Tuesday 6 December 2016

Experts decode US message in bottle

Published 26/12/2010 | 01:41

A Civil War-era glass vial and the message that was tucked inside it at the Museum of the Confederacy in Virginia in the US (AP)
A Civil War-era glass vial and the message that was tucked inside it at the Museum of the Confederacy in Virginia in the US (AP)

A sealed glass vial from the US 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.

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The dispatch offered no hope to doomed Lt Gen John Pemberton, saying reinforcements were 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 Grant, ending the Siege of Vicksburg in what historians say was a turning point mid-way 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 Wright said of the author of the dispiriting message.

The bottle, less than 2ins in length, had sat undisturbed at the museum since 1896. It was a gift from Capt William Smith of King George County, who served during the Vicksburg siege.

Ms Wright decided to investigate the contents of the strange little bottle containing a tightly-wrapped note, a .38-calibre bullet and a white thread.

She asked a local art conservator, Scott Nolley, to examine the clear vial before she attempted to open it. He looked at the bottle under an electron microscope and discovered that salt had bonded the cork tightly to the bottle's mouth.

He put the bottle on a hotplate to expand the glass, used a scalpel to loosen the cork, then gently plucked it out with tweezers. The sewing thread was looped around the 6 1/2in by 2 1/2in paper, which was folded to fit into the bottle. The rolled message was removed and taken to a paper conservator, who successfully unfurled the message.

But the coded message, which appears to be a random collection of letters, did not reveal itself immediately. A retired CIA code breaker, David Gaddy, was contacted, and he cracked the code in several weeks.

Press Association

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