Not enough labor at Charleston either: The planters of S.C. were not “alive to the impulses of duty”

Within the board assembled at Charleston to discuss the harbor defenses, the interest was not isolated to the big guns.  In order to build the defenses and place those guns, the Confederates needed labor.  To help fill the need, General P.G.T. Beauregard issued several calls for the loan of slaves.  In mid-February, he had asked for 3,000 from “the planters of South Carolina, who have ever been found alive to the impulses of duty….”

That in mind, just before the board convened Brigadier-General Roswell Ripley inquired about the numbers of negro laborers (the description from the report) used in response to these calls.   Major William Echols, of the department’s engineers, responded with a report on March 14, 1863:

In compliance with your letter of this date, concerning the negro labor, I would respectfully state that numerous calls have been made, in the form of requisitions, from this department, the substance of which is that 2,500 negroes were necessary, in monthly reliefs, to carry on the works, as follows:

The month of November a call was made for … 2,500

The month of December a call was made for … 2,500

The month of January a call was made for … 2,500

The month of February a call was made for … 3,500

In all four months ….  11,000

The number received in the same months was as follows:


Average monthly labor for the four months, 755 for duty, labor of the sick excluded….

The term “negro labor” might include both slaves or employed freedmen.  So while I’ll not assume one or the other within the total, I will say indications are the majority of the number employed were slaves.

The raw numbers tell a story.  Beauregard only receive a quarter of the labor requested.  Of those furnished, a significant portion – nearly a third – ran away or were too sick to perform the duties.  That loss reduced the labor force to barely a fifth of what was required.

I wish there was a way to separate the number of sick from the runaways.  In some of the allocations, more than half the labor force fit into those categories.  And did “runaway” automatically translate to “went to Hilton Head and joined up with the Yankees”? Furthermore I’d like to see the number of sick and runaway by month.  Particularly after the first days of the new year.  Certainly both planters and slaves alike were aware of what Robert Smalls accomplished the spring before.  They were also aware of the 1st South Carolina (US) Infantry then employed in the department.

The historian in me would love to put faces and names to the numbers listed in the table.  There are stories there, perhaps lost with time, but stories worth looking for.  Still, the overall numbers tell the story at the high level – that Charleston’s defenders were short of strong backs that could build the defenses.

(Citation and table from OR, Series I, Volume 14, Serial 20, page 827.)

Published by Craig Swain

"Historical marker hunter" and Civil War enthusiast.

7 thoughts on “Not enough labor at Charleston either: The planters of S.C. were not “alive to the impulses of duty”

  1. This is one of the things that has interested me ( though I haven’t tinkered with it nearly as much as I have the layers of Southern Unionism). To what end would many go… or refuse to go… for the Confederacy and independence? They may have given vigorous nods for the idea of secession, but the reluctance of “purse” appears to have signaled how far one was willing to go. Whether that be considered concerns over financial loss, or simple greed, I would say the levels of enthusiasm were measurable in some… as in Charleston’s reluctant planters.

    1. Very true. I was going to add a quip about the reluctance of those who had celebrated in April 1861 to offer their estates for the services in April 1863… but figured the numbers spoke to that in one way or the other.

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