Wednesday, January 14, 2015

Speak in Code

Years ago, I had a chance to research an original Civil War diary. It belonged to Lt. James H. Walker, 81st Pennsylvania. I possessed a keen interest in reading Walker’s diary because his regiment left behind so few primary accounts.

I thoroughly enjoyed Walker’s entries. He wrote with flair and purpose. However, quite aggravatingly, he wrote in code. It was infuriating. What did he do? Check out this odd sentence. He wrote: “I could perceive at once that the lzm vzr gzke bqzyx.”

When I saw this code, I muttered, “Ah, what the hell!” You see, it’s hard enough to read nineteenth-century handwriting. In addition to reading his English script, I had to decode his cypher. Not having any experience in cryptology, I fretted, believing that I would never get the answer. Then, I noticed an odd sentence. Someone (perhaps an archivist) had defaced a single word in the diary. (I’m a bit torn here. I’m not sure whether I should thank the unknown defacer for giving me the key to Walker’s code or chastise him for writing inside this irreplaceable artifact.)

Anyway, one sentence read, “staid awhile and stopped in bgzladqr on my way down.” Above the coded word, “bgzladqr,” the defacer had written the word, “chambers.” Indeed, “chambers” was the correct word, and no doubt the defacer had figured it out from the context of the previous sentence. Using this one word, I did my best to figure out Walker’s cypher. Eventually, it dawned on me. Walker intended each coded letter to refer to the next letter of the alphabet. For instance, if Walker wrote “b,” he actually wanted to write the letter, “c.” Coded letter “d” actually meant, “e,” and so forth. (Coded letter “z” meant “a.”)

Having figured out Walker’s method, I set about decoding his entries.

What kind of information did Walker encode? Believe it or not, he disguised entries about, uh, booty calls, for lack of a better phrase. In March 1864, Lt. Walker returned home to Philadelphia as part of his regiment’s recruiting detail. He was responsible for finding new recruits and forwarding them to the Army of the Potomac’s winter encampment at Brandy Station in preparation for Ulysses Grant’s Overland Campaign. While staying in Philadelphia, he looked up some old girlfriends and had romantic liaisons with them. Most of the decoded material related to these saucy hook-ups.

For instance, on April 24, he wrote this about a girl named Sallie: “[I] Did not go forward [meaning he did not return to Brandy Station]. In [the] evening [I] called for Sallie [and] I went with her to church. [to] Have her to understand how I regarded her. [I] Found that I was not altogether obnoxious.” All of this had been encoded. Each word was incomprehensible until I applied the cypher to it.

Walker really liked Sallie, whoever she was. A week later, he skipped church, presumably to fool around with her. On May 1, he wrote, “In the afternoon [I] went up to see Sallie [and I] did not go to Church. I thought it might be the last afternoon I should spend with the only woman I ever loved.”

Yet, Walker’s most scandalous entries involved a love triangle that involved him, a woman named Lucy McGonigal, and a man named Pendleton. Lucy loved Walker, so it seemed, but she could not shake the unwanted attentions of her other suitor, Pendleton. Here’s what Walker wrote about it.

[I] went down where I had left my baggage & found Ktbx & a number of others waiting staid all night – learned that mia amiga carina con los ojos azul gzc lzmzfdc  sn fds gdqrdke hmsn  cheebtksx  – un muchacho maquinista & cantador en una iglesia methodisto amaba ella y tenia su compromiso de casa pero cuando ese caballero gdzqc sgzs  su carina tenia poco gusto del soldado Ihl gd vzr rdhydc  vhsg z idzkntr ehs zme vdms sn gdq ezsgdq.

Did you figure it out what he said? This one is tricky. Walker injected some Spanish (as if his code was not hard enough.) Here’s what he wrote, if everything is translated into English:

[I] went down where I had left my baggage & found Lucy & a number of others waiting[.] [I] staid all night – learned that my friend and sweetheart with the blue eyes had managed to get herself into difficulty – an engineer and singer at the Methodist Church loved her and had her commitment but when that cowboy heard that my sweetheart had had a little taste of soldier Jim he was seized with a jealous fit and went to her father.

So, in this account, Walker met his “sweetheart with the blue eyes,” Lucy, who had gotten a “little taste” of him, whatever that means, and when Pendleton (the singer at the church) found out about her affection for Walker, he got angry and tattled to her father.

The intrigue got worse, in fact. The next day, Walker attended a party. Pendleton brought Lucy as his date, but Lucy wanted to be with Walker. Lt. Walker described the tense scene that arose. As usual, he wrote his entry in a mix of coded words and Spanish. He wrote, “soon after we arrived Mr. Pendleton came with the first of the fair [meaning Lucy]. I could perceive at once that the man was half crazy. One of the young ladies gave me an introduction & I afterwards drank along with him and the rest of the male members of the party – he seemed greatly excited but had nothing to be angry at me for. – when saying, ‘toast to your good health,’ he told me that, ‘you are a fine looking fellow I must confess though I say it to your face;’ . . . I saw at once that he loved her [Lucy] deeply & thought that she thought more of me than of him.” (Here, I have decoded the coded language and translated the Spanish text.)

Pendleton gave Walker the evil eye all evening. Being a bold man, Walker decided to give her a kiss goodbye, something that Pendleton would not forget. He wrote, “Between one thing and another Lucy felt pretty well worried and her tears were falling fast when I kissed her good bye which operation must have been daggers in the heart of her poor lover.” (The italicized text indicates the encoded portion.)

Walker didn’t remain long in Philadelphia. A few days later, he left for the front and arrived at Belle Plain on May 12. He was wounded at Cold Harbor but remained in the army until February 1865.

After that, I don’t have much to say about the enigmatic Lt. Walker. Probably, he returned to Philadelphia. I wonder if all the romantic drama he left behind in 1864 still troubled him. He took pains to write  about it in code, after all.

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