Tuesday, April 23, 2013

Galveston and Slavery #1 - Slave Labor for Fortifications

Philles Thomas, born a slave in Texas
"I can’t ‘member my daddy, but mammy told me him am sent to de ‘Federate Army an am kilt in Galveston.  She say dey puttin’ up breastwork..." - Philles Thomas, Texas Slave Narratives 

I had the great honor of having a short article published in the Galveston County Daily News this past weekend (Saturday, 20 April 2013), about how hundreds of slaves were used to build fortifications on the island, especially after the Confederate army recaptured Galveston on January 1, 1863.  The article actually appeared as an editorial, as I made a plea at the end of the piece for a historical marker to commeorate and honor the slaves who built - and died while doing so - fortifications to protect an army that was determined to keep them in chains.

I can't link directly to the editorial due to a paywall, but you will see the clipping below, at the end of the post.


1) The article was necessaily short (~500 words) and is actually part of a longer section that appears in my book Galveston and the Civil War: An Island City in the Maelstrom (The History Press, 2012).  I've happily included that longer section, with references, and other illustration material.

2) Over the next week or so, I'll post some other excerpts about slavery in Galveston; it's a story for which most published histories of Galveston give little or no attention or - (perhaps) worse - mischaracterize, by making the slaves' lives seem easier than they actually were. 

"Puttin’ Up Breastworks"
An excerpt from

A week after the January 1, 1863, Battle of Galveston – and after the disastrous loss of the USS Hatteras – James Black wrote his wife that he expected that his unit would be permanently located in Galveston, and added with just confidence, “unless the Federals whip us out, which they are not likely to do.”  His work was now devoted to securing the recaptured island, and he added “In a few days we will have this place well-fortified.  There are several hundred negroes here at work building new fortifications and repairing those already built.” (1)


Detail of wartime map prepared by Confederate engineers showing fortifications on the Gulf approach to Galveston
Impressed slaves building fortifications at James Island, South Carolina. Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, New York Public Library h/t to Andy Hall - Dead Confederates

That enslaved African-Americans did the lion’s share of the work in constructing the Galveston fortifications was nothing new: slaves had actually built fortifications in the early days of Galveston during the Texas Revolution.  Soldiers of the United States Colored Troops were often detailed to dig, build, and fortify throughout the war, rather than fight.  Union troops apparently employed slave labor in Galveston; shortly after Cmdr. William B. Renshaw captured the island in mid-October 1862, a local newspaper declared “the Yankees are said to have arrested several negroes, and put them at Work at Pelican Spit, where they are fortifying and converting our batteries to their own use.” (2)

The first call for slave labor on behalf of the Confederate forces in Galveston may have been as early as April 1862, when General W. R. Scurry declared that “it is absolutely necessary that every preparation for defense should be made to protect Texas from invasion.  Galveston is comparatively defenceless.  In a short time, with negroes to work on the fortifications, the Island can be made impregnable, and the State saved from the pol[l]uting tread of armed abolitionists.”  To that end he called on planters in twenty counties to “send at once one-fourth of their male negro population…with spades and shovels…to report to Galveston.”  Likewise, in November 1861, Gen. Paul Hebert authorized an aide on his staff to “proceed without delay into the interior of [Texas] for the purpose of inducing the planters and citizens generally to assist in the erection of fortifications for the defense of the coast, in loaning their negroes for that purpose.” (3)

In this April 1863 letter, a Texas planter describes slaves being requisitioned to work on the Galveston fortifications

After the Confederate victory on New Year’s Day 1863, Confederate engineers Col. Valery Sulakowski and Maj. Julius G. Kellersberger supervised the construction of a series of works that protected both the Gulf approaches to Galveston as well as the harbor.  Gen. Magruder called on area planters to provide one-half of their male slaves (soon reduced to one-quarter) to work on the fortifications.  In an April 1863 report detailing his progress on constructing forts and placing barricades in the ship channel, Sulakowski detailed the effort of the slave labor:

The force of negroes on the island consists of 481 effective men. Of these 40 are at the saw-mills, 100 cutting and carrying sod (as all the works are of sand, consequently the sodding must be done all over the works), 40 carrying timber and iron, which leaves 301 on the works, including [harbor] obstructions. The whole force of negroes consists, as above, of 481 effective, 42 cooks, 78 sick; total, 601. (4)


This is a report of deaths at the "Negro Hospital" in Galveston in January and February 1863; only each slave's first name is recorded; along with the name of their owner and the (purported?) cause of death

Col. Sulakowski complained that “the work of soldiers amounts to very little, as the officers seem to have no control whatever over their men. The number of soldiers at work is about 100 men, whose work amount to 10 negroes’ work.”  He also mentioned “in order to complete the defenses of Galveston it will require the labor of 1,000 negroes during three weeks, or eight weeks with the present force.” Yet getting more slave labor would be no easy task: as far back as 1862, Texas slaveholders had volunteered insufficient numbers of their slaves to the periodic calls, yielding equally insufficient coastal defenses and leading to the Union victories on the Texas coast in late 1862.  It’s no wonder they were reluctant: hospital records show that dozens of slaves died from disease, exhaustion, or injuries suffered in constructing the Galveston works.  Philles Thomas, born into slavery in Texas, explained:

I can’t ‘member my daddy, but mammy told me him am sent to de ‘Federate Army an am kilt in Galveston.  She say dey puttin’ up breastworks and de Yanks am shootin’ from the de ships.  Well, daddy am watchin’ de balls comin’ from dem guns, fallin’ round dere, and a car come down de track loaded with rocks and hit him.  Dat car kilt him. (5)


(1) Galveston Daily News, December 27, 1936.
(2) Galveston Weekly News, October 22, 1862.
(3) Andrew Hall, “The work of soldiers amounts to very little,” Dead Confederates blog, http://deadconfederates.com/2011/08/16/the-work-of-soldiers-amounts-to-very-little; OR, Ser. 1, Vol. 4, 140.
(4) OR, Ser. 1. Vol. 15, 1064.
(5) Ibid; Philles Thomas Narrative, Slave Narrative Project, Texas Narratives, Volume 16, Part 4, Federal Writer's Project, United States Work Projects Administration, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress, Washington, DC.

You can learn more about Galveston's Civil War history in Galveston and the Civil War: An Island City in the Maelstrom (The History Press, 2012).


Carol N Wong said...

It seems the more history that I read the more I find I didn't know! Thank your post.

Mark said...

This is an often overlooked aspect of the war, but one that fascinates me. Slaves and former slaves on construction projects from both sides. Very intriguing:)

Sean McLachlan said...

Interesting that more than ten percent of the slaves were out sick. I bet you had to be pretty sick as a slave before you would be allowed to have a day off!
What are the conditions like in Galveston? What do you think they were getting sick from?

Anonymous said...

Thank you for a great series of articles on this neglected subject.

Whenever I encounter another one of those monuments to the Confederacy on a courthouse square in Texas, I wish that there would be monuments to those the Confederacy existed to keep enslaved and whose labors and suffering and sacrifices go largely unrecognized.

An older read, but I also recommend [u]An Empire for Slavery: The Peculiar Institution in Texas, 1821-1865[/u] [Randolph B. Campbell]

Unknown said...

Sickness was a huge proble, and many people died or became seriously ill from a long list of illnesses, but specifically a measles outbreak took a heavy toll.