Dead Confederates, A Civil War Era Blog

Slave Labor in the Defense of Galveston

Posted in African Americans by Andy Hall on August 15, 2011

Last week I had a post concerning (somewhat tangentially) the use of impressed African Americans as laborers on the defensive works at Galveston. It’s a subject that deserves much more close attention than I’ve had time to get into here, but I thought I’d pass along a few contemporary citations that address the prevalence of such laborers here, and the ongoing friction between the military, which needed every able-bodied hand it could get by any means, and slaveholders who were reluctant to turn their property over to the Confederacy for military labor.

Impressed slaves building fortifications at James Island, South Carolina. Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, New York Public Library.

The call for slaveholders to offer up their chattel for laboring on fortifications came relatively early in the war, once both sides settled into what they (now) realized would be a long, hard-fought struggle. On April 6, 1862 – coincidentally, the first day of the Battle of Shiloh – the Houston Telegraph published an order of General W. R. Scurry (right), calling on slaveholders to provide men to set up fortifications on the island:

To the Planters of Washington, Austin, Montgomery, Burleson, Travis, Fayette, Bastrop, Colorado, Polk, Liberty, Chambers, Orange, Fort Bend, Milam, Brazoria, Wharton, Matagorda, Robertson, Harris and Jasper Counties:

From information received, it is absolutely necessary that every preparation for defence should be made to protect Texas from another invasion. Galveston is comparatively defenceless. In a short time, with negroes [sic.] to work on the fortifications, the Island can be made impregnable, and the State saved from the poluting [sic.] tread of armed abolitionists.

I therefore call upon the planters of the above counties to send at once one-fourth of their male negro population, of the ages between 16 and 50 years, with spades and shovels, to report at Galveston, to Col. V[alery] Sulakowski, Chief Engineer.

They must bring with them their bedding and cooking utensils.

Clothing and shoes will be furnished them at cost prices. Comfortable quarters [will be] provided for them. Medical attendance, medicines and rations furnished free, and thirty dollars per month will be paid [to their owners] for their services.

Overseers with 25 negroes will be paid $60 per month. Transportation to the Island and back home furnished free.

As a frame of reference, the 1860 U.S. Census enumerated 14,947 male slaves in those counties, ages 15 to 49. Scurry’s call for labor, if fully met, would have resulted in about 3,500 laborers working on the fortifications at Galveston.

Scurry probably didn’t get numbers anything like that; there were likely never more than several hundred at any one time working on the fortifications during 1862. Scurry and his officers were able to set up batteries at Fort Point – a fortification that had existed before the war – as well as on Pelican Spit and on the Gulf of Mexico beach opposite the town, but these were all isolated from one another, without any connecting works or trenching to make them part of a larger, coordinated defensive plan.

Chart of Galveston Defenses made by U.S. Assistant Engineer W. S. Long in December 1862, showing the island’s defensive works at that time. Library of Congress.

The Federal Navy steamed into Galveston harbor in October 1862 and took the town almost without resistance. There were too few Union troops to occupy the city, though, and they retreated to the wharves along the city’s waterfront at night, where they expected to be safe under the guns of Federal fleet. In a coordinated attack by both land and naval forces on the morning of New Years Day, 1863, Confederate forces recaptured the city and drove the Union gunboats out of the bay. While Galveston would remain closely blockaded for the rest of the war, the Federals did not attempt another landing, in part due to a vigorous building program established by the new Confederate commander here, Major General John Bankhead Magruder.

Magruder (right) took up the work of building up the defenses of the island with renewed energy, but quickly discovered that obtaining sufficient labor was a problem. While Magruder called for area planters to provide one-half of their adult male slaves to work on building up fortifications, relatively few responded, prompting an angry challenge that was published in the Austin newspaper, the Texas Almanac, on January 17, 1863, just over two weeks after the recapture of the island:

The Negroes – We extract the following from a letter to a friend of ours, who is a cotton planter, and a member of the Legislature:

Urge Gen. Magruder to press the negroes [sic.] into service. It is a shame and an outrage upon the country. It is an unmistakable fact that the small property holders and the poor have done more to carry on this war, than the large negro holders. And it is due to them that the negro nabob should be made to feel his interest in this savage warfare. Pressing is the only way to give justice to all, and equalize the thing as it should be.

A man who refuses to send one-half of his negroes to the defense of his country, in this the greatest hour of trial, is in his heart a traitor.

A few days later, another editorial appeared over the pseudonym “Iatros” (Greek for physician), endorsing the use of large numbers of slaves for work building fortifications — but for nothing more than that:

First and foremost, we agree with your friend in urging Gen Magruder to “press one-half of the negroes [sic.] in the country into service,” to work on the fortifications. All right. And he has done so in many of the counties of Texas within reach of Galveston. The “negro nabobs,’ as your friend calls himself and other slaveholders, have responded by sending half of their able-bodied men, and in my section, as far as I could learn public sentiment, they would have been willing to send all, and go themselves, too, if judged necessary, to work or fight, as the occasion may require. But is it proper to urge that “the balance” of the negroes should be sent into the camps to do the menial service of our soldiers? Your friend surely cannot reflect on what he writes. It would be a heavy expense to our already burdened treasury to add to our army even 100,000 negroes out of three-fourths of a million [adult males] in the Southern states. Negroes are property, and as such the owner is entitled to pay for his services, as much as for any other species of property. What a cumbrous amount of baggage they would be – especially in a retreat! What spies – eavesdroppers and news carriers. And what would be the condition of women and children at home, if the “balance” were taken away? It would effectually put a stop to making cotton bales in all Cottondom. And how much corn would be made or housed for our soldiers and their families?

The reluctance of Texas planters to release their slaves to the military notwithstanding, enough complied with Magruder’s request that his new defensive works around the island grew rapidly. By mid-spring, they were far enough along that Arthur Freemantle (right), a Lieutenant Colonel in the British Army’s Coldstream Guards making a tour of the Confederacy, spent spent a Saturday afternoon inspecting them with one of Magruder’s senior officers:

I rode with Colonel [Xavier B.] Debray to examine Forts Scurry, Magruder, Bankhead, and Point. These works have been ingeniously designed by Colonel Sulokowski [Sulakowski] (formerly in the Austrian army), and they were being very well constructed by one hundred and fifty whites and six hundred blacks under that officer’s superintendence, the blacks being lent by the neighboring planters.

Although the blockaders can easily approach to within three miles of the works, and although one shell will always “stampede” the negroes, yet they have not thrown any for a long time.

Confederate batteries and entrenchments at Galveston, as they appeared by the end of the war. Forts Scurry, Bankhead and Magruder were all set up during the first months of 1863, by the time of Colonel Fremantle’s visit in early May, and a new battery built to replace the original one at Fort Point. Eventually all were connected by rail and lines of earthworks, built by slave laborers hired or pressed from area planters. Official Records.

Work continued apace through the summer, until on August 28, 1863, Confederate Brigadier General Henry McCullough announced that, having now made sufficient progress surrounding the city with batteries and other field works, “the city of Galveston and vicinity are entrenched camps, surrounded on all sides by my lines, and that all persons living within these lines will be subject to the rules and regulations established, or to be established, for the security and welfare of such camps, and will be punished according to military law for any infraction of the same.”

By the end of 1863, enough progress had been made that General Magruder was able to announce that most of the slaves he’d impressed from area planters would be returned to them, “except one fourth, which will be retained to continue the work on the fortifications until completed.” Magruder also warned that, at the same time, he would be sending out agents of the Labor Bureau to those counties whose citizens had not provided half their slave population for government service, to make up the difference in those being returned to their owners in other counties. The intent of this, his order explained, was “to get one-fourth of the male population (negro) [sic.] subject, in rotation, to the call of the Major General Commanding.”

Despite General McCollough’s August 1863 assertion that he did not mean to interfere with the day-to-day functions of civil authorities, conflicts were inevitable. In the late spring of 1864, one particular case involving a runaway slave brought matters to head. The slave, who is not named in contemporary accounts, was apprehended and detained by civilian authorities. When the slave’s owner, a Mr. L. Frosh, demanded he be returned, the sheriff refused on account of unpaid fees. At this point the commander of the First Sub-District of Texas, James Morrison Hawes (1824-89, right), intervened and returned the black man to his owner. There’s no other direct military relevance as far as I know – the man was not a conscripted laborer working for the army, nor was it alleged that he tried to escape to the Federals fleet – but it’s a case that attracted attention as a sort of flash point of tension between the local elected officials and the martial law enforced by military units occupying the city. The local officials then sued, according to Ed Cotham’s Battle on the Bay, and Hawes issued a general order returning the slave to the custody of the sheriff. Hawes’ order (OR64:689) reversing his earlier action seems worth quoting in full, because it addresses not only the case of the escaped slave, but the real conflicting interests of self-governance versus direct, military rule. In particular note Hawes’ emphasis on the imminent, ongoing threat posed to the city by the Federal blockading squadron just offshore, and thus the necessity of compliance with martial law:

The brigadier-general commanding believing, as he does, that it is impossible to defend this place without the possession of all the power which belongs to the commanding officer of a camp in the presence of, and threatened immediately by, the enemy, and that it is his duty to protect the property of all persons who remain within this intrenched camp, and to make suitable regulations for the accomplishment of this object, directed the release of a negro boy of a citizen, which boy had not violated either the laws of the State or the municipal law of Galveston, and when his authority was disregarded by the sheriff and justice of the peace, caused it to be respected, using it, however, mildly, and only so far as to cause the return of the boy to his owner.

It is well known to the commanding generals, both of the department and particularly of the district, that treason of the darkest dye exists in Galveston; that desertions to the enemy take place frequently; that the enemy’s fleet is in almost nightly intercourse with the traitors ashore; that the enemy has received accurate information of the time of departure of every blockade-runner which has left our harbor.

It is known to all that the major-general commanding the district, after recapturing the city and island, forbid any citizen to return to it except by his permission, and stated that those who did return must abide strictly by the rules and regulations which he was bound to establish for the safety of the place. It must also be borne in mind that the inhabitants returned under these conditions; that they depend upon the military almost entirely for the means of transporting the necessaries of life; that these means are extremely limited; that there is neither wood, water, nor food on the island; that it is threatened by a powerful fleet of from ten to fifteen war steamers at all hours of the day and night; that the city, not the defenses, is entirely at the mercy of the enemy, whose shot have repeatedly passed over it and into the bay on its opposite side, and that the safety of all depends upon preserving the highest military discipline and efficiency.

It must be borne in mind also that this island is two miles distant from the mainland; that it has been recaptured from the enemy after most of the inhabitants had left it; that many of its resources had been destroyed; that it is the only sea-port which has ever been recaptured from the enemy; that it is differently situated from any other command in the Confederacy. It is therefore the firm conviction of the brigadier-general commanding the island that its safety can be secured by the exercise of military authority alone.

But, desirous as he is to give a convincing proof of his wish to avoid a conflict with the civil authorities of the State, and influenced also by the opinions of the general commanding the department and the major-general commanding the district, he hereby orders the slave to be returned to the sheriff, and trusts that an occasion will not arise in the future of applying military authority to affairs between citizen and citizen on this island, or to interpose his military power except in cases where he conceives it essential to the support of the discipline, efficiency, and safety of his command to do so.

Gangs of impressed slaves continued to be used at Galveston through the end of the war, maintaining the entrenchments and providing general labor in support of the military garrison. Increasingly, though, as the situation throughout the state gradually deteriorated, the call was made for yet more slave labor to keep the civilian infrastructure going. In October 1864, Major General John George Walker (right) called on planters to volunteer their slaves “for a few weeks” to work on repairing railroads, as an alternative to having them impressed by force. From the Houston Telegraph, October 28, 1864:

To the Planters of Texas:

The necessities of the Government require the services of negro [sic.] laborers – the conscription of slaves under the act of Congress for that purpose, having failed thus far to meet the urgent demands of the service. It is of the highest importance that the Railroads of the State should be kept in repair and running order. They are necessary of the public defence. The labor required for this purpose cannot be furnished from the army. Our men are needed in the field, with muskets in their hands, and cannot be spared from the ranks. To meet the emergency, which is important and pressing, negroes must be had at once. The planters of the country are therefore urged to furnish their slaves to the agents of these railroads, upon their application, to the utmost limit of their ability—patriotism and interest alike require this. Now that the crops are in the main gathered, slaves can be readily spared for a few weeks.

Owing to the urgent wants of the Government, and the small number of slaves heretofore obtained by conscription or impressment, the Commanding General of the District may be constrained to adopt and enforce additional impressment. This measure seems unavoidable. In the future execution, however, of such impressment, all slave owners who, in response to this appeal, shall hire their slaves for work on Railroads, will be entitled to, and shall receive full credit, to the extent of the number of slaves so hired and the term of service.

It is to be hoped that this appeal to the sense of duty and patriotism of the planters of Texas, whose interests and honor are so largely involved in this struggle, will be responded to with alacrity.

These are only a handful of documents, but they give a good sense of both how central slave labor — on a large scale — was to the defense of Galveston and how difficult it often was to secure that labor. It’s not a subject that gets a lot of attention in most histories, but it was one that, at the time, occupied much to the time and energy of local military commanders. It’s worth keeping in mind.


7 Responses

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  1. Jim Schmidt said, on August 16, 2011 at 7:50 am

    Geez, Andy, I’m going to have to come up with a better opening line than “Great post, as always”…it’s too trite in this case…what a great piece of work…I’ve also been doing some investigating the use of African American slave labor on the Galveston defenses…you do more than hint at the fact that some planters were not supplying their full 1/4 (or more) via the newspaper accounts and orders issued from military authorities…I know footnote can be over-used, but I found this letter to be of great interest:

    It notes that soldiers were required to visit the plantations to secure the slaves and complains that citizens of Columbus, TX were not “with the program,” so to speak.

    In addition to male slaves on the fortifications, I’ve seen that female slaves were “detailed” to hospital work.

    Surely, the grimmest evidence is hospital records of African Americans who dies during their fortification duty.

    All My best,

    Jim Schmidt

    • Andy Hall said, on August 16, 2011 at 7:54 am

      Jim, thanks. With all the bad puns and and general silliness that came out of last week’s post, it seemed important to provide a little context to what was actually going on here at the time. There’s much more to be written, but these contemporary items at least give an idea.

      I have a post coming up relating to the hospital for laborers, but it’s not as in-depth as it sounds like the material you’re working with. You may have some observations to add on that one.

  2. Edwin Thompson said, on August 16, 2011 at 12:39 pm

    This really is a great post – better than most Disunion articles. You really captured the CSA demand for slave labor. The newspaper references say it all. Over 3 years, the request for labor went from an initial dispatch to save the state from “the polluting tread of armed abolitionists” (what a great line) to the threat of impressing slaves from their owners. I also like the quote from Gen. Magruder “It is an unmistakable fact that the small property holders and the poor have done more to carry on this war, than the large negro holders”.

    America has an interesting history. Thanks for the lesson.

    • Andy Hall said, on August 16, 2011 at 12:43 pm

      Thanks very much. The whole rich-man’s-war-poor-man’s-fight vibe comes through here very well.

      The “polluting tread of armed abolitionists” almost became the title for this post, it’s such a great line.

      • Rob in CT said, on August 17, 2011 at 1:34 pm

        Seriously, “the polluting tread of armed abolitionists” is really great, and would’ve been an excellent title.

  3. Matt McKeon said, on August 17, 2011 at 6:35 am

    Reading your blog is an education in how to research, and what the rewards of research are: a vivid picture of the past.

  4. lunchcountersitin said, on August 17, 2011 at 10:52 am


    Thanks for this outstanding post. It is of sufficient quality that you should be getting paid for it; I appreciate that you are sharing this with us for free.

    Although the subject of Black Confederates gets all the attention, the actual roles played by blacks in the Confederacy get scant notice outside of academia. Materials such as this are invaluable in informing us of how people of African descent lived in, and through, the Civil War.

    And probably the same could be said of the thousands of black civilians (contrabands/freedmen) who supplied labor to the Union: not enough is said and understood about their role in the war. I am hopeful that the Sesquicentennial will provide opportunities to tell that story.


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