By Eric Durr, New York State Division of Military and Naval Affairs
A university professor who is also a former government code breaker, and a retired college financial aid director teamed up to transcribe and decode the secrets in a 150-year-old Confederate diary discovered in the collections of the New York State Military Museum in Saratoga Springs, New York.
The Military Museum is administered by the New York State Division of Military and Naval Affairs, the state agency which oversees the New York Army and Air National Guard.
Written in 1863 and 1864, by Confederate Army Lt. James Malbone, an officer in Company B, 6th Virginia Infantry, the diary records information about Soldiers in his unit, items he’s bought and sold, his African-American slaves, the faithlessness of other officers’ wives, Confederate deserters, women, and military movements.
To keep some of this private, Malbone used a code of letters and symbols.
Among that coded information is Malbone’s speculation about race of Varina Davis, the wife of Confederate President Jefferson Davis.
Encoded In his diary: Malbone recorded that he saw her and that she was “dark complected” and had “very very brown skin, dark eyes” and “high cheek bones wide mouth.” This was undoubtedly a reference to African-American features and possible ancestry, said Dr. Kent Boklan, who broke the code.
In the slave-owning Confederacy of 1864, these musings would have been explosive statements, said Boklan, a Queens College associate professor of computer science and National Security Agency-trained cryptographer.
Boklan, who has decrypted other historic documents, said people used codes in their diaries to keep military information, gossip, and ruminations about sex a secret from prying eyes.
Malbone’s diary contained a little of each.
James Malbone, according to Civil War records, was shot in the arm at the Battle of Chancellorsville, in May 1863, and detailed to perform rear areas duties in Petersburg, Virginia, which is near Richmond. This gave him the opportunity to see the Confederate president and his wife.
The Malbone dairy is one of 60 that he’s found in the collections of the Military Museum, said museum librarian Jim Gandy.
The museum’s collections date back to 1863, when the governor of New York directed a state militia officer to collect items related to New York’s participation in the Civil War. Today those collections include thousands of documents and items, ranging from the key to Jefferson Davis’ liquor cabinet to a uniform worn by a New York Army National Guard Soldier in Iraq.
One of the museum’s projects is to transcribe the information found on historic documents in the collection and put it online so that historians and ordinary citizens can access the information without coming to the library, Gandy said. The Malbone diary is the tenth to get posted on the museum’s website.
Putting the information online takes dedicated volunteers, Gandy said, and that’s where Jerrie Hinchman, a retired college finance director who used to live in Wilton, New York, but now lives in Delaware, comes into the story.
She had time on her hands and wanted to volunteer for something, and when she saw a notice about Gandy seeking help she signed up, Hinchman explained. She’s always been interested in history, Hinchman said, and the project of putting old diaries on line sounded fascinating.
“I think it is great resource material for the historian and the genealogist and family researchers,” she said.
“It is one thing to read something in a history book or novel, but there is something special about reading somebody’s words written in real time,” Hinchman said. “You get a different perspective. You can just see how life influenced them, how their thinking changes, what influences them.”
Taking a 150-year-old hand-written document, trying to decipher what that person is saying, and turning it into a typed transcript for a 21st Century audience can be challenging, Hinchman said. Handwriting skills of the authors’ vary, pages get torn, and ink fades, she explained
As she went through Malbone’s diary she discovered two things, Hinchman recalled.
She found she couldn’t understand some of what Malbone has written, because he used symbols and put letters in places where they didn’t make sense. She also learned that she didn’t like James Malbone very much, Hinchman said.
“His attitude towards slavery, how he treated his slaves, how he felt about the North and how he treated women; it was really bad,” Hinchman said. “He was a horrible person.”
She couldn’t do anything about the kind of person James Malbone was, but she did decide that he was writing in code and she could try to find a Confederate code key online and break the code, Hinchman recalled.
She didn’t find a key to Malbone’s code, but she did find Dr. Kent Boklan on the internet, Gandy said.
Boklan had broken other old codes. He is the author of papers on how he broke Confederate and Union codes found in old documents and how he had decoded a War of 1812 diary.
Gandy reached out to Boklan to ask him if he wanted to give the Malbone diary a try. Gandy provided Boklan with Hinchman’s transcriptions and Boklan went to work.
Boklan identified places in Malbone’s diary where he wrote in both plain text and his code of symbols and used those sections of the diary to decipher all the coded messages.
“He (Malbone) did some strange things,” Boklan said. “Sometimes he would take a little and encrypt it and he would mix things up. In the most provocative section — the reference to Mrs. Davis — he writes the word dark four different ways,” Boklan said. “Sometimes he does encrypt. Other times he does not.”
“Generally speaking, the homebrew methods we are talking about here are not as sophisticated as official ciphers,” Boklan said, referring to the Union and Confederate codes he has broken in the past.
“The difficult challenge is deciphering the handwriting,” he said.
Technically what Malbone did is called ciphering, because he replaced letters in a message with different letters or symbols, Boklan said. A code is when words are replaced with different words, he explained.
While Hinchman learns a lot about the motivations of people in the past by reading their diaries, Boklan said he learns about people by breaking their codes.
“Breaking diary ciphers tells you a lot about the motives of the diarist,” he said. “It has been 150 years since Malbone wrote this diary, but human motivations have not changed much in 150 years.”
“It really helps me understand how people think, by how they protect their information,” Boklan said.
The diary of James Malbone can be read online at the New York State Military Museum website at http://dmna.ny.gov/historic/reghist/civil/Malbone.htm.