letter of instructions. This also goes by private hand, the mails being very unreliable.
(OR Navy, vol.19, p.844)

An encoded message can be seen below.

Barney to Mallory, 19 March 1863
In my last of 9th instant by Lieutenant Warley I reported that General Magruder proposed to (177)-2-16- the (216)-1-15-(113)-3-85- in (29)-3-36-(23)-3-29. I am officially informed that (163)-1-34- will prevent (85)-3-14- from (115)-1-7-. As my previous suggestions are thus defeated, I presume the (262)-3-22- will not be kept in (54)-2-33, (215)-2-26 being entirely useless. I beg leave respectfully to suggest that being so near (149)-1-30-a (156)-1-8- the (163)-3-40 might be (213)-2-21-(10)-1-12-.
P.S. -- What shall be done with the (150)-3-12- sent from Richmond in case the above suggestion is carried out? Some might, if practicable, be sent (10)-1-12-.
N.B. -- The second or middle figure indicates the column, 1st, 2d, or 3d.
(OR Navy, vol.20, p.805)

The highest page number in the message is 262 and the highest line (or entry) number is 85. The column is either 1, 2, or 3. While there are many dictionaries bearing the name of Webster (The Online Books Page), 3 columns and 85 lines (assuming the latter indicates an unmanipulated line number directly) almost limits the candidates to the unabridged with its most condensed format (for example, Webster's Handy Dictionary (1877) has three columns but only 64 lines). One may rather rely on the relative location of the coded words in the dictionary (see another article for illustration of such a method), with the help of the context found in OR Navy or other sources.

Bulloch's Cipher, Sinclair's Keyed Rotating Grille, and Morris' Letter Cipher

Commander Bulloch

Shortly before North, Captain (later Commander (OR Navy, Series II, vol.2, p.191 etc.)) James D. Bulloch (Wikipedia) was sent to England as an agent to purchase or build (wooden) steam propeller cruisers for use against the enemy's commerce (OR Navy, Series II, vol.2, p.64). Among others, he arranged for secret construction of wooden cruisers, CSS Florida and CSS Alabama (Wikipedia).

At first, it appears he was not given a cipher in view of his inability to go into details. (He also warned that an accurate account of his mission was reported in a New York newspaper.)

Bulloch to Mallory, London, 13 August 1861
Since my departure from Montgomery on the 11th of May last I have had no opportunity of communicating with you by letter, excepting in such form as to preclude the possibility of entering into details. Three gentlemen have at different times consented to take verbal messages, but no one has been willing to run the risk of attempting to carry anything in writing.

In October 1861, Bulloch took charge of a fast steamer, the Fingal, he bought to carry war supplies to the Confederate States (OR Navy, Series II, vol.2, p.95, 96; Wikipedia) and arrived at Savannah, Ga., in November. Although he intended to return to England with the Fingal loaded with cotton and rosin (OR Navy, Series II, vol.2, p.113), attempts to run the blockade by the US Navy failed. In January, he decided to go to England without the Fingal (OR Navy, Series II, vol.2, p.127, 132, 138-139).

When he returned to the Confederate States in November 1861, he appears to have been given a cipher.

Mallory to Bulloch (at Savannah, Ga.), 30 November 1861
You will avail yourself of every opportunity of communicating with your Government, using when you may deem it expedient a cipher for this purpose.
(OR Navy, Series II, vol.2, p.114)
Mallory to Bulloch (at Liverpool), 30 April 1862
In your correspondence you will sign your name in your cipher and use the same means to guard your communications.
(OR Navy, Series II, vol.2, p.187)

Bulloch appears to have used the cipher in his despatch of 4 July 1862 and 7 January 1863 (OR Navy, Series II, vol.2, p.212, 331) but, finding it too tedious, he used it only sparingly. Mallory's despatch of 27 October 1862 to Bulloch is also marked "Sent in cipher" (OR Navy, Series II, vol.2, p.284).

James D. Bulloch to Mallory, Liverpool, 21 July 1862
The cipher appointed to be used in my communications with the Navy Department is such as not to admit of lengthy correspondence, and I have therefore been compelled to set it aside in most instances and to adopt instead a somewhat vague mode of expression in the various reports I have had the honor to make to you, except when, as in the present instance a private messenger has enabled me to be full and explicit.
(OR Navy, Series II, vol.2, p.222)
James D. Bulloch to Mallory, Liverpool, 11 August 1862
The means I adopt for sending my letters render it unnecessary to disguise them in cipher.
(OR Navy, Series II, vol.2, p.238)
Navy Department to Bulloch, 8 August 1862
Yesterday the triplicate of your letter of the 2d of March [not found in OR Navy] reached me, .... Your cipher, though a tedious means of communication, had better, I think, be resorted to in matters of importance. Your letter of the 4th of July also reached me at the same time....
(OR Navy, Series II, vol.2, p.234)

According to Wilson and Mckay (p.42, p.307; I am yet to study their sources), Bulloch used Cobb's Miniature Lexicon also used by North.

"Bulloch's cipher" was also to be used by Captain Barron, who was to receive from Bulloch the two ironclad vessels being completed (designated 294 and 295, North Carolina and Mississippi). (These ships ended up being seized by the British authority and Barron stayed in Paris as a flag officer commanding Confederate State naval forces in Europe (Wikipedia; OR Navy, Series II., vol.2, p.507-509))

Mallory to Captain Saml. Barron, 30 August 1863
It will be your duty to communicate with me fully and as frequently as possible, using Commander Bulloch's cipher for this purpose. The regular British closed mail to Bermuda will afford monthly opportunity for doing so, in addition to transient vessels.
(OR Navy, Series II, vol.2, p.486)

Bulloch, on his turn, decided to forgo the cipher and use a messenger.

Bulloch to Mallory, 1 September 1863
Some months since a series of dispatches from the various heads of departments at Richmond, addressed to your commissioners and officers in Europe, together with several private letters from indiscreet correspondents were intercepted by the enemy, who at once gave their contents to the public.... Since that time I have been naturally cautious in the wording of my reports and have mostly confined myself to brief but frequent statements in cipher. Finding at last that this mode of communication was unsatisfactory and still fearing to trust full details to the ordinary mode of conveyance, I selected Lieutenant Whittle as a special messenger, and I sincerely trust that he has long ere this arrived at Richmond, ...
(OR Navy, Series II, vol.2, p.488)

Lieutenant George T. Sinclair

Lieutenant George T. Sinclair was ordered in May 1862 to go to England to construct or purchase a clipper propeller for cruising purposes and to command it himself (OR Navy, Series II, vol.2, p.191, 228).

It is known that he used in his despatch of 8 August 1863 a keyed rotating grille (a kind of transposition cipher, treated in a separate article). This despatch appears to have been written on the advice of Mason to Sinclair, 20 July 1863 to warn against having the ship being built launched until there was a final decision in the Alexandra case in the British law court (OR Navy, Series II, vol.2, p.466). The propriety of the seizure of the Alexandra by the British authority in April 1863 was then pending in the court.

Despite utmost precaution, the Pampero, Sinclair's vessel being built in Glasgow, was detected and seized by the British authority (OR Navy, Series II, vol.2, p.566, 567, 575; 290 Foundation) and never served the Confederacy (Bulloch, vol.2, p.272 ff.).

Lieutenant Charles Manigault Morris

In January 1864, Lieutenant Charles Manigault Morris was tasked with a cruise against the enemy's commerce and was provided with a cipher. (The following appears to be a fixed phrase and a similar wording is also seen in instructions to Lieutenant Campbell, commanding CSS Rappahannock, given this month (OR Navy, vol.2, p.819).)

Barron, commanding CS Naval Forces in Europe, to Lieutenant Morris, Paris, 25 January 1864
You will communicate with your Government as frequently as possible through any safe channel that may offer, always taking care to use the cipher agreed upon in any word that might betray what you desire to conceal.
(OR Navy, vol.2, p.662)

When Lieutenant Morris, commanding CSS Florida (Wikipedia), used cipher in his undated letter to Mallory, the Secretary of the Navy appears to have had some trouble and told Morris to mark words with figures alternately to the left or right of the words. This suggests that the cipher consisted in letters, not figures. It also excludes the keyed rotating grille, in which word breaks do not make sense in ciphertext. It may have been a Vigenere used by the army and the government (see another article).

Mallory to Morris, 2 June 1864
The original of your letter without date is written in cipher. When you again have occasion to resort to it, you will observe the following change: After writing it, place a figure (any) to the left of the first word in cipher; place two figures (any) to the right of the second word in cipher; three figures (any) to the left of the third word; four figures (any) to the right of the fourth in cipher; and then, with the fifth word in cipher, begin with one figure to the left, and so on as before. Enclosed I return a copy of a portion of your letter in cipher, with the figures thus added, in order to illustrate the change.
(OR Navy, vol.3, p.613)

In October 1864, CSS Florida was illegally seized by the US navy in a Brazilian harbor while Morris was ashore. Morris reported his "hope" that the cipher etc. were destroyed.

Morris to Samuel Barron, 7 October 1864
All of my papers, the signal book, and cipher were captured in the ship, but I hope they were destroyed, as the first lieutenant, the surgeon, and the captain's clerk all knew where they were kept.
(OR Navy, vol.3, p.633)

Dictionary Code of the Army and the Government

Secretary of War's Cipher

On 15 April 1862, G.W. Randolph, Secretary of War at the time, sent a cipher to D.H. Hill, who was commanding at Yorktown. This may or may not be the same as the dictionary cipher arranged in this spring (see the next section).

G.W. Randolph to D.H. Hill, Richmond, 15 April 1862
I send you a cipher, which I have explained to Captain Hill, and will get you to use when you telegraph anything that ought not to be known.
(OR, vol.11, p.442)

Jefferson Davis and A.S. Johnston (March 1862)

Confederate president Jefferson Davis arranged a dictionary cipher with A.S. Johnston on 26 March 1862.

Jefferson Davis to A.S. Johnston, Richmond, 26 March 1862
PS I send you a dictionary, of which I have the duplicate, so that you may communicate with me by cipher, telegraphic or written, as follows: First, give the page by its number; second, the column by the letter L, M, or R, as it may be, in the left-hand, middle, or right-hand column; third, the number of the word in the column, counting from the top. Thus the word junction would be designated by 146,L,20.
(OR, vol.10, Part II, p.365)

From the place of the word "junction", the dictionary given to A.S. Johnston appears to be the same as that given to J.E. Johnston (see the next section).

Jefferson Davis, J.E. Johnston, and Robert E. Lee (April 1862)

An actual letter in such a dictionary cipher, from J.E. Johnston to Robert E. Lee, dated 8 April 1862, is found at Civil War Day by Day. (By way of context, Johnston's despatch two days before this in response to Lee's telegram in cipher is in OR, vol.11, Part III, p.423.)

There are 45R1(cars) here for 174R16(one) 40M10(brigade). 228L33(Six) more to 108L13(follow). 250R18(Three) of them, 153R22(Long-) 239L29(-street) will 157R17(march). Can not the government 195R11(procure) 45R1(cars) for the 176M23(other) 250R18(three)? I hope enough for 174R14(one) 40M10(brigade) will 56L26(come) to-morrow.

The dictionary used is A Primary-School Pronouncing Dictionary of the English Language, abridged from the American Dictionary of Noah Webster, LL.D. by William G. Webster (1857) (Google). This appears to be the "Revised edition abridged from N. Webster by W.G. Webster" that J.E. Johnston (as well as A.S. Johnston, apparently) was given by the President in the spring of 1862.

(When I first mentioned this letter here, the reading was not known. The closest I could find was a similar 1860 dictionary (HathiTrust) listed in The Online Books Page. In 2017, in a German cryptology blog, Klausis Krypto Kolumne, a participant Davidsch found the matching dictionary, which led to the above reading.)

Referring back to the image of the letter, it is clear that the recipient tried to decode with a wrong dictionary which had "arms" at 45R1. It is wondered which dictionary Lee used.

(J.E. Johnston and the President appear to have switched to Vigenere by May 1863 at the latest (see another article).)

Secretary of War Seddon's Penchant for Caesar Cipher

As late as February 1863, Seddon, Confederate Secretary of War since November 1862, thought of using the simplest Caesar cipher (OR, vol.14, p.763).

R.E. Lee to Seddon, Fredericksburg, 4 [February] 1863
I beg leave also to suggest that your directions by telegraph for the movement of troops which you desire to conceal be sent in cipher, as I have found that otherwise they invariably become known. There are persons who frequent the telegraph office with no evil purpose but from curiosity to learn the news; others are near to catch what transpires, and thus information is spread and reaches wrong ears.

Seddon to R.E. Lee, Richmond, 4 February 1863
I note and will observe your suggestion as to the use of a cipher. A simple one, with which I am familiar, is to use the letter before the one meant; thus z for a, a for b, and so on. You will readily make it out, and I shall use that.

It seems the ridiculous proposal was not carried into effect and it appears the Vigenere cipher was introduced later in the month (see another article).

However, Seddon's frustration with cipher was so much that he proposed use of a simple monoalphabetic substitution cipher some months later.

Seddon to D.H. Hill, 22 June 1863
The delay is so great in transmitting and deciphering dispatches in the cipher used by the signal corps, that I shall hereafter, when necessary to employ cipher, communicate with you in the following, viz: Reverse the alphabet, taking Z for A, Y for B, X for C, &c.
I request you to use the same cipher in your dispatches to the Department.
(OR, vol.27, Part III, p.918)

Simple Polyalphabetic Cipher (Alternating Caesar Cipher)

Some media (Daily Alta California, 5 November 1863 "The Rebel Secret Cypher"; Sacramento Daily Union, 4 November 1863 "Copy of a Dispatch from Johnston to Pemberton"; Portrait Monthly of the New York Illustrated News (p.78, Internet Archive); etc.) report J.E. Johnston's secret message to Pemberton taken from the coat collar of a scout taken at Walnut Hills on 30 June 1863, which was deciphered by Michael Mason, Waterhouse's Chicago Battery. The episode is also included in Bates p.71.

Nggsv Icp Rcocgpvmp
Amwp ocugceg qd vfg 41vf kq tcccktgf
K ygnj tckehmtag amw cr vfg gctjkcur omkgpr
Jmnb hcur cr cnj gbfg vgnj K tcc a j amw
K ygnj fgxgbc oa hmtagg clf crvcai lpcvg tgifv clf nchr cr 6'c'k, gd vfg, 9vf gd Lsnw
Lmucrf Lmj.lnml lcp.emo
Lyemg-gl Ogng Lspc vfg 47 vf 3681

This can be deciphered by simply alternately taking the third letter after or before the cipher letter, beginning afresh for every word (and correcting enciphering errors).

Lieut.-Gen. Pemberton:
Your message of the 28th is received. I will reinforce you at the earliest moment. Hold fast at all odds till I reach you. I will divide my forces and attack Grant's right and left at 4 a.m. of the 7th of July.
Joseph Johnston, Gen. Com.
Jackson, Miss., June 30th, 1863

(Bates calls this "the 'Slater' code method" but if he refers to the commercial code by Slater, it is something different from the above (see another article)).

However, there is no plausible reason that Johnston, who used a Vigenere cipher with Pemberton in this period, should use a different scheme at this time. (Although the above may be seen as a Vigenere with a keyword "CY", it only replaces the question "why different scheme?" with "why different keyword?") This message is not found in Joseph E. Johnston, Narrative of Military Operations (Google), either. Still, the ciphertext is not a mere fabrication because Pemberton did send "a message of 28th", though Johnston says on 3 July that the message was destroyed by the messenger, who told Johnston of Pemberton's conditions (OR, vol.24, Part III, p.987).

Hieroglyphic Cipher for Confederate Conspirators (1863)

J.P. Benjamin, Benjamin H. Hill, J.H. Cammack,

On 21 December 1863, the postmaster of New York City intercepted a cipher letter addressed to "A. Keith, Esq., Halifax, N.S." and forwarded it to the Secretary of War at Washington. Keith had been previously reported to be in frequent communication with Confederate blockade-runners and other agents in the United States and thus his mails had been closely watched (Bates (1898) p.107).

After attempts were made in vain, it was sent to the telegram rooms, where cipher operators Tinker, Bates, and Chandler worked on it.

(Plum p.41, Bates (1898) p.108, and Bates (1907) p.73 all print different images from each other. The above is based on Plum's.)

Apparently, use of several different substitution alphabets including hieroglyphic symbols, ordinary letters, pigpen symbols, etc. frustrates simple frequency analysis. Still, a clue is found in the plaintext words "reaches you" and explicit word division would help. A hypothesis for the preceding two words "before this" was the breakthrough. Starting with these identified symbols, it took only four hours to decipher the whole.

New York, Dec. 18, 1863.
Hon. J. P. Benjamin:
Willis is here. The two steamers will leave here about Christmas. Lamar and Bowers left here via Bermuda two weeks ago. [The] 12,000 rifled muskets came duly to hand and were shipped to Halifax as instructed. We will be able to seize the other two steamers as per programme. Trowbridge has followed the President's orders. We will have Briggs under arrest before this reaches you; cost $2,000. We want more money; how shall we draw? Bills all forwarded to Slidell and receipts received. Write as before.
J. H. C.

The addressee was none other than J.P. Benjamin, Confederate Secretary of State (Wikipedia) and the signer J.H.C was a gunrunner J.H. Cammack and the message reveals a bold plan to hijack Atlantic liners for transport. Conspirators were arrested and arms and ammunitions were seized. (Bates p.75, 78)

Once the key was revealed this much, a second letter, from Cammack to Benjamin H. Hill, intercepted three days later could be readily read. It was about machine and paper for printing Confederate bonds. Soon the lithographer and the printer were arrested (Plum p.42).

Soon after the Confederate capital Richmond fell, the original key was found on 6 April 1865 in the office of J.P. Benjamin in Richmond (Bates p.77, 84).

A Private Cipher (1863)

A Confederate officer James Malbone, wounded at the Battle of Chancellorsville from 30 April to 6 May 1863, used a cipher he devised himself in his diary for 1863 and 1864. The cipher consists of symbols such as punctuation marks, dollar sign, etc. for the letters of the alphabet. He used cipher not to conceal any military information but to gossip about the wife of Jefferson Davis etc. (Saratogan Local News; AP; MailOnline)

The diary was deciphered by Kent D. Boklan in 2014 and published in Cryptologia.

The scan and transcription of the original diary can be found at New York State Division of Military and Naval Affairs: Military History.


William R. Plum (1882), The Military Telegraph During the Civil War in the United States, vol.1 (Google), vol.2 (Internet Archive) [unless specified, vol.1 is meant herein]

David Homer Bates (1907), Lincoln in the Telegraph Office: Recollections of the United States Military Telegraph Corps during the Civil War (simply "Bates" herein) (Internet Archive)

David Homer Bates (1898), "A Rebel Cipher Despatch", Harper's New Monthly Magazine Volume 97 June to November 1898, p.105-109 (Internet Archive)

James D. Bulloch (1883), The Secret Service of the Confederate States in Europe; or, How the Confederate Cruisers Were Equipped (Internet Archive: vol.1, vol.2)

Wilson, Walter E. and Gary L. Mckay (2012), James D. Bulloch: Secret Agent and Mastermind of the Confederate Navy (Google)

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

Basic Resources

The war of the rebellion: a compilation of the official records of the Union and Confederate armies ("OR") [Series I is meant, unless otherwise specified] (Making of America, ehistory)

Official records of the Union and Confederate Navies in the War of the Rebellion ("OR Navy" herein) (Making of America, Western Illinois University)

©2015 S.Tomokiyo
First posted on 5 December 2015. Last modified on 25 September 2017.
Articles on Historical Cryptography
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