Dead Confederates, A Civil War Era Blog

“The work of soldiers amounts to very little.”

Posted in African Americans, Leadership, Technology by Andy Hall on August 16, 2011

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.

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.

7 Responses

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  1. lunchcountersitin said, on August 17, 2011 at 11:21 am

    One observation I’ve seen of slavery is, the work done by slaves came to be seen as “dirty” or “undignified” by whites; that is, whites came to associate the work done by slaves as being unfit for a free white person. I wonder: would these soldiers have been more willing to do what is called “fatigue duty” had not slaves been seen doing this kind of work (which made such labor seem like “ni****” work)?

    Interestingly, US Colored Troops, especially in 1863 when blacks were being enlisted en masse, were much more likely to perform fatigue duty than their white peers. And of course, the Union itself used black Southern civilians for this type of work. I wonder what attitudes white Union soldiers had toward this kind of work? I say this with the awareness that many white Union soldiers were from immigrant families and performed the kind of work that led Southerners to vilify the North for the existence of “wage slavery.”

    • Andy Hall said, on August 17, 2011 at 12:27 pm

      I think that dynamic explains a good bit of it. “Heritage” folks will (reflexively, defensively) argue that only a very small percentage of Confederate soldiers owned slaves in their own right. As we’ve seen, that’s a misleading statistic; about one in four free households in Texas included at least one slaveholder. Beyond that, those white soldiers had grown up and lived in an environment where slave labor was ubiquitous, where one encountered it in ways large and small, every day. Hard, manual labor — especially on a large scale — in that society was mostly the work of slaves. That’s not to say that whites didn’t do the same kind of work, but it was clearly the province of slave labor, and one that was assigned them whenever circumstances permitted.

      There’s little practical difference between (1) a gang of slaves with an overseer, working in 1860 to pull stumps and level the grade for a railroad project in Brazos County, and (2) a gang of slaves with an overseer, working in 1862 to dig entrenchments around artillery batteries at Galveston. Even if the client is different, the organization and sort of work is essentially the same. Why would white soldiers, who would likely never be compelled to do that sort of work as civilians, see it as different once they were in uniform?

      That said, discipline was a pretty awful problem generally among white Confederate troops stations at Galveston, with desertion and petty crime being continual problems here.

      Finally, you’re dead right about the way USCT regiments were often used by Federal army commanders — no differently than unskilled laborers digging trenches or burying the dead, with the added benefit of being able to apply military discipline to them. Plenty of ugliness to go around.

  2. Joe Bartolini said, on August 18, 2011 at 5:30 am

    Interesting article. I am curious about the two individuals (soldiers) in the lower left corner of the Fort Moultrie painting. They appear to be holding fishing poles. Was wondering if there are any articles or books or veteran accounts discussing recreational activities of Civil War soldiers. Especially interested in books with bibliographies.

    • Andy Hall said, on August 18, 2011 at 7:55 am

      Joe, thanks for commenting.

      The artist, Chapman, mentions the soldiers fishing in the description he wrote for the painting many years later. All his paintings in the collection were, I think, done well after the war based on wartime sketches he’d done. I don’t know if Chapman was intentionally juxtaposing the soldiers with their fishing poles and the laborers working on the fort, although similar elements — lounging soldiers, laboring slaves — appear in several of his works. Whether that’s an intentional visual conflict in his work or simply reflects the day-to-day reality, can be debated.

  3. Dave Tatum said, on August 18, 2011 at 12:16 pm

    A little help ?

    • Andy Hall said, on August 18, 2011 at 12:57 pm

      I think a marker recognizing the use of slave labor in the Confederate defense of Galveston is an excellent idea. Long overdue, in fact. I’ll mention it to the historical commission chairperson next time I see her.

      I have to say, though, that if you understand the U.S. Capitol marker as saying impressed slave labor is “OK,” then you’re profoundly misreading the purpose of the marker.

  4. Dave Tatum said, on August 19, 2011 at 8:33 pm

    AWWWW Heck Andy, It wouldn’t be the first time I have been wrong !

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