Just two days before Arthur Fremantle toured the batteries defending the eastern end of Galveston Island, the Confederate military engineer in charge of designing and building the defenses wrote out his report for the month of April 1863, outlining the work accomplished to date, and some of the challenges still to be overcome. Colonel Valery Sulakowski (1827-1873, right) was a Pole by birth, and a former officer in the Austrian army. After emigrating to the United States in the late 1840s, he worked as a civil engineer in New Orleans. He’d met General Magruder early in the war, in Virginia, and after the island was recaptured from Federal forces on New Years Day 1863, set about expanding the island’s defenses. Sulakowski had the reputation of a strict disciplinarian but, along with another immigrant engineering officer, Julius Kellersberger, is credited with quickly expanding the fortifications at Galveston and making the island a much more defensible post than it had been during the first eighteen months of the war.
Sulakowski’s report, being essentially simultaneous with Fremantle’s observations, also give a better sense of what the British officer saw but declined to record in detail due to the sensitive military nature of the information. From the Official Records, 21:1063-64:
ENGINEER’S OFFICE, Galveston, April 30, 1863.
Capt. EDMUND P. TURNER,
Assistant Adjutant-General, Brownsville
I have the honor to make the following report for the month of April, 1863:
Fort Point–casemated battery.–The wood, iron, and earth work was completed during this month; five iron casemate carriages constructed; the guns mounted; cisterns placed, and hot-shot furnace constructed. It has to be sodded all over, the bank being high and composed of sand. Two 10-inch mortars will be placed on the top behind breastworks.
Fort Magruder–heavy open battery.–The front embankment, traverses, platforms, and magazines were completed during this month; two 10-inch columbiads mounted. The Harriet Lane guns are not mounted, for want of suitable carriages, which are under construction. Bomb-proofs and embankment in the rear commenced and the front embankment sodded inside, top and slope. With the present force it will require nearly the whole of this month to complete it.
Fort Bankhead.–Guns were mounted and the railroad constructed during this month.
South Battery.–For want of labor the reconstruction of this battery was commenced within the last few days of the month; also the construction of the railroad leading to it.
Intrenchment of the town is barely commenced, for want of labor.
Obstructions in the main channel.–Since the destruction of the rafts by storm, before they could be fastened to the abutments, this plan of obstruction had to be abandoned for the want of material to repair the damage done. The present system of obstructing consists of groups of piles braced and bolted and three cable chains fastened to them, the groups of piles in the deepest part of the channel to be anchored besides. This was the first plan of obstructing the channel on my arrival here; but being informed by old sailors and residents that piles could not be driven on account of the quicksand, and not having the necessary machinery then to examine the bottom, it was rejected. Having constructed a machine for this purpose, it is certain that piles can be driven and are actually already driven half across. This obstruction will be completed and the chains stretched from abutment to abutment by the 10th of May. Sketch, letter A, represents the work.
Obstructions at the head of Pelican Island.–Two-thirds done. It will require the whole of May to complete this obstruction and erect the casemated sunken battery of two guns, as proposed in my last report. These works are greatly retarded by the difficulty of procuring the material.
Pelican Spit ought to be fortified, as submitted in my last report, with a casemated work. For its defense two 32-pounders and one 24-pounder can be spared. This work is of great importance, but it had to be postponed until the intrenchments around the town shall be fairly advanced.
The force of negroes [sic.] 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.
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. 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.
Brazos River.–After having examined the locality I have laid out the necessary works, and Lieutenant Cross, of the Engineers, is ordered to take charge of the construction. Inclosed letter B is a copy of instructions given to Lieutenant Cross. Sketch, letter C, shows the location of the proposed works at the mouth of Brazos River.
Western Sub-District.–Major Lea, in charge of the Western Sub-District, sent in his first communication, copy of which, marked D, is inclosed. I respectfully recommend Major Lea’s suggestions with regard to procuring labor to the attention of the major-general commanding. I have ordered a close examination of the wreck of the Westfield, which resulted in finding one 8-inch gun already, and I hope that more will be found. Cash account inclosed is marked letter E; liabilities incurred and not paid is marked letter F.(*)
I have the honor to remain, respectfully, your obedient servant,
My emphasis. “Major Lea,” mentioned in the last paragraph, is Albert Miller Lea, a Confederate engineer and staff officer who, after the Battle of Galveston four months before, had famously found his son, a U.S. naval officer aboard the Harriet Lane, mortally wounded aboard that ship.
Sulakowski’s report also mentions the importance of sodding the built-up earthworks, as the sand of which they were constructed would otherwise blow down in drifts. That technique was also used in the fortifications around Charleston, as in this detail (above) of a painting of Fort Moultrie by Conrad Wise Chapman. At the center of the image, African American laborers gather sand to be used in repairing the fort.
Image: Detail of “Fort Moultrie” by Conrad Wise Chapman. Museum of the Confederacy.
If a Confederate officer takes an oath of allegiance to the United States and the Union, has he forfeited his status as a Confederate?
That’s not a snarky comment or a rhetorical question — I’m entirely serious in asking it.
Not far from my home is the grave of Major General John Bankhead Magruder, a well-known Confederate officer and a local hero who commanded the Department of Texas during the middle of the war and organized the naval and land attack that retook Galveston from Union forces on New Years Day, 1863. After the war, and a brief stint in the service of Maximilian’s army in Mexico, Magruder settled in Houston, where he died in 1871. He was initially buried in there, but his remains were subsequently re-interred in Galveston’s Episcopal Cemetery.
At the end of May 1865, President Andrew Johnson issued a general amnesty for those who had served the Confederacy; under this amnesty, all rights and property (except for slaves) were to be restored upon taking the oath to support and defend the Constitution of the United States. Fourteen categories of persons were explicitly excluded from this blanket amnesty, including army officers above the rank of colonel. These excluded persons were required to submit a formal application for pardon, “and so realize the enormity of their crime.” While there was never any real doubt that the vast majority of former Confederates would eventually be eligible for pardon, Johnson was determined to use the pardon process to make manifest a point he mentioned often: “treason is a crime and must be made odious.” Over the next three years, the Johnson administration issued about 13,500 individual pardons.
Magruder applied for his pardon in November 1867, and included a letter of from Union Major General Carl Schurz, attesting to his loyalty. Magruder’s application was approved by Attorney General Henry Stanbery on December 9.
Baltimore, Novr. 14th, 1867
To His Excellency
President of the United States
Sir, as an officer of the Southern army with the rank of Major General, I am not embraced in the amnesty which Your Excellency has proclaimed.
The South submitted her interpretation of the Constitution to the arbitrament of the sword which decided against her — an I am now as loyal a citizen of the United States as any within their borders — I therefore apply for a pardon — As an officer, I have always endeavored to softne the rigors of War & there are no allegations to the contrary, against me, that I am aware of.
I have the honor to be very respectfully Your Obt Servt,
J. Bankhead Magruder
A pardon is not a small thing. A petition for pardon acknowledges and admits a serious legal or moral transgression on the part of the applicant; issuance of a pardon is a formal act of forgiveness, with the implicit understanding that the offense being pardoned is real, is ended and will not be repeated.
There’s no way to parse or explain away Magruder’s declaratory statement, written in his own hand, that “I am now as loyal a citizen of the United States as any within their borders.” Major General Walker signed an even more explicit statement, that he would “henceforth faithfully support, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States and the Union of the States thereunder,” closing with, “so help me God.“
Are these pledges of loyalty to be taken seriously? It would seem they must be; after all, the core values of loyalty, devotion and personal honor are some of the very things that motivate the desire to recognize these men in the first place. But they voluntarily, formally and explicitly rejected any allegiance to the Confederacy; it’s hard to see how they can still be legitimately considered Confederates. Certainly most Americans today would hesitate to honor an American soldier who formally renounced his American citizenship in favor of another nation’s.
Or should we assume that applying for a pardon and swearing ongoing allegiance to the United States — “in the presence of ALMIGHTY GOD” — was something they simply had to do to get along, and they never really meant it? That it was just what they had to do to get on with their lives? Path of least resistance? Doubtful.
So we’re back to the first option: that these men willingly, voluntarily rejected any further allegiance to the Confederacy. How, then, can they now logically be honored for their loyalty to that defunct nation? There’s not an easy answer to this question; I don’t even think there is an answer that makes any objective sense. But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t ask the question.
A reconsideration of events in Galveston during the late summer and fall of 1864 suggests a likely linkage between the first steam blockade runners arriving at Galveston after the Battle of Mobile Bay in August 1864 and the outbreak of a yellow fever epidemic the following month. During the first three years of the war, steam blockade runners arrived at Galveston only on rare occasions; the Texas coastal city was too far removed from the main theaters of war to be of much use. After the Union admiral Farragut closed the entrance to Mobile Bay, however, Galveston was left as the only seaport on any significance left in Confederate hands on the Gulf of Mexico. As a result, beginning in late August there was a sudden upsurge in blockade-running activity at Galveston that continued through the end of the war ten months later.
Although yellow fever can now be prevented by an effective vaccine, in the 19th century it was a recurring and serious problem in the southern United States and the Caribbean. Yellow fever is a mosquito-borne viral disease varying widely in severity, exhibiting everything from flu-like symptoms to severe hepatitis and hemorrhagic fever. A large proportion of those infected died. At the time of the American Civil War, the variability of the symptoms made the disease difficult to distinguish from other illnesses, and even today a positive diagnosis is only possible through laboratory testing.
The threat of yellow fever was taken very seriously in Galveston, and on August 3 the Confederate commander in Texas, General Magruder, ordered a strict 30-day quarantine for all vessels arriving from Mexico, the Caribbean and other areas where the fever was endemic. It seems likely that Magruder’s order met with sharp opposition from merchants and others that had an interest in blockade running, because the following day he revised his order to require quarantine only for ships arriving from ports known to be infected with fever, and then only for eight days’ isolation. These watered-down precautions would prove to be woefully inadequate.
The first steam blockade runners arriving at Galveston after the fall of Mobile was the Susanna, arriving about August 24, and the Denbigh, which arrived on August 25. No other steam blockade runner is known to have arrived at Galveston for two weeks following Denbigh‘s arrival. In the days following Susanna‘s and Denbigh‘s arrival, several cases believed to be yellow fever appeared among civilians and soldiers stationed in the town. On September 14, the first deaths positively attributed to the disease occurred. That same day at Houston, Major General John G. Walker, commander of the Military District of Texas, New Mexico and Arizona, sent out a call for nurses to care for those afflicted, and two days later ordered Galveston quarantined to prevent the spread of the disease inland. Nonetheless, the fever appeared in Houston, and Walker moved his headquarters further inland to Anderson, in Grimes County.
Over the next two months, at 259 deaths in Galveston were attributed to the disease. This figure represented nearly ten percent of the town’s military and civilian population at the time. The majority of the dead were civilians, and over a quarter were children ten years and under. The heaviest toll occurred in September, but deaths were recorded as November 20. A heavy frost on the evening of November 22 “dissipated the fever” and the quarantine was lifted soon thereafter.
There was debate at the time about the origin of this particular outbreak of fever. The etiology of the disease, and the role mosquitoes played in transmitting it, would remain unconfirmed for two generations. Some in Galveston argued adamantly that the disease must have come by way of a blockade-running schooner that had sailed from Vera Cruz, Mexico, while others insisted that it sprang from “local causes in the city.”
I believe that case for the schooner from Vera Cruz being the source of the yellow fever outbreak to be somewhat unlikely. The length of the voyage from Vera Cruz, typically a week or longer, would probably be enough time for symptoms to begin appearing among the crew and to draw the attention of authorities inspecting the vessel upon arrival. A steamer from Havana, on the other hand, would normally be able to make the run into Galveston in three or four days, making it much easier for infected seamen to pass undetected. It is also possible that the disease arrived at Galveston not in an infected sailor (who was subsequently bitten by a local mosquito), but in an insect brought along from the vessel’s point of origin. In that scenario, too, a steamer making a quick passage seems a more likely means of transmission than a relatively slow sailing vessel.
The normal course of the disease suggests its first victims in Galveston were infected very shortly after the arrival of the Susanna and Denbigh in late August. There were two interments of victims on September 14 – they same day they died – and three more the following day. The disease has a normal incubation period of three to six days, during which time there are no outward symptoms of the illness. After this incubation period, most victims enter what is now termed the “acute phase” of the disease, during which they experience fever, headache, muscle pain, nausea and vomiting. These symptoms usually subside after three or four days and the patients recover. In some cases, however, within 24 hours the disease enters its “toxic phase,” and the patient experiences develops jaundice (from which appearance yellow fever gets its name) and complains of abdominal pain with vomiting. Patients bleed from the mouth, nose, eyes and stomach. Kidney function drops off and sometimes fails altogether, resulting in a rapid rise in the levels of toxins in the body. About half the patients who enter the toxic phase of the disease die within 10 to 14 days, while the rest usually recover gradually.
If one takes this as the course of the disease in those patients who died on September 14 and 15, and the disease had its normal incubation period of three to six days, they most likely were infected during the last week of August, immediately after the arrival of the two steamers from Havana. Did Denbigh or Susanna bring the dreaded “yellow jack” to Galveston? It’s very likely that one of them did.
This post is adapted from one originally drafted in 2002 during my work with the Denbigh Project.