Coded Civil-War Diary Dishes on 1st Lady's Race

Southern officer James Malbone pens diary behind the lines
By Neal Colgrass,  Newser Staff
Posted Oct 13, 2014 4:15 PM CDT
Confederate Diary Dishes Gossip in Code
Confederate officer James M. Malbone's diary shows coded entries at the New York State Military Museum on Thursday, Oct. 9, 2014, in Saratoga Springs, NY.   (AP Photo/Mike Groll)

A wounded Confederate officer found time for a little fun during the Civil War while working behind the lines—by gossiping in his diary, and in code no less. The diary of James Malbone, now at the New York State Military Museum, includes entries on the Confederacy's first lady and a soldier who slept with another guy's wife, the AP reports. "That's pretty shocking," says former NSA cryptographer Ken Boklan, who broke the simple code. "It's a military diary and you expect military information, but you don't expect the first lady of the Confederacy to make an appearance in this diary." Indeed, Malbone wrote about meeting Confederate President Jefferson Davis' wife, Varina Howell Davis, and rehashed rumors that she might have been of mixed race.

Malbone describes Davis as "dark complected" with "high cheek bones wide mouth" and "very very brown skin dark eyes." His code involved various symbols, like a dollar sign and punctuation marks, that represented letters of the alphabet. But other matters, like supply costs and names of deserters, Malbone wrote about in regular text—no doubt because they would have been copied by others for official records. Malbone, of the 6th Virginia Infantry Regiment, wrote the entries after his arm was badly injured in the Battle of Chancellorsville in 1863. "Technically, this is not very hard to break," says Boklan. "With a little bit of work and patience everything worked out." See scans or a transcription of the diary, or read about a rare photo of a Robert E. Lee slave. (More Civil War stories.)

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