Another version of the US Grant ‘n’ Stanton ‘n’ Nesmith ‘n’ Ingalls anecdote
A different Chinook telegram!
Horace Porter, General Grant’s personal secretary, to whom we owe today’s Jargon quote (image credit: Wikipedia)
Contrary to my own previous reporting, this story doesn’t involve our Chinuk Wawa-speaking President Ulysses S. Grant, except as a later appreciative re-hearer.
Chinook writer Rufus Ingalls (image credit: Library of Congress)
Chinook reader James Nesmith (image credit: geni.com)
and then Secretary of War Edwin McMasters Stanton.
Suspicious of Chinook: Edwin Stanton (image credit: history.com)
Sometimes I wonder to what extent this particular story of a Civil War “code talk” is made up, embellished, or similarly distorted. There are conflicting versions in circulation, for instance this summary from an 1879 Oregon newspaper:
“Come down d—-d quick if you want to see a fight, and bring about ten gallons of whisky; I’m out.’
— from “A Treasonable Cipher” in the Corvallis (OR) Gazette of May 9, 1879, page 1, column 5
Maybe that’s a more accurate telling, as it comes 18 years earlier than the one we’ll be focusing on today. Here’s an even later version from an Oregonian point of view:
“…come down to the seat of war and bring a bottle of the best brand of whisky — presumably for medical purposes”
— Oregon Historical Quarterly
I’ve not been able to track down the original telegram in the Library of Congress’ collections of Stanton’s and other folks’ correspondence. It might be in the Nesmith Papers.
Ingalls tells his version of the famous anecdote here, quoting the actual early 1860’s Jargon message as he recalls explaining it to Stanton.
I’ve never previously quoted these Chinuk Wawa words, so I’ll discuss them after showing you this 1890s passage:
That night Nesmith told General Grant the story of the cipher correspondence he and Ingalls had carried on the year before. He said: “One day the Secretary of War sent me a message that he would like to see me at the War Department, at the earliest moment, on a matter of public importance. Well, I was rather flattered by that. I says to myself: “Perhaps the whole Southern Confederacy is moving on Stanton, and he has sent for a war Democrat to get between him and them and sort of whirl ’em back.” I hurried up to his office, and when I got in he closed the door, looked all around the room like a stage assassin to be sure that we were alone, then thrust a telegram under my nose, and cried, “Read that!” I suppose I ought to have appeared scared, and tried to find a trap-door in the floor to fall through, but I did n’t [sic]. I ran my eye over the despatch, seeing that it was addressed to me and signed by Ingalls, and read: “Klat-a-wa ni-ka sit-kum mo-litsh weght o-coke kon-a-mox lum.” Stanton, who was glaring at me over the top of his spectacles, looking as savage as a one-eyed dog in a meat-shop, now roared out, “You see I have discovered everything! I handed back the despatch, and said, “Well, if you ve discovered everything, what do you want with me? He cried: I ‘m determined, at all hazards, to intercept every cipher despatch from officers at the front to their friends in the North, to enable them to speculate in the stock-markets upon early information as to the movements of our armies.” I said: “Well, I can’t help but admire your pluck, but it seems to me you omitted one little matter: you forgot to read the despatch.” “How can I read your incomprehensible hieroglyphics?” he replied. “Hieroglyphics — thunder!” I said; why, that’s Chinook.” “And what’s Chinook?” he asked. “What! you don’t know Chinook? Oh, I see your early education as a linguist has been neglected,” I answered. “Why, Chinook is the court language of the Northwestern Indian tribes. Ingalls and I, and all the fellows that served out in Oregon, picked up that jargon. Now I ‘ll read it to you in English: “Send me half barrel more that same whisky.” You see, Ingalls always trusts my judgment on whisky. He thinks I can tell the quality of the liquor by feeling the head of the barrel in the dark.” That was too much for the great War Secretary, and he broke out with a laugh such as I don’t believe the War Department had ever heard since he was appointed to office; but I learned afterward that he took the precaution, nevertheless, to show the despatch to an army officer who had served in the Northwest, to get him to verify my translation.” As General Grant knew a good deal of Chinook, he was able to appreciate the joke fully, and he enjoyed the story greatly. Nesmith had served to enliven the camp for several days with his humorous reminiscences of life in the West, and when he left every one parted with him with genuine regret.
— pages 366-367 of “Campaigning with Grant” by General Horace Porter in The Century LIV:3 (July 1897), pages 353-369 (it’s an installment in a serial)
Ingalls’ wartime correspondence, to judge from samples I’ve read, was very colorful and filled with jokes, and he addressed Nesmith in it by a nickname “Nez”.
Now about that Chinook telegram’s text, commentary is needed:
“Klat-a-wa ni-ka sit-kum mo-litsh weght o-coke kon-a-mox lum.”
(ɬátwa nayka sítkum t’ámulch wə́x̣t úkuk kʰanumákst lám)
“Send me half barrel more that same whisky.”
Those spellings are conventional; by the 1890s publication date, these were in effect the standard ways of writing the Jargon words, if you were guided by the popular published dictionaries. That’s just to say that this message is superficially good Chinook for the 1890s — which however is anachronistic.
Today’s sentence may be an example of poorly remembered Chinuk Wawa from someone who hasn’t spoken it in 30 years. I trust the translation into English, the narrator’s native language, so memory is less an issue there.
Alternatively (or simultaneously), we might have here someone’s less than perfectly fluent CW.
Here’s why I say so: the Jargon as quoted says literally
“Go me half rrel again that together whiskey.’ [i.e. the start of ‘barrel’ is cut off]
What we might expect from a careful good speaker would be something like this, if we make minimal changes and stick with the provided English translation:
mamuk- [not munk-]ɬátwa nayka sítkum t’ámulch wə́x̣t úkuk íxt lám
What I’ve done here is turned ‘go’ into the causative ‘send’, and switched ‘(the) one’ in to replace ‘together’, which I’ve never seen used as an adjective in good Chinuk Wawa.
Why do I say “[not munk-]” above?
Here’s your regular reminder that any and all Chinook Jargon that you find spoken in America by Civil War-era soldiers is, by definition, the early-creolized southern dialect.
It was learned during military duty postings centered on the lower Columbia River (broadly defined to include southeastern Washington state), primarily in interactions with Native people — treaty-making, removal to reservations, and war.
Therefore, it’s in effect a snapshot of what early reservation-era Grand Ronde speech was like!
And we have no evidence that GR people had yet reduced mamuk- to munk- in the 1860s. That change is characteristic of the generation born from that time onwards — So it’s a way of speaking that these American army fellas had never heard.