Civil war diary code cracked

SARATOGA SPRINGS, N.Y. WAVY) – Researchers and cryptographers have just cracked the code on secret passages in the diary of a civil war officer.

The journal is part of the collection at a New York State Military Museum.

The leather bound diary from 1863 appears to be just another interesting part of the collection at the museum in Saratoga Springs. But the diary of Lieutenant James Malbone of Virginia is unique. Much of it is written in plain text, and other parts are written in code.

But after a year and a half of transcribing by a museum volunteer, and weeks of work by an NSA-trained cryptographer, the code is cracked.

Read the diary on the museum’s website

“The only diary in our collection that has a code,” said Jim Gandy, archivist for NYSMM. “We were just curious as to what it said.”

There are mentions of food, payment to soldiers and casualties.

But it seems Malbone also had a flair for gossip.

There are passages in which he writes about a fellow soldier who got caught in bed with another man’s wife. He writes about meeting the wife of Confederate President Jefferson Davis as well. he describes her looks in an apparent echo of rumors at the time that she may have been black or mixed race.

Malbone’s encrypted entry about Varina Howell Davis describes her as “dark complected” with “very very brown skin dark eyes” and “high cheek bones wide mouth.”

He apparently put those potentially scandalous thoughts in code because he would have to share his diary with superior officers.

“It would stand to reason that you would call into question your commander-in-chief’s personal life that you would get called out for it,” Gandy said.

The museum has no plans to put the diary on display.

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