Grant killed! Withdraw from Petersburg! Sherman defeated at Atlanta!: Deserters say the darnedest things

The discipline of military intelligence requires a capable staff with the ability to analyze a wide body of information to determine an accurate situational picture.  All kidding about the oxymoron aside, military intelligence is vital to operations.  Armies that move without good intelligence end up on the History Channel for all the wrong reasons.

Now consider yourself one of the officers on Major-General John Foster’s staff at Hilton Head, detailed to look at reports and other information pertaining to Confederate activities.  On this day (July 28) in 1864, a report from Brigadier-General Alexander Schimmelfennig might have crossed your path.  Writing to Captain William L.M. Burger, Assistant Adjutant-General for the Department of the South, Schimmelfennig included a summary from interrogation of Confederate deserters:

I have the honor to report that on the night of the 25th to the 26th instant, 1 sergeant and 3 privates of the First South Carolina Artillery (Companies E and K) deserted from Fort Johnson and, crossing the marsh, were picked up by our boat infantry near Paine’s Dock.  In the way of general information they state that the news of General Grant’s being killed was first given by a deserter from our army, and afterward claimed to be extracted from the Northern papers. One of them had heard that Grant’s army had withdrawn from in front of Petersburg. From General Sherman the news of the 22d and 23d was that he had been severely repulsed and beaten after having attacked Atlanta, and that he had lost several thousand prisoners and twenty-two pieces of artillery. No news of interest is given with regard to the district.

So if you are analyzing information and this is your artifact, where do you start?  Grant’s dead?  Wouldn’t that have been in all the papers?  Great defeats at Petersburg and Atlanta?  Short of an alternative history novel, how could such stories take root?

This report raises the question of how accurate information from deserters was, in general.  Looking at this particular incident, I wonder about the nature of these deserters.  Were they simply fed up with the situation and deserted?  Perhaps lesser quality soldiers who received some “encouragement” to leave (every command has at least one sergeant who it could do without)?  Or were these men sowing stories deliberately under some deception plan?  No way of saying without knowing names and other details.  But I would lean towards the first possibility. (And don’t think that because I only list three, there were not more possibilities there!)

So what would that say about information from these deserters?  Put more than a grain of salt to anything they say.

In the same paragraph, however, Schimmelfennig continued with the reports from the deserters.  And now offered details about the Confederate activities on James Island:

I seem to have about the same troops on my front that I had before the late movements on James and John’s Islands. The deserters state that the fatigue parties seen around Johnson and Simkins are not engaged in putting up any new works, nor inclosing or in any way changing the old ones, but merely in carrying on the usual repairs. They also state that the enemy are constantly expecting an assault of Fort Sumter as well as another attack on Johnson. At Fort Sumter the garrison of about 250 men is considered capable of holding it. At Fort Johnson five companies of heavy artillery are behind the breast-works every night, one to serve the guns, the other four used as infantry; one company of Black’s cavalry regiment also reports at Fort Johnson for duty every night.

Given the rather outrageous items in the first half of the paragraph, do any of these details carry weight?

Schimmelfennig continued in his report to provide a second paragraph.  The information in that paragraph lacks direct attribution, but we can assume included some information from deserters along with information derived from other sources.   And there are lots of details therein:

On Thursday last, the 21st instant, Captain Mitchel, of the First South Carolina Artillery, who has for some time past been in command of Fort Sumter, was killed by a shell from our batteries. The garrison at Fort Sumter is reported not to have been relieved for a month past, owing to our heavy bombardment. One of our deserters was at Fort Pringle during our late operation on Stono, and states that the fire of the navy was very destructive. All the heavy guns, with the exception of one smooth-bore, were disabled. A 7-inch rifled Brooke, which they brought there during the action, was no sooner placed in position than it was dismounted by our fire. The bomb-proof of Pringle proved very poor, our balls penetrating to the wood-work. They had heard the loss on James Island estimated at 200 killed and wounded. Another of the deserters, who was at Fort Johnson when we attacked it on the morning of the 3d, reports that almost all the troops had been taken away from there on the 2d; that until nearly morning of the 3d there were not more than 40 or 50 men in Johnson. About 2 a.m. of the 3d, the two companies of the First South Carolina Artillery, who only had been sent as far away as Legaré’s Point, were ordered back to Johnson, and arrived in time to repel the attack. Even with these two companies they say there were not more than 200 men, if as many, in Johnson and Simkins, and that if our whole force had landed they might undoubtedly have taken the two forts. These deserters are well fed and clothed but report that the troops have not been paid for the last seven months, and there is much dissatisfaction among them. They heard that our general and field officers confined in Charleston are in a house at the corner of Broad and Rutledge streets, near Chisolm’s Mill.

Looking back 150 years, and knowing what we know now, some of these details are accurate.

So, put your “intelligence analyst” hat on here.  How do you separate the “Grant was killed” from “Mitchel was killed” information?

(Citation from OR, Series I, Volume 35, Part II, Serial 66, pages 196-7.)

3 thoughts on “Grant killed! Withdraw from Petersburg! Sherman defeated at Atlanta!: Deserters say the darnedest things

  1. “Armies that move without good intelligence end up on the History Channel for all the wrong reasons.” Thanks, the title and this quote made me chuckle.

    Is General Schimmelfennig here in S. Carolina the same as the one at Gettysburg? I’m familiar with his Gettysburg actions with the XI Corps, but I didn’t realize that he fought in the Carolinas.

    • He is the same. Schimmelfennig went to the Department of the South in the summer of 1863, as part of the reinforcements sent there for the Morris Island campaign.

      • Thanks. He really is an interesting leader. I think historians have been very unfair to him at Gettysburg, portraying him as a coward, when he was probably hiding to survive and avoid a CSA prison – I don’t blame him!

Comments are closed.