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Civil War Officer's Secret, Scandalous Diary Entries Decoded

Posted by on Oct. 15, 2014 at 10:40 AM
  • 6 Replies

 

Civil War Officer's Secret, Scandalous Diary Entries Decoded

Oct 15, 2014, 2:57 AM ET
 
PHOTO: Jim Gandy, assistant librarian at the New York State Military Museum, holds the diary of Confederate officer James M. Malbone, Oct. 9, 2014, in Saratoga Springs, N.Y.
Jim Gandy, assistant librarian at the New York State Military Museum, holds the diary of Confederate officer James M. Malbone, Oct. 9, 2014, in Saratoga Springs, N.Y.
Mike Groll/AP Photo

James M. Malbone's secrets remained hidden for more than 150 years.

His coded passages - a series of dots and dashes, symbols and punctuation marks - were tucked into the cracked leather-bound diary he carried in 1863, mixed among his war dispatches and musings.

Malbone participated in the Civil War, a lieutenant with the Confederacy's 6th Virginia Infantry. He was wounded at Chancellorsville in May of that year, one of 9,081 Southern troops wounded in the battle. He suffered a serious arm injury and was removed from field duty.

 

PHOTO: The diary of Confederate officer James M. Malbone is displayed at the New York State Military Museum, Oct. 9, 2014, in Saratoga Springs, N.Y. 
Mike Groll/AP Photo
PHOTO: The diary of Confederate officer James M. Malbone is displayed at the New York State Military Museum, Oct. 9, 2014, in Saratoga Springs, N.Y.

 

Many of his diary entries deal with payrolls and accounts, daily monotony detailed in faded script. He documented his purchases: one pint of brandy, two dozen turnips, crackers, beets.

Malbone's Southern sympathies also shine through. "I hope the south will [lose] her last man and woman rather than suffer a northern negro Government to be thrown around our beloved Country," he wrote.

He also dabbled in poetry, penning a poem, "Waiting for the End."

Ah my heart is weary waiting
Waiting for the End,
Waiting for this fearful war peal
Clattering, and clash of war steel,
To be hushed & Place the "white robes"
On us to descend
Ah my heart is weary waiting
Waiting for the End.

 

PHOTO: The diary of Confederate officer James M. Malbone is displayed at the New York State Military Museum, Oct. 9, 2014, in Saratoga Springs, N.Y. 
Mike Groll/AP Photo
PHOTO: The diary of Confederate officer James M. Malbone is displayed at the New York State Military Museum, Oct. 9, 2014, in Saratoga Springs, N.Y.

 

Malbone wasn't fearful about his poetry or camp recipes falling into the wrong hands, but he worked to obscure the meanings behind some of his words, using a code he devised himself. The code consists of symbols - including dollar signs, equal signs, exclamation marks and asterisks - that correspond to letters of the alphabet.

The meaning behind Malbone's entries remained hidden for a century and a half, until officials with the New York Military Museum, who came into possession of the diary, contacted Kent D. Boklan, a Queens College computer science professor and former National Security Agency cryptographer. Boklan says it took him about a week to decipher the symbols.

 

PHOTO: Confederate officer James M. Malbones diary shows coded entries at the New York State Military Museum, Oct. 9, 2014, in Saratoga Springs, N.Y. 
Mike Groll/AP Photo
PHOTO: Confederate officer James M. Malbone's diary shows coded entries at the New York State Military Museum, Oct. 9, 2014, in Saratoga Springs, N.Y.

 

Malbone's secret code? It concealed rumors and speculation and innuendo and gossip. One passage mentions a fellow soldier who got caught in bed with another man's wife.

Malbone also writes about meeting the wife of Confederate President Jefferson Davis, describing her looks in an apparent echo of rumors at the time that she may have been of 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," Boklan said.

Davis' wife was a well-educated woman for her time and, as a result, was the target of "all kind of gossipy innuendos from the ladies" in Richmond, the Confederate capital, Sam Craghead of the Museum of the Confederacy in Richmond said.

The passage about Davis' wife surprised Boklan.

"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," Boklan said.

 

PHOTO: The diary of Confederate officer James M. Malbone is displayed at the New York State Military Museum, Oct. 9, 2014, in Saratoga Springs, N.Y. 
Mike Groll/AP Photo
PHOTO: The diary of Confederate officer James M. Malbone is displayed at the New York State Military Museum, Oct. 9, 2014, in Saratoga Springs, N.Y.

 

Malbone returned to Princess Anne County, Virginia, after the war, working as a teacher and later in the court system, according to ancestry records. He never married and had no children, and died in 1912, age 84.

A century after his death, Malbone's mysterious code has finally been solved.

"Technically, this is not very hard to break," Boklan said. "There were some odd things. With a little bit of work and patience everything worked out."

by on Oct. 15, 2014 at 10:40 AM
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Replies (1-6):
furbabymum
by on Oct. 15, 2014 at 10:46 AM

 Entertaining!

yourspecialkid
by on Oct. 15, 2014 at 10:48 AM

 This is neat.  I love old handwriting, it looks so elegant.  Thanks for posting.

sweet-a-kins
by Emerald Member on Oct. 15, 2014 at 10:52 AM

 I LOVE this type of history..

mikiemom
by Ruby Member on Oct. 15, 2014 at 10:54 AM

I'm trying to figure out what was scandelous about any of this.

PinkButterfly66
by Platinum Member on Oct. 15, 2014 at 11:04 AM

Princess Anne County is now part of Virginia Beach Va.  I grew up in Tidewater Va in Norfolk, specifically.

mikiemom
by Ruby Member on Oct. 15, 2014 at 11:19 AM

Was the scandal that the 1st lady may have been of mixed race? I thought it was common knowledge?

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