The American Civil War had paved the way for many “firsts” that had never been done or tried before in time of peace or conflict. One of the many inventions besides that of sophisticated weaponry was expedient communications. In October of 1861 the first transcontinental telegraph system had been completed and the latest conflict which erupted only six months earlier was about to change.
In time of war anything which could be of great value to one government or the other could be considered a weapon. Wars can be fought with much more than muskets and cannon, the contest can be decided by out maneuvering the opponent, and reception of accurate information will get an army on the march and into position of greater advantage in half the time.
The telegraph wires had brought this new age into the contest between North and South, yet there were still flaws that mankind had terrible difficulty countering, the enemy could very easily intercept that information while in transit.
Agents anywhere between sender and receiver would easily scales the telegraph poles, tap into the line and know ahead of time what their Federal or Confederate counterparts were about to engage upon. Knowledge of this kind of robbery created a need for security, thus depriving the enemy of any easy means in obtaining required intelligence.
Cryptography a mixture of code and cipher was introduced as a means of securing the information transmitted. By 19th Century standards the Federals had used a primitive form of cipher, while the Confederates was a developed one of a sophisticated nature. The irony in this was that the men in blue had more success breaking the Confederate Code.
Anson Stager, modified in 1861 the cipher code that the Union would eventually adopt, used some two centuries before in Europe. After consulting with Allan Pinkerton, Major General George B. McClellan would utilize it himself. This method simply took the plain language text and scrambled the words to a formula only the proper codebook was capable of deciphering.
Colonel George H. Sharpe, appointed as the head of Major General Joseph Hooker’s Bureau of Military Intelligence would serve the remainder of the war with the Army of the Potomac in the counter intelligence service. News of the Confederates listening in to their telegraph wires would reach him late in the war, however, since no breaks in the lines had occurred they went on unpunished.
Most Union coded messages however, were sent to Richmond where no one knew precisely what to do with them. Probably the Confederacy’s most experienced code cracker was that of Brigadier General Edward Porter Alexander, one of Lee’s most valued artillery officers. Engaged in his duties on the battlefield, most of the Union ciphered messages wound up in the southern newspapers offering rewards for the solved puzzle to them. Historical record would later show that no one had ever bothered to claim the rewards offered, thus giving posterity the understanding the Federal Government’s method had been successful.
One message however having been historically documented as “broken,” was listened into by telegraph operator Charles Gaston. In September of 1864, he listened in on a message sent to Grant’s headquarters about 3,000 head of cattle being delivered to Coggin’s Point on the James River. Sent out in the clear, deciphered, the Confederates relayed the message back to Army headquarters and on September 16th, Major General Wade Hampton launched his infamous Beefsteak Raid.
The security of the telegraph would be a constant and recognizable problem throughout the war. The information lost through the wires to prying ears would cost many lives and greatly assist one side or the other in gaining greater military advantage, thus the introduction of cryptography and cipher heightened the future of warfare to a new level of intelligence/counter-intelligence.
Editors Note: Mr.Moran is a new feature writer on the US-Civilwar.com writers staff.