Hard to believe that we are still making discoveries about the Civil War when we are just months away from commemorating the 150th anniversary of its start. The latest discovery is the deciphering of a message in a bottle that was intended for a Confederate general.
In the encrypted message, a commander tells Gen. John Pemberton that no reinforcements are available to help him defend Vicksburg, Mississippi.
“You can expect no help from this side of the river,” says the message, which was deciphered by codebreakers.
The text is dated 4 July 1863 – the day Vicksburg fell to Union forces.
The bottle, less than two inches in length, had sat undisturbed at the Museum of the Confederacy since 1896. It was a gift from Capt. William A. Smith, of King George County, who served during the Vicksburg siege.
Earlier this year the museum’s collections manager, Catherine Wright, decided to investigate the wrapped note it contained.
When Wright found that the message was coded, she asked retired CIA codebreaker David Gaddy crack it – which he did in several weeks. A Navy cryptologist later confirmed the interpretation.
The code is called the ‘Vigenere cipher,’ a centuries-old encryption in which letters of the alphabet are shifted a set number of places so an ‘a’ would become a ‘d’ — essentially, creating words with different letter combinations.
The code was widely used by Southern forces during the Civil War, according to Civil War Times Illustrated.
The source of the message was likely Maj. Gen. John G. Walker, of the Texas Division, who had under his command William Smith, the donor of the bottle.
The full text of the message to Pemberton reads:
‘Gen’l Pemberton: You can expect no help from this side of the river. Let Gen’l Johnston know, if possible, when you can attack the same point on the enemy’s lines. Inform me also and I will endeavor to make a diversion. I have sent some caps (explosive devices). I subjoin a despatch from General Johnston.’
The last line, Wright said, which seems to suggest a separate delivery to Pemberton, would be the code to break the message.
After a six-week siege, in which residents of the city resorted to eating cats, dogs and leather, Pemberton relented. Vicksburg, so scarred by the experience, refused to celebrate July 4 for the next 80 years.