Tag Archive | telegraph

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.

 

Advertisements

On Illegal Leaks and Fake News

By Olga Tsapina, Norris Foundation Curator of American Historical Manuscripts at the Huntington Library, Art Collections, and Botanical Gardens

photcl 300 v 1 p 92 - NY_Herald_in_the_Field.jpg

New York Herald in the field, August 1863, James E. Taylor Collection

By the time the Civil War broke out, news had become a saleable commodity, with the New York Associated Press (AP) acting as the leading broker that enjoyed a close relationship with the Lincoln administration. President Lincoln dispensed with the practice of relying on newspaper editors and instead used AP as the news conduit. The flow of news, however, was tightly controlled by the War Department: AP received only information that had been cleared by military censors.

Although the system overall worked reasonably well, there were glitches which resulted in loud scandals. In June 1862, Charles C. Fulton, the head AP agent in Baltimore and the editor of the Baltimore American, was arrested for publishing an unauthorized account of the Seven Days’ Battles which the War Department considered a serious leak of military intelligence.  Following public outcry, Fulton was released after forty eight hours and immediately published an account of his ordeal, much to the delight of Confederate and the Union opposition press.

On the morning of May 18, 1864, two morning New York newspapers published an AP wire asserting that President Lincoln issued a proclamation ordering the draft of 400,000 into the Union Army. The news, which indicated that the Union side was losing the war, crashed the New York stock exchange sending stock prices tumbling down and raising the gold. The news, however, was fake, planted by two gold speculators well familiar with AP’s delivery system. This “bogus proclamation” incident became the only known instance when Lincoln actually issued an order to suppress the newspapers.

photcl 300 v 1 p 91 - A_group_of_four_men_stand_around_a_horsedrawn_cart_looking_at_newspapers.jpg

Newspaper cart, November 1863, James E. Taylor Collection

As seen in Eckert’s letterpress books, on August 1, 1864, AP again found itself in a predicament. On July 31, Fulton transmitted to New York a report which he had received from a source in Fortress Monroe. The first part of the report, which contained the news of the loss of the Battle of the Crater of July 30, had been cleared by William Bender Wilson, the head of the Baltimore office of USMT.  However, Fulton tacked on an additional bit of news:  his Fortress Monroe source also “says Gen. Grant has arrived from City Point at 9 a.m. & was met at Ft. Monroe by President Lincoln who arrived from Washington at 10 o’clock both embarked on the Baltimore & after going in direction of Cape Henry steamer returned towards Norfolk there avoiding all interruption during interview at 3 p.m. President returned to Washington. General Grant returned to army.”

This meeting was not supposed to be publicized. A private meeting with the commander of the Union army coming on the heels of the shocking loss of the battle of the Crater could be seen as a sign of panic. As soon as Eckert got wind of the report, he ordered Daniel H. Craig, AP general agent, to suppress the news.

According to Craig, it was too late, as he had already sent out Fulton’s report “all over the country fifteen minutes before the order to suppress it came to hand. We are now trying to suppress it but I have no idea we shall necessarily.” He also tried to minimize his role in the leak: “There is intense excitement & anxiety here & all over the country & the substance of the news was undoubtedly known to Wall St. an hour before we got our own report and that is always the case when there is important news.”

 


Sources:

The Huntington Library, Art Collections, and Botanical Gardens: Telegraph operators, June 1865, James E. Taylor Collection : Scrapbook One, page 91: Center right (photCL 300, vol. 1, UDID 49338)

The Huntington Library, Art Collections, and Botanical Gardens: Telegraph operators, June 1865, James E. Taylor Collection : Scrapbook One, page 92: Top (photCL 300, vol. 1, UDID 49339)

Mechanics of Telegram Traffic, Getting from A to B

By Daniel Stowell, Director and Editor of the Papers of Abraham Lincoln at the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum.

In response to a query from one of our fantastic volunteers, crmiller211, and prodded by my colleagues Mario Einaudi and Kate Peck, I am going to explain the process of telegram traffic. I am focusing on how message X went from A to B the best I understand it, based on the research I did for the article (see p. 4-8) that walks through the process of decoding a telegram. In terms of actual mechanics, I fear I am no expert on the operation of the telegraph keys themselves.  There are active historical reenactors of the United States Military Telegraph that might be able to address some of those issues.

Message going from A to B. Let’s start with Lincoln, as that’s my guy.

Lincoln writes out a telegram, sometimes on Executive Mansion stationery (1).  If he wants it sent secretly, he writes “Cypher” at the top.  Notoriously bad speller, that Lincoln.  He gives it to Eckert or someone in the telegraph office or has it sent by trusted secretary to the War Department a block from the Executive Mansion.

Abraham Lincoln to Godfrey Weitzel

Abraham Lincoln to Godfrey Weitzel, 12 April 1865, RG 107, Entry 34: Records of the Secretary of War, 1789-1889, Telegrams Sent and Received by the War Department Central Telegraph Office, 1861-1882, Vault, National Archives, Washington, DC.

A cipher telegrapher at the War Department takes Lincoln’s telegram and rewrites it in a grid form (2), perhaps substituting arbitraries as he (almost always men, although I know there were exceptions, but I don’t think at the War Department) does so.  He also likely writes out a separate copy on a slip of paper in transmission order based on the route cipher used (3).

dcw_coded_tel_ex_mssec_18_329_p323_tel666

Telegram from Lincoln to Weitzel, in code, Thomas T. Eckert Papers, mssEC 18, p. 323, The Huntington Library, Art Collections, and Botanical Gardens.

 

If you’re keeping count, that means that there are already three copies of the telegram in Washington.

A telegrapher sends the message, let’s say to General Weitzel in Richmond, Virginia.  As I understand the process, the telegram may have to be intercepted and re-transmitted along the way, depending on the distance, but I’ll skip over that issue for now.  My understanding is also that at least on some messages, the receiving telegrapher repeated back the message to the sender, either in sections or in its entirety to insure correct transmission.

In Richmond, a telegrapher writes down the letters/words as received (4).  A cipher telegrapher then takes that sheet and arranges the words in a grid form according to the route cipher, perhaps substituting clear words for arbitraries as he does so (5).  Then, the telegrapher writes out the message in a clear form for General Weitzel (6).

By my count, that’s at least six copies of the telegram between Lincoln and Weitzel at a minimum, three in Washington and three in Richmond.  This total does not include the possibility of correspondence logs that at least some governors, generals, and others kept of all incoming and outgoing correspondence, which would add additional copies.

Finally, a few observations:

  • An “ordinary” telegrapher could send or receive an encoded message, so long as he did not have access to the code books, but only a cipher telegrapher could encode and decode the messages.  The number of such telegraphers was kept to a minimum by design.
  • Neither Lincoln nor Weitzel would have known the exact nature of the cipher, though Lincoln certainly knew and requested that messages be sent in cipher, as did generals, governors, etc.
  • My guess is that intermediate forms of telegrams were destroyed to cut down on clutter and prevent any “leaks” of information that Confederate agents could use to try to decode the cipher.  In a camp setting, they were likely burned, and perhaps even in cities like Washington and Richmond they were burned as well.  Severely restricting access to the code books was essential to the cipher’s success.
  • If I am right about the above, it would explain the absence of many intermediate forms in the historical record.  The transmission order telegram copy we have for the Lincoln-to-Weitzel telegram about which I wrote is quite rare, perhaps not destroyed because it came at the end of the war.
  • My guess is that the Eckert telegram books are either:
    • Texts 2 (sent) and 5 (received) in the scenario above; or
    • Correspondence log copies of all telegrams that were sent and received that were entered in books, perhaps at the end of each day.

 

 

Visualizing the Eckert Telegram Ledgers

Eckert ledger chart (pdf)

It can be hard to wrap the mind around the idea of 16,000 telegrams. Even when told these are all in 35 ledgers, there are so many variables involved, coded, plaintext, mixed, etc., it can cause one’s mind to spin. So, in order to help understand date ranges within the ledgers, which ledgers have encoded messages, which ledgers are mixed, and which ledgers had sent vs. received messages, we created this chart. In our next phase of the project we will be asking our volunteers to add metadata to the transcribed messages. Years will be important, but some of the messages provide no year, just the the month and day, so this chart will help to complete this task.

But that is in the future, why release the chart now? In light of some comments on the Project Talk boards we thought we would release the chart now. With this chart, our volunteers can look at the Huntington ID for an image. By clicking on the little “i” at the bottom of the image will show the “hdl_id”, e.g. mssEC_08_046. Breaking down the id tells us that the page shown in that image is from ledger 08, and is the 46th consecutive image (note that this is not the page number, we scanned the whole ledger, covers included). With that information one can look a the chart and determine that the messages in ledger 08 on that page were received at the Washington telegraph office between May 1863 and January 1864, and that they were not in code.

Hopefully this will provide some further insight into the collection.

Secrets on the Wire: Anson Stager, Ciphers, and the U.S. Telegraph Office

By Olga Tsapina, Norris Foundation Curator of American Historical Manuscripts at the Huntington Library, Art Collections, and Botanical Gardens

Anson Stager was born on April 20, 1825, in Ontario County, N.Y.; as a teenager he joined the telegraph business which was growing rapidly in the middle of the nineteenth century. He became one of the most important people in telegraphy, and he created the most widely used, and the most successful, secret code employed during the Civil War.

LC_Stager cropped

Anson Stager (photo from Library of Congress)

As a teenager, Stager was apprenticed to Henry O’Reilly, the publisher of the Rochester Daily Advertiser and the local postmaster. O’Reilly became involved in telegraph construction, and in the course of doing so he hired Stager, a self-taught telegrapher, to operate the lines for one of his companies. Stager was appointed to the stations in Lancaster, Harrisburg, and Pittsburgh. In 1848, he was promoted to chief operator of the Cincinnati office of the Pittsburgh, Cincinnati & Louisville Telegraph Company. Stager proved to have a fortuitous combination of skills and interests, and combined his telegraph operating abilities with an interest in electrical engineering. He was known for his technical improvements, most notably a method of operating multiple telegraph lines from a single battery.

In 1852, Stager was appointed general superintendent of a company that would be reorganized as the Western Union Telegraph Company in 1854. In this position, Stager developed a system coordinating the building of the telegraphic lines with railroads. As railroads adopted his system, Stager acquired the exclusive rights-of-way for his company. It was largely due to his efforts that Western Union had grown into one of the largest American companies on the eve of the Civil War.

In the first days of the Civil War, Governor of Ohio William Dennison, wishing to secure Ohio’s border with Virginia, invited Stager to devise a cipher system for telegraphic communication between regional managers.  George B. McClellan – whose organizational abilities and popularity brought a much-needed morale boost to the Union cause – was  appointed to command the Department of the Ohio, which was responsible for the defense of Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Western Virginia, and later the western part of Pennsylvania. McClellan invited Stager to become his superintendent of the military telegraph operations for the entire War Department; he also adopted Stager’s code for all telegraphic communications. Suddenly, Stager found himself with full authority over all telegraph lines in the region, including those belonging to his competitors.

By late 1861, Stager had reorganized the military telegraph office, and his plan was recommended by Thomas Alexander Scott, the Assistant Secretary of War, to President Lincoln, who agreed. Stager’s plan envisioned an expressly civilian company operated by business managers and reporting directly to the Secretary of War.  However, the Office of the Quartermaster would release supplies only to commissioned officers. If the company remained a civilian enterprise, its managers would be personally responsible for all government funds advanced to it, a potential liability. Stager and his managers received officers’ commissions; their subordinates were civilian employees.

On November 11, 1861, Stager was commissioned as a Captain and appointed Assistant Quartermaster. On November 25, special orders assigned him “to duty as general manager of the Government telegraph lines,” with Thomas T. Eckert as his assistant. Under Simon Cameron’ tenure as Secretary of War, Stager’s outfit was known as the Telegraphic Bureau. In February 1862, Congress authorized President Lincoln to take possession of any or all telegraph lines in the country and place them under military control. The administration did no such thing, instead expanding the power of the civilian managers.

On February 26, 1862, the new Secretary of War, Edwin M. Stanton, reorganized the agency as the United States Military Telegraph; Stager became the Superintendent in charge of lines and offices. He was given full authority over the construction of military lines,

RB352125_v2_pl_62_cropped

Gardner’s Photographic Sketch Book of the War  (v.2), Plate 62, U.S. Military Telegraph Construction Corps.

purchase of material, and appointment and removal of officers and operators.  No Army officer, even a general in the field, could interfere in any way with operation of a telegraph post without Stager’s approval.

The United States Military Telegraph was dissolved in February 1866, and Stager returned to Western Union, which had grown into a virtual monopolist in telegraphic communications. With his wartime credentials, Stager promptly moved up the ranks, becoming the company’s vice-president in 1878, but after Jay Gould took over Western Union in 1881, tendered his resignation. Stager was one of the founders of Western Electric Company and served as its president until 1884. In 1882, he became president of Western Edison Electric Company, a position that he held until his death on March 26, 1885.

Add Hooker

mssEC_04_035 cropped.jpg

Wash’n Jan’y 27th /63
Sheldon
Enter the name of Joseph
Hooker cipher the bottom word
on page ten of no
nine to Borgia and berry
are the arbitrary words given
A Stager

Sometimes changes to codebooks required entirely new printings, but occasionally the cipher clerks would only need to add a single entry. In the case of General Joseph Hooker, this late addition may have occurred because he was not commissioned immediately at the start of the war, and only rose to prominence during the Peninsula Campaign of 1862.

Hunger on the Line

hunger on the line - mssEC_28_310 cropped.jpg

9 P July 9
St Louis  “ 9
Maj Eckert
Our Operator and repairer at
Bloomfield are refused rations this
month on my requisition on the
ground that an order been rec’d
from the Comdg Genl prohibiting issue
to the Signal Corps or telegraph operator
it is the only case in the Dept &
must be a misunderstanding but
the Chief Commissary declines to
interfere
G H Smith
Capt &c
DH

Although the telegraph system was vital to the Union war effort, the Signal Corps operated in a strange in-between world that was neither military nor civilian. This message from 1864 is just one illustration of the kind of bureaucratic issues that the operators ran into. Unfortunately we don’t have a record of Eckert’s response, but the issue seems to have been resolved, as there were no further messages from G.H. Smith in this ledger in the following weeks.