New-York Historical Society

Top Secret: the Stager ciphers in the Civil War

Anson Stager is not exactly a household name, but perhaps that is only fitting for a man whose main claim to fame is that he created the most widely used — and most effective — secret code during the Civil War.

Anton Stager. PR 52, Portrait File.

Born in Ontario County, New York, in 1833, Anson Stager began his career as a printer’s apprentice in the Rochester office of Henry O’Reilly.  When O’Reilly beccame involved in telegraph construction, Stager followed suit, and by the time of the Civil War, Stager had worked his way up from a telegraph operator to the general superintendent of the Western Union Telegraph Company, with headquarters in Cleveland, Ohio.

Shortly after war broke out, Stager was given responsibility for all of the telegraph lines in the Ohio military district.  He was also asked to develop an encryption scheme to protect state government communications.  Although Stager had never had much interest in codes or ciphers, he did as he was asked — creating the first telegraphic cipher used for military purposes.   When the cipher came to the attention of General George B. McClellan, he asked Stager to prepare a cipher for use in the field, which was later adopted as the official cipher of the War Department.

Stager’s cipher was a simple but effective word transposition, or “route,” cipher, described in suitably cryptic (to me, at any rate) terms by a Civil War telegrapher: “The principle of the cipher consisted in writing a messasge with an equal number of words in each line, then copying the words up and down the columns by various routes, throwing in an extra word at the end of each column, and substituting other words for important names and verbs.”

Confused?  So were the confederates, who never cracked the code.

With all due credit to Stager’s ingenuity, the key to the code’s success was absolute secrecy: only a very few people were allowed access to the codebook.  This led to some conflicts with the top brass, as is illustrated by the letter that brought Stager to my attention in the first place.

Civil War Collection, MS 670.14

In this letter, dated January 21, 1864, Stager seems to be defending himself to General-in-Chief Halleck, explaining that “the information furnished me led me to believe that the request of the staff officer for a copy of the cipher was without General Grant’s authority . . . . I am exceedingly mortified at the result, as my only desire was to furnish the most reliable means of communication to General Grant with the War Department . . . I sincerely regret that General Grant is led to believe that it is willful interference on my part.”

The incident behind this letter is described by Grant in his memoirs.  Grant had ordered a cipher operator (Corporal Samuel H. Beckwith) to disclose the key to Stager’s cipher to one of his own staff officers (Colonel Comstock).  Beckwith “refused point blank to turn over the key to Comstock as I directed, stating that his orders from the War Department were not to give it to anybody — the commanding general or any one else.  He said that if he did, he would be punished.  I told him if he did not, he most certainly would be punished. Finally, seeing that punishment was certain if he refused longer to obey my order . . .  he yielded. When I returned from Knoxville, I found quite a commotion.  The operator had been reprimanded very severely and ordered to be relieved.”

Although Beckwith was, at Grant’s request, eventually reinstated, Halleck upheld Stager’s order that Beckwith should not disclose the cipher, warning Grant that in the future special ciphers were not be communicated to members of his staff any more than to any other persons.  Even President Lincoln, a frequent visitor to the War Department telegraph office, was denied access to the codes!

As for Stager, his showdown with Grant did not stand in the way of future success:  at war’s end, he was made a brevet brigadier general, and as a civilian went on to serve as president of Western Electric, president of the Chicago Telephone Company, and president of the Western Edison Company.  He died March 26, 1885, and was buried in Cleveland, Ohio.

 

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