blog Charles Cornwallis ciphers Critical Thinking Espionage and Cryptography Francis Marion Letters and Correspondence Lord Rawdon Nathanael Greene Ninety Six Nisbet Balfour North Carolina Patrick Ferguson South Carolina Thomas Sumter Virginia

Decoding British ciphers used in the South, 1780-81

During the southern campaigns the British used two sorts of cipher, every sort being markedly totally different from the different.

The First Sort of Cipher: The Widespread Cipher
Earlier this yr I used to be asked by an American historian[1] if I might decode the cipher in the following letter from Col. Francis Lord Rawdon, commanding in the upcountry of South Carolina and Georgia, to Lt. Col. John Watson Tadwell Watson,[2] being a cipher which had not been damaged for 238 years:

On shut evaluation it soon turned obvious to me that the cipher was the Widespread cipher, which was extra extensively used in the south, for instance in correspondence between Lt. Common Charles Earl Cornwallis, the British Common Officer Commanding there, and the following officers: Rawdon; Lt. Col. George Turnbull when commanding at Camden, South Carolina; Lt. Col. Banastre Tarleton, when in the area; and Main James Henry Craig commanding at Wilmington, North Carolina.  They in flip made use of it when corresponding at occasions with their subordinates.  When Watson returned to New York in early summer time 1781, he took the cipher with him and it was used by Basic Sir Henry Clinton, the British Commander-in-Chief in North America, in his dispatch of July 11, 1781 to Cornwallis,[3] who had by then entered Virginia.

The enciphered words read:

“[If your intelligence corresponds with this,] you will please to send Fanning’s Regt hither as quickly as possible and Small’s may return to Monk’s Corner.”

So far as the enciphering gadget was involved, it had two concentric rings, the outer of which consisted of the letters of the alphabet in their regular order, and the inside a collection of numbers in a completely fastened order.  To type the cipher the numbers in the internal ring have been aligned with the letters in the outer, and the key to the cipher was the number aligned with the letter “A”, a number which all the time appeared first in an enciphered doc. It was subsequently a easy matter for the recipient to make the similar alignment and so decipher the document. Numbers not a part of the cipher have been inserted to confuse an unauthorised recipient, in this case any number from and together with “30” onwards, which had no which means.  Sometimes, however not right here, different numbers have been added to those who have been a part of the cipher.  For example, if “N” have been “6” it’d typically be enciphered as “36” or “46”.

As to the use of the cipher here, the key’s the quantity “16” in the opening sequence “33, 16, 41”, with “16” being aligned with the letter “A”.  As beforehand defined, “33” and “41” haven’t any which means.  When set to this alignment, the cipher reads as follows:

The cipher is able to twenty-five alignments.  If, for example, “8” is inserted first at the starting of enciphered text (disregarding the insertion there of numbers that haven’t any which means), then that quantity is aligned with the letter “A”.  Consequently B, C, D, E and so on. are mechanically enciphered as 14, 15, 26, 4 and so forth. by virtue of the undeniable fact that they appear sequentially after “8” in the cipher (exactly as the similar sequence after “8”  appears in the cipher used in Rawdon’s letter above).

The circumstances surrounding the dispatch of that letter are set out in the following report of the similar date from Rawdon to Cornwallis, who was presently conducting the winter marketing campaign in North Carolina.

March 7th, 1781
Earl Cornwallis and so on. and so on. and so forth.

My Lord
I’ve been in the area ever since I wrote the enclosed.  I’m grieved (altho’ it is merely a gazette) that during my absence no means could possibly be found of transmitting it to you, as I understand how anxious your Lordship have to be to listen to regularly from us, but the savage cruelty of the enemy, who commit the most wanton murders in cold blood upon the associates of Authorities that fall into their arms, makes it very troublesome to acquire a messenger at any worth.

A very daring effort has been made to excite revolt in this province, however as the venture is I feel solely baffled, the circumstance will in all probability conduce to our future tranquillity by having uncovered to those whose sentiments have been wavering how little prospect of success can ever attend such an enterprize.  I discussed to your Lordship that I relinquished the pursuit of Marion[4] upon intelligence that Sumter was assembling a considerable pressure near Fishing Creek and the greater fords of Broad River. Ninety Six I imagined to be his object. However my utmost pains to secure early info, Sumter had gained the banks of the Congaree before I acquired the least discover of his movement.  Upon the first intimation of this step I marched with 600, an hundred cavalry and two pieces of cannon)[5] hoping to get upon the enemy earlier than they might study that I was in the area. On the first day’s march I obtained sure info that Sumter had crossed the Congaree at Friday’s Ferry and had invested Major Maxwell’s publish, a square redoubt enclosing two or three storehouses.  Wade Hampton was in contract to furnish a sure quantity of provision to this publish on a hard and fast day.  As he maintained a secret correspondence with Sumter, he delayed fulfilling his agreement till he thought the stores in the redoubt have been all expended, of which circumstance he gave Sumter discover.  Sumter subsequently concluded that a blockade of some days would scale back Major Maxwell to surrender.  In the meantime he summoned by proclamation all the inhabitants to hitch him, providing to all akin to would take part with him a full pardon for their former attachment to us and denouncing penalty of dying to all who did not vary themselves underneath his normal by the 23rd of February.  To offer weight to these threats a number of persons recognized to be friendly in the direction of us have been inhumanly murdered, tho’ unarmed and remaining peaceably at their own homes.  Both thro’ worry or inclination many joined the enemy, and a number of other parties have been in movement for the similar objective when Sumter acquired the news of our strategy. I had indifferent Major McLeroth with 260 infantry and a bit of cannon to bar the enemy’s retreat at Friday’s Ferry while I endeavored to get round them.  We crossed Broad River at a ford deeper, wider and extra speedy than Lands Ford on the Catawba.  Above thirty of the infantry have been carried away by the drive of the stream, but fortuitously they have been all saved (excepting one man of my mild company)[6] by the exertions of some of the New York dragoons,[7] who have been stationed decrease in the ford for that objective.  The Saluda was so swollen that it was not fordable, but we handed it securely at Weaver’s Ferry on the 22nd of February beneath cover of our cannon.  Here we discovered that Sumter had retired down the Congaree the night time before, having had info of our march from the fugitives of some events which we had fallen in with and dispersed as they have been on their option to be a part of him.  I used to be likewise informed that Main McLeroth, deceived by false intelligence, had crossed the Congaree at Friday’s Ferry as an alternative of shifting down to satisfy the enemy at McCord’s as had been meant.  To stop lack of time I despatched Main McLeroth directions to comply with the monitor of the enemy, and I indifferent the cavalry to hitch him.  Advancing with the the rest of my drive to Friday’s Ferry, I crossed the Congaree at that place throughout the night time of the 23rd and subsequent morning struck throughout the fork by pressured marches in expectation of falling in with the enemy between McCord’s and Camden.  I soon discovered that the enemy had met and taken sixteen waggons laden with public shops near Buckhead’s, the goods contained in which that they had put into the boats at McCord’s Ferry and despatched them down the Santee, they themselves pursuing the route alongside that river with intent to cross it at Manigault’s as the only technique of escaping .  Sumter had made an try upon the submit at Thompson’s but was repulsed by Captain Robinson of the Provincial mild infantry, who commanded there.  This info I acquired from Major McLeroth with an intimation of his function to pursue Sumter instantly.  I crossed the Wateree at Camden on the evening of the 25th, and on the 26th continued my march in the direction of Neilson’s, having sent forward instructions that Lt. Colonel Watson, who was on the High Hills, should hasten before me to Manigault’s and that the publish at Wright’s Bluff must be on the watch for the boats.  Sumter had in the imply time ordered Marion to advance to Manigault’s and cover the passage from being interrupted by Watson.  Our motion, nevertheless, prevented Marion from trying to intrude, and the boats (in which Sumter had hoped to cross the river) have been retaken with all the baggage as they tried to move Wright’s Bluff.  Lt. Colonel Small was advancing from Monk’s Corner with the 84th and Fanning’s Regiment, in order that Sumter’s retreat appeared scarcely attainable, however, upon a rumor that Marion had crossed the Santee and joined Sumter, Major McLeroth unfortunately discontinued the pursuit.  Sumter, discovering that his rear was not pressed, undertook to cross the Santee by swimming his horses and passing his males in two canoes which he found accidentally at Fludd’s Plantation.  He effected his function on the 27th and the similar evening fell in with Lt. Colonel Watson.  An motion ensued in which the enemy have been pressured to flee, leaving 18 lifeless on the area, several wounded and about forty horses.  Our loss was only a subaltern and 7 privates wounded.  Harrison’s individuals, mounted and armed with swords, behaved very gallantly, routing the enemy’s cavalry frequently shaped and thrice their number.  Discovering on my arrival at Neilson’s Ferry that Sumter had gotten clear into the nation and had ensured a junction with Marion, I assumed it very probable that upon studying my distance from Camden the enemy is perhaps tempted to make a joint effort towards it.  Subsequently, ordering the infantry of Major McLeroth’s detachment to cross the Santee and be a part of Lt. Colonel Watson, I returned hither as rapidly as potential with the infantry which had accompanied me and with the cavalry, which had just rejoined me by means of Neilson’s Ferry.  I arrived right here about noon on the 5th on the spot, and on the similar night I detached Major Fraser in the direction of Ratcliff’s Bridge with the South Carolina Regiment, which had shaped a part of the garrison of Camden during our march.  The cavalry have been to have been of the celebration, however a considerable physique of the enemy having appeared at a plantation not very large of the route to be pursued by Major Fraser, I ordered that the cavalry ought to first try and strike at that corps and afterwards be a part of the South Carolinians. These directions proved unfortunate. The corps at which the cavalry have been to strike obtained info of their strategy and escaped thro’ the swamps; and on the sixth, before the cavalry had joined him, Main Fraser unexpectedly met Sumter near the head of Black River.  Sumter, unaware of our return, was advancing in the direction of this publish to aim fulfilling a specific objective, which, an intercepted letter informs me, was enjoined by Greene,[8] and he was not slightly stunned at discovering himself opposed in the open area.  When the parties first met, Sumter’s males have been all mounted and shortly gave means before the hearth of the infantry.  They soon, nevertheless, dismounted and superior with tolerable countenance to attack Fraser.  The South Carolinians soon repelled the assault and completely dispersed the enemy, pursuing them for a long way, however for need of cavalry no decisive benefit might be taken of the rout.  The enemy lost ten killed and about forty wounded.  Fraser had only six wounded.  Marion was not with Sumter in this affair, and I consider from each circumstance that, finding the nation deterred by his unwell success from joining him, Sumter is retiring in the direction of his previous hang-out close to the Catawba lands.  Sumter’s drive, when he crossed the Congaree, passed current for a minimum of a thousand, however I am satisfied it scarcely exceeded four hundred. They have been all mounted.  A few fourth of them have been armed with swords as cavalry and had wonderful horses.  Of those that joined Sumter at Congarees, none I consider handed the Santee with him. Marion’s numbers definitely don’t amount to 3 hundred.  Lt. Colonel Watson has orders to press him to the utmost.  I shouldn’t, my Lord, have thought so long a element of our petty operations value sending to you, only that I do know quite a lot of rumors must attain you, which couldn’t be explained by a much less minute account.  I might say that we’ve had nice fatigue, have been I not ashamed to say it after the fantastic exertions which you will have been making. Lt. Colonel Watson, Major Fraser and Major Maxwell have all acquitted themselves very handsomely.  The New York dragoons have distinguished themselves in many profitable skirmishes; Captain Coffin notably deserves applause.  I have not heard out of your Lordship since you left Salisbury, but some intercepted letters from the enemy give me an concept of your functions. Campbell with the Back Mountain males and Pickens are gone to hitch Greene.  The fatigue of our little excursion has given me a cough and something of a feverish grievance. I worry your Lordship must look out for some one to alleviate me.  I hope to go away the district in a state of tolerable quiet.  While I’m needed I will do my utmost, however I doubt my power.

I have the honor to be, my Lord, with equal respect and affection

Your Lordship’s very trustworthy servant



I’ve taken the liberty of allowing Major McLeroth to go to New York. It was turn into too essential.[10]


February 15th

I’m just returned, my pricey Lord, from my tour after Marion.  I discovered that his numbers did not much exceed three hundred. By pressured marches we acquired under him but he acquired off (tho’ narrowly) across Scape Whore.  We pressured him over Lynches Creek and will have pushed him across Pedee had not news of a corps advancing towards Ninety Six recalled me.  I find since from Cruger that the enemy are usually not in larger drive than what Cunningham thinks himself equal to, however I take it without any consideration some effort can be made in that quarter.  I subsequently stay able to march at one hour’s warning.  In the imply time I have taken measures which I hope will forestall Marion from troubling us far more.


Different Ciphers of the First Variety
The best way in which these ciphers are set, the use in them of numbers having no which means, and the increasing at occasions of numbers forming part of the ciphers ― all are the similar as described above in connection with the Widespread cipher.

Ferguson’s Cipher
This cipher was used in the late summer time and autumn of 1780 not solely by Main Patrick Ferguson, the Inspector of Militia in South Carolina, but more extensively.  Due to the danger that it had fallen into enemy arms, its use was discontinued after the Battle of King’s Mountain on October 7, a battle in which Ferguson was killed and his men killed or captured.  When, for instance, the first operative quantity in the cipher is “6”, being aligned with the letter “A”, the cipher reads as follows:

Balfour’s Cipher
This cipher was used in a few of the correspondence between Lt. Col. Nisbet Balfour, the Commandant of Charlestown, and Cornwallis.  It operates in the similar means as the previous ciphers.

In 1781 Balfour forwarded a replica of the cipher to Brig. Gen. Benedict Arnold in Virginia, who used it to correspond with Cornwallis throughout the latter’s march there by means of North Carolina.  On arrival Cornwallis appointed Main Gen. Alexander Leslie to command at Portsmouth and used the cipher in correspondence with him.

The Ninety Six Cipher
For use in the manner previously explained for sure correspondence to or from Ninety Six.

The Second Type of Cipher: Balfour’s Various Cipher
This cipher was used on a couple of occasions in correspondence between Balfour and Cornwallis.  The enciphering software was a dictionary, with equivalent copies being stored by the sender and recipient.  Every phrase was enciphered by three numbers:  the first referred to the page number, the second to the column on the page, and the third to the place of the phrase in the column.  For example, “281-1-25” meant the twenty-fifth phrase in the first column on page 281.  To indicate use of the cipher Balfour and Cornwallis positioned “B” before the first phrase of enciphered text.

The dictionary used was John Entick’s New Spelling Dictionary, educating to write down and pronounce the English tongue with ease and propriety (London, 1777 version), a replica of which is accessible for inspection in the Sterling Sub-Library, Senate House Library, College of London.  In contrast to other dictionaries of the interval, it numbers each web page, and virtually all entries in a column occupy just one line each, making it perfect for a simplified enciphering device.

An instance of the cipher in use is the following extract from Balfour’s dispatch of October 22, 1780 to Cornwallis,[12] with the enciphered words again being italicised and underlined:

The vessels will be ready when you order them, with every thing I can think of.  Cruger is much distress’d at 96 about the militia.”

The words in query are enciphered as follows:

The                  373-1-16                                 of                     259-1-31

vessels            391-1-35                                 distress’d        132-2-30

you                  426-1-36                                 at                     53-2-6

order                262-1-29                                 about               34-2-21

them                373-1-23                                 the                   373-1-16

assume                374-1-17                                 militia              242-1-26.

I’ve come across no proof that any of the above ciphers was ever broken by the revolutionaries.

[1]C. B. Baxley to Ian Saberton, e mail of February 13, 2019.

[2]The letter, which had been intercepted by the enemy, appears in R. W. Gibbes ed., Documentary History of the American Revolution (Columbia, SC, 1853), three: 31-2.

[3]Ian Saberton ed., The Cornwallis Papers: The Campaigns of 1780 and 1781 in the Southern Theatre of the American Revolutionary Warfare (“CP”), 6 vols (Uckfield: The Naval & Army Press Ltd, 2010), 5: 139.

[4]For complete biographical notes on individuals mentioned in this letter and the enclosure, see CP, passim.

[5]Phrases in this letter which are italicised and underlined have been enciphered. It’s the Widespread cipher that was used.

[6]Rawdon was Colonel of the Volunteers of Ireland, a British American regiment raised at his own expense.

[7]A large a part of the New York Volunteers, another British American regiment, had been transformed by Rawdon into cavalry.

[8]In a letter of February 21, 1781 Greene had invited Sumter to destroy a mill close to Camden as a way of forcing the garrison to abandon the publish via lack of supplies.  Richard Okay Showman et al. eds, The Papers of Basic Nathanael Greene (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1994), 7: 328.

[9]CP 4: 47-9.

[10]Because, as evinced by the current affair, McLeroth was not an efficient officer.

[11]CP 4: 50.

[12]CP 2: 129.