Want to look into the shadowy world of code-breaking and national security? Wondering what spies used for codes and code-breaking during the Civil War? A field trip to the National Cryptologic Museum near Fort Meade, Maryland, might be the perfect adventure for you. (And you can go in the wintertime since it’s indoors!)
First, let’s clarify a definition:
Cryptology – secret writing; the enciphering and deciphering of messages in secret code or cipher; also: the computerized encoding and decoding of information (Merriam-Webster Dictionary)
Ah – now it sounds really cool, right?
One of the special exhibits features Civil War ciphers and introduces the developing art of codes and code-breaking during the 1860’s. Information about the signal corps and a discussion about communication by telegraph presents some of the challenges for both Federal and Confederate governments and military commanders.
If you enjoy eras before and beyond the Civil War, the exhibit of Revolutionary War ciphers, halls of historic computers, and cases of World War II enigma machines and other code equipment will be fascinating.
When I visited, the museum had a special self-guided program for youngsters, including an activity/information page. There was also a hands-on area where children and adults could try some early codes and ciphering techniques. Be prepared for challenging questions if you take kids to this museum; there’s a lot of cool, techy stuff that they’ll want to know about. (Try explaining the enigma machine and World War II code-breaking to a four-year-old! Yes, I’ve done it.)
Be sure to check the museum website for hours and travel directions. Admission is free! Guided tours can be arranged in advance for more information and opportunity to ask questions. The museum also offers school programs (see website for details) and one of those programs highlights Civil War signal corps and communication codes.
WARNING: Do not take photos outside the museum! The museum is just a couple blocks from National Security Agency Headquarters on the Fort Meade Military Base. I happen to know about someone who got their camera temporarily confiscated by government/military officials. Wait until you are inside the museum before removing a camera from its carrying case, and check with the museum staff to make sure photos are still okay inside.
The National Cryptologic Museum is an excellent introduction to the fascinating world of Civil War spies and coded communication. The exhibits and displays feature other historic items from many eras, giving visitors a clear idea of how far cryptology has come from the days of signal flags.
National Cryptologic Museum
Fort Meade, Maryland, USA
Facebook Page: National Cryptologic Museum