Samuel Jones and his need for “2,000 negro men” to repair works at Charleston

Constructing and maintaining the defenses of Charleston was a labor intensive effort.  I’ve tried, over the sesquicentennial, to bring up correspondence and activities which demonstrated that important, and often overlooked, aspect of the campaign (or if you prefer – siege).  The labor requirements were particularly draining on the Confederate war effort.  What’s more, Confederate authorities leaned heavily on impressed and slave labor to accomplish the tasks needed in those fortifications defending Charleston.

In June 1864, Major-General Samuel Jones was in somewhat the same pinch as his predecessor was a year earlier.  He recognized that plantation owners wanted to retain their slaves for agricultural work, which in turn would hopefully feed the Confederate troops.  But he was also desperate to get several engineering projects completed.  And with that in mind, Jones made a request to the South Carolina Governor, Milledge L. Bonham, on June 29, 1864:

His Excellency M. L. Bonham,
Governor of South Carolina, Columbia:

I regret that I am compelled to call your attention to the great want of slave labor to work on the fortifications for the defense of this State. The chief engineer of this district reports that he absolutely needs 2,000 negro men, and has but 9 furnished by the State agent; he finds it impossible to hire. At least 200 are required at Fort Sumter, and there are not a dozen there. The recent heavy rains have greatly damaged many of the works, and the longer they are allowed to remain unrepaired, the more difficult and expensive the repairs become. The enemy daily shells Secessionville, and though the frames of bomb-proofs have been erected for over a mouth they still remain uncovered, and the soldiers who are performing most arduous duties are constantly exposed to the fire of the enemy, simply because we have not the labor to construct the necessary defensive works. Under these circumstances, as I cannot order the impressment of negroes in those States which have taken action on this subject, I must urge that the necessary steps be at once taken to supply Major Echols, the chief engineer, with 2,000 men, assuring Your Excellency that this is, in my judgment, indispensably necessary for the successful defense of Charleston against a continued and determined attacking force. I cannot myself secure this labor, and must therefore place the responsibility upon the State authorities. May I ask an early reply to this communication.

Very respectfully, your obedient servant,
Sam. Jones,
Major-General, Commanding.

Let’s make sure this is clear – Jones is not complaining that his agents cannot hire free blacks.  He is complaining that his agents cannot procure slave labor from the plantation owners.  Nine to fill an estimated need for 2,000.

When I speak of the drain on Confederate resources, consider this was now the third straight year in which a commander in Charleston called for the use of slave labor to improve the city’s defenses.  This was the third straight cotton season in which military needs pulled on the slave labor resources.  Somewhere along the way the rebellion reached a point of diminishing returns.  It also becomes hard for those reflecting back 150 years to dismiss slavery as the major cause of secession.

(Citation from OR, Series I, Volume 35, Part II, Serial 66, pages 542-3.)

Published by Craig Swain

"Historical marker hunter" and Civil War enthusiast.

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