Within the legacy of Fort Sumter’s iconic role in the arc of the Civil War, is a little-known fact that enslaved African Americans were involved in the building, repairing, and attempts to capture Fort Sumter. There is much irony in this because Fort Sumter ignited a war that would end slavery in this Nation.

One would have assumed that enslaved laborers would have been involved in the building of the fortress which began in 1829 when the enslaved population in South Carolina was approaching 300,000. That was no more than an intelligent guess until 2010 when long-lost Fort Sumter construction records were uncovered in the National Archives. Within those records were “slave rolls”, actual invoices of the enslaved’ s names, hours worked, some indication of what was worked on, amount of pay, and the owner’s name.

A series of these rolls was submitted while the foundation was being constructed of 200 to 500-pound blocks of granite and other stone shipped down from New England where quarries existed close to the ocean. From ocean-going ships, the stones were loaded onto barges from which the enslaved workmen would heave the stones along a pentagonal pattern established by the US Army Corps of Engineers. The bed of stones created was known as a spread foundation to erect the brick and concrete fort on. The immensity of this project was astounding. It took almost 11 years to bring the foundation up to about 3 feet above a normal high tide. The sandbar that the fort was laid out upon was too narrow for the entire fort. While most areas required only about nine feet of stone, the corners could require as much as 12 to 14 feet of stone. Enslaved workmen belonging to a Mr. Venning of Mount Pleasant were contracted to perform this difficult work. Venning Road in Mt. Pleasant bears the name of that family and descendants of these enslaved workmen likely reside in the Charleston Area.

About the Author

C. Russell Horres, PhD, a native of Charleston, lives in Mount Pleasant. In addition to a lengthy career in medical product development, Dr. Horres served for 25 years as an adjunct associate professor of cell biology at Duke University, where he was involved in cardiac research and teaching. He holds twelve U.S. patents and has forty-four publications in his field. He has been listed in American Men and Women of Science, Who’s Who in Science and Engineering, Who’s Who in the West, and Who’s Who in Emerging Leaders. Russell has been a volunteer researcher and interpretive guide for the National Park Service since 2001. In 2006 he helped found the African American Historical Alliance to commemorate and preserve our shared legacy.
Once the foundation was repaired, the use of enslaved labor in the actual construction dropped sharply and was replaced by skilled masons and carpenters mostly of European descent. That does not mean enslaved laborers were not involved because the almost 4 million bricks used in the construction were mostly locally sourced from plantations that employed 100s of enslaved people in the manufacture and transportation of the bricks.

As the fort neared completion, an incident occurred in the illegal transatlantic slave trade that saw the fort occupied by several hundreds of African captives who were in the process of being sold into slavery. The US Navy had captured the ship Echo intending to smuggle its human cargo into the United States and brought the ship into Charleston Harbor in August of 1858. The captives were initially unloaded at Castle Pinckney which was too small to safely house so many. The partially constructed Fort Sumter was then chosen to house the mostly young boys and girls for several months until arrangements could be made to carry them back to Liberia.

In the months before the war, the use of enslaved workmen by the State militia and later Confederate engineers in preparing gun batteries on Morris Island and repairing Fort Moultrie was well documented by the Federal troops occupying Fort Sumter. As was customary in the antebellum US Army, the officers had a couple of enslaved servants hired from their owners to help prepare and serve food for the Fort Sumter Officers.

Following the 32-hour bombardment of Fort Sumter and the near destruction of the barracks and quarters by fire, the Confederacy was eager to restore the fort to defend Charleston Harbor. The Confederate engineers hired large numbers of enslaved workmen to clear debris and partially reconstruct the barracks and quarters. Not since the housing of the African captives from the ship Echo had so many blacks been within the fort.

Slave rolls document the use of enslaved labor for a number of projects at the fort. Following the US Navy ironclad attack in April of 1863, larger numbers of workers hastily repaired the damage, added thick interior reinforcing walls to the powder magazines, and began reinforcing the land-facing rear gorge of the fort. While this work was underway, President Lincoln was designing another path to capture Fort Sumter and Charleston.

Recognizing the limitations of a Naval assault, the President ordered the US Army to begin a siege against Fort Sumter like had been done at Savannah a year earlier to capture Fort Pulaski. Getting heavy cannons close to Fort Sumter would prove to be a more difficult proposition. Realizing the vulnerability of coast fortifications to siege cannons, the Confederates had been working to fortify Morris Island into a defense of Fort Sumter. Batteries were planned on the South end using large natural sand dunes and on the North end nearest Sumter a large earthwork named Battery Greg was built with enslaved labor. An even larger work built with enslaved labor was located about 1900 yards from Fort Sumter at a point where the island was at its narrowest. Known to the Confederates as Battery Wagner, the Union would soon call it Fort Wagner.

By July of 1863, Union forces had massed on Folly Island just south of Morris Island, and on the morning of the 10th, in a well-coordinated assault with the US Navy, the Army was able to capture the southern half of Morris Island. Only Battery Wagner prevented them from going further toward Fort Sumter.

A failed assault of Battery Wagner on July 11, was followed by a massive bombardment during the day of the 18th and a grand assault involving over 5000 troops as the sun set. In the van of the assault were about 700 men of the 54th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry, a black regiment with white officers raised in response to the Emancipation Proclamation issued earlier that year.
The brave men of the 54th tried to capture the fort but were not properly reinforced and had to fall back with a great loss of life. The following units suffered the same fate until the attempt was finally called off well after dark. Though the assault was a failure, word spread quickly of the bravery of the African American troops, and the recruitment of African Americans into the armed forces increased dramatically until blacks numbered almost 10% of the Union soldiers. The 54th and its sister black regiment the 55th Massachusetts would be involved in supporting the almost 19-month siege to capture Fort Sumter.
While the Massachusetts men were fighting to free their enslaved brothers and sisters, they were unaware that Confederate engineers were using enslaved laborers to repair the damage that the Union Artillery was doing. Hundreds of enslaved men, forced to work under threat of death, converted Fort Sumter into an almost impregnable earthwork with a labyrinth of tunnels connecting various parts of the fort. A number of the enslaved were wounded or killed in this dangerous work. When combined with other workers injured in the Charleston defenses, there were so many wounded that a special hospital was established in Charleston for their care. Finally on February 17, 1865, without a shot being fired, the Confederates abandoned the fort under the cover of darkness. Charleston was occupied the next day by Union troops including units of the United States Colored Troops raised after the assault on Fort Wagner. Within a few months, the Confederate army surrendered and the war was over. Then began the process of healing the fractured nation known as Reconstruction. The former Confederate states were occupied by US troops for the next decade, some from black regiments who were charged with maintaining law and order. Attempts to protect the rights of the newly emancipated slaves failed with the withdrawal of the troops. The impact of the failure of Reconstruction is still being reckoned with.
Fort Sumter today has a monument to Major Robert Anderson and monuments to the Union and Confederate garrisons. A monument exists on the Charleton Battery to the 54th Massachusetts but no monument stands to recognize those enslaved men who were forced to help repair a fort under siege.