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Civil War message is opened, decoded: No help for Vicksburg

RICHMOND, Va. — 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, which offered no hope to doomed Lt. Gen. John C. Pemberton, was bleak: 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 Ulysses S. Grant, ending the Siege of Vicksburg in what historians say was a turning point midway into 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,' " Museum of the Confederacy collections manager Catherine M. Wright 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, who served in the Confederacy during the Vicksburg siege.

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

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

The message was decoded for Wright by retired CIA code breaker David Gaddy and was confirmed by a Navy cryptologist, Cmdr. John B. Hunter.

The full text of the message, probably from Maj. Gen. John G. Walker of the Texas Division, 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 from General Johnston."

The Johnston mentioned in the dispatch is Gen. Joseph E. Johnston, whose 32,000 troops were encamped east of Vicksburg and were prevented from assisting Pemberton by Grant's 35,000 Union troops. Pemberton had held out hope that Johnston would eventually come to his aid.

Civil War message is opened, decoded: No help for Vicksburg 12/25/10 [Last modified: Monday, November 7, 2011 1:45pm]
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