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Thursday, September 01, 2011

Code Breaker

Rose O’Neal Greenhow , Message from Mrs. Greenhow of Washington D.C. 1168/11

This puzzle of a paper is part of a large (a.k.a. hundreds of documents) collection of material at the Rosenbach related to Confederate General P.G. T Beauregard. The note at the top indicates that it's a message from Confederate spy Rose O'Neal Greenhow, which explains why it's in code, but until this summer we never figured out what it actually said.

I was doing some research on Greenhow in preparation for including this document in our Burn This show about secrecy and I found that a decoding key had survived in the collection of the North Carolina State Archives. The key was supposedly found on Greenhow's body when she died in 1864. She was returning from England to America when her ship ran aground near Cape Fear. Afraid of being captured, she insisted on being rowed to shore, but the boat overturned and she drowned, weighed down by the gold she was carrying for the Confederacy. We weren't sure if a key found in 1864 would work on a document presumably written in 1861, but I asked collections intern Rachel McCay to see if she could decode the message. And indeed she could--thanks Rachel! Here's what it says:


Fort “Ellsworth,” situated about- I send this which is reliable and will in a few days send plan of masked batries at long bridge and other points also of Shuters hill and two other above named strong works between this and Ellsworth.

For more on Greenhow, to try your own hand at using her code, and to find out more about other Civil War ciphers check out Burn This and be sure to take an activity sheet!

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