Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Huntington Library acquires trove of Lincoln, Civil War telegrams, codes

( Arkasha Stevenson / Los Angeles Times )
Olga Tsapina, a history curator who will be cataloging the logs, points to Abraham Lincoln's code name, "Ida," in a log listing code names for members of government
A long-unknown, 150-year-old trove of handwritten ledgers and calfskin-covered code books that give a potentially revelatory glimpse into both the dawn of electronic battlefield communications and the day-to-day exchanges between Abraham Lincoln and his generals as they fought the Civil War now belongs to the Huntington Library, Art Collections and Botanical Gardens. . . .

The Eckert collection's code books show that Lincoln had an assortment of aliases: Ida, India, Irving, Ingress, Ingrate and Ingot. His war secretary, Edwin Stanton, was Indigo or Infant. If a message said "shaker" or "sable," it was talking about an attack. The code words for "infantry" were "rapture" and "ramble."

The terminology seems "completely arbitrary," Tsapina said — which may have been why the Confederates were never able to crack the code.

In her initial sifting through the material during the month before the Huntington decided to buy it, Tsapina said, she found some very human moments along with messages that appear to convey historically important facts.

In February 1862, two months before sharing command with Grant at the Battle of Shiloh, an important and extremely bloody Union victory in Tennessee, Gen. Don Carlos Buell sent a telegram from his headquarters in Louisville, Ky., to unknown recipients code-named Andes and Ocean, complaining of "constant intrigue to displace army officers" under his command, "which I beg you to defeat … until I tell you there is just cause. I learn that Col. Hazin is one of the purposed victims. His removal would be gross injustice and a serious loss."

After the concluding signature, "Alvard" — Buell's code name — appear three additional words: "Good for Alvard," a nod of approval by a telegraph operator putting in his own two cents. Tsapina said she also has found instances in which telegraph operators tacked on insider investment tips to one another, based on how the battlefield news they were transmitting might affect the market price of cotton or gold.

Tsapina said there are "masses of telegrams" concerning supplies and railroad operations, which could help scholars studying Civil War logistics.
The full Los Angeles Times article is here.

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