Now, Jesse …

mssEC_19_033_now_Jesse

No 47 P.
J. H. Bunnell (1) Washn. Mar 31st 1864 5 P.M
Grapes, Laugh, Plug, March, Lucy, For, Knapsack Embrace
or Bridle Unity I would Quince the Welch
as far to the Ripley of Chart as
possible Zebra It is a good plan to
Pine all the Saints you can when Rapturing
is expected and make all other Territory Tartar
to hold defensible for the smallest possible number
of Whiskey yoke John Lieut Shelter Now Jesse

As with many ciphered telegrams, this message, found in ledger EC 19, looks mostly like gibberish.  This was the end product of a complex and sophisticated system of word substitution encoding originally developed by Anson Stager. Words that described sensitive data — names, time indicators, numbers, military terms, places, etc. were replaced by replacement words or arbitraries. The text was broken into squares formed by columns and lines and then scrambled during the transmission. The keys listed not only the arbitraries but also the commencing words and line indicators specifying the number of columns and lines and routing instructions listing the order of the transmission that scrambled the sentences. Thus encoded, the text assumes the appearance of an assemblage of random words, impossible to make sense of, let alone decipher.

This telegram, luckily, can be relatively easily deciphered, as we happened to have a copy of the key to this particular code. This would be the ledger EC 44, titled Cipher for Telegraphic Correspondence; arranged expressly for Military Operations, and for important Government despatches and known as Cipher No. 1. It contains codes for commencing words, line indicators, routing instructions, and arbitraries as developed in 1862 but implemented in February 1864.

mssEC_44_025

For example, as seen on this page, “John” was one of the codes used for Ulysses S. Grant, and “Knapsack” was reserved for William T. Sherman. The entire telegram reads:

J. H. Bunnell (1) Washn. Mar 31st 1864 5 P.M
Washington, 30, 1, March, 5 p.m, For, W. T. Sherman Nashville
or Chattanooga Period I would destroy the railroads
as far to the east of Knoxville as
possible Period It is a good plan to
concentrate all the forces you can when fighting
is expected and make all other Territory necessary
to hold defensible for the smallest possible number
of troops signed U.S. Grant Lieut General Now Jesse

The message is part of a rather anxious back-and-forth between Grant, just two weeks into his tenure as the commander of the Armies of the United States, and Sherman, just appointed the commander of the Division of the Mississippi. The exchange was prompted by Forrest’s raids in the Union occupied Western Tennessee. Grant, who was passing through Washington on his way to Fortress Monroe scribbled this telegram and handed it to a USMT operator. Grant’s original note, now held by the United States Military Academy and published in the Papers of Ulysses S. Grant, reads:

I would destroy the rail road as far to the East of Knoxville as possible. It is a good plan to make the country to be held to concentrate all the forces you can wher fighting is expected and  make all other territory necessary to hold defensible for the smallest possible number of troops. ”

The telegram appears in OR (Ser. 1, vol. 32, part 3, p. 213), but only as part of another telegram from Sherman’s aide-de-camp Lewis Mulford Dayton sent to John Schofield; in this case Grant’s “territory” has been replaced with “preparations.”

Telegram_OR_Grant_Mar. 31_1864

But what are the words and numbers that swarm around the message? The telegram was directed to Jesse H. Bunnell (1843-1899), the operator attached to the George H. Thomas of the Army of the Cumberland. The note “Sent from Book 5:20 P.M. Tinker” tells us that the telegram was re-transmitted twenty minutes later by Charles Almerin Tinker (1838-1917). The scribble on the bottom of the telegram appears to indicate that 75 words were charged in total. The main body of the telegram contains 63 words, including “Now Jesse” that the operator managed to squeeze in at the end of the line. Apparently he had more to say. Using the entry in the ledger, Mr. Tinker sent the same message with some additional words and an extra layer of coding intended for Bunnell’s eyes only.

The marks on the lower left side contain the commencing word (Mobile) followed by the line indicator (Horse – Deal).  In the cipher key, “Mobile” indicated a nine-column transmission. However, the line indicators called for an eight-column set up, and the telegram is indeed broken into eight rather than nine columns.  According to the key, the telegram was to be routed in the following order: up the 8th column, down the 5th, up the 7th, down the 1st, up the 6th, down the 3rd, up the 2nd and down the 4th.

mssEC_44_012

The little numbers indicated the place of the word in the column, with additional words supplied on top and bottom of the columns.  For example, the number 4 on top of the 1st column pointed towards the 4th word from the top, i.e. “possible.” The last two words which began the private message (“Now Jesse”) were not included in the count, so the 1st from the bottom in the column 8 is “number” rather than “Jesse.”

If we follow the coded instructions, the embedded message would read: “Now Jesse your number you would full when possible bad good draw and you about Bridle (Chattanooga) Grant here.” This sort of makes sense to us. It certainly made sense for Jesse.

At this point we can only speculate as to the nature of this exercise. Most likely it offered the operators, who, after all, were not supposed to use government communications for their own needs, a way to bypass the rules.

This little puzzle,  (which took yours truly some two hours and elicited some highly descriptive epithets), must have been a piece cake for Bunnell. By the ripe age of nineteen, he boasted a six year career with the telegraph, (yes, he became a full-fledged operator at 13), and a speed record which he set in 1860, transmitting President Buchanan’s last message to Congress (14,040 words) in two hours.

Studies of the USMT personnel is one of the new and exciting directions in the Civil War studies offered by the Decoding the Civil War project. I’m certain that historians will find out what Mr. Bunnell and Mr. Tinker were up to in March 1864. Until then, we can simply stand in awe of the ingenuity and the skill involved in this multiple-layered coding and decoding.

 

 


Olga Tsapina, Norris Foundation Curator of American History. The Huntington Library.

 

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One response to “Now, Jesse …”

  1. Craig says :

    Olga Tsapina – thanks for a great post which should clear up any remaining mystery as to why it is said Confederate operators and intelligence people were never able to break the Union’s ciphers…! How amazing it is that apparently no cipher key was ever stolen, captured or compromised in any way (if true?). Albeit a page or two did get eaten to keep them out of enemy hands, etc.

    Liked by 1 person

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