On Labor Day, let’s talk about labor on Morris Island

Here in the US we celebrate Labor Day in honor of American workers and their contributions to the country.  A century and a half ago, there was a lot of labor contributed to the campaign on Morris Island.  And as one might expect, the ever diligent Major Thomas Brooks recorded the details on this aspect of the operation as Note 18 to his official report:

The total number of soldiers’ day’s work of six hours each expended in the execution of the work herein described is 23,500. This does not include about 3,900 days’ work expended at the engineer depot and elsewhere in the preparation of material employed in these operations, only a small portion of which was under my direction. Of the first number, 5,500 were by the New York Volunteer Engineers, and 18,000 by infantry troops from various regiments; 9,500, or more than half the infantry, were furnished from colored troops. About two hundred and twenty tours of duty were performed by the officers of the New York Volunteer Engineers in the direction of this labor. The day’s work of the infantry soldier above mentioned is about one-fifth that which is ordinarily accomplished by a citizen laborer on civil works.

Brooks went on to break down the objectives of that labor.  Efforts against Battery Wagner received 40% of the work.  Some 35% went to building defensive lines.  And the remaining 25% was expended building the batteries that battered Fort Sumter. He estimated the level of effort for each type of structure constructed, in terms of “man-days of work”:

  • A siege gun (20- or 30-pdr Parrot for example) emplacement – 40 days
  • A heavy breaching gun (6.4- or 8-inch Parrott) emplacement – 100 days
  • A bomb-proof magazine – 250 days
  • Repairs of a yard of approach, with splinter-proof parapet – 2 days
  • Linear yard of narrow splinter-proof shelter – 4 days
  • Linear yard of wide splinter-proof shelter – 8 days
  • One yard of inclined palisading – 2 days

The majority of this work involved the shovel. And the tactical situation deemed it necessary to perform most of that shoveling at night to avoid sharpshooters and accurate artillery fire from the Confederate lines. Brooks considered 35 projectiles per hour a heavy fire, but noted that often twice that were fired against the workers.  Casualties due to this fire, however, were relatively minimal with around 150 killed or wounded in the trenches in front of the second parallel.

To ease the strain on the troops, the Federals kept the camps well in back of the main lines.  However, while out of range from Confederate harassing fires, this meant a two mile walk to work on most days.  One of those roads is seen in the the wartime photo above.  After that six hour shift, then a two mile walk back.  On the other hand, troops assigned to the security details usually remained in the trenches during their rotations, making their work that more tedious and dangerous than that of the fatigue details.

Bear in mind during most of the siege operations, some 10,500 men were living and working on a thin barrier island.  The land there was marginal at best.  This was not a vacation at the beach.  While the ocean breezes offered some respite, still these were hot days exposed on the open beach.  With ammunition given priority of shipping over food, the troops received stale, and often rancid, rations.  Water was unsanitary to say the least.  And the marsh behind the island was oozing with more disease vectors.

That said, disease and sickness were more a problem to the Federals than Confederate shells and bullets.  On average, one fifth of the Federal force on Morris Island was sick at any one given day during the siege of Battery Wagner.  Those manning the artillery were least affected, reporting an average illness rate of 6.2%. The engineers suffered an 11.9% sick rate.  The hardest hit were the infantry units.  Brooks cited three regiments – the 97th Pennsylvania, 24th Massachusetts, and 10th Connecticut – which suffered a 32% illness rate.  Other white regiments reported a 20.1% rate.  Black regiments, which were almost exclusively serving as fatigue detail supporting the engineers suffered a lower 13.9% rate.  The harder the men worked, and the fewer rest breaks, the higher the sick rate.

Given all these considerations, authorities arranged work schedules to reduce the strain on the men.  Normal work periods were eight hours long, with troops then given 24-hours off.  So any given unit would organize into four rotations.  Relief times were at 4 a.m., 12 noon, and 8 p.m. each day.

Such was the cycle of labor on Morris Island 150 years ago.

(Source: OR, Series I, Volume 28, Part I, Serial 46, pages 326-8.)


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