(PICTURES) Civil War Vignere Cipher Code Message in a Bottle Decrypted

by the Left Coast Rebel

I came across this story late last night and did not have time to get around to it until now. Does this ignite your imagination too?:

From The Daily Mail:

A glass vial from 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 encrypted, six-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.

http://i.dailymail.co.uk/i/pix/2010/12/26/article-1341666-0C942BB8000005DC-290_634x295.jpg
AP Image: The Confederate message and the bottle


http://lh3.ggpht.com/_kIWY2DV0KnE/TRgJtVvpWYI/AAAAAAAAIVQ/yzKxQRmoGZk/Civil%20War%20message.jpg
Image: Cipher Vignere encryption zoomed

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.'

. . .

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.

There's a lot more at The Daily Mail. I Googled "vignere cipher code" and then came across a blog called (in the comments at Bayou Renaissance Man's site) Radagast's Third Blog, the author explains the vignere cipher code:

The undelivered message was written in great haste on 4 July 1863 to the Confederate commander in the besieged town of Vicksburg, using a Vigenère cipher, with (as usual) the key phrase "Manchester Bluff." The message is deciphered as follows (correcting a few of the encryption errors, and with C=cipher, K=key, and M=message):
C: SEAN WIEUIIUZH  DTG CNP LBHXGK OZ BJQB FEQT XZBW JJOY
K: MANC HESTERBLU FFM ANC HESTER BL UFFM ANCH ESTE RBLU
M: GENL PEMBERTON: YOU CAN EXPECT NO HELP FROM THIS SIDE

C: TK FHR TPZWK PVU RYSQ VOUPZXGG OEPH CK UASFKIPW PLVO
K: FF MAN CHEST ERB LUFF MANCHEST ERBL UF FMANCHES TERB
M: OF THE RIVER. LET GENL JOHNSTON KNOW IF POSSIBLE WHEN

C: JIZ HMN NVAEUD XYF DURJ BOVPA SF MLV FYYRDE LVPL
K: LUF FMA NCHEST ERB LUFF MANCH ES TER BLUFFM ANCH
M: YOU CAN ATTACK THE SAME POINT ON THE ENEMYS LINE.

C: MFYSIN XY FQEO NPK M OBPC FYXJFHOHT AS ETOV B OCAJDSVQU
K: ESTERB LU FFMA NCH E STER BLUFFMANC HE STER B LUFFMANCH
M: INFORM ME ALSO AND I WILL ENDEAVOUR TO MAKE A DIVERSION.

C: M ZTZV TPHY DAU FQTI UTTJ J DOGOAIA FLWHTXTI QLTR
K: E STER BLUF FMA NCHE STER B LUFFMAN CHESTERB LUFF
M: I HAVE SENT YOU SOME CAPS. I SUBJOIN DESPATCH FROM

C: SEA LVLFLXFO
K: MAN CHESTERB
M: GEN JOHNSTON
Subtraction of letters (M=C-K) is done as if A=1, B=2, etc. In practice, encryption would have been done using a disk like this:

Hat-tip Bayou Renaissance Man

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