Call for Historical Marker to Recognize Slave Labor
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
By JAMES M. SCHMIDTThe 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. _______ 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.