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Banks Should Be Replaced

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Apr 12 noon For
Gen Halleck Chf Staff you can see from General Braymans dispatch
to me some thing of Gen Banks disaster , I
have been satisfied for the last nine months that to
Keep Gen Banks in command was to neutralize a large
force & to support it most expensively. although I
do not insist on it I think the best interests
of service demand that Gen J J Reynolds should be placed in command
at once , and that he name his own success
or to the command of New Orleans U.S. Grant Maj Genl

Taking a break from 1865 and the furor surrounding the assassination of Abraham Lincoln, we take a look at a day a year earlier, when the end of the war was not yet in sight, and General Grant has just taken over command of all Union armies. In this particular message, squashed in at the bottom of a page, Grant is bemoaning the latest failings of General Banks. This probably refers to the army’s retreat following a confrontation with Confederate General Richard Taylor’s army at the Battle of Pleasant Hill. Grant wouldn’t be able to reduce Banks’s command during the remainder of the Red River Campaign, but after the campaign’s end a month later Banks was superseded by General Canby. (Grant would become impatient with Canby as well!)

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Studio portrait of General Nathaniel P. Banks and his staff – James E. Taylor Collection: Scrapbook Two, page 21: Top left (photCL 300, vol. 2, UDID 49380)

Reverse Engineering Lost Codebooks

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Apl 21 1862
Andes Your dispatch of the nineteenth
was received that day Fredericksburg is
evacuated and the palate destroyed by
the rampant & a small part
of Anthons command occupies this side
of the Sabel opposite the town
He proposes moving his whole force
to that point signed Berlin good

Let it never be said that no good comes from spending time on Twitter! As I was scrolling through Decoding the Civil War’s feed I came across a handwritten copy of a telegram from Lincoln to McClellan, and I asked myself whether we might have a copy in the Eckert Collection as well. It turns out that we do, it’s a lightly coded version, and Project Leader Mario had already done some initial work on it for the folks developing education modules based on the Eckert materials. He had determined, in fact, that the message was sent in a code that has not survived (as far as we know).

By using the original message we can start to reconstruct this missing codebook, which may help us decipher other messages in the future. So far we have learned:

Andes = McClellan
Palate = bridge
Rampant = enemy
Anthon = McDowell
Label = Rappahannock River
Berlin = Lincoln

It may not seem like much, but it’s a start! Thanks to   for inspiring this blog post!

Atzerodt Captured

april 20 - mssEC_12_225 - atzerodt arrested

7 P.M.  Baltimore Apl 20. 1865
Secy of War – Genl Tyler
telegraphs that Andrew Atzerodt was
captured at Monocacy station
I have directed him to
send him by first train double
ironed & under secure guard
to Ft Dix where he
will arrive this Evening &
be held subject to your
orders  Lew Wallace Maj Genl

The hunt for the conspirators in the assassination of Abraham Lincoln burned up the telegraph wires after April 14th, 1865. One of the conspirators that was sought was George Andrew Atzerodt, the conspirator chosen by John Wilkes Booth to assassinate the Vice President, Andrew Johnson. Atzerodt lost his nerve on the night of the 14th, got drunk, and never followed through with the plan. He fled to a cousin’s house in Germantown, Maryland, but left behind in the hotel room, the same hotel occupied by Vice President Johnson, weapons, including a bowie knife, and a bank book belonging to  Booth.

Atzerodt became a prime suspect and was found, in bed, early on the morning of April 20th at his cousin’s home. He was arrested by soldiers from Monocacy Junction, just north of Germantown. The were led to him in large part because Atzerodt had used his real name when checking into the hotel. Once arrested he was brought back to Washington DC and imprisoned on the naval vessel U.S.S. Montauk.

Shortly after his arrest, Atzerodt was photographed by Alexander Gardner, along with the other alleged conspirators on the Montauk and another vessel, the U.S.S. Saugus. One of the photographs from that day is pasted on page 97 of the first volume of the James E. Taylor Collection, along with the portraits of three other conspirators, Mary Surratt, Lewis Payne, and David Herold.

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All four were found guilty and sentenced to death. On July 7, 1865, George Andrew Atzerodt was hanged with the other three for their roles in the assassination of President Lincoln.

Pinkerton Pledges Life

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6 P.M. Apl. 23.  New Orleans La Apl 19. 1865
Hon Edwin M Stanton Secretary of
War Washn D C This
mornings papers contain the deplorable
intelligence of the Assassination of
President Lincoln & Secy Seward –
Under the Providence of God
in Feby Eighteen sixty one
I was enabled to –
save him from the fate
he has now met How
I regret that I had
not been near him previous
to this fatal act I
might have been the means
to arrest it – If I
can be of any service
Please let me Know the

service of my whole force
or life itself is at
your disposal & trust you
will excuse me for impressing
upon you the necessity of
great personal caution on your
own part at this time –
The nation cannot spare you –
E.J. Allen

Five days following the assassination of President Lincoln, this urgent message was sent to Secretary of War Stanton by E.J. Allen. This the pseudonym of Allan Pinkerton, the detective turned head of the Union Secret Service and a spy.  Writing from Louisiana, where he was investigating fraud in supplies purchased by the US Government, Pinkerton refers in the telegram to his role in interrupting an assassination plot in 1861.  The plot sought to prevent Lincoln from reaching Washington DC for his first inauguration by assassinating him in Baltimore during a train stop. Pinkerton and Lincoln passed through Baltimore safely by switching the time of his arrival.

Pinkerton now wishes he could have been there to “arrest” the most recent plot. This turned out to be one of his greatest regrets. Interestingly, Pinkerton repeats the erroneous information the Seward was also killed. Although severally wounded, that was not the case. Pinkerton’s sentiment that the “nation cannot spare” to lose Stanton was no doubt shared by many. Pinkerton underscores his thoughts by unconditionally pledging his “whole force or life” in service to Stanton, and presumably, the Nation.


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Weapon used by Lewis Powell, a Rio Grande Camp Knife, in assassination attempt on William Seward, April 14, 1865.  The Huntington Library, Art Collections, and Botanical Gardens.

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Buckner Goes Down

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Louisville 6 PM. 19th  Feb 20 62
Indus Ocean Buckner was indicted for
treason in Louisville some time since
a writ has been sent to
Cairo for him great feeling here
against him I advised Gen Halleck to
hold in military custody & send
to Ohio until you directed otherwise
our friends say he would be
mobbed here signed Ingress lord how
I would rejoice in hanging him

In February 1862, after capturing Fort Henry on the Tennessee River, Ulysses S. Grant turned his efforts towards Fort Donelson, not far away, on the Cumberland.  Grant’s persistent efforts, on land and by water, over five days led to the unconditional surrender of the 12,000-man garrison, led by Simon Bolivar Buckner — a catastrophe for the South. “Lord how I would rejoice in hanging him,” noted the operator three days later in this message. After five months of writing poetry in solitary confinement, however, Buckner was exchanged for Union Brigadier General George McCall, promoted to Major General, and ordered to join General Braxton’s Army of Mississippi.

Pressed by the Press

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5.30 P.M. Chattanooga, Oct. 11, 1863
9 A.M. Oct 11th to Eckert
the dispatch disclosed was the first
one of Sept 20th Gen R.S. Granger explains
that being very anxious for news
he went with Gen’l Gillen to
the telegraph office. as my dispatch
was passing through ” some portions
of which were guessed out by
the operator ” the person
who guessed out the dispatch was
Mr. Smith who informed us at
the time it was mere surmise
as he had no Key to
the Cipher It is rather curious
however that the agent of the Assd Press
at Louisville in a private printed circular
quoted me as authority for reporting
the battle was a total defeat while
Horace Maynard repeated in Cincin.
the entire second sentence of the
dispatch. If practicable send
me a cipher whose meaning no
operator can guess out.
CA Dana

The media, as it’s now called generically, has been accused of many sins, especially in recent months. Telegrams were always at risk of interception and deception. Sometimes, though, the enemy didn’t intercept the messages, but rather, the press — in the case of this telegram, the Associated Press. The AP, which had been founded in 1846 by five daily newspapers in New York City to share the cost of sending news about the Mexican-American War, soon found itself reporting on another, larger conflict, and was hungry for news. After revealing that the AP had attempted to decipher an intercepted missive (and garbled it in the process, “guessing it out” the original sender incorrectly), Charles A Dana asked Thomas Eckert to “send me a cipher whose meaning no operator can guess out.”

Say What?!?

mssEC_05_213 - message received is confusing - sarahtheentwife

4 PM  New York 7. Nov 1862
Genl H W Halleck Genl-in-chf
there appears to be some mistake
in transmitting or translating your message
I dont understand whether there ten
thousand troops or transports at Ft Monroe
or the troops only or merely
transports for ten thousand the message
says the latter do you wish
me to come to Wash or
to go direct from here to
Ft Monroe N P Banks Maj General
Comdg
Answer to Astor House

If you’ve ever suffered through reading an incoherent text message because of some ham-fisted correspondent, you’ll relate to General Banks’ frustrations in making sense of one telegram in the Fall of 1862. The shorthand used in telegrams was sometimes insufficient to clearly convey a message. “There appears to be some mistake in transmitting or translating your message,” Banks wrote to Captain Halleck. At issue was whether there were 10,000 troops at Fort Monroe, or simply sufficient transportation for 10,000 troops — a big logistical difference.

Thanks to Zooniverse user SaratheEntwife for pointing this telegram out.