Below are remarks offered by S.C. Historical Marker Coordinator Ehren Foley on the occasion of the dedication of the historical marker for Congaree Creek Earthworks. This marker is located along the Timmerman Trail in Cayce, South Carolina.
“‘So what?’ That is a sometimes vexing, but always necessary, question for a historian to answer. Why does this person, idea, building, or place matter?
When writing a marker text I try to start with that question; to find the essential significance of the place being marked before trying to figure out the best way to convey that core argument in twenty-two or thirty-six lines of text.
Sometimes that search for a deeper significance proves unsuccessful and a marker simply becomes a chronicle of past events. I consider those failures. I don’t think this marker is a failure.
So what, then? Why does this marker matter, what is the story here?
The ostensive reason is these earthworks all around us, and they are great. As someone who grew up traipsing the battlefields of central Virginia I must admit that well preserved field fortifications do cause my heart to beat just a little more rapidly.
It almost makes me want to get out a map and start plotting unit locations and maneuvers. Almost. Because, while the heading on the marker might read “Congaree Creek Earthworks,” this marker isn’t really about the earthworks or the four-hours of fighting that took place here on February 15, 1865. We already have another marker that discusses that battle.
What this marker is about is the men who built these earthworks, and especially about the context of their service.
As the marker indicates, the labor force consisted of approximately 750 enslaved and free men who were impressed into Confederate service.
The ordering of the text is also an indication of the order of magnitude; most, if not all, of these men were enslaved, so let’s start by talking about the role of slaves in the Confederacy.
Planters didn’t like sending valuable slave property to the front lines to work in various laboring capacities; they were dangerous places and enslaved men were made vulnerable to illness or death.
Slaveowners and government officials were also forced to confront the uncomfortable fact that slaves on the front lines also had a propensity disappearing; stealing themselves as it were; voting with their feet and running away to Union camps, or at least away from Confederate ones.
Slaveowners also worried about the unprecedented expansion of state power vis-a-vis their slave property.
In August 1861, Virginia planter John Speice wrote to Judah P. Benjamin, Attorney General of the Confederate States, and wondered if military labor were really that different than military duty, and whether the performance of such duty might transform enslaved men, in the eyes of the law, first into persons with legal rights, and maybe even into citizens.
Others expressed concern that the expansion of state power represented by slave impressment had no clear limits. What if the same exigencies of war that required slave impressment one day were used as justification for emancipation?
The fear wasn’t far fetched.
That very scenario would come to pass, first with the Emancipation Proclamation of 1863, which used wartime necessity and executive war powers as a rationale for declaring slavery ended in those portions of those states still in rebellion, while also authorizing the enlistment of African American soldiers in the United States Army.
Later still, in the very waning days of the Confederacy, weeks before the fall of Richmond, even Jefferson Davis and Robert E. Lee contemplated offering some limited, circumscribed version of freedom to enslaved men who would fight for the Confederacy.
Predictably, the policy faltered, undermined by the refusal of both slaveholders and slaves, for their own reasons, to support the plan, and also by the fact that, tellingly, it came far too late; only after the collapse of the Confederacy was at hand and far too long after the war for Union had already been transformed into a war for emancipation.
But even at the very outset of the war, Confederate officers complained of the difficulty they had mobilizing enslaved labor for military projects.
Confederate General John Magruder expressed exasperation in March 1862 when he explained why he could spare only a single regiment to support Confederate operations on the Virginia peninsula.
“The reason why I cannot do more,” he wrote, “is that notwithstanding all my efforts to procure negroes I have rec’d but eleven from the counties in my district.” (McCurry, CSA Reckoning, 3581)
It was these experiences that led the Confederate government to pass a series of laws that attempted to give their commanders in the field slightly more authority to obtain the labor that they so required.
At first legislative action was left to the states, but the laws passed proved largely ineffectual and some states, including South Carolina, refused to pass any legislation at all.
Finally, in March 1863, the Confederate Congress passed a general impressment law, the first attempt to nationalize impressment of slave labor, though, in a bow to states’ rights, authority for enacting legislation remained with the states themselves.
When it became evident that even this legislation was failing to provide the needed manpower, subsequent legislation was passed by the Confederate Congress in February 1864 granting more explicit authority for government agents to impress property, including slaves. It was not until December 1864, on the eve of the Carolina Campaign itself, that South Carolina finally passed its own impressment law.
Despite these interventions, John R. Niernsee—who was responsible for overseeing construction of Columbia’s defenses and, in his civilian life, was a noted architect and designer of the South Carolina State House—did little better mobilizing slave labor in 1865 than John Magruder had done three years before.
In his official report, Niernsee complained that he had to begin work on these fortifications with only 12 impressed African American laborers. Better by one than the 11 that Magruder had been able to muster three years earlier.
Admittedly, he did eventually secure the aid of approximately 750 African American men who would labor to build these works, but even that number was far short of the 2,000 workers that Niernsee had hoped to receive.
The point is this: continually, throughout the war, when the state authority to fight a war ran against individual property rights, especially property rights in slaves, the state met with resistance; it was a persistent tension that often hampered the Confederate war effort.
But there is another point that is important to make here too, and that is about the men who labored to construct these works. I don’t want us to leave here thinking that they matter only because they had strong backs and built impressive structures that remain evident on the landscape even today, 150 years later.
Who were they? We don’t know a lot about them, we know that the overwhelming majority of them were enslaved, perhaps even all of them were enslaved, but not necessarily so.
Let’s circle back for just one moment to that legislation passed by the Confederate Congress in February 1864.
It was not only meant to empower the state to impress slave labor. Demonstrating the internal tensions between state authority and individual rights, the legislation also put in place a number of provisions meant to safeguard planters’ property rights. It included, for instance, a provision establishing a fund of $3.8 million to compensate slaveholders for slave property lost while in government service, though by that time the Confederate Treasury lacked the ability to fulfill those promises. It also established a number of formulas meant to protect any individual slaveholder were bearing too great of an individual loss of slave property.
But there was one other provision that is interesting to note. The law explicitly stated that “free blacks shall be the first impressed, and if there should be a deficiency, it shall be supplied by the impressment of slaves according to the foregoing provisions.”
As a practical matter this statement meant little. In most parts of the Confederacy there were not nearly enough free blacks to fulfill the army’s nearly insatiable desire for labor.
In Richland County in 1860, for instance, there were fewer than 100 free black men of impressment age. (72 ages 15-50)
The clause served more as a rhetorical flourish meant to show deference to planter prerogative. But it also did more than that. It also highlighted the vulnerability of free blacks in the antebellum South.
Lacking patrons with a vested economic interest in their well being, they had no one who would resist their impressment or worry about their physical safety while in the field.
None of the various legislation passed by the Confederate Congress or by the State of South Carolina offered them any safeguards; there were no protections put in place like those that were meant to protect enslaved men, if only because the latter represented a significant economic investment.
We don’t know who those first twelve laborers were that Niernsee mentions in his report. He makes no reference to their condition, in fact he elides the use of the term “slave” entirely in the course of his letter to the Governor A.G. Magrath.
But it seems entirely plausible to me that these twelve men were drawn from Columbia’s free black community, swept up in the first attempt to secure labor in the frenetic weeks before the arrival of the Union army.
Herein lies an important point for us to remember about the intersection of slavery, race, power and coercion, in both the ante- and the postbellum South.
To say that free black men might have worked to construct these fortifications is not to say that they were here of their own volition.
Similarly, saying that the majority of the men who toiled here were slaves does not mean that they were forced to labor merely because of their legal status.
In fact, I would argue, they weren’t really here because they were slaves. They were here almost in spite of their condition as slaves and, as we’ve seen, their owners often bitterly resisted their impressment.
Instead, they were here because the state was able, albeit with difficulty, to exert authority over their bodies and their labor. That authority did not end with emancipation, in some ways, it only grew more coercive.
Without slaveowners serving as a counterweight to the power of the state, African Americans were often left even more vulnerable in the postwar South. The locus of power had shifted, but the power dynamics themselves were not altogether different.
That is not to say that African Americans were merely victims, and we must remember that the vulnerability of African Americans to state violence varied greatly over time and across space.
The story is far from straightforward and following it hardly leads on a clear upward trajectory.
Let’s just think again for a moment about the men who built these works.
In 1865 they would celebrate the passage of the 13th Amendment, which would establish a constitutional ban on slavery and involuntary servitude, but they would also find themselves subjected to new state legislation meant to curtail and define the meaning of that freedom; a set of laws known collectively as the “Black Codes.”
Two years later, in part because the U.S. Congress was so appalled by the Black Codes, they would be among the first black men in the nation to cast a ballot, doing so even before the ratification of the 14th or 15th Amendments.
In the fall of 1867 they would go to the ballot box and elect a majority African American delegation that would meet in Charleston in early 1868 to re-write the state’s constitution; a document that was, in many ways, remarkably progressive.
But they would also face the violence and terrorism that characterized so much of the period of Reconstruction, and that certainly hastened the downfall of the Republican regime in the state in 1877. And we could, if we wanted, continue to trace that legacy and highlight both progress and regression.
And here lies the challenge that I want to present to you and leave you with today.
While many of us would like to breathe a small sigh of relief as we approach what many view as the culmination of the Civil War sesquicentennial, let’s remember that the story does not end on February 17, 1865 with the Burning of Columbia, or on April 9, 1865 when Lee surrendered to Grant, or even on April 26, 1865 when Johnston surrendered to Sherman.
The battles to secure the meaning of freedom, and to make freedom meaningful, continued long after the drums of war were silent.
It is easy to remember discrete events like Columbia’s burning, and I’m certainly as excited as anyone for this moment. But let’s not forget the many moments that came after that one.
Let’s work just as hard to commemorate the story of Reconstruction, a story that is more tangled and more difficult than even the intractable question of “who burned Columbia.” It is a story that is just as important, and just as worthy of our collective public memory, as is the Civil War.”