Coded message deciphered—nearly 150 years after it was written

Just in case you didn't get enough of the American Civil War earlier today:

A message in a bottle delivered to a Confederate general during the American Civil War has been deciphered, 147 years after it was written. In the encrypted message, a commander tells Gen John Pemberton that no reinforcements are available to help him defend Vicksburg, Mississippi. "You can expect no help from this side of the river," says the message, which was deciphered by codebreakers. The text is dated 4 July 1863 - the day Vicksburg fell to Union forces.

So, a bit late.

The code was actually fairly easy to crack—a retired CIA codebreaker did it in a just a few weeks earlier this year. So why wasn't it deciphered sooner? Turns out, the message sat, for more than 110 years, in a jar, in the Museum of the Confederacy. Only in 2010 did museum officials decide to take the message out of the jar and see what it said.

(Via Marilyn Terrell)

BBC: Coded American Civil War Message in Bottle Deciphered

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  1. Turns out, the message sat, for more than 110 years, in a jar, in the Museum of the Confederacy. Only in 2010 did museum officials decide to take the message out of the jar and see what it said.

    And it said, “There’s no hope — you’ve lost.”

    It seems richly symbolic that this message went unread by the Museum of the Confederacy for over a century.

    1. I read this story in the Sunday edition of our local paper, and found it interesting.

      After reading your comment, I understand what brings me back again and again to BoingBoing.

      Best reader comments on the web.

      I say BoingBoing has the smartest, most thought-provoking and often wittiest comments of any site on the web.

  2. I can just see a messenger make it to the top of a hill, see a Union flag over the city, and just say “ehh… screw it.” Wonder if he knew his important message just said “No.”

  3. The code was actually fairly easy to crack—a retired CIA codebreaker did it in a just a few weeks earlier this year.

    I want to assume that he broke it in his spare time utilizing the codebreaking tools appropriate to the period, which in my mind’s eye include a brass astrolabe, an abacus, lots of penknife-sharpened pencils, an almanac, a comfy seat in the shade of an old apple tree, a furrowed brow and a well-scratched muttonchopped chin.

    If he applied Computer Technology to the problem and still required “a few weeks” to crack the code, then “fairly easy” doesn’t seem to describe the robustness of the code.

    But I really know nothing of such things. In case you doubted.

    1. The correct code breaking tools would be paper, pencil, a little knowledge of how the Rebels coded their messages, and a Drogen’s decoder wheel. If the message used one of the keywords that the South often used then it would be trivial to break, if not it would take a little crunching. The Union actually got very good at breaking these during the war.

      1. The sci-fi/time-travel fan in me hopes that the message turned out to be somehow encoded using an Enigma machine.

        1. The sci-fi/time-travel fan in me hopes that the message turned out to be somehow encoded using an Enigma machine.

          The Harry Harrison fan in me hopes that the message is encoded with PGP.

  4. The BBC article is a little scant in its details. A better article is at The Richmond Times Dispatch.

    There it says that the message was encoded in a Vigenère cipher and gives the full decoded text as:

    “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.”

  5. Some other sources are reporting that the code was a simple rotation of the letters of the alphabet, like ROT13 except ROT4 or whatever.

    The guy cracked it by hand, no computer needed!

    1. a simple rotation of the letters of the alphabet, like ROT13 except ROT4 or whatever

      A Vigenère cipher IS a combined ROTn cipher where you have a rule or table that tells you what ‘n’ is for each character position in the message.

  6. Hey, by making public the text of this military secret, the retired CIA codebreaker is as guilty as Assange. He should be hunted down and jailed like the traitor he is.

  7. The BBC doesn’t have much detail about how the bottle was opened, but that appears to have taken more work than actually decoding the message. (See the AP story — an electron microscope was involved. And everything’s better with expensive lab equipment; especially when it has blinkenlights, makes whirring noises, and is operated by people in white lab coats.)

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