Saturday, April 4, 2015

How to hack Confederate secrets

President Lincoln and his youngest son Tad were hailed by freed slaves as they walked the streets of Richmond on April 4, 1865Tad's 12th birthday. Richmond had been abandoned just two days earlier by Gen. Robert E. Lee and Confederate President Jefferson Davis, and it was up to Gen. Stoneman's cavalry to make sure they didn't escape. (Illustration by Thomas Nast)

     Stoneman's raiders rode into Christiansburg near midnight on April 4 and caught the town asleep.
     The one Confederate on duty was the telegraph operator, and before he could tap S-O-S, the Yankees had a pistol to his head.
     There are several versions of what happened next. According to a lengthy report on the raid written by one of Stoneman's men, Gen. George Stoneman himself personally took charge of the situation:
     Immediately proceeding to the telegraph office, which the operator, in his haste to save himself, had left in perfect order, the General took possession, and succeeded in “calling” the Lynchburg operator, who at first was a little suspicious and answered back, “How are you, Yanks?” The reply was made, “You must be drunk, there are no Yanks any where around here.”
     Lynchburg—“What has become of the Yankees you have been telegraphing about all day as approaching?”
     Christiansburg—“Oh that was nothing but country rumors, and were found to be false.”
     Lynchburg was soon satisfied, and then proceeded to give the Christiansburg operator a lecture for sending rumors over the line, as they generally turned out false, ending it by saying that “during the day is has been reported through town that Sheridan was coming this way, but no one believes it now.” He then sent several messages, military and civil, one of the military messages of considerable interest ot the General, as it informed him of the intended movements west of him. The line refused to work soon after, and it was judged that it had been cut, and, as all supposed, it afterward proved true, that Major Wagner had arrived near Salem, and was tearing up the road and burning bridges.
     A more likely scenario* is recorded in the journals of our unofficial war correspondent, Capt. Henry Weand of Norristown, Pa. Here's his account of what happened that night in Christiansburg: 
     There had been assigned to the brigade a young telegraph operator, John J. Wickham**, who, when opportunity offered, rendered valuable assistance. Before reaching Christiansburg we had learned that the office of the telegraph company was in a freight car at the farther end of town, and before the Regiment reached that place, Lieutenant Hinchman, with a small detachment with Wickham, was sent to capture it and learn what he could of the movements of the rebels from the dispatches he could gather in.
     Making their way round the town in the evening they reached the car without discovery, and captured the operator at his instrument. Wickham began calling “Lynchburg,” but recalling the fact that the operator there would know a stranger was telegraphing, forced the Christiansburg operator to send the messages. He asked if they had any news of the Yankees, and kept up the conversation for some time, until a pointed question by Wickham, about the rebel forces, aroused the suspicion of the Lynchburg man, who said, “I believe I’m talking to the Yankees now.”
     Wickham then took the key and told him truthfully who he was, and at that the Lynchburg man let out with all the “cuss” words he was able to recall, and even these could not express his feelings at having given any information that could give aid and comfort to the enemy.
     Especially was his blasphemy heaped upon the poor operator who had been forced to send the messages. But here Wickham stopped him, and wired back that he should not blame him, as a fellow with a pistol at his head is apt to say just what the fellow who holds the pistol wants him to say. That ended the telegraphing, but the operator at Christiansburg thanked Wickham for the message he sent, as it would put him right with his associates in the rebel service.
     The fact that Stoneman inserted himself into this episode (whether or not he was actually there in person) tells you how important this was. For 10 days after leaving Jonesborough, Tenn., he had been offline, so to speak. He still had no way to contact his headquarters back in Tennessee, but now he had gained priceless intelligence from the enemy.
     Neither of those accounts decodes what Stoneman learned from those telegrams. But historian Clint Johnson tells us in his book, Pursuit: The Chase, Capture, Persecution, and Surprising Release of Confederate President Jefferson Davis
The Federals, mindful that telegraph operators recognized each other's tapping signatures, forced the Christiansburg telegraph operator to contact his counterpart in Lynchburg to learn war news. The Lynchburg operator willingly volunteered the news that Lee had abandoned Petersburg and Richmond. The questions kept coming until the Lynchburg operator finally tapped out: "I'm talking to the Yankees, aren't I?"
     In fact, President Lincoln had made a surprise appearance in Richmond 150 years ago today, on Tuesday, April 4, 1865, walking the streets of the Confederate capital and sending a powerful message that the war was all but over. Robert E. Lee's retreat was common knowledge in Lynchburg but was breaking news in Christiansburg. (On April 5, one of Stoneman's men found a Lynchburg newspaper that confirmed Lee's retreat.) 
     Stoneman now knew that Lee was coming his way. Providentially, he already had dispatched 220 men toward Lynchburg (the Wagner battalion that he assumed had cut the lines at Salem). Lynchburg was just 20 miles from Appomattox, where Lee was headed. 
     Conversely, Lee also now knew that the Yankees had him surrounded. Stoneman's cavalry had headed him off at the pass. The mountain railroads that could have been his escape route were going up in smoke.  
       Stoneman's relatively small army would have been no match for Lee, but the beleaguered Confederate general didn't know that. Five days later at Appomattox, he surrendered the Army of Northern Virginia.
* ONE MORE PERSPECTIVE: The telegraph episode was also described by Captain Frank Holcomb Mason of the Twelfth Ohio Cavalry in an 1890 book called Sketches of War History. He wrote: "The telegraph office was captured, and a Union soldier, taking his seat at the operator's desk, exchanged military questions and confidences with the operator at Lynchburg for an hour or more before the trick was discovered." Capt. Mason was close to Stoneman and had high respect for him, so if the general had been personally involved in the telegrams, Mason certainly would have said so.

** JOHN JERVIS WICKHAM (1844-1898) was a native of Ireland who grew up in Beaver, Pa., and served three years as a telegraph specialist in the Union army. According to his obituary in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, "In June 1862, while serving as a cipher expert at the headquarters of the Twenty-third brigade, he was captured with the command by the rebel general, Forest, in action at Murfreesboro, Tenn. He was a prisoner of war for a number of months, his last place of confinement being Libby Prison." Confederate Gen. Nathan Bedford Forrest's cavalry defeated and captured Wickham's brigade to capture a Union supply post and hospital. After the war, Wickham became a lawyer and was a Pennsylvania Superior Court judge when he died at age 54.

NEXT: Some bridges you just hate to burn

Sgt. Angelo Wiser's map shows the April 4 march from Hillsville to Christiansburg via Jacksonville (now known as Floyd)

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