Civil War message decoded: help not on the way

A glass vial containing a coded message from a Confederate commander across the Mississippi from where Lt. Gen. John C. Pemberton’s forces were losing the battle of Vicksburg has been decoded. The commander reports that Pemberton can expect no help from him. The message is dated July 4, 1863, the day Pemberton surrendered to Gen. Ulysses S. Grant’s Union army.

The tiny sealed bottle was donated to the Museum of the Confederacy in 1896 by Capt. William A. Smith who fought on the Confederate side at the siege of Vicksburg. It remained unopened and unexamined in the collection for 120-plus years, until collections manager Catherine M. Wright decided to open the bottle and see what the message said.

Inside the bottle they found the coded note, a .38-caliber bullet and a white thread. The bullet was a weight that would allow the vial to sink if the messenger had to hastily dump it in the river upon discovery.

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.

Wright tried to decipher the note herself but was unsuccessful. She contacted David Gaddy, a retired CIA code breaker, and he was able to crack the code in just a few leisurely weeks. Navy cryptologist Cmdr. John B. Hunter confirmed Gaddy’s interpretation.

The note was written in a Vigenère cipher, a fairly simple code that shifts letters a certain number of places, first described in the 16th century by Giovan Battista Bellaso. Blaise de Vigenère created a stronger version 30 years later for the court of Henry III, and in the 19th century its invention was misattributed to him.

The full decoded text of the note is:

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.

It wasn’t signed, but it was probably sent by Maj. Gen. John G. Walker of the Texas Division. William Smith served under him at Vicksburg. General Johnston was Gen. Joseph E. Johnston who commanded 32,000 troops south of Vicksburg. He and Pemberton’s forces were separated by 35,000 of Grant’s troops.

Grant’s force besieged Vicksburg for six weeks, reducing the city to near starvation. People were eating dogs and wallpaper paste by the end. They were so bitter about the surrender that for 80 years the city refused to celebrate the Fourth of July.

Civil War bottle with coded message and bullet


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Comment by edahstip
2010-12-27 09:13:14


I used to know which battle, but there was one in Virginia that the Confederacy lost due to dropped orders which had been wrapped around a cigar. A Union forager found them and passed them on to his superiors.

Comment by livius drusus
2010-12-27 14:02:02

I’m surprised he didn’t smoke those orders.

Comment by edahstip
2010-12-27 19:15:05

Found it.

Lost orders

Comment by livius drusus
2010-12-27 23:11:12

Innersting. Thank you.

Comment by LAWRENCE
2011-01-09 11:13:58

I do not like this show Decoded. I am a historian, and I love to get down to the truth about things; so this is not a dis-like for the show, but a strong dis-like for the way this shows comes up with its conclusions. The show is suppose to be getting down to the truth about these American conspiracies; but in all reality the show has not uncovered or decoded anything. Now don’t get me wrong, I watch the show; I keep giving it chances but every time I watch it, I dis-like it more and more. One of the reasons for that is Christine McKinley, she is a very bias on every episode I have watched. The very first show was the episode on the Masons and the missing cornerstone, in this episode her whole conclusion was based on the fact that her dad was a Mason, and she couldn’t believe that her dad would be involved with a bunch of people who would do something like that. All through the episode she kept saying ” I find it hard to believe that MY DAD would be involved with these kinds of people”. News FLASH!!!!!! If it was my dad I’d have a hard time believing it to. In every episode she has a bias opinion, like the one about John W. Booth, where there was applicable evidence showing the man in that photo was in fact John W. Booth. No matter how much evidence came up, she stuck to her beliefs, and thats not a investigator. Investigators gather all evidents and then make a logical conclusion about what they have. And what qualify her for the show any way? What, cause she a mechanical engineer who relies on facts and clear evidence in every situation? No, cause when the evidence is shown she relies on the lies that she grew up believing. I love Buddy and Scott on the show though, they collect the evidents first; then make a conclusion, but in all of that; they’ll get so far into the investigation and stop, right when they start to get deep into the conspiracy. I would like to see them get rid of all the bias opinions and work with nothing but the evidence.

I leave you with a question, If you refuse to look at the fact/ truth of the situation because of you beliefs, does that not in fact make you a conspirator? Because in all reality, your helping to keep the Lie and Conspiracy alive.

Peace & Love
Seek Truth

Comment by livius drusus
2011-01-10 00:32:48

I have a sneaking suspicion that you did not actually read this blog entry.

Comment by Mike M
2012-06-07 20:42:23

ROFL! I read your blog entry, and started reading that long response by LAWRENCE.

As I was reading it, I was thinking: “What hte hell does this have to do with anything? Oh well, maybe it will have a point.”

Read the entire thing.

Then your response to LAWRENCE about killed me, livius. Thanks for a good laugh! :lol:

Comment by livius drusus
2012-06-08 13:30:25

Thank you for appreciating the deadpan. :D

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