Civil War Message in a Bottle Decoded After 147 Years

A message in a bottle sent to a Confederate general during the Siege of Vicksburg, one of the key turning points of the U.S. Civil War, has finally been deciphered after 147 years.

Re-enactment of the Battle of Bull Run, American Civil War. Photo: ShoreShot Photography via Bill Hunter/Flickr

A glass vial stopped with a cork during the Siege of Vicksburg, one of the key turning points of the American 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 – which was thought to have been to weigh it down if the messenger was caught and had to throw it in a river – and a white thread.

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

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,” said Mr. Hunter. “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. [via Fox News and The Telegraph (UK)]

Share this article

We welcome comments that advance the story directly or with relevant tangential information. We try to block comments that use offensive language, all capital letters or appear to be spam, and we review comments frequently to ensure they meet our standards. If you see a comment that you believe is irrelevant or inappropriate, you can flag it to our editors by using the report abuse links. Views expressed in the comments do not represent those of Coinspeaker Ltd.