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Secret Message From Civil War Siege of Vicksburg Decoded

Ron is a student of the American Civil War and writes about it frequently. His focus is not so much on the battles as on the people.

The Mississippi River at Vicksburg

The Mississippi River at Vicksburg

In the summer of 1863, in the midst of the American Civil War, Confederate General John C. Pemberton was under extreme pressure. A Pennsylvanian who had married a Southern woman and decided to throw in his lot with the seceding states, Pemberton had been placed in charge of what may well have been, at that time, the second most important command (after Robert E. Lee’s army in Virginia) in the entire Confederacy.

Pemberton had been given responsibility for keeping the city of Vicksburg, Mississippi in Confederate hands. Located on a bluff overlooking the Mississippi River, Vicksburg was considered the linchpin holding together the eastern and western halves of the Confederacy. The big guns the Confederates had placed there gave them control of the river. As long as the rebels held onto Vicksburg, they could prevent Union forces from passing up and down that vitally important waterway that President Lincoln called “the Father of Waters.” At the same time, they would be protecting their own ability to send food and war supplies across the river from western states like Texas and Louisiana to the east where they were so badly needed. Both presidents, Abraham Lincoln in the North and Jefferson Davis in the South, considered Vicksburg to be the key to their side winning the war.

Confederate General John C. Pemberton

Confederate General John C. Pemberton

A Desperate General

But now Vicksburg was under siege. Union General Ulysses S. Grant had fought a brilliant campaign that had defeated Pemberton’s army in several battles before bottling it up in the town. Totally cut off from the outside, and with so little food left in the city that both soldiers and civilians were reduced to eating mules, dogs, cats, and even rats, Pemberton and his army were growing desperate. Over and over Pemberton sent messages to General Joseph Johnston, the overall Confederate commander for that theater of the war, pleading with him to send help.

VIDEO: The Siege of Vicksburg

One of the commanders who was notified of Pemberton’s plight was Major General John G. Walker, whose division was posted on the western side of the river. Walker’s force was just a few miles away from Vicksburg. But not only were they on the wrong side of the river, as far as aiding Pemberton was concerned, they were also in pretty bad shape themselves. About a third of Walker’s men were unfit for duty, due to "excessive heat of the weather, deadly malaria of the swamps, [and] stagnant and unwholesome water."

That’s the background to the message Walker sent to Pemberton on July 4, 1863. It was entrusted to a courier who was to row across the Mississippi and deliver it to the besieged and desperate general at Vicksburg.

A Message That Could Not Be Delivered

The message, written on a small piece of paper, 6.5 by 2.5 inches, with sewing thread tied around it, was sealed in a medicine vial with a cork stopper. The vial also contained a .38 caliber bullet, undoubtedly included to insure that the bottle would sink if the courier had to throw it into the river to keep it out of enemy hands.

But what that messenger couldn't keep out of enemy hands was Vicksburg, itself. It was that very same 4th of July that the city and its defenders finally surrendered to General Grant.

When the courier realized he couldn't deliver his message to General Pemberton, he apparently returned the vial, unopened, to Captain William A. Smith, General Walker's Assistant Adjutant-General.

A Mysterious Museum Exhibit

For whatever reason, Captain Smith held on to the message bottle for decades after the war. Finally, in 1896, he decided to donate it to the Museum of the Confederacy in Richmond, Virginia. The museum accepted the gift, putting it on exhibit. And there it remained, still unopened, for more than a century.

Eventually, the museum staff got curious about the message in the bottle, and in 2008 decided to find out what it said. They arranged to have the vial carefully opened by a conservator. Finally, the message penned so long ago could be read!

Except, it couldn't be. The message, containing six lines of text, was in code, and nobody on the museum staff could figure out what it said.

The actual encoded message to General Pemberton

The actual encoded message to General Pemberton

Can You Break the Code?

If you want to take a shot at code breaking, here's the original message:

July 4th (the date was not in code)


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Unable to decipher the message on their own, the museum staff called in retired CIA code breaker David Gaddy, and former Navy cryptologist Commander John Hunter. Working independently, both were able to break the code.

How To Decode The Message

The code breakers discovered that the message was written using what's called a Vigenère cipher, which uses a key phrase to indicate the offset of each letter from its normal place in the alphabet.

In this case the key phrase was one commonly used by the Confederates, MANCHESTER BLUFF. You would repeatedly write that phrase above the letters of the message, then calculate the real letter using the offset indicated by the corresponding letter of the key.

The offset values were straightforward: "A" was an offset of zero (so, since in the coded message the letter under the "A" in MANCHESTER BLUFF is "E", the second letter in the decoded message must also be an "E"). B represents an offset of 1, C an offset of 2, etc.

The Message Decoded

It's probably just as well that Pemberton, with a starving army and desperate for aid, never received the message -- it wasn't very encouraging. Here's what the decoded message says:

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 you some caps [a type of explosive device]. I subjoin a despatch from General Johnston.

Pemberton had already realized he would receive no help from General Johnston, who simply didn't have a large enough army to attack Grant. Now, General Walker, too, was letting Pemberton know he was entirely on his own.

If General Pemberton hadn't already decided that he couldn't hold out any longer, receiving General Walker's message might have been the final straw that pushed him into surrendering Vicksburg to General Grant.

© 2017 Ronald E Franklin


Ronald E Franklin (author) from Mechanicsburg, PA on October 18, 2017:

Thanks much, Cynthia. I never was much of a cryptogram person, so I had no hope of cracking the code.

Cynthia Zirkwitz from Vancouver Island, Canada on October 17, 2017:

Wow, the code took me back to the newspaper Cryptograms my paternal grandmother used to enjoy 'cracking'. And the code 'books' and games of my childhood.

Besides enjoying this interesting article, I want to congratulate you on your selection for the year's HubPages honours! Good work (as ever)! ~Cynthia

Ronald E Franklin (author) from Mechanicsburg, PA on June 08, 2017:

Thanks, Lawrence. I, too, found it a fascinating story. In fact, there are many incidents of the siege of Vicksburg that are still of compelling interest today.

Lawrence Hebb on June 08, 2017:


Fascinating read here, I'd heard of the battle of Vicksburg, but didn't know too much else, this was a great read

Liz Elias from Oakley, CA on May 13, 2017:

LOL--well, my hubby used to also work in the computer field, as both a repair tech, and as a hardware/software configuration manager. And he's worked on most all brands... ;-)

Ronald E Franklin (author) from Mechanicsburg, PA on May 12, 2017:

Liz, as a retired IBMer, I'm not sure whether I want to claim that identification with HAL or not.

Liz Elias from Oakley, CA on May 12, 2017:

Another P.S. I just remembered this one, pointed out by my husband some years ago:

One-Letter Offset Code Key:

Starting the initial normal key with the alphabet in correct order, underneath it, copy the alphabet again in correct order, except for beginning with "Z" and continuing in the proper order from there, omitting "Z" at the end.

To encode, use letters from the top row, and substitute for its companion letter just below. To decode, go the opposite direction.

Using this key, it is easily figured out that the “HAL” computer from 2001, A Space Odyssey, was a thinly veiled commercial ad placement for IBM!

FitnezzJim from Fredericksburg, Virginia on May 12, 2017:

Ron? I think the message would have been straightforward to decrypt, provided both the sender and the receiver had a common understanding of the method used. We would have to ask someone who is knowledgeable on how the signals folks of the Civil War era were taught to know if, in this case, sender and receiver may have had different understandings of method and keyword. In other words, taught one method, maybe did not pay attention in class, and then used another method.

My recall from trying to learn about Vigenere is that the system was developed in the 1500's. Even though the system was known, it was indeed considered near unbreakable by a third party (anyone who intercepted the message) if they were not aware of the method and keywords (or keystream) used. It would also be difficult and slow to break if sender and receiver had different understandings of the method used.

You indicate that the Museum of the Confederacy in Richmond, Virginia held the bottle and message. If I can get down that way, I'll stop in and ask about it. Would you be 'ok' with me sharing this article with them?

Ronald E Franklin (author) from Mechanicsburg, PA on May 11, 2017:

Thanks so much, MsDora. I thought some readers might have fun trying to work it out before, like me, they gave up in frustration!

Ronald E Franklin (author) from Mechanicsburg, PA on May 11, 2017:

FitnezzJim, it's great that you really gave deciphering the message a try. I have to admit that from the beginning I knew it was far too difficult for me. I wonder whether Union codebreakers in that cryptologically less sophisticated time could have decoded the message if the bottle had fallen into their hands.

Dora Weithers from The Caribbean on May 11, 2017:

Interesting story told by a great story teller. The way you included the letter and solicited help to solve it was brilliant. Suddenly the reader was involved in solving the mystery. Brilliant!

Ronald E Franklin (author) from Mechanicsburg, PA on May 11, 2017:

Thelma, I remember seeing something about the message in Lincoln's watch a few years ago. It's another reminder that history is about real people living multifaceted lives. Thanks for reading.

Thelma Raker Coffone from Blue Ridge Mountains, USA on May 11, 2017:

Ron, like you, I am a lover of history. However, I had not heard about this message in a bottle. It reminds me of a hub I wrote about the secret message inside Lincoln's watch. You can always learn something new in history!

FitnezzJim from Fredericksburg, Virginia on May 11, 2017:

Ok, so ... I played with it long enough to see that I can use the key 'MANCHESTER BLUFF' as the indexing pattern, with some encryption mistakes jumping out rather quickly. For instance MANCHAWTEBLAFF was used for the first try at MANCHESTER BLUFF (drops a letter from Pemberton, and perhaps masks the eventual key), and two occurrences of the FEQT (messes up the following translation). I stopped at that point, realizing that maybe this is why the battle was lost.

True Vigenere would have used the words MANCHESTER and BLUFF for two different phases of the encryption.

BTW, I'm an amateur at this stuff, so I could be confused about what qualifies as Vigenere and what does not, but I can say the system here is different from and simpler than what the folks trying to solve Kryptos call a Vigenere system.

FitnezzJim from Fredericksburg, Virginia on May 11, 2017:

This is a fascinating article. I particularly like the part about the Vigenère cipher, since that is the cipher used in two of the three solved parts of the encrypted sculpture Kryptos.

The explanation of the Vigenere system is different from how the Kryptos system is described. In Kryptos, the system is described as two keywords, one to generate a scrambled alphabet (as in substitution systems), and the second keyword to generate offsets in the starting point of the scramble alphabet similar to what you describe.

Now that I'm confused, let me go try this.

Ronald E Franklin (author) from Mechanicsburg, PA on May 11, 2017:

Thanks, Eric. I find history endlessly fascinating, and I enjoy sharing some of the lesser-known events that still have resonance today.

Ronald E Franklin (author) from Mechanicsburg, PA on May 11, 2017:

Thanks, CJ. In my opinion Vicksburg was as much a turning point of the war as was Gettysburg. So I agree, it's a must-see site.

Ronald E Franklin (author) from Mechanicsburg, PA on May 11, 2017:

Liz, I don't know specifically if that method of coding was ever used, but I wouldn't be surprised if it had been. I think the Confederates seemed pretty confident that the Vigenère cipher was effective.

Eric Dierker from Spring Valley, CA. U.S.A. on May 11, 2017:

That is just some really cool stuff. You are a great writer of history, thank you.

CJ Kelly from the PNW on May 11, 2017:

Great hub, Ron. Vicksburg has always been on must see list. Thx. Sharing everywhere.

Ronald E Franklin (author) from Mechanicsburg, PA on May 10, 2017:

Thanks, Liz. I admire people like your mom. I used to do crossword puzzles, but was only successful with the simple ones. The New York Times puzzle was way beyond me - I never came close. Interestingly, in WW2 one of the ways the British recruited their codebreakers was by looking for people who were good at crossword puzzles.

Liz Elias from Oakley, CA on May 10, 2017:

P.S. I just thought of another way to make a cipher more difficult: by deliberate misspelling of words to their phonetic equivalent, or their equivalent as follows rules of pronunciation. E.g., "ghoti" can spell "fish." "GH" as in the word "cough," "O" as in the word, "women," and "TI" as in the word "nation."

Alternately, a straight phonetic spelling of any word with complex spelling, such as, "fezant," instead of "pheasant." ;-)

Liz Elias from Oakley, CA on May 10, 2017:

Interesting! I did not try it; I'm not so good at those kinds of puzzles. However, my mother would have loved to tackle it. I don't know if she could have gotten it, either, but she sure would have given it a valiant try!

She LOVED crossword puzzles; the harder, the better, even doing ones where the clues were often puns or riddles. She was also expert at doing the cryptograms in the daily paper. Those, too, are a substitution cipher of sorts. She had a strategy for solving those. I don't think, however, that she ever tried one requiring a key phrase.

Ronald E Franklin (author) from Mechanicsburg, PA on May 10, 2017:

Virginia, I'm sure a battlefield tour at Vicksburg must be fascinating, and it's something I'd love to do some day. Thanks for reading!

Virginia Kearney from United States on May 10, 2017:

Interesting article! I visited the site of Vicksburg with my father many years ago. We went on a "Civil War battlefield tour" together and it started my interest in that period of time in American history.

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