“A fire, supposed to be occasioned by the enemy’s shells”: Curious reporting about the Christmas Day bombardment

In a report dated January 1, 1864, Colonel Alfred Rhett, 1st South Carolina Artillery and commander of the 5th Military District of South Carolina (basically, the city of Charleston itself, minus the harbor and coast defenses), reported:

On the morning of the 25th [of December], at 12.30 a.m., the enemy commenced to shell the city, firing briskly.  This shelling continued up to 1 p.m. of the same date, the enemy having fired 150 shells, 134 of which struck the city and 16 fell short.

Those details, as we have seen, were echoed in other official reports and the newspaper accounts of the day.  Though, for clear attribution, I believe Rhett is the primary source here, with others, be they military or civilian, simply relying on his observations.

Rhett continued:

About 1.10 a.m. a fire, supposed to be occasioned by the enemy’s shells, broke out in a building on the north side of Broad street, near Church street.  This house, together with the one adjoining, were consumed.  The sparks ignited the house at south corner of Church street and Saint Michael’s alley. This house, three adjoining, and the cotton press in Church street were consumed.  The sparks also ignited a house in Tradd street, which fire was soon suppressed.

For reference, please keep in mind the map of Charleston, with the stars indicating locations of fires:

ChristmasBombardment_Bryan_Assesment

Rhett continued with mention of the reaction to those fires:

The regular members of the fire department were rather tardy in their attendance, owing to some mistake in ringing the bell, but on their appearance rendered good service.  I immediately ordered out 200 men, First Regiment State Troops…. The fire still gaining ground, a detachment from Company A, Lucas’ battalion… were ordered out.  These men promptly appeared and rendered material aid in suppressing the fire.  The correct range was gained by one gun of the enemy, which threw several shells in proximity to the engines and the fire.

Rhett went on to praise the fire companies and military troops responding to the fire.  And he closed by listing two civilians, one fireman, and four soldiers who were wounded as result of the bombardment and fire.

At 2 p.m. that Christmas Day (about an hour after the end of the bombardment), General P.G.T. Beauregard informed General Samuel Cooper, in Richmond by telegram:

Enemy’s firing on city last night was severe.  Several houses were destroyed by fire near corner of Broad and Church streets; only 1 person wounded.

Then the next day sending an amended, corrected report:

Six houses burned by fire of yesterday and 7 persons wounded by it and enemy’s firing on city.  He threw 150 shells, of which 19 fell short.

Notice here that Rhett (on January 1) said the fires were “supposedly” caused by the Federals.  Beauregard, in his telegrams to Richmond, didn’t say specifically the fires were due to the shelling.  But given the context of that communication medium, we can read between the lines and make the assumption Beauregard was identifying the source of the fires.

In contrast to the military correspondence, the newspapers disconnected the bombardment from the fires.  On December 28 both the Charleston Mercury and the Charleston Courier ran accounts of the bombardment.  And at the same time both papers ran accounts of the fire as a separate story.

First the Mercury‘s account, appearing on a separate column, well spaced, from news about the bombardment:

Extensive fire: At an early hour on Friday morning a fire broke out in the three story brick building on Broad street, next to the store of Messrs. Klinck & Wickenberg, and owned by that firm.  The premises had been occupied by Mr. A. J. Burks as a printing office, excepting the second story, which was used as an office by J.B. Campbell, Esq.  The fire soon spread to the next house east, owned by Dr. Joseph S. Inglesby, and occupied by Mr. B. Ford, as a shoe store, and the upper story as the law office of Messrs. Brown & Porter. Both these buildings were completely destroyed.  Soon afterward a fire was discovered at the corner of Church street and St. Michael’s Alley, and the five adjacent buildings, including the Charleston Cotton Press, owned by Mr. W. H. Walker, were speedily consumed.  The German Turner’s Hall in the rear, between Church and Meeting Streets, and the kitchen and outbuildings of the old Bathing House were also burned.  The house No. 43 Tradd street, owned by Mrs. Ann M. Brown, was badly damaged in the roof by the fire.

The loss by this fire is roughly estimated at $150,000….

The Mercury went on to say that four members of the fire companies and four members of the First Regiment State Troops were injured.

The Courier ran this story on column 2 of the front page (apart from the main story of the bombardment on column 1):

Large fire: At an early hour Friday morning, fire broke out in the three story brick building North side of Broad street near Church owned by and adjoining the large grocery of Messrs Klinck & Wickenberg & Co.  The premises, with the exception of the second story, was formerly occupied by Mr. A.J. Burks as a Printing establishment.  The second story was used by J.B. Campbell and J. Nathan, Esq’s., as Law offices.  The fire communicated to the adjoining building on the East, the lower story formerly kept by B. Ford as a boot and shoe story, and the upper stories as Law offices by Messrs. Brown & Porter and others.  The premises were owned by Dr. Jos. S. Inblesby.  Those two buildings were entirely consumed.

During the progress of this fire another was discovered at the Southwest corner of Church street and St. Michael’s alley, which destroyed a range of four very old buildings, beside the Charleston Cotton Press, the kitchen and outbuildings attached to the old bathing establishment on Church street, also the building occupied by the German Turner’s Association as a Hall situated in the area between Church and Meeting Streets, belonging to Mr. J. J. McLean.

The house of Mrs. Ann M. Brown, No. 43 Tradd street, sustained some damage by the shingles igniting and burning the roof.

The residence of Mr. A.J. Burks, No. 39 Tradd street, also took fire several times, but was extinguished without material damage.

A house on the North side of Tradd street, near Meeting, was also on fire, but was extinguished with trifling damage.

Perhaps the Courier‘s reporters were more diligent in their work?  Still we see the main details from the two newspaper accounts match, for the most part, with that of Rhett.  Particularly in regard to places and the major fires.  The minor fires, reported by the Courier, were certainly something a military observer would dismiss as unimportant.

The firm of Klinck & Wickenberg seem to have suffered the most loss in the fire – that of a three story building.  And I would be remiss if not mentioning that firm provided supplies to the Confederate army throughout the war.  As evidenced by this receipt:

Fold3_Page_23

Brandy, whiskey, sherry, and port wine?  No wonder the place caught fire so easily!

And I’m sure those were “medical supplies”… right.

All kidding aside, Klinck, Wickenberg & Co. also provided supplies purchased specifically for production of torpedoes.  Thus, if all the cards were laid face up on the table, I’m certain Major-General Quincy Gilmore would call it a legitimate target of war.

The main point I’d make here is that neither paper stated, as a fact, the fires were the result of Federal shells.  Both simply indicated the fires broke out.  No preface of “while the Yankees were shelling” or the like.  And I find that interesting.

However, there is a situational context.  Consider that anything printed in Charleston would end up across the picket lines in a few days, as part of the normal exchanges between soldiers.  So the newspapers, and Confederate authorities, had to be aware these stories provided valuable intelligence to the enemy.  That said, might the disassociation of the fires from the shelling be the result of “operational security” measures? As the Federals were using special incendiary shells, should the fires be directly linked to the bombardment that would impart a measure of conformation to pondering minds on Morris Island.

Before we go too far with that, I’d mention that just days later the newspapers ran a full listing of all important offices in Charleston.  That listing included addresses of General P.G.T. Beauregard’s headquarters along with most of his staff.  And with that, we might well dismiss any worry on the part of Confederate authorities that valuable information was disclosed in the newspapers!

Still an interesting play here with the manner of reporting.

(Citations from OR, Series I, Volume 28, Part I, Serial 46, pages 684-5 and Serial 47, pages 580-1; Charleston Daily Courier, Monday, December 28, 1863, page 1 column 4; Charleston Mercury, Monday, December 28, 1863, page 2 column 2)

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