Laughing Matter

mssEC_18_167_Aug. 26

To McCaine
4:30 pm Washn. Aug. 26th 1864
Katy Nabob The provisional battalion of Pacific belonging
to Greggs quitman which is tower upper
Attica saddling the Windsor while the Platina Andover
Panama is absent pekin has been ordered to
Blubber stop This will leave me without means
of saddling the windpipe while the paddle Andover
is absent stop Taunton Waite whites wedge that
he cannot get his whip ready to Talbot
before Monday zebra The forges coal &c had
toby sent from here I think he will
get ready Persia possible unity If you think
it advisable I will send out the Gas
Amos sligo direction of Aldie They cannot raise
more perfume prolong forth field & they cannot
go to Laughter Sheffield zodiac they may wolf
about Aldie & pick up rumors Cork = screw
Draw off your water out of town

Decoded, reads:

To McCaine
4:30 pm Washn. Aug. 26th 1864
4:30 P.M. P. H. Sheridan The provisional battalion of Cavalry belonging
to Greggs Division which is over the upper
Potomac guarding the River while the 8 Illinois
Calvary is absent comma has been ordered to
City Point stop This will leave me without means
of guarding the River while the 8 Illinois
is absent stop Major Waite reports today that
he cannot get his Regiment ready to movement
before Monday period The forges coal &c had
to be sent from here I think he will
get ready as soon as possible period If you think
it advisable I will send out the 16
New York in the direction of Aldie They cannot raise
more 3 hundred for the field & they cannot
go to Snicker Gap period they may scout
about Aldie & pick up rumors Augur
Draw off your water out of town

On August 26, General Christopher Columbus Augur, the commander of the the defenses of Washington, D.C., sent a ciphered telegram to Phillip Sheridan who was in the process of planning an expedition against John S. Mosby’s men. Major John M. Waite of the 8th Illinois Infantry was charged with leading the force. He, however, needed some time to assemble the men: the regiment, formally part of Augur’s XXII Corps, had been scattered on all over Virginia and Maryland: six companies were assigned to Lew Wallace at Baltimore, four were guarding the Potomac between Great Falls and the Monocacy, another was at Port Tobacco, and one was with the army of the Potomac. Augur, still reeling from Jubal Early’s raid on Washington on July 11, was not overly enthusiastic about the arrangement. The best he could to reinforce the expedition was the 16th New York which had already been cut up by Mosby’s men.

As with many telegraphic communications between generals, this telegram was published in the Official Records of the War of the Rebellion, after the deciphered recipient’s copy. Augur

 

Our telegram, which appears in the USMT ledger of sent messages (EC 18), is not just the ciphered version of the OR publication. For one thing, it was sent from the USMT office at the War Department an hour and a half after the original message went out from the headquarters of the XXII Corps, located on the corner of Fifteenth and a Half St. and Pennsylvania Avenue. The message is addressed to R.R.R. McCaine, Sheridan’s operator, rather than Little Phil himself.

R.R. McCaine

Robert Rezin Redman McCaine, 1833-1873

 

And then there is the strange appendix involving a cork screw and instructions to “draw your water out of town.” In fact, the message offers a glimpse into how codes were modified and adjusted, which often happened on the fly.

The message had been ciphered a variation of Cipher No 1.  This version, found in EC42, EC44, and EC46, features significant and apparently recent changes. The term “commencement word” was replaced with “blind word” which indicated the number of columns rather than lines. mssEC_46_007_Blind words

 

As seen from the handwritten corrections made in EC 46, “the sum of the numbers set the opposite the next two words” indicated the number of lines. “Town” equaled to 6 lines, and “water,” to 10, which translates into sixteen lines of the eight-column message.

mssEC_46_016_Water

Instead of simply instructing McCaine to add the values, however, his Washington counterpart opted by a coded message involving the “cork-screw” and drawing off, i.e. “decanting,” his “water out of town,”  and added a few words at the top and bottom of the message. When the operator followed the respective routing instructions, he saw a tip to “use tower for on the Not Received letter.”  (The value of the arbitrary “tower” as listed in the code book is “over the.”)  Most likely, this message was not even intended for Sheridan’s eyes, but rather served as a test case for changes and modifications in ciphers.

It should be noted that the term “Cork=screw” is a triple play on words. The message was sent by Augur, a homophone of which is “auger”. An auger is a helical screw, often used for boring holes in things. A short step sideways and you have “corkscrew,” split in two to fit the columns. (Thank you MEinaudi for this find. I must confess, my knowledge of drilling equipment and terminology a bit limited; I was thinking more along the lines of an augur as in the ancient Roman priest. This, of course, would be very hard to code).

And another thing. Because there was no arbitrary for Snickers Gap, Va., the operator had to improvise: Snickers was replaced, of course, with “Laughter.” I would probably go with “Chortle” or “Giggles.”

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3 responses to “Laughing Matter”

  1. Craig says :

    Thank you for another amazing insight into the wealth of information that can be garnered from an innocent looking 16 line cipher!

    A question: Do we know if operators were so attuned to each other and/or the system that they could readily pick up on apparently spontaneous ad-libs like “corkscrew” for augur; “laughter” for Snickers? Or did they simply communicate the improvisations in another way, or, or , or?

    Like

    • otsapina says :

      Dear Craig, Thank you for your comment. We actually know very little about the operators. Until the ledgers turned up, the only primary sources available were memoirs penned and published by a few operators. e.g. our William R. Plum, or John Emmet O’Brien’s Telegraphing in Battle https://books.google.com/books?id=dOBx_PDO4FIC&dq=John+Emmet+O%27Brien+telegraphing+in+battle&source=gbs_navlinks_s

      This is what’s so great about this project: we’re turning up new, untapped evidence which will serve as primary source for new directions in Civil War studies, including those of the USMT personnel.

      Again, many thanks,

      Olga

      Olga Tsapina
      Norris Foundation Curator of American History
      1151 Oxford Rd., San Marino, CA 91108
      626-405-2209 (phone)
      626-405-5720 (fax)
      otsapina@huntington.org

      Like

      • Craig says :

        Hi Olga, thank you for your response and the book URL which I will pursue. Already looking forward to your next blog!
        Battening down the hatches in SE Georgia for the uninvited visit of Miss Irma, Craig

        Like

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