150 years ago: Intelligence from a Confederate defector at Charleston

On this day (February 4) in 1864, Colonel William W. H. Davis, 104th Pennsylvania Volunteers, commanding the garrison on the north end of Morris Island, forwarded at report to Major-General Quincy Gillmore’s headquarters pertaining to a civilian who had entered the Federal lines:

I have the honor to submit, for the information of the Major-General commanding the department, the following facts, which I obtained from William Flynn, a citizen of Charleston, and one of a party of 8 picked up last night by one of the naval boats in the outer harbor. He is a carpenter by trade, and for some length of time has been working in the Engineer Department of the rebel Army. He has never been in their military service. …

I’ve not focused on the name of the defector in my previous readings of this report.  But with easy access to the Confederate Citizens Files, I have started looking for the William Flynn.  Although I have not confirmed, he appears to have done business with the commissary department in Charleston.  The closest census match I’ve found is a 45 year old William Flynn who lived with his wife, Rosanah, and nine other Flynns (ranging from seventeen to one in age), living in Greenville, South Carolina in 1860.

He states that there are two regiments on Sullivan’s Island, one of which is commanded by Colonel Keitt, but does not know the name of the commander of the other. Col. Alfred Rhett commands the artillery on Sullivan’s Island, James Island, &c. General Ripley is in command at Mount Pleasant. There are three brigades on James Island, viz, Hagood’s, Wise’s, and Colquitt’s. Walker is in command at Pocotaligo, with not a very heavy force. An attack is expected at Savannah, whither General Beauregard and staff have gone to look after matters. …

Flynn was apparently very familiar with the Confederate command arrangements around Charleston.  Though not fully accurate with respect to assignments and postings, he had the names right.

He says if our guns be trained on the steeple of the church on Citadel Green, or a little to the right of it, from Morris Island, our shells will be likely to make Beauregard’s quarters a very uncomfortable dwelling-place. I have caused them to be pointed in that direction. Our shells are now thrown too far toward Ashley River and many of them fall in the burnt district. The church spire alluded to is the tallest one toward the east and is painted brown. Few people have been killed, but many houses ruined. The other day a shell burst on the deck of their new ram, without doing her damage. Last Sunday night a shell went through the roof of a house, struck a chair at the foot of a bed in which a man and his wife were sleeping, and passed into the cellar without injuring either of them. Another shell struck a house in Calhoun street, went through the bed between a negro and his wife, and thence passed into the cellar, leaving both uninjured. …

Clearly after several hundred shells, the Federals had the range to Charleston.

He enumerates the following guns in position in the city: The “big gun” is mounted on Frazer’s Wharf, next to the new customhouse. It is a 13-inch, is rifled, and the projectile weighs 700 pounds. It was cast in England. At White Point Garden, otherwise the Battery, are mounted four guns, viz, one 11-inch rifled, from the Keokuk, two 6-inch rifled, and one 10-inch; at the foot of Laurens street, two 8-inch columbiads and one 6-inch rifled; Half-Moon Battery, near the gas-house, about the foot of Calhoun street, two heavy guns; and two 10-inch columbiads at Chisolm’s rice mills, foot of Tradd street, on Ashley River. …

Flynn’s list of batteries and positions matches well to the known Confederate defenses at that time:

CharlestonCityDef

Though his description of the armament is acceptable for a non-military type.  The 13-inch gun, for instance, was the Blakely 12.75-inch.  Hard to say if Davis provided the origin of the 11-inch Dahlgren gun, or if Flynn knew the story of its recovery.

Everybody has left the city except the very poor people who cannot get away. All the necessaries of life are extravagantly high; flour from $130 to $150 per barrel; men’s shoes, $150 per pair; men’s calf-skin boots, $250 per pair. Rebel money has depreciated until it is worth only $22 for $1 in gold and $18 for $1 in silver. He states there is one wealthy Union man in Charleston who has expended a good deal of money quietly for the comfort of our prisoners. The remaining population are Union at heart. …

So there were unionists in the cradle of secession!

Flynn assessed the garrison and naval forces:

The city is garrisoned by one regiment of conscripts. The rebels are building three new iron-clads, one of which is 200 feet long, plated with 4-inch iron, and the others are the size of the Chicora. …

And he went on to detail the defenses of Fort Sumter:

They have put up three strong bomb-proofs in Sumter since the first bombardment. The garrison consists of not less than 300 or 400 men, but he does not know when they are relieved. Colonel Elliott still commands the fort. Hand grenades are ready on the parapet to throw down on an assaulting party, and the wharf is mined. They have made a “frise” to put out at night and take in before daylight. When they are being shelled cooked rations are taken down from Charleston in the night for the garrison. In Sumter there are three guns mounted in the lower casemates toward Sullivan’s Island. …

Again, with such details, I’m left to assume Flynn had a hand supplying or fabricating items for the fort.

The steamer which attempted to run in on the night of the 1st was the Presto, from Nassau, New Providence, loaded with blankets, shoes, and salt beef. She got aground on the old wreck between Beauregard and Moultrie, between 11 and 12 o’clock. The engineer told my informant that there are five or six steamers to run this blockade, of which this is the first. They come here because they consider it easier to enter Charleston than Wilmington. …

Yes I promised more details on the Presto.  Working on it.  But that last line has me puzzled.  Charleston was practically closed to the blockade runners from late summer right up to the first day of February.  And Wilmington was seeing the lion’s share of traffic.

The rebels expect an attack upon Mobile soon. He states that the negroes captured in Wagner on the 18th of July were not treated with cruelty; he saw them in Charleston. Torpedoes are sunk in the channel to blow up our vessels should they attempt to go in. There are two old boilers, one of which contains 3,000 pounds of powder, sunk in the harbor, and are arranged to be exploded from on shore by means of a wire.

Mention of Mobile was not too far off from Federal intentions.  Though that was some months away, and not of Gillmore’s concern.

Flynn had seen prisoners of the 54th Massachusetts in Charleston.  Such reminds me of another “sidebar” post that needs writing.  With the employment of USCT on Morris Island came some of the first black prisoners for the Confederates to deal with.

Lastly, Flynn provided some important particulars of the torpedoes used in the harbor.  The description, again, matches well to Confederate records.

The length and detail of this report leads one to believe William Flynn was held in confidence by someone high up in the Confederate command.  Or… perhaps Colonel Davis was very good at filling in details where given a morsel of information.  Of course, what did Flynn miss?  Yes, that submarine contraption.

(Source: OR, Series I, Volume 33, Part I, Serial 65, pages 466-8.)