Cracking a Civil War Code

By Meg Norcia
February 2011

1 Leave a comment on paragraph 1 0 Having cut my teeth on From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankenweiler and the Indiana Jones films as a kid, it comes as no surprise perhaps that my scholarly career is informed and driven by archival research. I am addicted to the smell and feel of yellowed paper, ancient vellum, and the sight of spidery, faded fountain pen inscriptions makes my heart race—yes, I suffer from an incurable case of archive fever.
 In grad school my interest in archives led me to Britain (thank you, University of Florida!) where, beneath the blue and gold and white dome of the old British Library, I fancied I could still almost hear the whispered wishes for enlightenment that scholars and revolutionaries and historians had prayed for. Later, in the Brontë parsonage museum on the edge of the moors, I sat in a research room off the Brontës’ kitchen, reading their juvenilia in situ. In the Baldwin archive at UF I encountered E.R.’s Geography and History by a Lady for the Use of her own Children (1790), the book that changed my life by opening up an entire forgotten genre of writing by middle-class women who sought to participate in the imperial project through socially sanctioned writing for children. This taught me that archives still hold so many stories and secrets; their potential sleeps very patiently.

2 Leave a comment on paragraph 2 0 The lesson helped me during my postdoc at Lehigh when, in the process of cataloguing over 400 miscellaneous letters for the “I remain…” project, I ran across a document whose garbled syntax at first suggested too long a day, but then thrillingly emerged as a coded Civil War letter. All that year I researched the letter, talking about it to computer scientists who tried to develop an algorithm to break the Stager Cipher, discussing it with historians, presenting it to local fourth graders who eagerly peppered me with questions, and even corresponding with the NSA cryptology center to track down one of the few remaining code books about the ciphers. Though I never managed to crack it, the mystery was sustaining, engaging, and a great conversation starter wherever I went. I carried its story with me, imagined its content, and marveled at its survival. It came from the smoke of the battlefield, from the anxious hands of a telegraph operator who hurriedly crossed out mistakes and scrawled incorrect calculations in the margins on the eve of the second battle of Bull Run when so many lives and the military career of the writer hung in the balance. With the Digital Library Team, we scanned the letter, sketched its history, and put it online so that others could enjoy the mystery. This year, it was gratifying when special collections librarian Ilhan Citak forwarded me an article by computer scientists Ali Assarpour and Kent D. Boklan detailing how they broke the 148-year old code. In the end, the story of the letter goes on and so many of us have yoked our own stories to it. It seems that Derrida was right when he said that the archive opens out of and into the future, gathering associations, richness, devotees, and memories as it glides past us into the future. The past becomes a present in every sense.

Cracking a Civil War Code

Meg Norcia

Assistant Professor of English – SUNY Brockport

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