Secret Writing: The Ciphers of the Ancients (1912 article)
Haswell, John H. (Nov. 1912), "Secret Writing: The Ciphers of the Ancients, and Some of Those in Modern Use", Century Illustrated Monthly Magazine 85: 83-92
The Ciphers of the Ancients, and Some of Those in Modern Use
By John H. Haswell
HE art of transmitting information by means of writings designed to be understood only by the persons who have especially agreed upon the significance of the characters employed was known and practised by the ancients long before the Christian era. It has many high-sounding names, among which will be found cryptography, cryptology, polygraphy, stenganography, cipher, etc. The first is what might be styled its scientific name; the latter the one commonly used by the foreign offices.
The oldest example of secret writing is the Spartan scytale. According to Plutarch, the Lacedæmonians had a method which has been called the scytale, from the staff employed in constructing and deciphering the message. When the Spartan ephors, who, in the fourth century B.C., were the supreme power of the state, controlling alike its civil and military administration, wished to forward their orders to their commanders abroad, they wound slantwise a narrow strip of parchment upon a staff so that the edges met close together, and the message was then written in such a way that the center of the line of writing was on the edges of the parchment. The parchment was then un-wound and sent to the general, who, by winding it upon a similar staff, was enabled to read the message.
Various other devices of secret writing were practised by the old Greeks and Romans. All served their purpose, and some of them were remarkably ingenious. One, by reason of its being not only very ingenious, but at the same time highly ludicrous, seems worthy of mention. It was the one which Histiaeus, while at the Persian court, employed to advise Aristagoras, who was in Greece, to revolt. As the roads were well guarded, there seemed to Histiaeus only one safe way of making his wishes known. He chose one of his most faithful slaves, and, having shaved his head, tattooed it with his advices; then keeping him till the hair had grown again, Histiaeus despatched him to Aristagoras with this message: "Shave my head and look thereon."
Among the Greeks many systems of cipher were employed to transmit messages during war-times. To illustrate one, let us suppose that the English alphabet, by omitting the letter j, consists of twenty-five letters; then arrange these thus:
Represent every letter by two figures, by the intersection of a vertical with a horizontal row. Thus we find that 11 represents a; 34, o; 52, w; 14, d; and so on. During the Middle Ages secret systems were employed in the operation of telegraphic, military, and naval signals. Torches placed in particular positions at night, flags held in position by day, guns fired at particular intervals, drums beaten in a prearranged way, musical sounds to represent letters, lamps covered by different-colored glass, square holes diversely closed by shutters, levers projecting at different angles from a vertical post—all these were adopted as signals; but secret writing was in most cases a transposition of alphabetical letters.
Schemes of cryptography are endless in their variety. Bacon lays down the following as the "virtues" to be looked for in them: "that they be not laborious to write and read; that they be impossible to decipher; and, in some cases, that they be without suspicion." Bacon remarks that though ciphers were commonly in letters and alphabets, yet they might be in words. Upon this basis codes have been constructed, classified words taken from dictionaries being made to represent complete ideas. In recent years such codes have been adopted by governments, merchants, and others to communicate by telegraph, and have served the purpose not only of keeping business affairs private, but also of reducing the excessive cost of telegraphic messages to distant points. Obviously this class of ciphers presents greater difficulties to the skill of the decipherer. Figures and other characters have been also used as letters, and with them ranges of numerals have been combined as the representatives of syllables, parts of words, words themselves, and complete phrases. Shorthand marks and other arbitrary characters have also been largely imported into cryptographic systems to represent both letters and words. Complications have been introduced into ciphers by the employment of "dummy" letters or words. Other devices have been introduced to perplex the decipherer, such as spelling words backward, making false divisions between words, etc. The greatest security against the decipherers has been found in the use of what might be called a double code. One of the double-code methods is that after the message has been put into, say, a figure code, to recode it in one in which only words or consonants appear.
Variety is also of great importance. All the world might know the principle upon which a cipher is constructed, and yet the changes may be so numerous as, like those of the Yale lock, to be almost infinite. No cipher can ever be perfect where the same letter, figure, or character is always represented in the same manner; some mode must be adopted by which an endless variety may be secured.
During the time of the Great Commoner, Sir John Trevanion, a distinguished cavalier, was made prisoner, and locked up in Colchester Castle. Sir Charles Lucas and Sir George Lisle had just been made examples of as a warning to "malignants," and Trevanion had every reason for expecting a similar bloody end. As he awaited his doom, indulging in a hearty curse in round cavalier terms at the canting, crop-eared scoundrels who held him in durance vile, and muttering a wish that he had fallen sword in hand facing the foe, he was startled by the entrance of the jailer, who handed him a letter:
"May't do thee good," growled the fellow; "it has been well looked to before it was permitted to come to thee."
Sir John took the letter and the jailer left him his lamp by which to read it:
Worthie Sir John:—Hope, that is ye beste comfort of ye afflicted, cannot much, I fear me, help you now. That I would saye to you, is this only: if ever I may be able to requite that I do owe you, stand not upon asking me. 'T is not much I can do: but what I can do, bee you verie sure I wille. 1 knovve that, if dethe comes, if ordinary men fear it, it frights not you, accounting it for a high honour, to have such a rewarde of your loyalty. Pray yet that you may be spared this soe bitter, cup, I fear not that you will grudge any sufferings; only if bie submission you can turn them away, 't is the part of a wise man. Tell me, an if you can, to do for you any thinge that you wolde have done. The general goes back on Wednesday. Restinge your servant to command. R. T.
Now this letter was written according to a preconcerted cipher. Every third letter after a punctuation mark, was to tell. In this way, Sir John made out: "Panel at east end of chapel slides."
On the following evening the prisoner begged to be allowed to pass an hour of private devotion in the chapel. By means of a bribe, this was accomplished. Before the hour had expired, the chapel was empty—the bird had flown.
An excellent plan of indicating the telling letter or word is through the heading of the communication. "Sir" might signify that every third letter or word was to be taken; "Dear Sir" that every seventh; "My dear Sir" that every ninth was to be selected.
A system very early adopted, known as the "grille" was the use of pierced cards, through the holes of which the communication was written. The card was then removed, and the blank spaces filled up. As for example:
My dear X. (The) lines I now send you are forwarded by the kindness of the (bearer) who is a friend. (Is not) the message delivered yet (to) my brother? (Be) quick about it, for I have all along (trusted) that you would act with discretion and despatch. Yours ever, Z.
There were other and very complicated systems based on arithmetical calculations for the transposition of letters of the alphabet, illustrations of which would be very prolix and possibly not interesting.
At the close of the sixteenth century, when the Spaniards were endeavoring to establish relations between the scattered branches of their vast monarchy, which at that period embraced a large portion of Italy, the Lower Countries, the Philippines, and enormous districts in the New World, they needed some method to correspond with their agents. They accordingly invented a cipher, which they varied from time to time, in order to disconcert those who might attempt to pry into the mysteries of their correspondence. The cipher, composed of fifty signs, was of great value to them through all the troubles of the "League" and the wars then desolating Europe. Some of their despatches having been intercepted, Henry IV handed them over to a clever mathematician, Vieta, with the request that he would find the clue. He did so, and was able also to follow it as it varied, and France profited for two years by his discovery. The court of Spain, disconcerted at this, accused Vieta before the Roman court as a sorcerer and in league with the devil. This proceeding only gave rise to laughter and ridicule.
The manner in which the French took possession of the republic of Strasburg, during the reign of Louis XIV, while peace prevailed, is very interesting. At that time the city had acquired great privileges, it being a free town, and was governed as a republic.
In 1680, when M. de Louvois was the French Minister of War, he summoned before him one day a gentleman named De Chamilly, and gave him the following instructions: "Start this evening for Basel, in Switzerland; you will reach it in three days; on the fourth, punctually at two o'clock, station yourself on the bridge over the Rhine, with a portfolio, ink, and a pen. Watch all that takes place, and make a memorandum of everything in particular. Continue doing so for two hours; have a carriage and post-horses awaiting you; and at four precisely, mount and travel night and day till you reach Paris. On the instant of your arrival, hasten to me with your notes."
De Chamilly obeyed; he reached Basel, and on the day and at the hour appointed stationed himself, pen in hand, on the bridge. Presently a market-cart drove by, then an old woman with a basket of fruit passed; anon a little urchin trundled his hoop by; next an old gentleman in blue top-coat jogged past on his gray mare. Three o'clock chimed from the cathedral tower. Just at the last stroke, a tall fellow in yellow waistcoat and breeches sauntered up, went to the middle of the bridge, lounged over, and looked at the water; then he took a step back and struck three hearty blows on the footway with his staff. Down went every detail in De Chamilly's book. At last the hour of release sounded,and he jumped into his carriage. Shortly before midnight, after two days of ceaseless traveling, De Chamilly presented himself before the minister, feeling rather ashamed at having such trifles to report. M. de Louvois took the portfolio with eagerness and glanced over the notes. As his eye caught the mention of the yellow-breeched man, a gleam of joy flashed across his countenance. He rushed to the king, roused him from sleep, spoke in private with him for a few moments, and then hastily despatched four couriers who had been in readiness since five o'clock on the preceding evening. Eight days after, the town of Strasburg was entirely surrounded by French troops, and summoned to surrender; it capitulated and threw open its gates on the thirtieth of September, 1681. Evidently the three strokes of the stick given by the fellow in yellow costume, at an appointed hour, were the signals of the success of an intrigue concerted between M. de Louvois and the magistrates of Strasburg, and the man who executed this mission was as ignorant of the motive as was M. de Chamilly of the motive of his. This unjustifiable action of France received formal recognition at the Peace of Ryswick in 1697, and she continued to hold the place until it was wrested from her by the Germans during the late Franco-German War.
The mysterious cards employed by the Count de Vergennes, who was Minister for Foreign Affairs under Louis XVI, in his relations with the diplomatic agents of France, exhibit great ingenuity in their arrangement and show what the political condition of Europe must have been at that time to require such precautions. The count was a great friend of America, and it was largely through his influence that the treaties of amity and commerce and alliance of 1778 were concluded. These cards were used in letters of recommendation or passports which were given to strangers about to enter or depart from France; they were intended to furnish information without the knowledge of the bearers. This was the system. The cards given to a man contained only a few words, such as,
The card told more tales than the words written on it. Its color indicated the nation of the stranger. Yellow showed him to be English; red, Spanish; white, Portuguese; green, Dutch; red and white, Italian; red and green, Swiss; green and white, Russian, etc. The person's age was expressed by the shape of the card. If it was circular, he was under 25; oval, between 25 and 30; octagonal, between 30 and 45; hexagonal, between 45 and 50; square, between 50 and 60; an oblong showed that he was over 60. Two lines placed below the name of the bearer indicated his build. If he was tall and lean, the lines were waving and parallel; tall and stout, they converged; and so on. The expression of his face was shown by a flower on the border. A rose designated an open and amiable countenance, while a tulip marked a pensive and aristocratic appearance. A fillet round the border, according to its length, told whether the man was bachelor, married, or widower. Dots gave information as to his position and fortune. A full stop after his name showed that he was a Catholic; a semicolon that he was a Lutheran; a comma that he was a Calvinist; a dash that he was a Jew; no stop indicated him as an atheist. So also his morals and character were pointed out by a pattern in the angles of the card. So at one glance the minister could tell all about his man, whether he was a gamester or a duelist; what was his purpose in visiting France; whether in search of a wife or to claim a legacy; what was his profession—that of a physician, lawyer, or man of letters; whether he was to be put under surveillance or allowed to go his way unmolested.
When the Chevalier de Rohan was in the Bastille in 1674, his friends wanted to convey to him the intelligence that his accomplice was dead without having confessed. They did so by passing the following words into his dungeon, written on a shirt: "mg dulhxcclgu ghj yxuj; lm ct ulgc alj." In vain did he puzzle over the cipher, to which he had not the clue. It was too short; for the shorter a cipher letter, the more difficult it is to make out. The light faded, and he tossed on his hard bed, sleeplessly revolving the mystic letters in his brain, but he could make nothing out of them. Day dawned, and with the first gleam he was poring over them; still in vain. He pleaded guilty, for he could not decipher "Le prisonnier est mort; il n'a rien dit."
The following mystic message is very difficult to decipher: "Tig C f p w y w e. i t ao eovhvygnvrxr mbiddutl."
Take the first word, Tig, and under the second letter place that which precedes it in the alphabet, namely, h; then under the third letter, in succession backward, the two preceding letters, thus:
In like manner arrange the second word and the connecting letters, and we obtain the following:
By following the oblique line of letters, we get the words "The Century." When all the words are so adjusted, we read, "The Century is an entertaining magazine."
I cannot refrain from adding one more method which has been proposed for the transmission of secret messages. Let a man, says the ingenious author, breathe his words slowly in a long hollow cane hermetically sealed at the farthest end, then let him suddenly and closely seal the end into which he breathed. The voice will continue in the tube till it has some vent. When the seal is removed at the end which was first sealed, the words will come out distinctly and in order, but if the seal at the other end be removed, their inverted series will create confusion. This happy conception seems to have been proposed in all good faith by its author.
The first attempt at secret writing by the United States was made by Silas Deane, who was the first agent sent abroad by the Continental Congress. He was despatched to France for the purpose of purchasing arms and ammunition and to sound that country as to the probabilities of her recognizing the colonies if they should be forced to form themselves into an independent state; and whether their ambassadors would be received; and would France be disposed to enter into any treaty or alliance with them, for commerce or defense, or both; and if so, upon what principal condition. His instructions stated: "It is scarce necessary to pretend any other business at Paris than the gratifying of that curiosity which draws numbers thither yearly, merely to see so famous a city." His mission being confidential, it was necessary to have great secrecy attached to his correspondence. For this purpose he was furnished by John Jay with an invisible ink and a chemical preparation for rendering the writing legible. As letters apparently blank might excite suspicion and lead to experiments that might expose the contrivance, the communications were written on large sheets of paper, beginning with a short letter written with common ink, respecting some fictitious person or business and under a feigned name, and the balance of the paper was used for the real or intended letter written in the invisible ink. Mr. Jay was the only one intrusted with the secret, and the letters were consequently addressed to him as "John Jay, Esq., Attorney at Law." When a single sheet was insufficient to contain the secret despatch, Mr. Timothy Jones, or some other imaginary gentleman, requested the favor of Mr. Jay to forward the inclosed letter according to its directions; and the inclosed letter, with the exception of a short note on some fictitious business, was filled with the residue of the despatch in invisible ink.
Robert Morris, a member of the Committee of Secret Correspondence, writing to Mr. Jay, from Philadelphia, says:
Although your express delivered me your favor last Wednesday or Thursday, yet I did not receive the letter from Mr. Deane until this day, and shall now send after the express, that he may convey this safe to your hands; should he be gone I must find some other safe conveyance. You will find inclosed both of Mr. Deane's letters, as you desired, and I shall thank you for the copy of the invisible part. He had communicated so much of this secret to me before his departure, as to let me know he had fixed with you a mode of writing that would be invisible to the rest of the world; he also promised to ask you to make a full communication to me, but in this use your pleasure; the secret, so far as I do or shall know it, will remain so to all other persons.
The letter of Mr. Deane written in common ink and at the top of the page was as follows:
Dear Sir: I have now to inform you of my safe arrival at this place, after a passage of thirty-two days from Martinico, and am so extremely weak that I am scarcely able to hold my pen, yet could not let this opportunity slip of letting you know where I am, and that I have a prospect of recovering; for though weak, my fever and cough have left me almost entirely. There is not much news here, and if there was, I should not dare to write it, as that might intercept the letter if taken. My compliments to all friends.
John Jay, Esqr., Attorney at Law,
Under this apparently innocent letter was written in invisible ink the following public and important letter to Robert Morris:
Dear Sir: I shall send you, in October clothing for twenty thousand men, thirty thousand fusils, one hundred tons of powder, two hundred brass cannon, twenty four brass mortars, with shells, shot, lead, etc., in proportion. I am to advise you that if, in future, you will give commissions to seize Portuguese ships, you may depend on the friendship and alliance of Spain. Let me urge this measure; much may be got, nothing can be lost by it. Increase, at all events, your navy. I will procure, if commissioned, any quantity of sail-cloth and cordage. A general war is undoubtedly at hand in Europe, and consequently America will be safe, if you baffle the arts and arms of the two Howes through the summer. Every one here is in your favor. Adieu. I will write you again next week.
The letter with its secret companion was received by Mr. Jay, who, having applied the necessary chemicals, brought out the hidden intent of the writer, transcribed both letters, and sent them to Robert Morris, in order that the information conveyed might be presented to Congress for the consideration of that body. Mr. Morris acknowledged the receipt of Mr. Jay's letter as follows:
Your favor of the 7th ultimo came safe to hand. Timothy Jones is certainly a very entertaining agreeable man; one would not judge so from anything contained in his cold insipid letter of the 17th September, unless you take pains to find the concealed beauties therein; the cursory observations of a sea captain would never discover them, but transferred from his hand to the penetrating eye of a Jay, the diamonds stand confessed at once. It puts me in mind of a search after the philosopher's stone, but I believed not one of the followers of that phantom has come so near the mark as you, my good friend. I handed a copy of your discoveries to the Committee, which now consists of Harrison, R. H. Lee, Hooper, Dr. Witherspoon, Johnson, you, and myself; and honestly told them who it was from, because measures are necessary in consequence of it; but I have not received any directions yet.
Congress responded, however, by giving orders for a supply of blankets, clothing, flints, and lead to be shipped in armed vessels, and these were to enter the service of the United States.
Shortly after this another cipher was adopted by the Government, which continued to be used by the Department of State after the inauguration of the Government under the Constitution, down to as recent a date as 1867. It was very seldom used, however, after the War of 1812. It was constructed upon the principle of a combination of numbers ranging from 1 to 1600, each number representing either punctuation-marks, letters, syllables, or in some few instances complete words. It was a cumbersome, laborious cipher, suited, perhaps, to ordinary correspondence, with the merit of being easily deciphered by an expert. It was found not only very inconvenient for corresponding by means of the cable, but exceedingly expensive. A similar cipher, however, is now being used by at least one of the principal powers of Europe.
In 1864 the French government under the Emperor Napoleon III, taking advantage of the Civil War in the United States, occupied Mexico and placed Maximilian on the throne as emperor. As soon as the war was over, Mr. Seward took steps to force the French to retire from that country, and by that means enabled the people to choose between Maximilian as emperor and Juarez as president, without being influenced by the presence of the French military forces. A cabinet meeting was called, at which General Grant was present by invitation. The result of the conference was that an instruction was prepared by Secretary Seward to our minister at Paris that plainly stated the sentiments of the United States, which was to the effect that the French must evacuate Mexico at once, or the United States would send her troops into that country and help the forces of the republic. The Atlantic cable had only just been completed, and the president of the company wanted the patronage of the Government to aid the enterprise. He called upon Mr. Seward and requested him to use the cable, promising that the rates should be entirely satisfactory to the Government, notwithstanding those to the public were ten dollars per word. In addition to the ordinary charge, the cable company imposed double rates upon all messages in which a cipher code was used. The instruction was given to the writer to put it in cipher, when he called the attention of the secretary to the great expense that would attend its transmission by cable, as each syllable in the instruction would be represented by four figures, and the cable company considered each figure as an equivalent for a word, and charged double rates accordingly. Having in view the assurances of the president of the company that the charges would not be excessive, Mr. Seward gave directions to have the instruction put in cipher and sent by cable, which was done. The instruction would occupy in print about a page and a quarter of an ordinary congressional document. The bill of the cable company was afterward submitted, and it amounted to over $23,000, which Mr. Seward, not considering it reasonable, refused to pay. The rates were soon reduced to the public one half, and several other reductions followed, but the bill which Mr. Seward refused to pay was never paid.
During the occupation of Mexico by the French, cipher telegrams were sent to General Bazaine, commander of the French forces. Some of these coming into the possession of the authorities of the United States were deciphered by an army officer and much valuable information was obtained.
The value and importance of secret writing is of course obvious, but the advantages which have accrued from it, while easily surmised, have become known only in a vague and general way. A specific illustration of a particular benefit derived from it by the United States in a very important matter and at a very critical time relates to the treaty of 1871 between this country and Great Britain, whereby the so-called "Alabama Claims" were to be adjusted by a Tribunal of Arbitration at Geneva, and which came very near being nullified in consequence of our presentation to that tribunal of what was known as "indirect claims," namely, claims not for actual losses, but for the deprivation of prospective profits, etc. Great Britain sought to use the presentation of these claims as a ground for setting aside the jurisdiction of the tribunal, and consequently subverting it. Our agent before the tribunal, Judge J. C. Bancroft Davis, devised a plan for saving the case of the United States and preserving the tribunal. The nature of this plan was such as to require the approval of the President before it could be put into operation, and had to be communicated to him quickly as well as secretly. In anticipation of some such emergency, the writer, at Mr. Davis's request, had prepared for him, just before his departure for Geneva, a cipher which, while perfectly secret, could be easily managed and the key of which could be memorized. Mr. Davis and Secretary Fish had recourse to this cipher for the purpose of the important correspondence above referred to, which could not have been conducted openly and which resulted in the maintenance of the Geneva Tribunal. An amusing feature of this correspondence was the perturbation it caused our minister at London, General Schenck. The messages were relayed through his office, and he, not being in the secret of the cipher, insisted upon having them repeated, because, as he said, he found them to be only "a jargon of unmeaning words."
The Government, as such, has no distinct cipher, but each of the three departments, State, War, and Navy, the only departments really needing methods for secrecy of correspondence, is provided with a cipher of its own.
During the Civil War the Navy Department devised a cipher which was simply a substitution of one letter of the alphabet for another, and this was operated by a mechanical contrivance consisting of disks, one of which was stationary and the other movable. The stationary disk contained the letters of the "true reading," and the movable disk the cipher substitutes. The process of its operation was tedious and awkward, but it was continued in use until the middle of the eighties, when several naval officers were designated to prepare a more convenient code. The new system is a combination of numerals and cipher words to represent words and phrases, following the general principle of most commercial codes. While not as full as it might be, it answers its purpose very well. Through overcaution, however, its operation has been made unnecessarily complicated, two translations being required to decipher a message, while one should be sufficient. Words have to be translated into figures and the figures then translated into the true meaning.
The code-book of this cipher is always kept in a canvas bag lined with zinc and heavily weighted. The bag is in the personal custody of the commanding officer, whose orders are, that in the event of danger of capture by the enemy, it is to be thrown overboard. Hence there is little likelihood of the code ever falling into improper hands.
The cipher of the War Department is very simple in its nature, and by virtue of its simplicity, easiness of operation, its inscrutability, and above all the readiness with which, in the event of its capture, a new and entirely different key can be substituted, commends itself as possessing a superiority over all others for military purposes. It may in a general way be described as an ingenious method of distorting the order of the words in a message, and further obscuring the sense by the systematic interpolation of irrelevant words and the introduction of meaning and meaningless names. The variety of distortions is great, and whenever a copy of the cipher is captured, another can be supplied and communicated to all parties interested in a very short space of time. This cipher is an elaboration of one that was designed for the governor of Ohio, at the beginning of our Civil War, to facilitate secret correspondence between him and the governors of Indiana and Illinois. Its effectiveness soon became recognized, and it was generally used during the war for the direction of military operations and the correspondence between our generals and the War Department.
In this connection it may be stated that during our Civil War the telegraph and the cipher system for the first time in history became important factors in the matter of tactics and strategy. The telegraph was first utilized as a military aid during the Crimean War (1854-55), but its use was confined to being merely a means of communication between the headquarters of the allied forces. But in our Civil War the telegraph and cipher were the principal channels for the direction of military operations, embodying, as they did, all the elements of celerity and secrecy, and rendering the signal corps picturesque but very ancient fire or flag system, in general, of very little practical value. By way of illustration, the fact may here be stated that during the siege of Petersburg, General Meade received and sent in five hours over three hundred telegrams, being more than one in every three minutes. Such a feat is readily seen to be far beyond the capacity of any system of wigwagging, fire, or flag signals, no matter how ancient or modern. It must be admitted, however, that these signal systems are at times of great and essential value, especially when telegraph lines cannot be established. The victory of the Federal troops at Lookout Mountain was mainly due to the skill of our signal corps in deciphering the signals of the Confederates and advising our generals accordingly.
For military purposes, telegraph operators were looked upon as possessing the best qualifications for enciphering and deciphering secret communications, but the sense of self-importance or esteem which seemed to attach to the person intrusted with these operations caused the staff-officers eagerly to seek such employment. As the war progressed, however, the work gradually devolved entirely upon the telegraphers, but not until after some discomfiting experiences on the part of some distinguished officers. General Grant undertook to send from La Grange, Tennessee, a cipher message to General Hamilton, who was at the front. Hamilton could not understand it, and had it repeated, but all to no purpose. Grant insisted that the message was correctly enciphered, but very soon afterward he gladly abandoned the cipher business to his operators. On another occasion General Grant, upon leaving his headquarters at Chattanooga to go to Knoxville, failed to take his telegraph operator with him. While at Knoxville he received several telegrams from Washington which he could not understand, and being consequently much annoyed, he directed his operator to turn over the cipher-key to his chief of staff, so that he would not be troubled with unintelligible telegrams in the future. For doing this he was reprimanded by General-in-Chief Halleck, who, in a letter, dated January 22, 1864, said:
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 communicated to no one else—not even to me or any member of my staff. . . . On account of this cipher having been communicated to Col. 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.
General Grant replied that he had regarded the whole matter of the cipher management as merely an exhibition of departmental bureaucracy, and that he had considered himself as capable as the director of the bureau of telegraph matters in Washington to select a proper person to intrust with the cipher, but he was no stickler for forms and was always ready to obey any order or even wish of the Secretary of War, or any of his superiors, no matter how conveyed, if he only knew or thought it came from him. This ended the episode, and in a few hours the new cipher was ready for use.
Copies of our military cipher messages frequently got into the hands of the Confederates by means of tapping the wires, but they never succeeded in deciphering them, although they went to the extent of advertising them in their newspapers for decipherment, and it may be added, to the credit of our corps of military telegraph operators, that no operator ever proved recreant to his trust.
As compared with the simplicity of complexity and celerity of operation of the Government's military cipher, that of the Confederates was very crude and clumsy. All their methods of secret communication were unraveled by our signal corps and telegraph operators. In addition to their signal system, the Confederates had a cipher for use in telegraphing and one for sending secret information through the mail. The first telegraph cipher message captured by our forces was the following:
Gen. J. E. Johnston, Jackson.
I prefer oaavyr, it has reference to xhvkjqchffabpzelreqpzwnyk to prevent anuzeyxswstpjw at that point, raeelpsghvelvtzfautl ilasltlhifnaigtsmmlfgcca jd.
J. C. Pemberton,
Lt. Gen. Comdg.
After translation it read:
I prefer Canton. It has reference to fortifications at Yazoo City to prevent passage of river at that point. Force landed about three thousand, above mouth of river.
This code was merely a system of transposition or substitution of letters, which was effected by the use of either one of the three following keys, "Manchester Bluff," "Complete victory," or "Come retribution," in connection with a square formed by twenty-six alphabets, the letters of each being written horizontally, one alphabet under the other, the first beginning with "a," the second with "b," the third with "c," and so on, following the regular sequence of the letters. In the foregoing despatch the key "Manchester Bluff" was used, and by placing those letters over the enciphered letters of the message and applying the squared alphabets and beginning with the letters oaavvr, we look for "o" under the letter m in the top alphabet and find it in the alphabet which begins with c, and translate it c. Then we look for "a" under the letter a (the second letter of Manchester), and find that it means a; then we look for "a" under n (the third letter of Manchester) in the top alphabet, and find it in the alphabet which begins with n, and we translate it n, and so on. This system has no special merit except its age. The ancients used it, and it is generally the plan adopted by tyros in cryptography. The tediousness of its process makes it impractical.
The mail cipher consisted of substituted letters; telegraphic characters; parts of geometric figures, like the inscription on one of the tombs in Trinity churchyard (meaning "Remember death"); and a few hieroglyphics. A letter from a Confederate agent which was intercepted in 1863 by the postmaster at New York was written in this cipher. Notwithstanding its puzzling appearance, it was deciphered readily, and the information obtained enabled the Government to seize a large quantity of bank-notes and the machinery for printing them which had been prepared for the Confederacy in that city. The lack of ingenuity and skill and the great crudity and cumbersomeness displayed by the Confederates in their ciphers must be regarded as surprising.
The cipher of the Department of State is the most modern of all in the service of the Government. It embraces the valuable features of its predecessors and the merits of the latest inventions. Being used for every species of diplomatic correspondence, it is necessarily copious and unrestricted in its capabilities, but at the same time it is economic in its terms of expression. It is simple and speedy in its operation, but so ingenious as to secure absolute secrecy. The construction of this cipher, like many ingenious devices whose operations appear simple to the eye but are difficult to explain in writing, would actually require the key to be furnished for the purpose of an intelligible description of it.
Ciphers are now more generally used than at any other period of the world's history. Introduced for the first time by the United States in connection with the telegraph as a war factor, telegraphic ciphers have now become incorporated in the military systems of all nations. But it is in peaceful pursuits that the largest field for their operations has been found. They are now an essential element of all financial, commercial, and industrial enterprises. In former times they were employed for purposes of evil and cruelty, and were consequently looked upon with horror and aversion. Their functions now, however, are chiefly to benefit humanity by facilitating commerce and industry, and hence they merit public interest and favor.