“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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Thank you Samuel Cooper, Henry Halleck, and Morris Runyan. We have our Official Records!

On April 27, 1865, General Samuel Cooper was stranded in Charlotte, North Carolina.  Cooper was the highest ranking Confederate officer and served as Adjutant General and Inspector General.  Though not a field commander, Cooper was a central figure in the Confederacy throughout the war.  A long serving officer in the pre-war U.S. Army, Cooper called the Army his home. And as events unfolded in April 1865, Cooper was becoming a man without a home. When President Jefferson F. Davis rode out of Charlotte, heading south through South Carolina, Cooper remained behind.  He was not fit to make a long, cross-country journey.  Furthermore, he had far too much baggage in his charge:

 A telegram received from Brigadier-General [Thomas] Jordan by Colonel [John] Riely, of my staff, who had telegraphed, by my direction, to ascertain what had transpired from the military convention, states that it had terminated, resulting in a cessation of war by all embraced, private property respected, and transportation home given.  I was left here within the territorial limits of your command by the President, from physical dis-qualification to follow the Government any longer, and I therefore desire to know if I and the staff officer left with me can be included in the arrangement upon the same terms, as I cannot from my situation belong to any other command.  It is not practicable for me to reach Greensborough immediately.

Later Cooper elaborated on the baggage which kept him in Charlotte:

It was found impracticable to transfer the records of the War Department further than this place, and they remain here under my charge.  The President and Secretary of War impressed me with the necessity of their preservation in our own hands, if possible; if not, then by the enemy, as essential to the history of the struggle.  On account of your superior knowledge of the condition of affairs, I desire to have your advice as to the disposition that shall be made of them.

Johnston replied on April 28, informing, “You are entitled to accept the terms of the convention.  I do not know what to advise about the records.”  Later, Johnston sent word that Cooper should, if possible, travel to Greensborough.  Instead, Cooper arranged to have Colonel Riely make that trip as his representative for formal surrender.

But what of the records? On May 7, Captain Morris C. Runyan led a detachment of the 9th New Jersey into Charlotte.  There, among other stores and items, Runyan found,

… a number of boxes said to contain the records of the rebel War Department and all the archives of the so-called Southern Confederacy; also, boxes said to contain all the colors and battle-flags captured from the National forces since the beginning of the war….

(Runyan later wrote an account of the occupation of Charlotte and capture of the records.  But, I find his official report filed at the time somewhat more precise than the post war account.)

Word of this quickly passed up the chain of command to Major-General John Schofield.  On May 16, Schofield inquired to Army Chief of Staff, Major-General Henry Halleck, as to what disposition should be made in regard to the records.  Halleck responded promptly:

Box up all captured Confederate papers, flags, &c., and send them to C. A. Dana, Assistant Secretary of War, Washington. Preserve every paper, however unimportant it may appear. We have the key to their ciphers. Important links of testimony have thus been discovered here of the Canadian plot.

And please note here, Halleck was just as concerned about the preservation of the Confederate war records as Cooper was.  And we might say that Halleck’s motives were just as Cooper’s.  Above all, Halleck wanted the Confederate words to speak directly to their actions.

The next day, Schofield reported that the records, archives, and flags were being sent to Washington.  He included a detailed invoice for the “eighty-one boxes, weighing ten tons“:

 Invoice of the archives of the late Confederate War Department, as received from General Johnston at Charlotte, N. C., on the 13th day of May, 1865: Five boxes, marked Letters received; 3 boxes, marked Certificates of disability; 13 boxes, marked Adjutant and Inspector General’s Office; 5 boxes, marked Captured flags; 1 box, marked Books and papers, General Lee’s headquarters; 1 box, marked Official reports of battles; 1 box, marked Provost-marshal; 1 box, marked Lieutenant Blackford, C. S. Engineers; 1 box, marked Col. John Withers, C. S. Army; 3 boxes, marked Dept. Office; 7 boxes, contents unknown; 11 boxes, marked War Department, C. S. A.; 21 boxes, marked Regimental rolls; 1 box, marked Signal glasses; 6 boxes, marked Miscellaneous papers.

Thus the Federals took possession of a substantial number of official Confederate documents, if not a complete set.  Similar efforts by Federal commanders elsewhere in the south would bring in official correspondence, reports, and rolls from the scattered Confederate departments.  Of course that net missed many records, falling well short of a complete haul.  Doubtless you know well the story of records destroyed by the fires when Richmond fell.  And other records were destroyed before reaching Federal hands.

But all things considered, what was preserved included a remarkable set of artifacts.  Many of those artifacts were later included in the “Official Records of the War of the Rebellion” in the same binding with Federal accounts of the same time periods.  And those compiled records were published and made accessible to libraries around the country.  Today, those same records are just a browser window away at all times, anywhere you chose to study them.

We might recall many other “Civil Wars” in which historians lament the loss of vital accounts due to records destroyed in the end.  Such is, on whole, not the case with the American Civil War. You see, the history of the Civil War was not simply “written by the victors” as some partisans contend.  Rather it was written by those who could consult the words of the participants… thanks to the efforts by both sides to preserve those words.

So, next time you chase down a footnote and see “OR” followed by volume and serial notations, pause to thank old Samuel Cooper… and Henry Halleck… and Morris Runyan… who had a hand in preserving those.

(Citations from OR, Series I, Volume 47, Part III, Serial 100, pages 491, 510-1, 842, 848,

Savannah’s Siege, December 17, 1864: Savannah to be defended, but not “to the sacrifice of the garrison”

Yesterday I focused on the correspondence between Major-General William T. Sherman and his superiors in Washington.  As we saw, Sherman’s orders governed his actions with respect to the siege of Savannah, and thus the overall success or failure of the March to the Sea.  Ordered to withdraw the armies and head for Virginia by boat, Sherman, quite properly, avoided any movements that might commit his force to a long siege.  Instead, he looked for a means to gain the surrender of Savannah without protracted or bloody effort.  The “down shift” of the siege efforts was, unfortunately, a byproduct of slow communications with Washington.  Within a few days, Sherman would receive a green light to push forward.

But none of this happened in a vacuum. On the Confederate side, decisions were also made in regard to the defense of Savannah.  Just as Sherman turned on word from Washington, the decisions for Confederates factored guidance from  authorities in Richmond.  Those on the ground in Georgia and South Carolina had to bring those in Richmond to understand the realities of the situation… apart from the wild speculations seen in the papers.

The crux of the matter was the question, “Should we hold Savannah?”  As Sherman’s columns neared the coast, Lieutenant-General William J. Hardee indicated he needed reinforcements if the intent was to hold the city.  In particular, in order to keep the corridor of communication open, Hardee requested, on December 4, 1864, 3,000 men for “the defense of the South Carolina railroad from Savannah to Charleston.”  Soon after that, as related earlier, the Federals pressed the railroad at Coosawhatchie.  Maj0r-General Samuel Jones came from Charleston to assume command of that threatened sector.  He also related the need for more men in order to hold open the corridor.

Into this situation, General P.G.T. Beauregard arrived in Charleston on December 7, after a round-about route, to take command of the forces opposing Sherman.  Among the first messages Beauregard passed to Hardee expressed caution:

Having no army of relief to look to, and your forces being essential to the defense of Georgia and South Carolina, whenever you shall have to select between their safety and that of Savannah, sacrifice the latter, and form a junction with General Jones, holding the left bank of the Savannah River and the railroad to this place as long as possible.

After meeting with Hardee on December 9, just before the Federals cut the railroad outside Savannah, Beauregard further cautioned:

It is my desire, after the consultation that has taken place, that you should hold this city so long as in your judgement it may be advisable to do so, bearing in mind that should you have to decide between a sacrifice of the garrison or city, you will preserve the garrison for operations elsewhere.

But this put Hardee in a predicament with multiple barbs to negotiate.  In the first place, to “hold” the city Hardee had to make preparations to keep his troops supplied in the city. Yet, that meant in the case evacuation was needed, those same stocks would need to be moved.  Another barb for Hardee was more that of appearances.  Earlier in the war, Confederate commanders were criticized for giving up cities and other strategic points when threatened.  With respect to Savannah, fresh in every mind was the surrender of Fort Pulaski in 1862.  The sense was Colonel Charles Olmstead had not given the appropriate level of resistance before surrendering the fort.  Hardee had to carefully weigh the situation, even given Beauregard’s cautionary notes.

As Sherman’s investment of Savannah developed, Beauregard pushed Richmond for reinforcements. On December 12, he wrote to General Samuel Cooper:

Lieutenant-General Hardee reports enemy developed in strong force along his entire front yesterday, and that he has been compelled to extend his lines. He asks for immediate re-enforcements.

And Beauregard was also quick to take steps ensuring the corridor out of Savannah was secured to the extent possible.  To Jones at Coosawhatchie, he wrote:

If the enemy be too strongly fortified in your front to be dislodged complete your own intrenchements, and send at once re-enforcements to New River, Red Bluff, and points east of Screven’s Ferry Causeway where enemy might land.

To those who’d been involved with the defense of South Carolina since late 1861, this was the “old game.”  The points mentioned were those protected in response to the Federal victory at Port Royal.  All previous efforts were deterred by posting forces at key points to dominate the narrow routes through the marshes.  Beauregard, who knew the sector well from his earlier tenure in command at Charleston, was effectively calling upon the old contingency plans.  But these were designed to protect against a foray from Hilton Head, not counting a threat from inland.  When Colonel Ezra Carman began pushing off Argyle Island, just such a threat was realized.  Directly opposing Carman’s probes into South Carolina was Brigadier-General Pierce M.B. Young, commanding a brigade of Georgia cavalry under Major-General Joseph Wheeler.  On December 14, Young requested, and received, artillery to help check the Federals.

On December 13, as events unfolded at Fort McAllister, Beauregard received a response from President Jefferson Davis in regard to calls for reinforcements:

I have anxiously desired to send re-inforcements, but events have rendered it impracticable to add to those forwarded some time since.  Should a change of circumstances render it possible to do more no time will be lost in doing so.  Should the enemy’s fleet be detached for operations against Savannah the opportunity will be presented for our squadron at Charleston to assume the offensive, and perhaps to destroy his depot at Port Royal.

Given the state of the Charleston squadron, Davis clearly was moving pieces around the chess board that didn’t exist in reality.  At the same time, Cooper related a response from General Robert E. Lee regarding reinforcements, “As long as Grant retains his present force here I do not think [the Army of Northern Virginia] can be weakened.” Yet again the “not army enough” factor played into Confederate operations.

Back at the tactical level, on December 15, Hardee expressed stern warning to Jones:

Our occupation of Savannah depends on your ability to hold the railroad.  Whenever you are unable to hold the road I must evacuate. You must strengthen your position by throwing up works and by making strong abatis.  Inform me instantly if Foster is re-enforced by Sherman or otherwise.  I feel uneasy about my communications.

So let us follow the passing of the buck.  Richmond could offer no reinforcement, but wanted Savannah held.  Beauregard did not want to lose the garrison, but could not directly call for a withdrawal.  Hardee did not want to abandon Savannah without justification. And it fell to Jones to determine just when Savannah could not be held.  Into this came the “pass” which would guide (read “relieve”) those in local command to a tactical decision.  That came on December 17, from Cooper to Beauregard:

The spirit of your instructions to General Hardee relative to the defense of Savannah is approved.  It is hoped Savannah may be successfully defended, but the defense should not be too protracted to the sacrifice of the garrison.  The same remark is applicable to Charleston. We must rely upon your judgement to make the fullest possible defense consistent with the safety of the garrison.

More to the point, Davis, in a message directly to Hardee, directed “that you may then provide for the safety of your communications and make the dispositions needed for the preservation of your army.”  This took Beauregard and Hardee off the horns of their dilemma.  Their prime task was to save the army.  With that in mind, Hardee and Beauregard examined the pressing threat from Agyle Island and made a decision that evening – Savannah would be evacuated.

(Citations from OR, Series I, Volume 44, Serial 92, pages 927, 940, 951, 953, 945, 962, and 963.)

“Developed his position, strength, and movements”: Blunt’s day at Lexington, Missouri

September 19, 1864 was a busy day in the Civil War.  Actions in several theaters, not the least of which occurred outside Middletown, Virginia (150th anniversary events I hope to attend today).

As I’ve been following Major-General Sterling Price’s campaign in Missouri, let me turn to activity at Lexington, Missouri, 150 years ago today.  As mentioned yesterday, Major-General James Blunt moved a force into Lexington, arriving on the morning of September 18.  Blunt, and his commander, Major-General Samuel Curtis, were working with poor information about Price’s movements.  And at the same time, a dispute with Kansas Governor Thomas Carney prevented the deployment of some Kansas militia units to the field.  Curtis needed an accurate assessment of the situation before committing to any further plans.  According to Blunt, he was able to gather just that at Lexington on September 19:

Upon occupying Lexington I obtained reliable information that the advance of Price’s army, under Shelby, was at Waverly; that Price was calling in all detachments sent out for recruiting and other purposes and was concentrating his forces to meet an expected attack from the forces of General Rosecrans. On the 19th, at 11 a.m., while I was momentarily expecting the arrival of re-enforcements I had requested to be sent to join me at Lexington, and also to receive an answer to my dispatch to General Sanborn, a courier arrived with dispatches from the general commanding informing me that in consequence of the embarrassments thrown in his way by the Governor of Kansas and others relative to moving the militia out of the State, no re-enforcements could be sent to me. At the same time it was reported to me that my pickets were attacked and were being driven in by the enemy, who were advancing in force in three columns. The pickets were re-enforced and instructed to resist the enemy’s advance, while the command was immediately put in position in line of battle southeast of the city, facing a section of open and undulating country, with cultivated fields extending from one to two miles in our front, with the Independence road in our rear, upon which I designed to fall back whenever it became necessary. As the enemy moved steadily up and massed his force in my front, I became well convinced that the whole of Price’s army was present, and with the small force of my command I determined not to bring on a general engagement, but to develop his force and movements and accomplish the object of a reconnaissance. All irregular firing upon the skirmish lines of the contending forces, with occasional artillery firing, was kept up for nearly two hours, when their long-range guns opened a brisk fire in my front, to which my short-range howitzers could not reply with effect, and being pressed by an overwhelming force, with an attempt to flank me on the right and left, I directed the command to withdraw and fall back on the Independence road. This movement was accomplished in good order, the Eleventh Kansas Cavalry, under the immediate command of Colonel Moonlight, covering the retreat in a gallant manner. The last position occupied by the rear guard with four mountain howitzers was held until dark and until the small command was almost entirely enveloped by the superior numbers of the enemy, when, under cover of the night, we moved by easy marches in the direction of Independence, having in the operation of the day punished our adversary severely, but what was of greater importance, developed his position, strength, and movements, the first instance in which it had been done since he had crossed the Arkansas River on his raid into Missouri.

To his credit, Blunt’s work at Lexington did indeed delay Price’s advance.  And worth noting, Blunt was able to establish positive communication with elements of moving west in pursuit of Price.

His mission that day was to develop the situation.  And develop he did.  On many Civil War battlefields, commanders fought what we might call “meeting engagements” and faced that important task of developing the enemy.  In short, this entails forcing the enemy to deploy and show what he has.  Blunt certainly force Price to set up his force, with Brigadier-General Joseph Shelby in the lead.  Shelby had to bring up his artillery to dislodge Blunt.  No casualty figures were offered by either side, specifically to the Lexington fight.  So we don’t know what cost Blunt paid to “develop his position, strength, and movements.”

Historians generally give Blunt credit for this action and cite it as a key event leading to the battle around Kansas City that would follow.  But did Blunt accurately develop Price?

At 7 p.m. on the 19th, Blunt sent a report to Curtis relating the details of the action and what information he had derived from the fight:

Price advanced on Lexington in two columns and drove in my pickets about 2 p.m. I advanced my line skirmishing with them until their whole force was developed, and they commenced to flank me on the right and left, when I fell back on the Independence Road.  They pressed us hard, but we made our retreat, losing but few men.  I shall move unceasingly to-night until I find a good position and am in supporting distance of you. It is certain that Price’s whole force is in Lexington, and is not less than 20,000. Their artillery did us no damage, while ours was used with good effect.

Confederate accounts indicate, though others were involved, the only force heavily engaged was Brigadier-General M. Jeff Thompson’s brigade. So where did Blunt reach the 20,000 number?  The next morning, around 8 a.m., Blunt sent another report to Curtis confirming the number and providing an explanation:

From a small boy of Shelby’s command, whom I have prisoner, I learn that Price brought about 20,000 men with him into the State, and has procured 5,000 recruits since.

So the “development” was derived, in part, from the word of a boy.

Blunt went on to say that if all moved rapidly, the two converging armies could catch Price.  On the other hand, Blunt felt, “unless Rosecrans attacks him vigorously in the rear” that Price would escape through Kansas.

The largest major campaign of the war – in terms of distance covered – was about to turn upon the largest battle fought in the state of Missouri.  But that was days away.

(Citations from OR, Series I, Volume 41, Part I, Serial 83, pages 573-4; Part IV, Serial 86, pages and 141 and 144-5.)

“The mighty brain of the matchless Beauregard”: Confederates react to Federal codebreaking

From the start of the 1864 campaigns, the Federal signal teams, in all theaters, demonstrated the ability to intercept and decode Confederate messages sent by wig-wag.  While I’ve focused on efforts at Charleston, similar activities in Georgia and Virginia show the Federal signaleers were quite adept at what we would call today Signals Intelligence – SIGINT.

But the nature of the intelligence gathering disciplines is one of move and counter-move. In September, 1864, information reached Major-General Samuel Jones revealing the successful Federal SIGINT efforts.  On September 24, Jones communicated this to General Samuel Cooper, Confederate Adjutant and Inspector General, in Richmond:

A returned prisoner reports that the enemy have read all our signals.  This was learned from a Yankee operator in Florida by an intelligent sergeant, who is now a prisoner.

This information apparently came from one of five privates exchanged in Charleston on September 23.  Hold on to that thought for the moment.

Cooper passed this to the Confederate Signal Bureau for comment.  But the Confederate signaleers knew well the Federal practice and had taken measures, at least in the vicinity of Richmond, to counter the code breakers.  Captain William N. Barker responded on September 27:

The within statement had been anticipated by Major [James F.] Milligan and myself. The officers of the corps are instructed to change daily the “key letter” in signaling important messages. The inclosed letter will show how, for strategic purposes, we sometimes allow the enemy to read our dispatches while we read his.

The referenced statement was a confidential message from Milligan to Barker, passed a month earlier on August 27:

For strategic purposes we permit the enemy to read our signals by order of General Beauregard. We read theirs with ease and facility, having discovered their system of contracting, which is the omission of vowels in short words–for example, crs for cars, ws for was, and the first and last letters of short words, thus–tn for train, me for message, the context always developing the word.

I have been working on an alphabet, and can safely say I have at last succeeded in making up one which will defy their most rigid scrutiny. When the proper time comes I will introduce it. On the James River all important messages are sent by key, letter changed daily. Come over, you can spare the time, and under present circumstances I cannot, or I would come to you. Signals for strategy work to perfection, thanks to the mighty brain of the matchless Beauregard.

Ah!  The “mighty brain of the matchless Beauregard“!

Milligan’s response offers a rare indication that the Confederates were doing the same to the Federal signal codes.  There is also an element of “tradecraft” at play, with the Confederates deliberately allowing the Federals to read messages, “for strategic purposes.”  The intent, perhaps, to introduce a system that would defy Federal efforts at a time when introduction would make the greatest impact on operations.

Recall that General P.G.T. Beauregard offered input to these code systems during the war.  Earlier in the war he used simple cypher strings to encrypt messages.  The messages in August-September 1864 indicate he remained very active in the development of encryption and signal techniques.  I cannot find specifics as to the new system Milligan references.  But I suspect it involved something more than the “code wheel” often associated with Civil War signals:

This particular device was used in North Carolina by Captain George C. Bain, received from Barker.  It is presently in the collection of the Missouri History Museum.  “On each of its 15 pages are two ribbons of alphabetized tape, one fixed and one adjustable, which could be manipulated to decipher, and possibly encipher, coded messages.”  As the means of use offered is a matter of some conjecture, we cannot say if this was significantly different or more advanced than the Myer Disk.

But… let’s go back to where Jones got this information.  At the same time he sent word to Richmond about this development, he offered a separate message discussing Federal troop dispositions outside Charleston:

A very intelligent private of our service, an exchanged prisoner, who arrived here yesterday from Hilton Head, informs me that Major-General Foster has recently received comparatively large re-enforcements of white troops; that 2,500 arrived from New York on one day, and others, he does not know how many, had previously arrived. He states that the enemy is now constructing a railroad from Beaufort to Port Royal Ferry, and they speak very freely of their purpose of making an attack, at no distant day, by land on this city.

So… how many “intelligent privates” did Foster add to the group exchanged on September 23, 1864?  And were these hand selected and “fed” individuals with the purpose of providing Jones certain information “for strategic purposes”? More tradecraft at play, perhaps?

(Citations from OR, Series I, Volume 35, Part II, Serial 66, pages 626-7.)

150 years ago: Delays due to delivery of corn and transportation of prisoners

The Confederate Department of South Carolina, Georgia, and Florida had a new commander at the close of April 1864.  Gone was General P.G.T. Beauregard.  Now Major-General Samuel Jones had command.

But while the command changed, from the perspective of those in Richmond, some problems persisted – namely delays moving troops to reinforce the Army of Northern Virginia and the Army of Tennessee.  Just as the Federals moved Major-General Quincy Gillmore and the Tenth Corps to Fort Monroe, the Confederates issued orders pulling troops north in anticipation of the spring campaigns.  This movement now became Jones’ responsibility.  And on April 27, General Samuel Cooper, Confederate Army Adjutant and Inspector General, called in question some delays moving the troops – “Explain why the movement of the troops ordered from Savannah to Virginia and to Tennessee is delayed.”

Shortly after receipt, Jones forwarded his response:

Charleston, S.C., April 27, 1864.
General Samuel Cooper,
Adjutant and Inspector General, Richmond, Va.:

Your telegram of this date regarding movements of troops from Savannah received. The orders for their movement were given without delay. Your change of orders for the Sixty-third and Sixty-fourth Georgia Regiments occasioned some delay, as the latter had not returned from Florida. Another delay has been caused by the obligation of the South Carolina Railroad to deliver a certain amount of corn in Richmond per day, and I have not thought proper to give any order which would interfere with compliance with that obligation. The transportation of prisoners to the South has also caused delay in transportation of troops.

Sam. Jones,
Major-General.

This was not the first time, despite the short time in command, that Jones complained about the railroads.  Two days earlier, Jones responded to an inquiry asking why HIS movement to Charleston, assuming command there, had taken too long.  After establishing the date he had been relieved from duties on a court of inquiry, Jones proceeded to detail the problems encountered with his movement south:

As the Government had prohibited the running of passenger trains on some of the roads going South, and as I desired to send my horses to the department to which I had been ordered, I consulted the Quartermaster-General as to the route it would be most convenient to his department I should travel. He designated the route by Danville, Va., and through North Carolina. I accordingly started by that route on the 9th, and stopped that night to procure my personal baggage at the place, where I had left it. It rained heavily on the 9th and 10th instant, producing a flood such as had not been known in that section of country within this century.

The president of the Richmond and Danville Railroad informed me that his road had been much damaged by the flood, and that I would find difficulty and delay if I attempted to continue by that route.

The superintendent of the road informed me that trains could not pass over his road without interruption in less than two weeks. All the information I could obtain convinced me that I could reach Charleston sooner by way of Weldon than by the route on which I had started. I accordingly telegraphed to Richmond to ascertain if I could go by that route on which, as I had been informed, the Government had prohibited the running of passenger trains. On being informed that I could go by Weldon I started by that route, and traveled as rapidly as the cars would carry me. I was detained twenty-one hours at one point by the failure of the trains to connect, and arrived at this place without other stoppage on the 19th instant, and immediately on my arrival reported to General Beauregard.

So even before serving out his first few weeks in command, Jones found himself with a few “demerits” on his report card.  As he argued, none of the delays were his own fault.  Rather the by-product of the Confederate railroad policies which put the emphasis on moving much needed sustenance to Richmond and shuffling prisoners to camps in the deep south.  Somewhere between train-loads of corn and prisoners, troop trains ran.  And then somewhere between those, Sam Jones managed to get himself and his party to Charleston.

(Citations from OR, Series I, Volume 35, Part II, Serial 66, pages 453.)

Gorgas: “The waste of ammuntion at Charleston … is a grave error”

Throughout September of 1863, General P.G.T. Beauregard and Confederate Adjutant General Samuel Cooper carried on correspondence about the ordnance and munitions used at Charleston.  Cooper related several criticisms voiced in Richmond.  President Jefferson Davis worried about the high expenditure of ammunition.  To which Beauregard said those rates were “but the only way of retarding the enemy’s operations.”  When authorities raised eyebrows about the alarming number of burst guns, Beauregard assured them “the quality of their metal sufficiently explains the accident….”  Firing back, figuratively speaking, Beauregard countered that faulty fuses had also increased ammunition expenditures during the siege of Morris Island.

None to happy, Colonel Josiah Gorgas, Confederate Chief of Ordnance, responded to Beauregard on October 3. The failures of the guns, Gorgas felt, was not due to bad castings or metal.

The bursting of the heavy rifled guns is not sufficiently explained by the character of the metal, as General Beauregard supposes. The cast-iron of these guns was entirely satisfactory, and their premature destruction is due to the constant heavy charges with which they have been fired.

He went on to touch a sore point – the failed 12.75-inch Blakely Gun:

But the same excuse cannot be made for the bursting of the 600-pounder imported Blakely gun. The destruction of this formidable gun was due to the want of forethought, unpardonable in an officer as experienced as General [Roswell] Ripley….

Gorgas went on to mention successful experiments, just reported that very day.  Those indicated, with charges of 30 to 55 pounds fired at a 2° elevation, a 470 pound projectile would reach 1 ¼ mile.  That is provided the powder charge was seated in front of the bronze air chamber!

On the charge of faulty fuses, Gorgas noted that in response to earlier complaints his department had forwarded 5,000 new fuses.  He then complained no reports from Charleston contained details of the defects, just complaints of failures.  He cited one of his officer’s observations:

I have already examined the subject of fuses, and have reported to General Beauregard all that I could ascertain. The complaints of officers are so indefinite–merely saying that the fuses were “bad,” without any specification–that little could be learned from them. My own opinion, after careful examination and testing of various fuses, is that the fault is with the officer and not with the fuse.

Gorgas went on to mention carelessness in operations that lead to inaccurate firing and thus wastage.  Instead of new fuses, Gorgas suggested the officers in charge of the guns provide the Ordnance Department with information about the defects of arms and ammunition.

Gorgas saved his greatest criticism for the wastage of munitions.  In particular he pointed out a recent 21-gun salute fired in honor of the victory at Chickamauga. “As to the consumption of munitions of war, which is the main point under discussion, I have only to say that if permitted to go on at the rate of the last three months, the supply of powder must necessarily fail.”  He went on to enumerate the expenditure of powder between the first of July and the end of September:

  • 128,000 pounds – cartridges for 13,000 projectiles fired.
  • 22,000 pounds – Charges for 7,000 shells
  • 40,000 pounds – lost with evacuation of Morris Island
  • 10,000 pounds – wasted or damage during packing or due to exposure

The rounded total was 200,000 pounds of powder over the span of three months.  Gorgas recorded that only 150,000 pounds of powder remained on hand in Charleston. To further supply Charleston would put a bite into the powder supplies needed by the field armies.

Recall that after the April 7, 1863 ironclad attack, Beauregard cautioned his subordinates about inaccurate and wasteful fires.  The restocking of munitions after that one afternoon of action took months. Now, after three months of operations at an unprecedented scale, Beauregard had scarcely two months supply of powder for his guns.

No coincidence that on this day (October 7) in 1863, orders went forward to the gunners.  General Ripley restricted the “fire of our batteries bearing upon Morris Island to 50 shot or shell per day in the aggregate, excepting upon extraordinary occasions.”

No more ceremonial salutes at Charleston.

(Gorgas’ letter is in OR, Series I, Volume 28, Part II, Serial 47, pages 388-9;  Reference of Ripley’s orders appear in the Journal of Operations in Charleston Harbor, OR, Series I, Volume 28, Part I, Serial 46, page 142.)