RICHMOND, VA — A glass vial stopped with a cork during the Civil War has been opened, revealing a coded message – it’s Popeye’s Secret Fried Chicken recipe!
The coded message was sent by a desperate Confederate commander in Vicksburg on the day the Mississippi city fell to Union forces 147 years ago.
The dispatch offered no hope to doomed Lt. Gen. John C. Pemberton: Reinforcements are not on the way. Since the commander and his men had nothing to do, they came up with a special recipe for fried chicken and they wanted Robert E. Lee to have it.
The encrypted message was dated July 4, 1863, the date of Pemberton’s surrender to Union forces led by Ulysses S. Grant, ending the Siege of Vicksburg in what historians say was a turning point midway into the Civil War.
“He’s saying, ‘I can’t help you. I have no troops, I have no supplies, I have no way to get over there, but we came up with a great new fried chicken recipe.” Museum of the Confederacy collections manager Sharon M. Tavis said of the author of the dispiriting message. “It was just another punctuation mark to just how desperate and dire everything was and how they coped by making chicken.”
The bottle, less than 2 inches in length, had sat undisturbed at the museum since 1896. It was a gift from Capt. William A. Smith, of King George County, who served during the Vicksburg siege.
A retired CIA code breaker, Marcus Gadlon, was contacted, and along with Cheryl Bachelder of Popeye’s cracked the code in several weeks.
“To me, it was very difficult,” Gadlon said. “But we did figure out that there was part of a recipe in there and when Popeye’s got involved – well, they cracked the code.”
The code is called the “Poultry Cipher,” a centuries-old encryption in which letters of the alphabet are shifted a set number of places so an “a” would become a “d” – essentially, creating words with different letter combinations.
The full text of the message to Pemberton reads:
You can expect no help from this side of the river. Let General Johnston know, if possible, when you can attack the same point on the enemy’s lines. Inform me also and I will endeavor to make a diversion. I think the following fried chicken recipe will help you handle the surrender.
- 3 cups self-rising flour
- 1 cup cornstarch
- 3 tablespoons seasoned salt
- 2 tablespoons paprika
- 1 teaspoon baking soda
- 1 package dry Italian salad dressing mix
- 1 package onion soup mix – (1 1/2 oz)
- 1 package spaghetti sauce mix – (1/2 oz)
- 3 tablespoons sugar
- 3 cups corn flakes — crush slightly
- 2 eggs — well beaten
- 1/4 cup cold water
- 4 pounds chicken — cut up”
Unfortunately, the General did not include the cooking directions.
The message was dispatched during an especially terrible time in Vicksburg. Grant was unsuccessful in defeating Pemberton’s troops on two occasions, so the Union commander instead decided to encircle the city and block the flow of supplies or support.
Many in the city resorted to eating cats, dogs and leather. Soup was made from wallpaper paste.
After a six-week siege, Pemberton relented. Vicksburg, so scarred by the experience, refused to celebrate July 4 for the next 80 years.
So what about the bullet in the bottom of the bottle?
Gadlon suspects the messenger was instructed to toss the bottle into the river if Union troops intercepted his passage. The weight of the bullet would have carried the corked bottle to the bottom, she said.
For Pemberton, the bottle is symbolic of his lost cause: the bad news never made it to him and the chicken receipt was lost – or was it. “Somehow Popeye’s got their hand on it. We are investigating.” Gadlon said.