Thursday, January 6, 2011

Civil War Code

The Washington Post ran a fascinating article on a newly deciphered Civil War message. Believe it or not, the Museum of the Confederacy had this message in a bottle since 1896, and it remained unopened, un-deciphered and unread until collections manager Catherine M. Wright decided to investigate. The other thing that amazed me was retired CIA code breaker, David Gaddy and Navy cryptologist Cmdr. John B. Hunter, solved the code by brain, not by computer. It goes to show that spies like to play as much as anybody.

The description of the Vigenere Cipher isn’t completely clear in the article. A Vigenere Cipher is not a simple substitution or Caesar cipher (a frame shift). A Vigenere Cipher is a series of shifts based on a code word or key. This makes decoding the message by frequency analysis much more complicated because the most common letter is not necessarily E. Frequency analysis is how Sherlock Holmes decoded messages in “The Adventure of the Dancing Men.

I loved finding out about this newly deciphered code. I wish the picture of the message was more legible and that they’d told us what the key was.

Thanks to Debbie Diesen for the link.

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