Monday, December 27, 2010

Civil War message opened, decoded: No help coming

RICHMOND, Va. — A glass vial stopped with a cork during the Civil War has been opened, revealing a coded message to the desperate Confederate commander in Vicksburg on the day the Mississippi city fell to Union forces 147 years ago.

The dispatch offered no hope to doomed Lt. Gen. John C. Pemberton: Reinforcements are not on the way.

The encrypted, 6-line message was dated July 4, 1863, the date of Pemberton's surrender to Union forces led by Ulysses S. Grant, ending the Siege of Vicksburg in what historians say was a turning point midway into the Civil War.

The message is from a Confederate commander on the west side of the Mississippi River across from Pemberton.

"He's saying, 'I can't help you. I have no troops, I have no supplies, I have no way to get over there,' " Museum of the Confederacy collections manager Catherine M. Wright said of the author of the dispiriting message. "It was just another punctuation mark to just how desperate and dire everything was."

The bottle, less than 2 inches in length, had sat undisturbed at the museum since 1896. It was a gift from Capt. William A. Smith, of King George County, who served during the Vicksburg siege.

It was Wright who decided to investigate the contents of the strange little bottle containing a tightly wrapped note, a .38-caliber bullet and a white thread.

"Just sort of a curiosity thing," said Wright. "This notion of, do we have any idea what his message says?"

The answer was no.

Wright asked a local art conservator, Scott Nolley, to examine the clear vial before she attempted to open it. He looked at the bottle under an electron microscope and discovered that salt had bonded the cork tightly to the bottle's mouth. He put the bottle on a hotplate to expand the glass, used a scalpel to loosen the cork, then gently plucked it out with tweezers.

The sewing thread was looped around the 6 1/2-by-2 1/2-inch paper, which was folded to fit into the bottle. The rolled message was removed and taken to a paper conservator, who successfully unfurled the message.

But the coded message, which appears to be a random collection of letters, did not reveal itself immediately.

Eager to learn the meaning of the code, Wright took the message home for the weekend to decipher. She had no success.

A retired CIA code breaker, David Gaddy, was contacted, and he cracked the code in several weeks.

A Navy cryptologist independently confirmed Gaddy's interpretation. Cmdr. John B. Hunter, an information warfare officer, said he deciphered the code over two weeks while on deployment aboard an aircraft carrier in the Pacific. A computer could have unscrambled the words in a fraction of the time.

"To me, it was not that difficult," he said. "I had fun with this and it took me longer than I should have."

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, seems to suggest a separate delivery to Pemberton would be the code to break the message.

"The date of this message clearly indicates that this person has no idea that the city is about to be surrendered," she said.

The Johnston mention in the dispatch is Gen. Joseph E. Johnston, whose 32,000 troops were encamped south of Vicksburg and prevented from assisting Pemberton by Grant's 35,000 Union troops. Pemberton had held out hope that Johnston would eventually come to his aid.

The message was dispatched during an especially terrible time in Vicksburg. Grant was unsuccessful in defeating Pemberton's troops on two occasions, so the Union commander instead decided to encircle the city and block the flow of supplies or support.

Many in the city resorted to eating cats, dogs and leather. Soup was made from wallpaper paste.

After a six-week siege, Pemberton relented. Vicksburg, so scarred by the experience, refused to celebrate July 4 for the next 80 years.

So what about the bullet in the bottom of the bottle?

Wright suspects the messenger was instructed to toss the bottle into the river if Union troops intercepted his passage. The weight of the bullet would have carried the corked bottle to the bottom, she said.

For Pemberton, the bottle is symbolic of his lost cause: the bad news never made it to him.

The Confederate messenger probably arrived to the river's edge and saw a U.S. flag flying over the city.

"He figured out what was going on and said, 'Well, this is pointless,' and turned back," Wright said.

The Associated Press.

The Diving Horses of Atlantic City

I was doing some last minute shopping the week before Christmas at the Friends of the Gettysburg Library. I believe this is one of the best kept secrets in Adams County for gently used books. I was very excited because I got my hands on a copy of "Letters to Mamie" by Dwight Eisenhower for my dad, as well as a books for my daughters-one of which was about something which I had never heard of before-the diving horses of Atlantic City's Steel Pier. I thought it was a fictitious story, but after doing some digging around on the internet, I found out some very interesting things. I found an amateur clip explaining this in greater detail-my advice while viewing the video is to use the mute button (so you don't have to listen to the music) and overlook the misspelled words:
It is pretty amazing!

Sunday, December 26, 2010

Pictures of the Day

The last part of this year has been quite a blur and it seems I strayed away from one of my favorite pasttimes which is blogging about neat little bits and pieces of information I am always learning about the Civil War here in Gettysburg. I have to approach it from an angle that I have some connection to; and my love of horses lead me to the discovery of some fascinating pictures (I think) I thought it would be fitting to share these as a reminder of how quickly we forget what so many that were here before us have sacrificed for us so we can enjoy the life we have today. My mare Dancer will balk at some of the silliest things; I can't even imagine her surviving as the horse of a civil war soldier!
This is a very rare photo (below)of Little Sorrel taken shortly after Stonewall Jackson was shot from his saddle with a mortal wound. The negative of this photo was destroyed during the fall of Richmond in 1865. The horse is identified as “Old Sorrel” in this photo and was called “Fancy” by Jackson himself. Historically, this horse has been said to be a Morgan but this picture reveals he was probably a type identified as a “Virginia Riding Horse”; mostly thoroughbred.

A Lovely Poem to Share

It's the birthday of poet Thomas Gray, born in London (1716). He wrote Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard (1751), which is considered to be one of the greatest poems in the English language:

The curfew tolls the knell of parting day, The lowing herd wind slowly o’er the lea, The
ploughman homeward plods his weary way, And leaves the world to darkness, and to
Now fades the glimmering landscape on the sight, And all the air a solemn stillness
holds, Save where the beetle wheels his droning flight, And drowsy tinklings lull the
distant folds: Save that from yonder ivy-mantled tower The moping owl does to the
moon complain Of such as, wandering near her secret bower, Molest her ancient
solitary reign.
Beneath those rugged elms, that yew-tree’s shade, Where heaves the turf in many a
mouldering heap, Each in his narrow cell for ever laid, The rude Forefathers of the
hamlet sleep.
The breezy call of incense-breathing morn, The swallow twittering from the straw-built
shed, The cock’s shrill clarion, or the echoing horn, No more shall rouse them from
their lowly bed.
For them no more the blazing hearth shall burn, Or busy housewife ply her evening
care: No children run to lisp their sire’s return, Or climb his knees the envied kiss to
Oft did the harvest to their sickle yield, Their furrow oft the stubborn glebe has broke;
How jocund did they drive their team afield!
How bow’d the woods beneath their sturdy stroke!
Let not Ambition mock their useful toil, Their homely joys, and destiny obscure; Nor
Grandeur hear with a disdainful smile The short and simple annals of the Poor.
The boast of heraldry, the pomp of power, And all that beauty, all that wealth e’er
gave, Awaits alike th’ inevitable hour:The paths of glory lead but to the grave.
Nor you, ye Proud, impute to these the fault If Memory o’er their tomb no trophies
raise, Where through the long-drawn aisle and fretted vault The pealing anthem swells
the note of praise.
Can storied urn or animated bust Back to its mansion call the fleeting breath? Can
Honour’s voice provoke the silent dust, Or Flattery soothe the dull cold ear of Death?
Perhaps in this neglected spot is laid Some heart once pregnant with celestial fire;
Hands, that the rod of empire might have sway’d, Or waked to ecstasy the living lyre:
But Knowledge to their eyes her ample page, Rich with the spoils of time, did ne’er
unroll; Chill Penury repress’d their noble rage, And froze the genial current of the soul.
Full many a gem of purest ray serene The dark unfathom’d caves of ocean bear: Full
many a flower is born to blush unseen, And waste its sweetness on the desert air.
Some village-Hampden, that with dauntless breast The little tyrant of his fields
withstood, Some mute inglorious Milton here may rest, Some Cromwell, guiltless of his
country’s blood.
Th’ applause of list’ning senates to command, The threats of pain and ruin to despise,
To scatter plenty o’er a smiling land, And read their history in a nation’s eyes, Their lot
forbad: nor circumscribed alone Their growing virtues, but their crimes confined;
Forbad to wade through slaughter to a throne, And shut the gates of mercy on
mankind, The struggling pangs of conscious truth to hide, To quench the blushes of
ingenuous shame, Or heap the shrine of Luxury and Pride With incense kindled at the
Muse’s flame.
Far from the madding crowd’s ignoble strife, Their sober wishes never learn’d to stray;
Along the cool sequester’d vale of life They kept the noiseless tenour of their way.
Yet e’en these bones from insult to protect Some frail memorial still erected nigh, With
uncouth rhymes and shapeless sculpture deck’d, Implores the passing tribute of a sigh.
Their name, their years, spelt by th’ unletter’d Muse, The place of fame and elegy
supply: And many a holy text around she strews, That teach the rustic moralist to die.
For who, to dumb forgetfulness a prey, This pleasing anxious being e’er resign’d, Let
the warm precincts of the cheerful day, Nor cast one longing lingering look behind?
On some fond breast the parting soul relies, Some pious drops the closing eye requires;
E’en from the tomb the voice of Nature cries, E’en in our ashes live their wonted fires.
For thee, who, mindful of th’ unhonour’d dead, Dost in these lines their artless tale
relate; If chance, by lonely contemplation led, Some kindred spirit shall inquire thy fate,
Haply some hoary-headed swain may say, ‘Oft have we seen him at the peep of dawn
Brushing with hasty steps the dews away, To meet the sun upon the upland lawn;
‘There at the foot of yonder nodding beech That wreathes its old fantastic roots so high.
His listless length at noontide would he stretch, And pore upon the brook that babbles
‘Hand by yon wood, now smiling as in scorn, Muttering his wayward fancies he would
rove; Now drooping, woeful wan, like one forlorn, Or crazed with car, or cross’d in
hopeless love.
‘One morn I miss’d him on the custom’d hill, Along the heath, and near his favourite
tree; Another came; nor yet beside the rill, Nor up the lawn, nor at the wood was he;
‘The next with dirges due in sad array Slow through the church-way path we saw him
borne,Approach and read (for thou canst read) the lay Graved on the stone beneath yon
aged thorn.’
Here rests his head upon the lap of Earth A Youth, to Fortune and to Fame unknown;
Fair Science frown’d not on his humble birth, And Melancholy mark’d him for her
Large was his bounty, and his soul sincere; Heaven did a recompense as largely send:
He gave to Misery all he had, a tear, He gain’d from Heaven, ‘twas all he wish’d, a
No farther seek his merits to disclose, Or draw his frailties from their dread abode,
(There they alike in trembling hope repose,) The bosom of his Father and his God.