Congaree Creek Battlefield, a new marker, and “black Confederates”

Apologies that my earlier post ran too long to make mention of this related news item of the day.  As we have often seen, 150th anniversaries, large and small, are good times to dedicate new historical markers. The battle of Congaree Creek was not a large event in the war, but certainly worthy of a marker.

Earlier this year, the town of Cayce, South Carolina opened up the Battlefield Connection Trail which linked a couple of existing walking trails along the Congarees (River and Creek that is).  The last time I visited the area, in the 1990s, the best one could do is view the battlefield from the old State Road right-of-way.  So adding a trail into the bottom lands allows us to consider the contest that took place on February 15, 1865 in more detail.

But, a trail without interpretation is like a flat soda…. So unveiled yesterday, is a South Carolina state historical marker at the site of the earthworks used by the Confederates in the battle.  But this is not your “father’s marker” for Civil War earthworks.  Here’s a transcription of the text for SC 32-40:

Congaree Creek Earthworks

These earthworks were constructed in early 1865 and were the site of brisk fighting between the Union XV Corps and Confederate forces on Feb. 15, 1865. Approximately 750 enslaved and free African Americans who were impressed into Confederate service were responsible for building much of the defensive line, which ran from Congaree Creek to the Saluda Factory four miles north.

(Reverse)

The Confederate Congress approved legislation authorizing impressment of black laborers in March 1863 because slaveholders were reluctant to provide slaves for service. Still, labor shortages persisted. Maj. John R. Niernsee, S.C. Militia Chief Engineer, complained that he had to begin work at Congaree Creek with only 12 black workers and his request for 2,000 laborers was never met.

The use of impressed labor is well known and documented.  I’ve mentioned it often in relation to the building of defenses around Charleston.  The story of the work by impressed laborers during Fort Sumter’s many bombardments is one I feel is overlooked as we consider other aspects of the fort’s history.  No small number of laborers lost their lives in the fort during those bombardments.  And I’ve also mentioned it in relation to work done here in Loudoun County, Virginia (I don’t want to say too much… but there might be a marker discussing that subject in the future….)

This is a good marker, I’m sure you would agree.  The text brings us to a point of military history and then uses that context to bring us to something beyond military history.  Good text that lures you into a subject.

But this brings me to another point.  In recent years a trend has emerged that portrays those impressed to work for the Confederacy as soldiers… or at least supportive of the Confederate war effort.  This marker helps provide the proper context… not only to the earthworks which still stand there, but also to the hands that built them.  They were not volunteers.  They were not even draftees.  They were, for all practical purposes, gang labor for the Confederate army.

Off the battlefield … just eight miles off the battlefield… in Columbia, Lieutenant-Colonel John M. Otey, Assistant Adjutant-General for General P.G.T. Beauregard, sent a series of orders out in regard to the supplies remaining in the city.  To Major Roland Rhett, Assistant-Quartermaster in Columbia, Otey sent:

General Beauregard wishes every effort made to remove all quartermaster stores from this place to some point on the Charlotte railroad beyond Chesterville.

Then to Captain J.D. Witherspoon, Assistant Commissary of Subsistence in Columbia, went this directive:

General Beauregard directs that all subsistence stores, except 50,000 rations, be sent from the city in the direction of Chesterville and Charlotte, N.C.

And finally, to the commanding officers of the depots in Chesterville, South Carolina and Charlotte, North Carolina went the same message:

Please have trains unloaded that they may be returned promptly. Impress labor if needed.

Impress labor if needed.  Take a guess what people were to be force to work unloading trains.

(Citations from OR, Series I, Volume 47, Part II, Serial 99, page 1193.)

 

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