- Associated Press - Saturday, December 25, 2010

RICHMOND (AP) — A glass vial stopped with a cork during the Civil War has been opened, revealing a coded message to the desperate Confederate commander in Vicksburg on the day the Mississippi city fell to Union forces 147 years ago.

The dispatch offered no hope to doomed Lt. Gen. John C. Pemberton: Reinforcements are not on the way.

The encrypted six-line message was dated July 4, 1863, the date of Pemberton’s surrender to Union forces led by Gen. Ulysses S. Grant, ending the Siege of Vicksburg, in what historians say was a turning point midway through the Civil War.

The message is from a Confederate commander on the west side of the Mississippi River across from Pemberton.

“He’s saying: ‘I can’t help you. I have no troops; I have no supplies; I have no way to get over there,’” Catherine M. Wright, collections manager of the Museum of the Confederacy in Richmond, said of the author of the dispiriting message. “It was just another punctuation mark to just how desperate and dire everything was.”

The bottle, less than 2 inches in length, had sat undisturbed at the museum since 1896. It was a gift from Capt. William A. Smith of King George County, Va., who served during the Vicksburg siege.

It was Wright who decided to investigate the contents of the strange little bottle containing a tightly wrapped note, a .38-caliber bullet and a white thread.

“Just sort of a curiosity thing,” Ms. Wright said. “This notion of, do we have any idea what his message says?”

The answer was no.

Ms. 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 6½-by-2½-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.

Eager to learn the meaning of the code, Ms. Wright took the message home for the weekend to decipher. She had no success.

A retired CIA code breaker, David Gaddy, was contacted, and he cracked the code in several weeks.

A Navy cryptologist independently confirmed Mr. Gaddy’s interpretation. Cmdr. John B. Hunter, an information warfare officer, said 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.

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