Youngsters getting glimpse at decoding
By Regina Weiss | The (Fredericksburg, Va.) Free Lance-Star | Published: July 6, 2014
The American Revolution was not fought solely on the battlefield.
While overlooked, many men and women risked their lives to gain freedom from the British through intricate acts of espionage.
After the smoke from Friday’s celebratory fireworks settled, Fredericksburg’s Mary Washington House hosted a hands-on workshop focused on a vital aspect of the American Revolution: secret codes.
“Kids are used to code; they just don’t realize how far that history of code stretched and how important it was to the revolution,” said Mary Beth Roland, manager of Mary Washington House.
Secret codes, messages and ciphers were tools used by Americans during the revolution to outsmart stronger British forces.
George Washington learned about the importance of discovering enemy information while personally experiencing ambushes in the French and Indian War.
“I think very early on that made an impact on him, and probably shaped very much how he ran the Revolutionary War,” Roland said.
During the American Revolution, Washington relied on spy rings to bring tips on British strategies, leading to the formation of the United States.
Saturday’s coding lesson brought children and parents alike to the backyard garden of Washington’s mother’s home. That’s where local college student Tyler Griffin, who has spent four years with the Hugh Mercer Apothecary Shop, spoke about the long history of secret codes and espionage.
“It’s very different,” Griffin said of the history behind coded letters.
“It shed a new light on the American Revolution, especially some of the heroes and founding fathers from it,” he said.
Many different codes and ciphers were used to pass along valuable information about military advancements and enemy plans during the war.
The Cardano grille, the mask, the cipher wheel and sympathetic stain, or invisible ink, were four popular forms of coding.
The grille, the most primitive form of coding, was created in 1550.
Using a piece of paper with irregularly cut slots, the writer would place individual words within each slot to form the secret message. Then, after removing the slotted paper, the writer would fill in the gaps with an innocent message.
The grille would then be sent separately for the recipient to use in order to see the secret message.
The mask worked the same, but instead of irregularly cut slots, there was a strategic shape cut out to reveal a message within a letter.
While many records of coded letters were destroyed, documentation of the successful Culper Spy Ring Code still exists.
The Culper Spy Ring Code was the most successful spy ring of the Revolution, Griffin said, because it was based out of Setauket and Long Island, where they could easily get into New York and Manhattan to gain intelligence.
The “Culper” name was suggested by Washington, who was surveying Culpeper County at the time.
The code uses numbers that stand for particular words, like 202 for the word “foreign.”
“It’s amazing that the bulk of it, 763 words, are still intact,” Griffin said.
What’s interesting about secret codes during the Revolution, Griffin said, is the mass involvement among women, children and slaves.
“You’d think that with the threat of being hanged, most people wouldn’t send children out to do battle, and especially not their wives, but it’s because you wouldn’t suspect them that they were doing it,” Griffin said.
Roland, who has a degree in history, said coding gained interest lately because of “Turn,” a dramatic AMC series about America’s first spy ring set during the Revolutionary War.
One of Saturday’s attendees was 11-year-old Lucas Anderson.
Anderson, who sat with quill and ink in hand deciphering a quote from George Washington, is a young history buff who enjoys learning.
“I like the history that museums preserve,” he said.
Barbra Anderson, a volunteer with the Historic Fredericksburg Foundation and a history teacher at King George High School, enjoys helping her son learn about the many stories that make up U.S. history.
“History is just all around us and I think we forget,” she said.
“It’s our heritage, it’s where we’re from,” she said.
Regina Weiss 540/374-5444