Confederate Cypher Disc

A Rebel Cipher Dispatch

Internal Struggle: The Civil War

~ BY ~


Adapted from a chapter in Ralph E. Weber's,
"Masked Dispatches: Cryptograms and Cryptology in American History, 1775-1900."
National Security Agency, Center for Cryptologic History, 1993.

       The greatest threat to the survival of the young republic came not from an external foe but from internal division. The secession of South Carolina in December 1860, followed by other Southern states and the formation of a rival Confederate States of America early the following year, left the Northern states in possession of the capital in Washington but bereft of the talent and territory that ‘went south.” The four-year struggle that ensued was extraordinary in several respects. At the outset there were few, if any, secrets. Southerners had been at the seat of power for decades. For example, former Mississippi senator Jefferson Davis, chairman of the Senate Military Affairs Committee prior to his resignation, had been an outstanding secretary of war under President Franklin Pierce. West Point trained, a combat hero of the War with Mexico, he took his experience into the presidency of the rival Confederacy. His counterpart, Abraham Lincoln, had no comparable qualifications but possessed talents and ability that would well serve the Union cause, as well as a competent cabinet. One was locked into patterns of the past; the other was a “quick study.”

       The contending forces spoke the same language, shared the same social institutions, including an un-muzzled press and a tendency to express oneself freely on any subject. Military knowledge was shared in common--former classmates at the service academies and peacetime friends would meet in battle. They knew each other’s strengths and weaknesses, and they eagerly devoured reports, in the press and through intelligence sources, of the names of opposing commanders. Each harbored sympathizers with the other side, the basis for espionage and a potential fifth column. Neither inherited any competence in information security nor an appreciation for operational security. Those things would be learned the hard way--the American way--accompanied by bloodshed.

       From the standpoint of communication technology, the mid-nineteenth century had seen the introduction of electromagnetic telegraph--the inventions and variations of Morse, Bain, and others since the 1840s--and an initially abortive attempt at a transatlantic cable. British forces in the Crimea had used the telegraph for strategic lines, but mobile, operational use was an American Civil War innovation. Of comparable importance to military communication technology and cryptology, a point-to-point visual system (a flag by day, torches by night) had been adopted by the War Department just prior to the war. Whereas the wire telegraph required physical contact for interception, the visual system, devised by an assistant army surgeon, Albert James Myer of New York, was susceptible to anyone else who could see the signals.

       The Myer system, later known as wig-wag, featured a single flag, waved to the left or right somewhat like the binary dot-and-dash of today’s International Morse Code. The flag used was selected to contrast with the signalman’s background, as viewed from the distant point, usually a white flag with a red square or a red flag with a white square. At night the flag was replaced with a torch (a second torch was placed at the feet of the operator to serve as a reference point). These primitive implements of the first practical tactical military system of telecommunication are recalled even today in the insignia of the Army Signal Corps. They remained in supply until at least the First World War as an alternate means of signaling Morse. They were light, easily improvised, and cheap. With range extended through relays and the use of telescopes, the Myer system lent itself to a hierarchical overlay of the command structure in some instances (enabling an early form of “traffic analysis” and anticipating the advent of wireless telegraphy later in the century). As a companion to Morse, they made an excellent combination for the time. Wiretapping, signal interception and exploitation, authentication or identification systems (countersigns), the “war of wits” between “code making and code breaking” for Americans truly stemmed from the American Civil War; and Myer’s system, as well as the organizational concept of a corps of trained communicators, made an impact on other armies of the world.

       One of the many ironies of the American Civil War was that a colleague of Myer, detailed to assist him in perfecting his system to the satisfaction of the War Department just before the war, served the South. Edward Porter Alexander of Georgia was a West Point graduate military engineer. With the secession of his state, Alexander opted for the Southern cause and was charged by President Jefferson Davis with organizing a signal corps to serve Confederate forces facing Washington. With the advance of the Federal army toward Manassas (Bull Run), Virginia, in the spring of 1861, Alexander found himself on an elevation that afforded an excellent view of the developing battle. A chance glance revealed a critical enemy flanking movement that endangered his side. Grabbing a flag, he frantically waved to attract the attention of one of his trainees: “LOOK TO YOUR LEFT - YOU ARE TURNED.”  The tactical warning, as well as demonstration of tactical communication, made quite an impression on generals of both sides. Myer subsequently used Alexander’s exploit to petition Congress to organize a signal corps for the North, even as his erstwhile student and colleague established the system in the South.

       Sharing the same operational concept for signaling, Myer and Alexander prudently changed the basic code, or “alphabet,” as it was generally called at the time, from the one the two men had originally used (based on the binary Bain code, with which Myer was personally familiar, as opposed to the four-element code of American Morse). They settled down in the fall of 1861, until observant members of both organizations came to realize, through close observation, that the flag “code” was actually a simple substitution cipher, and that, by applying the rules of Poe’s “The Gold Bug,” it could be readily broken. Thus began American signals intelligence and the “war of wits,” as each struggled to read the other and protect his own signals. Wire-tapping and manipulation added another dimension to the cryptologic war.

Joseph Hooker’s Union Code Book ~ Photo: National Cryptologic Museum

       American cryptography of the period was little advanced from that of the Revolutionary era. The Confederate leadership initially fell back on the old “dictionary” cipher, in which the correspondents agree on a book held in common (generally a dictionary, both for vocabulary and convenience of arrangement) and designate plain text by substituting the page and position from the book. Simple ciphers abounded, some with mysterious-looking symbols instead of letters, presumed to offer greater security. In the North, as telegraphers (frequently little more than teenage boys) were pressed into service and formed into the U.S. Military Telegraph (USMT), a rival of Myer’s signal corps, a word, or route, transposition system was adopted and became widespread. It gave the telegraphers recognizable words, an asset in this early stage of copying Morse “by ear,” that helped to reduce garbles. Code names or code words replaced sensitive plain text before it was transposed, and nulls disrupted the sense of the underlying message. Only USMT telegraphers were permitted to hold the system, thereby becoming cipher clerks as well as communicators for their principals, and the entire organization was rigidly controlled personally by the secretary of war. In the War Department telegraph office near the secretary, President Lincoln was a frequent figure from the nearby White House, anxiously hovering over the young operators as they went about their work.

       In the South, although a Confederate States Military Telegraph was organized (in European fashion, under the Postmaster General), it was limited to supplementing the commercial telegraph lines. (“System” would not convey the proper idea, for the Southern lines were in reality a number of independent operations, some recently cut off from their northern ties by the division of the nation and reorganized as Southern companies.) Throughout the war, the Confederate government paid for the transmission of its official telegrams over commercial lines. Initially the Southern operator found peculiar digital texts coming his way (the dictionary system), then scrambled, meaningless letters, begging to be garbled. The poly-alphabetical cipher used for official cryptograms offered none of the easily recognizable words that provided a crutch for his Northern brother.

       A number of events and circumstances had led to this primitive attitude toward communication security. In the era before the war, the public had been fascinated with the deciphering of Egyptian hieroglyphics by Champollion (1790—1832), resulting from the discovery of the Rosetta Stone by Napoleon’s troops in Egypt in 1799. The flourishing rediscovery of the mysteries of ancient Egypt was reflected in the growth of fraternal organizations, with secrecy, symbols, and ciphers part of their appeal. The popularity of Poe’s writings has already been noted. The cost of telegraphy would spur interest in commercial codes that would reduce costs. And perhaps some then living had perused Dr. William Blair’s article, “Cipher,” in Rees’s Cyclopaedia, but lacked the incentive to exploit it.

       Against this background of innovation, embryonic technology, and innocence, the Civil War stands as something of a watershed, and the seeds and sprouts of cryptology are evident at every turn. In 1862, the South adopted the centuries-old Vigenčre as its principal official cipher, then proceeded to violate its inherent strengths for the time by such practices as retaining plaintext word length, interspersing plain text and cipher, etc. A cipher that Alexander (who introduced the system through a pamphlet produced by his brother) had anticipated would be used with care, and primarily for short messages, was abused in the worst way, and Southern telegraphy compounded the problem of communication by garbling the cryptograms. Confronted with the knowledge that the enemy was reading his signals, the two sides initially reacted similarly, by changing the basic code, complicating life for themselves by losing the letter frequency association with the simpler signals. By 1863 the two sides went in different directions. The South went “off-line,” enciphering important messages with the Vigenčre, then transmitting with a flag code that might or might not be “read” by the enemy. The North, on the other hand, adopted a handy “on-line” means of changing the basic flag code by prearrangement or at will, even within the act of transmission. This was done with a disk, in which the alphabet on the inner disk revolved against an outer ring of flag combination, enabling an instant change of code. With each year of the war, the two sides became more sophisticated, and yet, within weeks of Appomattox, each was still able to exploit the communications of the other--at least, at times--while secure in the belief that the other side could not possibly read friendly signals.

       Although William Blair’s turn-of-the-century essay, “Cipher,” would have familiarized the reader with word transposition, or route cipher, as it was known in the 1860s, the man credited with introducing the system into American usage was Anson Stager hardly a “household” name even among professional cryptologists or Civil War scholars, but deserving of recognition. The small band of USMT telegrapher-cipher operators who had never heard of the Duke of Argyll knew their cipher only as Stager’s. It was a system of, by, and for telegraphers. And, although scornfully disparaged by “the father of American cryptology,” William F. Friedman, it served its purpose--which is about all one can ask of a cryptosystem.

Anson Stager

       Stager, a New Yorker (like Myer), was born in 1833. He began his working life as a printer’s devil in an office under Henry O’Reilly (who became a leader in telegraph construction and management), then bookkeeper for a small newspaper before becoming a telegraph operator in Philadelphia and later Lancaster, Pennsylvania. Rapid promotion followed: after a brief time as telegraph office manager in Pittsburgh, he became, in his early thirties, general superintendent of the Western Union Telegraph Company, with headquarters in Cleveland, Ohio. Stager’s early employment made him sympathetic with newsmen and their relations with the telegraph companies. Also, he convinced railroad executives that their companies could profit handsomely by permitting his company to share use of the railroad telegraph lines.

       Soon after the outbreak of the Civil War, Stager took over responsibility for all of the telegraph lines in the Ohio military district, which placed him in association with a recent railroad executive who was also a West Point graduate and general of volunteers, George B. McClellan, who was to become prominent in the second year of the war for the Union cause. Stager made up a simple version of word transposition for the governor of Ohio to use in communication with the chief executives in Indiana and Illinois. At General McClellan’s Cincinnati home, Stager provided him with a similar system, to be used between the general and detective Allen C. Pinkerton, whom McClellan employed as his intelligence and secret service chief. Stager accompanied McClellan’s forces and established the first system of field telegraphs used in the war: “The wire followed the army headquarters wherever that went, and the enemy were confounded by the constant and instant communications kept up between the Union army in the field and the Union government at home.” When the President took control of all of the telegraph lines in the northern states, telegraphers from the commercial lines and railroads were brought into government service, Stager among them. Loosely organized at first, the U.S. Military Telegraph was placed under Stager. Initially its members were contract employees of the War Department, but, as civilians in a combat area, their status was brought into question. They were issued uniforms, but with no insignia of rank--were they to be saluted or given orders? Finally, they were brought into military service under the Quartermaster General (albeit under the direct control of the secretary of war), and Stager was commissioned a colonel. His route ciphers became the only accepted system for the USMT, and, since its operators were assigned to virtually all general officers, were the “mainline” or general Union cipher, the Signal Corps’ transmission security encryption notwithstanding.

       In his “Lectures,”2 William F. Friedman said, “I know no simpler or more succinct description of the route cipher than that given by one of the USMT operators, J.E. O’Brien, in an article in Century Magazine, XXXVIII, September 1889, entitled “Telegraphing in Battle”:

       The principle of the cipher consisted in writing a message with an equal number of words in each line, then copying the words up and down the columns by various routes, throwing in an extra word at the end of each column, and substituting other words for important names and verbs.

       "A more detailed description in modern technical terms,” Friedman continued, “would be as follows: a system in which in encipherment the words of the plaintext message are inscribed within a matrix of a specified number of rows and columns, inscribing the words within the matrix from left to right, in successive lines and rows downward as in ordinary writing, and taking the words out of the matrix, that is, transcribing them, according to a prearranged route to form the cipher message.” Friedman also noted that, while the basic principle, that of transposition, makes the “Stager” system a cipher, its incorporation of code words (or “arbitraries,” as Stager called them) makes it “technically a code system as defined in our modern terminology” (or simply “cryptosystem,” to avoid being more definitive). Among its features, the system also employed what Stager termed “blind” or “check” words--nulls, we would say. These were generally placed at the end (top or bottom, depending on direction) of a column, signifying “turn here.” Blind words also distorted the true dimensions of the matrix. “Commencement words,” we would call them indicators, or key words, placed in the first group of the cipher text indicated the dimensions of the matrix used and/or the route pattern to be followed.

       Friedman was harsh in his assessment of Stager’s creation. It was “utterly devoid... of the degree of sophistication one would be warranted in expecting in the secret communications of a great modern army in the decade 1860—1870, three hundred years after the birth of modern cryptography in the papal states of Italy.” He found it improbable that the Confederates could not readily exploit it, and preferred to credit them with superior security that hid their success. He did concede to Stager’s system some surprisingly modern features, features that recall the background of its prominence in a printing shop as well as telegraphy:

       As skill developed, the practitioners freely indulged in phonetic or intentional misspelling of words, somewhat akin to today’s “cablese” or ham slang, but intended as much to confuse the outsider as to communicate with the initiated. They also introduced more and more code word equivalents for personalities, places, dates and time, and the vocabulary of battle, even to the extent of brief phrases. Friedman realized that code books were printed with the plaintext equivalent blank, to facilitate reallocation without reprinting. (He seems not to have appreciated the fact that, in addition to the eleven or twelve “mainline” codes known to him, there were numerous lower level or departmental codes, not used with Washington, but controlled through the USMT.)

       His study revealed that words and contemporary names expected to appear in a military context were intentionally used as code words or indicators to confuse a would-be analyst (whose approach to solution would be closely akin to anagramming). He noted a “two-letter differential “in the selection of code words, “a feature found only (otherwise) in codebooks of a much later date.” “This principle,” he stated, “is employed by knowledgeable code compilers to this very day, because it enables the recipient of a message not only to detect errors in transmission or reception, but to correct them.” He noted that indicators and code words were prescribed with variants and that they were not in alphabetical order, and concluded that “these books partake somewhat of the nature of two-part or ‘randomized’ codes, or, in British terminology, ‘hatted’ codes.” “The compilers of the (USMT) code books must have had a very clear idea of what I have just explained, but they made a compromise of a practical nature between a strictly one-part and a strictly two-part code, because they realized that a code of latter sort is twice as bulky as one of the former sort, besides being much more the laborious to compile and check the contents for accuracy.”

       Although Friedman noted that “it is to be remembered, of course, that messages were then transmitted by wire telegraphy, not by radio, so that enemy messages could be obtained only by “tapping” telegraph wires or capturing couriers or headquarters with their files intact,” one wonders whether his harsh judgment of the Stager system was not based on later, radio era, considerations than those of the time. There were several instances in which Southern officers came into possession of USMT books (which were thereupon replaced), thus the type of cryptosystem was presumably known to the Confederacy. The problem was lack of volume: this was not the radio era. Interception was hit or miss, for the most part. Codes were localized. Perhaps the best example of the Confederate perplexity is afforded through the experience of E.P. Alexander, the father of the Confederate Army Signal Corps, who, in mid-war (1863) was handed a Union cryptogram taken from a captured courier and asked if he could read it.3 One message, on the spot. Alexander knew he was confronted by a word transposition (recalling it for his family, he referred to it as a sort of “jumble,” a charming and apt term) and by seizing on a local place name of two parts not afforded code equivalents he tried anagramming, but to no success. Here is his account:

“At this camp, I remember, one night just as I was going to sleep, particularly tired & sleepy, a courier from Gen. Bragg brought me a cipher dispatch captured from the enemy on its way up to Gen. Burnside at Knoxville; with the request that I would try & decipher it.    It was a letter of 157 words all in a jumble beginning as follows:

To Jaque Knoxville, Enemy the increasing they go period this as fortified into some be it and Kingston direction you up cross numbers Wiley boy Burton & if will too in far strongly go ought surely free without your which it ought and between or are greatly for pontoons front you we move as be stores you not to delay spare should least to probably us our preparing Stanton from you combinedly between to oppose fortune roanoke rapid we let possible speed if him that and your time a communication can me at this news in so complete with the crossing keep move hear once more no from us open and McDowell julia five thousand ferry (114) the you must driven at them prisoners artillery men pieces wounded to Godwin relay horses in Lambs (131)of and yours truly quick killed Loss the over minds ten snow two deserters Bennet Gordon answer also with across day (152)

“I had never seen a cipher of this character before, but it was very clear that it was simply a disarrangement of words, what may be called, for short, a jumble. Each correspondent, of course, had what was practically a list of the natural numbers, say from one up to 50, or whatever limit was used, taken in an agreed jumble, as for instance beginning 19, 3, 41, 22, &c. Then, the first word of the cipher would be the 19th of the genuine message, the 2nd cipher would be 3rd of message, the 3rd cipher would be 41st, &c.

“Now, it was quite clear that if the jumble covered only 75 or 50 words or less, it would have been used twice or more times in ciphering 157 words. If it were used twice or three times, I could, by comparison & trail, probably decipher the whole business. But if the jumble was not repeated, I could never decipher it without getting another message in the same jumble in order to compare the two.

“So my first task was to see if the jumble was repeated in the message. To do this, I first numbered all the words of the cipher, & then began to hunt for words which probably went together like ‘according to’ ‘means of ‘so that.’ First I picked out as many of such likely pairs as I could find. Then, I would take one of these pairs, & note how many words separated them in the cipher. Then I would go over the whole cipher message, & see if, any where else, the same interval separated two words which would possibly make sense. If I could find such a pair, the interval between these two pairs might be the size of the jumble. Without going into more detail, it is enough to say that I worked on it the whole live long night, but every test showed that the jumble was not repeated. I found one pair of words which certainly belonged together, ‘Lambs’ & ‘ferry’--for there was a ‘Lamb’s Ferry’ on the Tennessee River. But it only made the demonstration absolute that the jumble was not repeated. I afterward found that the Federals made their jumbles by means of diagrams of rows & columns, writing up & down in different orders & then taking the words across; but the principles of jumbling are the same, however it is mechanically done. And the safety of the message depends on the jumble not being repeated. They also used some blind words to further confuse the cipher. This made, indeed, a most excellent cipher, quick & easy, both to write & to decipher, which is a very great advantage. But there is one objection to it, in that it required a book, & that book might get into wrong hands.”

The message Alexander tried unsuccessfully to unravel is as follows:


Chattanooga, October 16, 1863 —7p.m.

Major-General Burnside,

Knoxville, Tenn.:

       The enemy are preparing pontoons and increasing on our front. If they cross between us you will go up, and probably we too. You ought to move in the direction, at least as far as Kingston, which should be strongly fortified, and your spare stores go into it without delay. You ought to be free to oppose a crossing of the river, and with your cavalry to keep open complete and rapid communications between us, so that we can move combinedly on him. Let me hear from you, if possible, at once. No news from you in ten days. Our cavalry drove the rebel raid across the Tennessee at Lamb’s Ferry, with loss to them of 2,000 killed, wounded, prisoners, and deserters; also five pieces of artillery.



Answer quick.

       Here is how it came to be in the form that confronted Alexander (see figures 1, 2, and 3). Partly to conceal the true addressee, the message is addressed (in the usual style of the USMT) to the telegrapher-cipher operator serving him. In this case, it was Charles W. Jacques at Knoxville. “ENEMY” is a “commencement word” (system indicator) from Cipher No. 9 setting out a 10-line, 6-column transposition matrix with the plain text inscribed in the normal left-to-right manner, code words (“arbitraries”) substituted for sensitive names or terms as assigned. (Note that the system had not anticipated place names such as Lamb’s Ferry and Kingston, requiring that they be given “in the clear,” and affording Alexander a modest crutch in the former case.) The pattern for extracting the transposition is to read down the third column (starting with “the increasing they. . . To” and adding a null or “blind word,” in this case, “some,” to frustrate cryptanalysis and to indicate “change pattern”) up the fourth (with null, “boy” at the top), down the second, up the fifth, down the first, and up the fifth. This covers the first sixty words of the message. Parts 2 and 3 are treated as separate cryptograms. “STANTON” (there would, of course, have been no initial capitalization in telegraphic transmission) sets up a 6 X 6 matrix with the pattern commencing in a diagonal from the lower right-hand (“from”) cell to the upper left-hand (“oppose”), where “fortune” is inserted as a pattern-changing null. The extraction continues down the first column with the codeword ROANOKE masking “cavalry” and SPEED as a null; up the sixth column, starting with “IF”; down the second; up the fifth; down the third; and up the forth. “MCDOWELL” is an alternative to STANTON, setting up the same matrix and pattern as used in Part 2, ending with JULIA indicating the time of origin of the message.

·       Substituted code words are in parenthesis. Words outside of the matrix are nulls.

(Fig. 1.)
ENEMY (System Indicator)

(Fig. 2.)
STANTON (System Indicator)

(Fig. 3.)
MCDOWELL (System Indicator)
[7 P. M.]

       Reviewing Alexander’s explanation (and allowing for copying errors), it is evident that the numbers inserted in parentheses are his interpolation of word-count. He did not deduce that the message was in parts--actually, constituting three separate cryptograms of two different transposition patterns. He correctly paired “Lambs” and “Ferry” from his knowledge of a local place name, but his analysis was based on the assumption that a numerical relationship would yield a solution, which led to frustration and failure to solve the system. Unless he had read about the Union system in a postwar account, he also inferred correctly that code words (“blind words”) had been employed.

       Although he was an artillery commander by this time and perhaps a bit rusty, Alexander’s case may be a fair indication of the state of Confederate ability in cryptanalysis at least in the field and under unusual circumstances. With due respect to Friedman’s disdain for the Stager-type of word transposition, the test of cryptosecurity is how well it holds up in its intended purpose, given the prevailing technology. On that score, it was a success.

       The War Department cryptosystem of the Stager type was produced in nearly a dozen versions for top-level use. Regional commands (departments) had their own versions, generally simplified and localized, but conforming to the Washington pattern, and there may have been instances in which special versions were made up (as implied in the exchange between Grant and Halleck below). According to Plum, Stager’s initial offer of a cipher was to enable confidential communication among governors in the mid-west. A slightly altered version, which Plum calls “the first one,” was supplied to Pinkerton, the detective. War Department ciphers numbered 6 and 7 were used by the Union army in 1861, following the same basic scheme. If we term these (Nos. 6 and 7) Series I, then we have the following in consecutive wartime use:

Series II comprised Ciphers 12, 9, and 10

Series III comprised Ciphers 1 and 2

Series IV comprised Ciphers 3 and 4

(Note:  Cipher 4 was the last wartime cipher. A post-conflict Cipher 5 was introduced on 5 June 1865.)

       Control over the USMT and its cryptosystems was absolute on the part of Secretary of War Stanton, making the whole system of secure communication a privacy system under his authority (indeed, the time spent by President Lincoln in the War Department “communication center,” later recalled in a charming account by one of the young clerks,6 may have been in part to ensure personal awareness of incoming and outgoing traffic). An example of Stanton’s iron fist is afforded in an incident of 1864 in which even General Grant himself ran afoul of that control.

       From his headquarters in Nashville, Tennessee, Grant notified General-in-Chief H.W. Halleck (the rough equivalent of today’s Chief of Staff of the Army) in Washington by telegram on 20 January 1864: “I have ordered the cipher operator to give the Washington cipher to Colonel Comstock [of Grant’s staff]. The necessity of this I felt whilst in East Tennessee, receiving dispatches I could not read until I returned. The operator received the following dispatch from Colonel Stager to Colonel [Samuel] Bruch [departmental head of the USMT]: ‘Beckwith [Grant’s telegrapher-code clerk] must not instruct any one in the cipher. An order will be issued and sent to you on this subject.’

       I protest against Colonel Stager’s interference. I shall be as cautious as I possibly can, that improper persons do not get the key to official correspondence.”7

       Halleck responded to Grant by telegram the same afternoon: “The Secretary of War directs that you report by telegraph the facts and circumstances of the act of Lieutenant-Colonel Comstock, in requiring A.C. [sic: Samuel H.] Beckwith, telegraphic cipher clerk, to impart to him (Colonel Comstock) the secret cipher, entrusted to said Beckwith for use exclusively in your correspondence with the War Department and Headquarters of the Army.”8

       Grant replied the next day: “I ordered Beckwith to give Colonel Comstock the key to Washington cipher, in order that I might have always some one with me who had it. Whilst at Knoxville I experienced the disadvantage of not having given such an order before. I would recommend that a cipher be used not known to Colonel Stager or any operator.”9

Colonel Stager’s apologetic explanation to General Halleck is also dated 21 January:

The information furnished me led me to believe that the request of the staff officer for a copy of the cipher was without General Grant’s authority, and as a new cipher had been arranged expressly for Mr. Beckwith’s use at General Grant’s headquarters, with the order of the Secretary of War recently issued that the operators for this duty should be held responsible for strict privacy in its use, I indited the message referred to, not thinking that it would come in conflict with General Grant’s orders or wishes, the general having recently expressed his entire satisfaction with Mr. Beckwith’s services.

I am exceedingly mortified at the result, as my only desire was to furnish the most reliable means of communication to General Grant with the War Department.

The new cipher was arranged with a view of being used by telegraph experts, and it is believed cannot be used with any success by others than telegraphers.

A great number of errors have been made by staff officers working ciphers, owing to their lack of experience in telegraphic characters, and it is believed that greater accuracy can be secured by placing ciphers in the hands of experts selected for this duty.

The new cipher differs in many respects from those formerly used, and the one arranged for General Grant should not be known to any other party, hence my anxiety to keep it in Beckwith’s hands.

I sincerely regret that General Grant is led to believe that it is willful interference on my part.10

Halleck informed Grant on 22 January 1864:

It was known that the contents of telegrams communicated by means of existing ciphers have been made public without authority. As these ciphers have been communicated to a number of persons the Department was unable to discover the delinquent individual. To obviate this difficulty a new and very complicated cipher was prepared for communications between you and the War Department, which, by direction of the Secretary of War, was to be communicated to only two individuals, one at your headquarters and one in the War Department. It was to be confided to no one else, not even to me or any member of my staff.” Mr. Beckwith, who was sent to your headquarters, was directed by the Secretary of War to communicate this cipher to no one. In obeying Colonel Comstock’s orders he disobeyed the Secretary and has been dismissed. He should have gone to prison if Colonel Comstock had seen fit to put him there. Instead of forcing the cipher from him in violation of the orders of the War Department, Colonel Comstock should have reported the facts of the case here for the information of the Secretary of War, who takes the personal supervision and direction of the military telegraphs. On account of this cipher having been communicated to Colonel Comstock the Secretary has directed another to be prepared in its place, which is to be communicated to no one, no matter what his rank, without his special authority.

The Secretary does not perceive the necessity of communicating a special cipher, intended only for telegrams to the War Department, to members of your staff any more than to my staff or to the staff officers of other generals commanding geographical departments. All your communications with others are conducted through the ordinary cipher. It was intended that Mr. Beckwith should accompany you wherever you required him, transportation being furnished for that purpose. If by any casualty be separated from you, communication could be kept up by the ordinary cipher till the vacancy could be supplied.

It is to be regretted that Colonel Comstock interfered with the orders of the War Department in this case. As stated in former instructions, if any telegraphic employee should not give satisfaction he should be reported, and, if there be a pressing necessity, he may be suspended. But as the corps of telegraphic operators receive their instructions directly from the Secretary of War, these instructions should not be interfered with except under very extraordinary circumstances, which should be immediately reported.

P.S. Colonel Stager is the confidential agent of the Secretary of War, and directs all telegraphic matters under his orders.12

Grant responded to Halleck on 4 February:

Your letter of the 22nd, inclosing copy of Colonel Stager’s of the 21st to you, is received. I have also circular or order, dated January 1, 1864, postmarked Washington, January 23, and received on the 29th.

I will state that Beckwith is one of the best of men. He is competent and industrious. In the matter for which he has been discharged, he only obeyed my orders and could not have done otherwise than he did and remain. Beckwith has always been employed at headquarters as an operator, and! have never thought of taking him with me except when headquarters are moved. On the occasion of my going to Knoxville, I received Washington dispatches which I could not read until my return to this place. To remedy this for the future I directed Colonel Comstock to acquaint himself with the cipher.

Beckwith desired to telegraph Colonel Stager on the subject before complying with my direction. Not knowing of any order defining who and who alone could be entrusted with the Washington cipher, I then ordered Beckwith to give it to Colonel Comstock and to inform Colonel Stager of the fact that he had done so. I had no thought in this matter of violating any order or even wish of the Secretary of War. I could see no reason why I was not as capable of selecting the proper person to entrust with this secret as Colonel Stager: in fact, thought nothing further of the, than that Colonel Stager had his operators under such discipline that they were afraid to obey orders from any one but himself without knowing first his pleasure.

Beckwith has been dismissed for obeying my order. His position is important to him and a better man cannot be selected for it. I respectfully ask that Beckwith be restored.

When Colonel Stager’s directions were received here the cipher had already been communicated. His order was signed by himself and not by the Secretary War. It is not necessary for me to state that I am a stickler for form, but will obey any order or wish of my superior, no matter how conveyed, if! know, or only think it came from him. In this instance I supposed Colonel Stager was acting for himself and without the knowledge of any one else.”’3

Having satisfied Washington, Grant received on 10 February a telegram from Halleck that stated, among other things unrelated, “Mr. Beckwith has been restored.”4


Washington City, January 1st, 1864


That the cipher issued by the Superintendent of Military Telegraphs be restricted only to the care of telegraph experts, selected for the duty by the Superintendent of Telegraphs, and approved and appointed by the Secretary of War for duty at the respective headquarters of the Military Departments, and to accompany the armies in the field. The ciphers furnished for this purpose are not to be imparted to any one, but will kept by the operator to whom they are entrusted, in strict confidence, and he will be held responsible for their privacy and proper use. They will neither be copied nor held by any other person, without special permission from the Secretary of War. Generals commanding will report to the War Department any default of duty by the cipher operator, but will not allow any staff officer to interfere with the operators in the discharge of their duties.

By order of the Secretary of War



Official: T.S. BOWERS, A.A.G.’5

       A variety of simple or improvised forms of cryptography or signaling appeared during the course of the war. Union agent Elizabeth Van Lew in Richmond used a l0 x 10 dinomic substitution system (frequently sent on tiny slips of paper, obviously concealed in transmission).’6 Lincoln himself toyed with a reversal of plain text, combined with phonetic spelling. 7 And “clothes-line” signals conveyed simple messages, such as “the coast is clear” or “enemy here.”

       The U.S. Navy in the Civil War retained its traditional hoisted flag signals in prearranged code (a new book was issued in 1864), and, in what may well have been the earliest example of inter-service or joint telecommunications between the army and navy, accepted Myer-trained army signalmen aboard ships to coordinate operations. This resulted in Myer adopting, and the navy accepting, a “General Service Code” for flag and torch that lasted until the 1880s, when the International Morse Code replaced it.’8

       The State Department, on the other hand, appears not to have used any form of encryption for its correspondence with emissaries abroad meaning that no extra effort was required on the part of British or continental postal authorities to exploit such dispatches through their hands.’9

       To summarize the American experience (both North and South) with cryptography during the Civil War, the following table illustrates the variety:

Union Cryptography

       I. Combined cipher/code cryptosystem: route or transposition (USMT); simple substitution encipherment in text.

       II. Cipher

              A. disk (Signal Corps, for visual signaling)

              B. dinomic substitution (Van Lew)

       III. Miscellaneous (Lincoln’s reversed phonetics; clothes-line, countersigns, signals)

Confederate Cryptography

       I. Codes

              A. dictionary

              B. open code

              C. signs and signals

       II. Ciphers

              A. substitution

                     1. simple, monographic substitution

                     2. simple, symbols

                     3. simple, keyed

                     4. poly-alphabetic; Vigenčre

              B. transposition: revolving grille

       III. Concealment

              A. microdot

              B. ink

              C. compact notes

  1. Anson Stager, Cleveland, Past and Present; Its Representative Men: Comprising Biographical Sketches of Pioneer Settlers and Prominent Citizens with a History of the City, (Cleveland: Maurice Joblin, 1869), 449.

  2. National Security Agency, Center for Cryptologic History (ed.) The Friedman Legacy: A Tribute to William and Elizebeth Friedman. Fort George G. Meade, Maryland, 1992, 84ff.

  3. Gary W. Gallagher. Fighting for the Confederacy: The Personal Recollections of General Edward Porter Alexander. (Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 1989), 302—03.

  4. U.S. War Department, The War of the Rebellion: A Compilation of the Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies. 128 vols. (Washington, D.C.: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1880—1901). Series I, Vol. XXX, 428. Hereafter cited as OR (Official Records). Ibid., 459. Union authorities had been alerted to the possible interception. In a message of 18 October, “1 have just learned that one of our couriers having a dispatch from Major General Rosecrans to General Burnside has disappeared. The dispatch has not been received here. I am sending out 25 men to search for him. Please notify General Burnside of the loss of the dispatch. I cannot learn yet whether the courier was captured or not.

  5. Plum, II, 346. Federal control over telegraphs in the former Confederate States ended 1 December 1865 and Superintendent Stager’s final report dated 30 June 1866. One former USMT cipher operator remained on duty until 1869.

  6. David Homer Bates, Lincoln in the Telegraph Office. (New York: Century, 1907.) Mr. Bates (1843—1926) lived into the twentieth century as an official with Western Union.

  7. OR, Series I, Vol. XXXII, Part II, 150.

  8. Ibid., 159.

  9. Ibid., 161.

  10. Ibid.

  11. Compare Halleck’s 20 January telegram, which seems to imply that Army Headquarters also held this cipher.

  12. Ibid., 172—73.

  13. Ibid., 323—24.

  14. Ibid., 361.

  15. Plum, The Military Telegraph During the Civil War, 170—1. It may be mean spirited to conjecture that this circular was back-dated, but several considerations suggest the possibility for anyone familiar with bureaucratic procedures: Grant’s 4 February 1864 letter to Halleck says that he received his copy for the first time on 29 January, bearing a Washington postmark of 23 January, which suggests leisurely dispatch of a presumably important policy. Colonel Stager’s 21 January dispatch letter to Halleck refers to the order as “recently issued,” which does not, of course, rule out the possible 1 January date. But the order is remarkable in that it covers all of the aspects of the Grant-Beckwith-Comstock incident. And it was not published in the Official Records.

  16. A copy was later found in Miss Van Lew’s watch case. See William Gilmore Beymer, On Hazardous Service, (New York: Harper and Brothers, 1912) for an account of the Van Lew ring and her cipher.

  17. Plum, 1, 35. The text was written in reverse as well.

  18. The Myer code was briefly introduced into the schooling of cadets at West Point…until instructors began noticing the creative movement of a pen or pencil during examinations.

  19. Weber, United States Diplomatic Codes and Ciphers, 1775—1938,  p.,214.

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