USMT civilians setting telegraph poles and stringing wire

U.S. Military Telegraph civilians set poles and string wire during the Civil War. The military's critical telegraph lines were operated by civilians who worked for USMT.

The Stager ciphers and the U.S. military's first cryptographic system

by CPT Kevin Romano

During the Civil War, the Signal Corps had an unwelcome competitor (as Chief Anson Stager, Civil War era Signal Officer BG Albert Myer saw it) in providing telegraphic communications for the Union Army. U.S. Military Telegraph employed civilian operators and was managed by a civilian, Anson Stager, under Secretary of War Edwin Stanton�s control. Stager also created successful ciphers and is credited with being one of the United States� pioneer cryptographers, since he developed the first cryptographic system formally adopted by the U.S. military.

The Stager ciphers consisted of 10 numbered cipher systems. The Stager ciphers� integrity was unbelievably robust; the ciphers were never broken in the Civil War by cryptanalysis.

Cryptography�s birth

Stager was 19 when Samuel Finley Breese Morse tapped the telegraph into existence in 1844 with the words, �What hath God wrought?�  Morse�s invention brought rapid, long-distance communications into a world where, for the most part, they hadn�t previously existed. Morse also envisioned the telegraph as a private means of communication, where transmissions between stations would be secure, but other people designed the methods of encrypting telegraphic messages.

In his book, Secret Wires: the U.S. Military Telegraph Corps and Civil War Communications, Fred Chesson points out that these early telegraph ciphers were motivated by secrecy but, more importantly, by saving money. During the period leading up to the Civil War, a host of telegraph and railroad agencies employed ciphers in their telegraphic messages. More often than not, the telegraph operators themselves devised these early ciphers and so were this nation�s cryptographic pioneers.

When Stager became an apprentice printer for Henry O�Reilly of Rochester, N.Y., he hoped to work in the printing business, but O�Reilly introduced the 21-year-old Stager to the telegraph in 1846. O�Reilly constructed a telegraph line between Harrisburg, Pa., and Philadelphia, Pa., which Stager was placed in charge of at the Lancaster, Pa., station. As the O�Reilly telegraph lines expanded, so did Stager�s responsibilities. Stager moved to Ohio to manage telegraph lines there and eventually served as the first general superintendent of Western Union Telegraph Company, newly formed in 1856.

With the attack on Fort Sumter April 12, 1861, and the outbreak of the Civil War, the need for secure telegraphic communications became paramount. Ohio�s governor summoned Stager to the state capital with a twofold request: develop a system so the governor could securely communicate over the telegraph with the governors of Illinois and Indiana, and assume control of the state�s telegraph lines.

Stager developed a very simple cipher system for the governor that was a basic route and transposition cipher. The incredible feat of Stager�s cipher was that, before this, he�d had no formal training in cryptology or had even expressed a very strong interest in the field.

The benefits of Stager�s cipher soon reached Union GEN George McClellan. McClellan asked Stager to prepare a cipher he could use in the field, thus beginning the U.S. military�s first formal cryptographic system.

USMT�s start

Soon after the outbreak of hostilities between the states, the Union government formed an organization that would need Stager�s services: USMT. USMT was created as a means for the government to manage and control the many existing private telegraph lines. The Union leadership realized that use of the telegraph would be critical in the war effort. Stager joined USMT as a colonel in May 1861.

In 1862, President Abraham Lincoln seized control of all commercial telegraph lines. With this act, Stager was appointed as supervisor of USMT lines. Stager was an obvious choice to serve as supervisor given his experience with commercial telegraph lines.

However, the newly formed U.S. Army Signal Corps, under Myer�s leadership, was often at odds with Stager and the USMT. The Signal Corps felt that all telegraph responsibilities should fall under its jurisdiction, whereas USMT and Stager understandably didn�t share this view. Part of the conflict between Myer and Stager stemmed from the competition to recruit trained telegraph operators. Myer brought this issue to a head by advertising for qualified telegraph operators in the September issue of the Army and Navy Official Gazette.

Stanton thought Myer was insubordinate because he didn�t clear this ad with the secretary of war before printing it. In the personal conflict and rivalry between Stager and Myer, Myer was the loser, as Stanton favored Stager; Stanton dismissed Myer as Chief Signal Officer Nov. 10, 1863, and reassigned him to duty in Memphis, Tenn. With this act, Stanton also turned over all telegraphic responsibilities to Stager and USMT. (Editor�s note: for more details on the Stager/Stanton vs. Myer relationship, read Rebecca Robbins Raines� Signal branch history, Getting the Message Through.)

USMT serving Army of the Potomac July 1863

USMT operators talk during downtime at Army of the Potomac headquarters, July 1863.

The ciphers

Throughout the Civil War, Stager developed 10 cipher systems for the Union Army. These ciphers were numbered 1 through 12, with numbers 8 and 11 being omitted. (See table below.) The ciphers were developed in four general groups, with ciphers from the same group sharing similar characteristics. The cipher groups were: 6, 7; 9, 10, 12; 1, 2; 3, 4, 5.

 Stager's cipher system
Cipher Initiated Terminated
1 February 1864 Sept. 24, 1864
2 1864 1864
3 Dec. 25, 1864 March 23, 1865
4 March 23, 1865 June 20, 1865
5 Not used June 20, 1865
6 Early war, 1861 (?) August 1862
7 Early war, 1861 (?) August 1862
9 January 1863 February 1864 (?)
10 Spring 1863 February 1864 (?)
12 1862 August 1864

Among all 10 of the Stager ciphers, the basic underlying mechanics are the same. The different versions reflect the addition of more arbitrary words or code words, and more routes. This expansion is understandable, since the codes were used when different tactical situations called for different arbitrary words to represent them.

The Stager cipher is a route and transposition cipher. First, keywords from the message are substituted with their corresponding arbitrary or code words. Next, the message is written down in a predetermined number of lines and columns. The number of lines and columns determine the commencement word and route to be used with the message. Depending on the cipher used, a time would be placed on the message with a corresponding code word. Finally a route, determined by the number of lines and columns, would be used to encipher the message.

As the Stager ciphers grew more complex, so did the routes and number of arbitrary words. The most complete listing of arbitrary words and routes is found in William Plum�s work, The Telegraph During the Civil War in the United States.

For example, using Stager Cipher 9 (a complete version of Cipher 9 appears in Plum�s book in Appendix A), here�s a possible message that GEN Ulysses Grant could have sent to GEN William Sherman in November 1863 during the battle of Chattanooga:

To General Sherman,
Your division will cross the Tennessee River at midnight and advance and attack General Bragg�s fortifications, then capture Chattanooga. Please advise on wounded, killed, arms, artillery, rations and ammunition.
General Grant, 6 p.m.

The telegraph operator would then look in the USMT codebook and put the appropriate �arbitraries� into this message. The arbitraries from the Cipher 9 codebook are listed in the following table.

General Sherman BLACK
Division WHARTON
Tennessee River GODWIN
Midnight MARY
Advance WAFER
General Bragg QUADRANT
Fortifications SAGINAW
Chattanooga JASMINE
Wounded WHIST
Artillery RICHARD
Ammunition RAMSAY
General Grant BANGOR
6 p.m. JENNIE

The message with the corresponding arbitraries would be:


The message then was broken down into a division of five lines and six columns (see table below) if the route of enciphering it was determined to be CONGRESS.


Thus Grant�s message in the CONGRESS route would be enciphered going up the sixth column, down the fifth, up the fourth, down the third, up the second and down the first. The telegraph operator would then append CONGRESS as the first word in the message to specify the route used to encode the message. The resulting message would then be sent over the telegraph as:


USMT secrecy

As I mentioned, the Stager ciphers were very robust, as the Confederacy was never able to break any of them. The Confederacy, in fact, was so baffled by Stager�s ciphers that intercepted messages were often placed in Southern newspapers in hopes that someone could decipher them.

The ciphers� security rested solely only the limited number of people who had access to the codebook. For example, the codebook for Cipher 6 was available to only 14 people. As the use of Stager�s ciphers increased, so did the number of codebooks, but Stager and Stanton kept close hold on the operators and codebooks.

This control of the codebooks led to problems between the USMT and the field commanders. (It�s what also led to some of the conflict between Stager and Myer.) Union field commanders felt they had little to no control over the cipher system and the operators employing it, since ultimately the cipher operators were responsible to Stager. This at times presented some problems, as Grant wrote in his memoirs.

I ordered the cipher operator to turn over the key to Captain Cyrus B. Comstock of the Corps of Engineers, whom I had selected as a wise and discreet man who certainly could be trusted with the cipher if the operator at my headquarters could,� Grant wrote. �The operator 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. When I returned from Knoxville, I found quite a commotion. The operator had been reprimanded very severely and ordered to be relieved.�

Grant wasn�t the only one barred access to the Stager ciphers. The security of these ciphers even extended to the president, as Raines wrote in Getting the Message Through.

�The fact that the military telegraph functioned independently of the army commanders it was supposed to serve created potential problems of command and control,� Raines said. �Only the operators themselves knew the cipher codes used to transmit messages, and even President Lincoln, a frequent visitor to the War Department telegraph office, was denied access to them.�

The Civil War�s end also brought an end to the need for Stager�s ciphers, so the Union Army declared all the ciphers obsolete as of June 20, 1865.

At war�s end, Stager was made a brevet brigadier general, but more notably went on to serve as president of Western Electric, president of the Chicago Telephone Company and president of the Chicago Edison Company. He died March 26, 1885, and was buried in Cleveland, Ohio.

CPT Romano is an instructor in the Department of Mathematical Sciences at the U.S. Military Academy, West Point, N.Y. Previous assignments have included platoon leader, executive officer and assistant S-3 with 40th Signal Battalion, Fort Huachuca, Ariz.; battalion Signal officer, 5th Battalion, 5th Air Defense Artillery, in Korea; and commander, Company B, 122d Signal Battalion, Korea. He�s a graduate of the U.S. Marine Corps Command and Control Course, Quantico, Va., and holds a bachelor�s degree in mathematics from the University of Utah and a master�s in applied mathematics from Naval Postgraduate School, Monterey, Calif.

Acronym QuickScan
USMT � U.S. Military Telegraph

More reading

Chesson, Fred W., Secret Wires: The U.S. Military Telegraph Corps and Civil War Communications,, 2002.

Grant, U.S., Personal Memoirs of U.S. Grant, C.L. Webster and Company, New York, 1885.

Newton, David E., Encyclopedia of Cryptography, Instructional Horizons, Santa Barbara, Calif., 1997.

Plum, William R., The Telegraph During the Civil War in the United States, Jansen, McClurg and Company, Chicago, 1882.

Raines, Rebecca R., Getting the Message Through: a Branch History of the U.S. Army Signal Corps, U.S. Government Printing Office, Washington, D.C., 1996.

dividing rule

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