Thursday, June 30, 2016

News---Lend A Hand at Cracking the U.S. Military Telegraph's Encoded Messages Sent During the Civil War

Here’s Your Chance to Decode President Lincoln’s Secret Messages, Edward Rothstein, the Wall Street Journal, June 21, 2016.

A crowd sourced initiative in which anyone can help decipher Civil War telegrams, including messages from Lincoln himself is begin offered by the Huntington Library. The trove of nearly 16,000 Civil War telegrams, formerly belonging to Thomas T. Eckert, are being transcribed and decoded with the help of crowdsourcing platform Zooniverse.org. 

On April 12, 1865—three days after Gen. Robert E. Lee surrendered at Appomattox and two days before President Abraham Lincoln was assassinated—the president sent a telegram to Maj. Gen. Godfrey Weitzel, whose Union forces were occupying Richmond, Va., the former Confederate capital. The message alluded to some of the issues faced by the conquerors. Would churches in the defeated city be permitted to open that Sunday?

Would they be required to offer the customary prayer for the president—now of a newly reunited nation? Lincoln’s telegram begins: “Whats next news I the prayers I to while coming star what you you mean dispatch zebra I you spirit there understanding any if the piloted your offer there such of any and have was I to Emma never seen of of no toby Zodiac…”

The message was written in code. During the war, a large number of such messages had been intercepted by the Confederacy but never deciphered. The Confederacy even took out advertisements in newspapers futilely seeking assistance.

Now, the Huntington Library, Art Collections and Botanical Gardens is requesting similar aid in its project “Decoding the Civil War,” collaborating with the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum, North Carolina State University’s Digital History and Pedagogy Project, and Zooniverse.org., a “crowdsourcing” platform associated with several academic and research institutions. Scans of 15,971 telegrams handled by the U.S. Military Telegraph office during the Civil War have just been put online.


About a hundred were sent by Lincoln; about 5,400 are enciphered. A selection of the pocket-sized code books used to translate the ciphers have also been scanned.During the first phase of this multiyear project, the transcriptions of these handwritten pages will be “crowd sourced”: anybody can register with Zooniverse—some 75,000 participants are expected—and be guided through the process. Collaborative deciphering will begin in the fall—a process that may have its difficulties since some code books did not survive. A combination of software and human scrutiny will evaluate and combine the public contributions. This method is expected to be more efficient than what could be accomplished by the institutions alone.

Before 2009, no one knew these telegrams still existed. The Military Telegraph office at the War Department was one of the crucial links in the Union Army. Lincoln often peered over operators’ shoulders as the messages were sent and received. When the director of that office, Thomas T. Eckert (1825-1910), retired in 1867, there were no laws governing ownership of public documents. He took with him some 35 ledger books along with code books and records of correspondence.

These records were believed lost, making a reappearance only when they were acquired from Eckert’s descendants and sold at auction in 2009 for $36,000. When they were again put up for sale in 2012, their historical value was better recognized. After the government decided it could not afford the Eckert papers, the Huntington, which has one of the most important Lincoln collections in the country, purchased them for an undisclosed sum.

Coding a Union message was laborious. It would first be written out in a grid with dimensions specified by the code, one word per box. The code book would also list two possible substitutes for each important word or person. In the Weitzel telegram, for example, “President of the United States” could have been replaced by either “Bologna” or “Bolivia.” In the text the time “9 AM” is coded as “Emma,” “Richmond” as “Galway” and “Rebel as “Walnut.” Punctuation is also replaced: a period becomes “Zodiac.” This new grid of words—all of them real (thus minimizing typos)—would then be reordered by moving along columns and rows according to rules in the code book.

As long as you had that book, you could work out the message. Six of some 10 code books now survive, with four in the Huntington and others in the possession of the George C. Marshall Foundation; one of the great cryptographers of the 20th century, William F. Friedman (1891-1969), had rescued them as they were about to be incinerated as trash. In some cases, missing code books will make the project’s deciphering particularly challenging.

And what of Lincoln’s message to Weitzel? What was to happen with Richmond’s Sunday prayers? Lincoln may have had his Second Inaugural message in mind, “with malice toward none, with charity for all.” He had visited Richmond’s ruins and instructed Weitzel to “let ’em up easy.” Weitzel decided the churches would open that Sunday; no loyalty prayer would be required, but no prayers asserting contrary loyalties would be permitted. War Secretary Edwin Stanton objected to the apparent leniency, but in his coded telegram, Lincoln did not. Decrypted and freed of references to a zebra, Zodiac and Emma, one sentence reads: “I have no doubt you have acted in what appeared to you to be the spirit and temper manifested by me while there.”

Text Source: The Wall Street Journal  
Top Image Source: Plaque commemorating members of the U.S. Military Telegraph Corps from Allegheny County, Pennsylvania. Location: Soldiers and Sailors Memorial Hall, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania 

Second Image Source: Library of Congress

1 comment:

Robert Hilliard said...

What a fantastic opportunity! The chance to truly decode an actual Civil War-era cipher and contribute to historical research while doing so? It boggles my mind.

I cannot wait to take a crack at this. My son and I will be hard at it the moment we have the time to do so.

Thanks a million for posting the article!