Better Late Than Never: Civil War Message Decoded

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And 147 years later, the Confederacy gets the memo that no help was coming.

The message, corked inside a two-inch-long vial at the Museum of the Confederacy in Richmond, Va., had been on display since 1896 without so much as a curious glance at its contents. But an inquisitive employee and a few code-crackers got to the bottom of the bottle and uncovered a secret message sent during the Civil War.

The message was from a Confederate general and sent to Lt. Gen. John C. Pemberton, informing him that his troops would be unable to help their Confederate comrades defend the crippled city of Vicksburg, Miss. It was inconsequential that the message never arrived, as Pemberton’s troops surrendered on the day the letter was written, July 4, 1863.

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Museum Collections Manager Catherine Wright let curiosity get the best of her and decided to crack open the bottle to see what message it was hiding from the world. After pulling the plug and enlisting a CIA code breaker to crack the encrypted message, the world was able to receive the message that Gen. Pemberton never did.

Wright explained that the Civil War messenger bearing the bad news likely turned back after seeing the U.S. flag flying over Vicksburg, indicating the Confederacy had surrendered, and making the message irrelevant. “It was just another punctuation mark to just how desperate and dire everything was,” she said.

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At least there’s much more excitement about the message in 2010 than there would have been in 1863. (via Associated Press)