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Confederate Cipher Disc
Polyalphabetic cipher disc

The Confederate Cipher Disc was a mechanical wheel cipher consisting of two concentric discs, each with the 26 letters of the Latin alphabet, that was used for the encryption of secret messages of the Confederacy during the American Civil War (1861-1865). It was created by Francis LaBarre, a gold and silver worker, and was based on the Vigenère Cipher.

The Confederate Cipher Disc is made of brass. The outer disc has a diameter of approx. 57 mm, whilst the inner disc measures 41 mm. On each of the discs, the Latin alphabet is written out clockwise in the usual order (A-Z). The discs share a common axle, so that the inner disc can be rotated. The image shows a printed replica.

The smaller disc carries the text CSA SS. CSA stands for Confederate States of America, whilst SS is most likely the abbreviation of Secret Service 1. At the rear is the inscription F. Labarre (the creator) and Richmond VA.
  
Paper reproduction, photographed from a real Confederate Cipher Disc at the museum of the Confederacy in Richmond, VA.

Not many real Confederate Cipher Discs have survived and there are only five known to exist today. Two of these are in the hands of private collectors, one is part of the collection of the Smithonian Institute and two are at the Museum of the Confederacy in Richmond (Virginia, USA).

  1. It is sometimes suggested that the letters SS on the inner disc stand for Signal Service rather than Secret Service, but this is unlikely, as the official name at the time was Signals Corps. Secret Service should not be confused with the current United States Secret Service that was established in 1865 to suppress counterfeit currency and is now responsible for the American President's security.

Francis LaBarre
At the rear of the disc is the text Richmond VA, the home town of the confederacy in Virginia (USA). It is now the home of the Museum of the Confederacy where its history is kept alive. Also at the rear of the disc is the name of the creator Francis LaBarre who, before the Civil War, was a gold and silver worker. In the early 1860s, he fled as a Washington DC refugee to Confederate Richmond, where he was contracted by the Army to make medals and brass cipher devices [2].

LaBarre was born in 1818 and was enlisted in the Army at the age of 39. During the Civil War he was in Company H of the 7th Infantery Regiment Virginia, that was made up of volunteers from Washington DC & MD. His official military occupation was plater. LaBarre had a wife Mary (from New York) and two children Bianca and George. He reportedly committed suicide in 1871 [2].

Spanish-American War
The same cipher disc was used in 1898 during the Spanish-American War, when a paper-based version of it was included in the Giddings Field Message-Book. It was a smal A6-size booklet with a green leather cover and a short pencil.

Messages written down on a message pad, were encrypted with the cipher disc and then filed in a pocket of the book.

 More information
  
US Army Cipher Disk

Replica
In recent years, good looking - relatively accurate - replicas of the Confederate Cipher Disc have been made. They are now for sale in the gift shop of the NSA's National Cryptologic Museum (NSA) in Fort Meade (Maryland, USA). They are also frequently offered for sale on Ebay. Please check the images below for more details on this high-quality replica.

The Confederate Cipher Disc, used during the American Civil War, based on the Vigenère Cipher. The Confederate Cipher Disc, used during the American Civil War, based on the Vigenère Cipher. A replica of the Confederate Cipher Disc on top of its leather bag. A replica of the Confederate Cipher Disc on top of its leather bag. Paper reproduction, photographed from a real Confederate Cipher Disc at the museum of the Confederacy in Richmond, VA. Paper reproduction, photographed from a real Confederate Cipher Disc at the museum of the Confederacy in Richmond, VA. Paper reproduction, photographed from a real Confederate Cipher Disc at the museum of the Confederacy in Richmond, VA. Paper reproduction, photographed from a real Confederate Cipher Disc at the museum of the Confederacy in Richmond, VA.

References
  1. David Winfred Gaddy, Francis LaBarre, Confederate Artisan
    Military Collector & Historian, Vol. 57, No. 3 - Fall 2005, pp. 124-125.

  2. Francis LaBarre, born 1818
    GenForum, internet forum on Genealogy.
Further information
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