Wednesday, February 10, 2021

'I had a life. I lived. I loved': Photo of Fort Pulaski bricks made by enslaved persons brings to life those long forgotten

(Fort Pulaski National Monument)
Fort Pulaski National Monument’s Facebook post this week showing fingerprints embedded on bricks is a poignant reminder of the anonymity of enslaved persons who literally built much of the country.

Some 25 million bricks were shipped to Cockspur Island east of Savannah, Ga., during construction from 1829-1847. Most were made by enslaved people, officials said. A close-up photo shows two bricks – one gray and one red – located in the embrasure of Casemate 16.

“Men, women, and children spent each day laboring to make bricks for a fort built to protect the port made rich from their labor," reads the post, which has been shared more than 460 times. "Though it took eighteen years for Fort Pulaski to be completed, the names and stories of the enslaved people who made the bricks for the fort have been hidden and, in many cases, lost.

Park guide Elizabeth Smith said enslaved people played a large role in the construction and maintenance of Fort Pulaski, "though sadly very little information is known about any individuals or even what it was like."

Fort Pulaski was a US Army coastal defense fort when it began operations; it was considered invincible because of its design and construction.

Rifled shot pulverized Fort Pulaski (Picket photo)
When the Civil War broke out, local militias and Rebel troops took control. A year later, rifled Union cannons penetrated the bricks and brought about the surrender of the masonry fort on April 11, 1862. It was the end of an era for that type of construction.

According to the park’s post, the work behind making all those bricks was laborious.

“Often times while making the bricks, fingerprints and even handprints would be left behind and hardened into the brick. These fingerprints serve as a tangible reminder that while the architecture and the military history of the fort may be impressive, there is another vitally important story that sits right in front of our eyes if we only just look for it.”

A commenter on the Facebook post left this eloquent message: “These fingerprints say to us, ‘I had a life. I lived. I loved. I had human hands, and these hands touched and loved and labored, though they were enslaved. My hands were no different from your hands. I lived. I was worthy of freedom, dignity and love. Remember me.”

Smith told the Picket that the red bricks were made in Baltimore and Alexandria, Va. 

“The grey bricks, however, were made right here in Savannah on the Hermitage Plantation, hence the nickname Savannah Greys. The Hermitage relied on the enslaved men, women and children to make the bricks, which is most likely when the fingerprints were left in the bricks.”

Newspaper advertisements are often the best source for finding information for the fort's construction era, Smith says. Joseph Mansfield (right) -- the Army officer in charge of the construction of the fort for 14 of the 18 years -- regularly posted in local newspapers seeking additional workers, she says. The wages, of course, were paid to owners of the enslaved.

-- “Notice: Persons having demands for the wages of Negroes employed in the service of the U.S. at Cockspur Island, are requested to call at the city hotel this day at 9 o’clock, when they will be paid.” (From The Savannah Daily Georgian, June 8 and July 7, 1830)

Fort Pulaski, 2d. August, 1836
“The wages to be paid for prime slaves on the Fortifications at Cockspur Island from the 14th Inst. will be fixed at 14 dollars per mouth and found -- the owner to lose runaway time only, and the Government to furnish physician and medicine. Any be withdrawn from the works in one day’s notice. -- Jos. K. F. Mansfield Lt. Corps. Engs.” (From the Daily Georgian)

Smith said hardly any names of the enslaved associated with the fort's operation are known.

"Research into the story of the enslaved is ongoing … and hopefully one day we’ll be able to share a lot more of these stories …  in order to present a better rounded and full history of all the people who made Fort Pulaski. But while we don’t have names or stories themselves, we have many fingerprints throughout the fort to remind us that there is a deeper story, one that we still have to rediscover and tell."

The Casemate 16 embrasure is in Pulaski’s southeast corner, which took the most damage during the Union bombardment in April 1862. “You can still see that damage in this embrasure in the width of the window and the lack of bricks. The fingerprints and handprint in this embrasure used to be hidden beneath a layer of bricks, but the battle damage removed those bricks and exposed the fingerprints and handprint," Smith said in an email.

Embrasure where the fingerprints are located (NPS)
After it fell during the Civil War, Fort Pulaski became a place of hope for freed slaves rather than a symbol of their suppression.

Orders issued by a Union general a few days after the Confederate garrison surrendered declared slaves held in Southern states forever free. Hundreds of former slaves gained their freedom at Fort Pulaski and Cockspur Island, which became a final destination, one of the most southern points, on the vast Underground Railroad network.

Many of the men who arrived at Fort Pulaski became members of the 1st and 3rd South Carolina Volunteers in the Federal army, seeing action late in the war.

March Haynes, a man who was born into slavery and, upon gaining his freedom after the surrender of Fort Pulaski, remained in the area in order to spy for the Union army and assist other enslaved individuals in their own quests for freedom. "Many of these men, women, and children remained on Cockspur Island throughout the war and took up residency in the old construction village," says Smith.

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