Sunday, December 26, 2010

Remember the USFL

Confederate Lt. General John C. Pemberton [above] surrendered to Ulysses S. Grant on July 4, 1863, ending the siege of Vicksburg.

Normally, I view the Confederacy as something akin to the United States Football League [USFL]. Just like the USFL, when the Confederacy was declared in 1861, it was widely viewed - by most loyal to the Union [i.e. the NFL in our analogy] - as a lark that would quickly be squashed. Soon, however, a series of Confederate battle victories [i.e. Reggie White, Herschel Walker and Steve Young signing with the USFL instead of the NFL out of college], all of a sudden there was a problem. Soon, however, the insanity of the idea that the Confederacy could really exist as a separate nation was exposed as an impossibility [i.e. no one gives a shit about football in the spring] and then it was just a matter of [a lot of] time before the Union forced the Confederacy to surrender [i.e. the USFL folds, White, Walker and Young et al go to where they should have been in the first place: the NFL].

Likewise, I normally view Confederate history like USFL history. Pointless. While many study and are consumed with Confederate history, to me it's akin to memorizing who won the Western Conference of the USFL in 1985 [the Oakland Invaders, by the way].

Recently, though, a story came out that for some reason caught my eye. It involves the siege of Vicksburg by Ulysses S. Grant and the eventual surrender of Lt. Gen. John C. Pemberton - which occurred the day after the conclusion of the Battle of Gettysburg some 1,047 miles away - as a major turning point in the Civil War. An artifact from that Vicksburg siege was recently in the news and that is the story I tell on this Boxing Day 2010 [no, there is absolutely no tie-in between the Civil War and Boxing Day, as far as I know; I just wanted to show off to my readers in Great Britain and Canada that I know when Boxing Day is].

The artifact is a glass vial that had been sitting in a Confederate history museum for 114 years - a long-ago forgotten item roughly 2-inches high and very easily overlooked. The vial was stopped up with a tiny cork, and inside was a folded piece of paper that - it turns out - contained a coded message to Pemberton, who was requesting reinforcements. The dispatch in the vial offered no hope to Pemberton: reinforcements were not on the way. In fact, the encrypted 6-line message was dated July 4, 1863, the date of Pemberton's surrender to Grant ending the siege of Vicksburg.

The message was from a Confederate commander - Maj. Gen. John G. Walker, of the Texas Division, who had under his command William Smith, the donor of the bottle - located on the west side of the Mississippi River across from Pemberton.

The vial was discovered by Museum of the Confederacy collections manager Catherine M. Wright. The bottle, less than 2 inches in length, had sat undisturbed at the museum in Richmond, Virginia since 1896. It was a gift from Smith.

Wright decided to investigate the contents of the strange little bottle containing a tightly wrapped note, a .38-caliber bullet and a white thread. Wright asked a Richmond art conservator, Scott Nolley, to examine the clear vial before she attempted to open it. Nolley 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.

An initial problem was that the message was coded and appeared to be a random collection of letters. Eager to learn the meaning of the code, Wright took the message home for the weekend to decipher. She had no success. So, she contacted a retired CIA code breaker, David Gaddy, and he cracked the code in several weeks. Gaddy then asked a U.S. Navy cryptologist - Cmdr. John B. Hunter - to take a look at the message. Hunter independently confirmed Gaddy's interpretation. Hunter told the Washington Post that 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," he said. "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, for example, the letter 'd' becomes the first letter of the alphabet, making the letter 'a' the 24th letter of the alphabet, and so on. The code was widely used by Southern forces during the Civil War. No, it doesn't sound too particularly bright to me either, but then again it took the Navy guy two weeks to decipher it, so what the hell do we know?

The full text of the message to Pemberton reads:

"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 [sic] from General Johnston."

That last line, museum collections officer Wright told the Post, seems to suggest a separate delivery to Pemberton would be the code to break the message. "The date of this message clearly indicates that Walker has no idea that the city is about to be surrendered [by Pemberton]," she said. The 'Johnston' mention in the dispatch is Gen. Joseph E. Johnston, whose 32,000 troops were encamped south of Vicksburg. They were prevented from assisting Pemberton by Grant's 35,000 Union troops. Pemberton had initially requested the reinforcements of Walker because he held out hope that Johnston would eventually come to his aid if he could just hang on a little longer.

Walker's response - in the vial - would have been discouraging to Pemberton had he received it before he surrendered. By July 4th - the date the message from Walker was dispatched - was the end of a shitty situation for the inhabitants of Vicksburg. By the end of the six-week siege, many in the city resorted to eating cats, dogs and leather. Soup was made from wallpaper paste. After Pemberton surrendered, the town was so scarred by the experience they refused to celebrate July 4th until 1943!

By the way, the bullet in the bottle had to do with instructions given by Walker to the soldier-messenger to toss the bottle into the river if Union troops intercepted his passage. The weight of the bullet would have carried the corked bottle to the bottom. That never happened. Instead, the Confederate messenger arrived to the river's edge and saw a U.S. flag flying over the city of Vicksburg. The messenger then scurried back to Walker, who kept the bottle until turning it over to the museum 33 years later.

Or, 86 years before the launch of the USFL.

copyright 2010 by EBBP Redux. If you are reading this on a blog or website other than EBBP Redux or via a feedreader, this content has been stolen and used without permission.

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