Dead Confederates, A Civil War Era Blog

Call for Historical Marker to Recognize Slave Labor

Posted in African Americans, Memory by Andy Hall on April 21, 2013


My friend and colleague Jim Schmidt had a great guest column in Saturday’s Galveston County Daily News:


150 Years Ago: Isle Needs marker to Honor Civil War Slaves


The New Year’s Day 1863 Battle of Galveston was undoubtedly the zenith of the island’s Civil War story, but it was by no means the end.More than two years of fighting remained and in many ways they were the worst of the war for those who remained on the island: soldiers, the few remaining citizens, and hundreds of enslaved African-Americans, who worked — and died — building fortifications.
That slaves did the lion’s share of the work in constructing the Galveston defenses was nothing new: slaves had actually built fortifications in the early days of Galveston during the Texas Revolution. The first call for slave labor on behalf of the Confederate forces in Galveston may have been as early as November 1861, when Gen. Paul Hebert authorized an aide on his staff to induce local planters “to assist in the erection of fortifications for the defense of the coast, in loaning their Negroes (sic) for that purpose.”
Likewise, in April 1862, Gen. William R. Scurry declared that “it is absolutely necessary that every preparation for defense should be made to protect Texas from invasion. … 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 20 counties to “send at once one-fourth of their male Negro population … with spades and shovels … to report to Galveston.”
It was after the Battle of Galveston, though, that the work began in earnest.
Indeed, only days later, a Confederate soldier 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.”
In April 1863, Col. Valery Sulakowski, the supervising engineer, reported that more than 600 enslaved African-Americans were engaged at the saw mills — carrying sod, timber and iron — and cooking or working on harbor and gulf defenses. The officer called for hundreds more, but getting additional slave labor was no easy task: Texas planters routinely volunteered insufficient numbers of their slaves to the periodic calls. It is no wonder they were reluctant: archival hospital records show that many slaves died from disease, exhaustion or injuries suffered while constructing the Galveston defenses.
The slaves themselves did not leave a record of their toil, but the work left at least one young girl without a father. In a 1930s interview, 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.”
Perhaps the time has come to install a historical marker to commemorate the slaves who labored — and died — on the island during the Civil War.Blank
James M. Schmidt is a research scientist with a biotech firm in The Woodlands. He is a contributor, editor or author of five books on the Civil War, including, most recently, Galveston and the Civil War: An Island City in the Maelstrom, The History Press, 2012.

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


12 Responses

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  1. Jim Schmidt said, on April 22, 2013 at 10:12 am

    Andy – Thank you SO MUCH for your kind support. Thanks especially for taking a look at the article before I sent it in and for the excellent material here on Dead Confederates about slave labor used to build fortifications in Galveston and elsewhere.

  2. Neil Hamilton said, on April 23, 2013 at 12:28 am

    If the SCV and other Heritage organizations would take it upon themselves to dedicate such a monument to the slaves of Galveston and elsewhere, how much ground would they recover in actually honoring instead of desperately searching for tens of thousands of mythical black confederate soldiers?


    • Andy Hall said, on April 23, 2013 at 8:02 am

      I doubt they could pull it off, or would have the stomach for it. The human cost of these labor gangs was substantial and, unlike death on the battlefield, doesn’t lend itself well to the tropes about patriotism, personal loyalty and motivations that are usually applied to long-dead people. You can’t really wrap this one in a battle flag and call it good. Handling this topic honestly and sincerely would require rejection of core beliefs that have been built and nurtured for nigh on 150 years. Ain’t gonna happen.

      • jim schmidt said, on April 26, 2013 at 5:53 pm

        Andy – yes…I agree completely …it would have to be an acknowledgement that slaves were used to fortify an island which held an army and people that meant to keep them in bondage

  3. Foxessa said, on April 23, 2013 at 12:24 pm

    Handling this topic honestly and sincerely would require rejection of core beliefs that have been built and nurtured for nigh on 150 years.

    Which, alas, is how we got to the Civil War in the first place. By the end of 1856 and 1857, with Taney’s Dred Scott ruling, both slave and non-slave regions, the powerful and non-powerful of both divisions, were no longer able to change (the north would say, “unable to compromise”) any longer.

    It’s a sober thing, studying all that history in these times.

  4. BorderRuffian said, on April 24, 2013 at 11:09 am

    “Handling this topic honestly and sincerely would require rejection of core beliefs that have been built and nurtured for nigh on 150 years.”

    The United States government used slave labor in the Revolutionary War, the War of 1812, and all susequent wars to the Civil War. Not many monuments to this use of slave labor…if any.

    No, they don’t handle it very well.

    • Andy Hall said, on April 24, 2013 at 11:14 am

      “Not many monuments to this use of slave labor…if any.”

      All the more reason to do so here, now. It’s a difficult subject all-around, for sure. But that doesn’t mean it shouldn’t be openly addressed and discussed. The U.S. Capitol has similar markers in place.

      • Mike Musick said, on April 24, 2013 at 7:42 pm

        “The slaves themselves did not leave a record of their toil” is surely correct. However, the Confederate military was careful to record every slave who worked on fortifications, the names of the owners, how much was paid the owners, which slaves died (thereby leaving the CSA in debt to the owner for the value of the slave), where the work was done, and the date. These reports were made by engineer officers across the Confederacy on a monthly basis, and are preserved in the extensive series of Slave Rolls in Record Group 109, the War Department Collection of Confederate Records, at the National Archives Building in Washington, DC. They have not been microfilmed or digitized. The series is arranged numerically, and indexed in a separate series by name of owner. Since the given (i.e. first) name only is usually the only way individual slaves are identified, the reason for the manner of indexing becomes apparent. Unfortunately, there is no geographic index.

        • Craig Swain said, on April 25, 2013 at 8:54 am

          The Confederates also left a paper trail, though not as easy to follow, within the Citizens Files. That is also within the National Archives collection also as part of RG109. Specifically RG109.13.3 which was microfilmed as M346.

          To navigate those files, one must know the “contractor’s name” which would in most cases be the slave owner. Often I’ll run across a receipt for labor which lists the names of the slaves. But it is equally common just to see the number of slaves with the dates of service. The interesting part I see with the receipts (and in some cases invoices) is the documentation, down to the penny, of the cost of labor. I’ve heard many BCM supporters claim that hard documentation is not easy to come by because the Confederacy didn’t have time to write everything down. The records in RG109 tell us otherwise.

        • jim schmidt said, on April 26, 2013 at 5:47 pm

          Mike. Thanks so much for the interesting comment and detail…I was necessarily limited in the word count for the article but in a subsequent blog post I have included additional information including some of what you mention….for example, a hospital document detailing the deaths of slaves in Galveston with name (first name only) of the slave and also names of the owners…

  5. jim schmidt said, on April 26, 2013 at 6:02 pm

    I want to thank Andy again for depleting the article and also thank everyone who has commented …I think the story of slavery in Galveston is not well known and a few general histories of the island go so far as to minimize its role or – worse – minimize the slave experience …if the city is eager to “own” Juneteenth and liberation, as it justly should, then it also needs to own its heritage of bondage.

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