SAVANNAH, Ga. (WSAV) – Located in Bryan County and about a 45-minute drive from Savannah is Fort McAllister – an earthwork fortification of the Confederacy built in 1861. An earthwork fortification is a fortification that is built out of dirt.
This particular fort was used by the Confederacy during the Civil War up until December of 1864 when William T. Sherman overpowered the defenders of the fort during his March to the Sea. It was believed to have been the key to unraveling the defenses around Savannah – one of the most important ports in the South during the Civil War.
But who built Fort McAllister?
Was it the Confederates that defended the site whose hands shaped the earth and prepared it for battle? Were the makers of the fort paid for their hard work?
In a video on the Georgia state park and historic site’s website entitled “Exceptional Valor,” there is a brief quote from Joseph L. McAllister that reads: “The earthwork redoubts I can throw up in six hours with the negro force I command.”
Meanwhile, in “Undaunted: The History of Fort McAllister, Georgia” by William E. Christman, there is but a small mention of those forced to labor at the fort. Christman writes, “Shortly after arrival, the Dakalb Rifles (Company A’s nickname) began constructing a local gun battery with the help of local slave labor.”
In “Guardian of Savannah: Fort McAllister, Georgia, in the Civil War and Beyond” by Roger S. Durham there is yet another brief mention of those who were forced to construct the fort. Durham writes, “Slaves from the local plantations provided the bulk of the labor used to build the battery.”
With little research dedicated to the subject of enslaved people and Fort McAllister, it’s hard to know for sure. What is available are documents from the past that can be used to piece together history and create a narrative of what happened.
According to the representation of the fort in “Exceptional Valor,” there were only white men, women and children living at Fort McAllister. There are no Black people in the video, regardless of age or gender. There is only one mention of the enslaved and even then they are not referred to as “enslaved” or even “slaves.” Instead, they are called McAllister’s “force” that he commanded.
According to the Alfred L. Hartridge letters referenced in “Undaunted,” local enslaved people were tasked with helping in the building of the fort alongside Company A of the 1st Georgia Infantry Regiment.
Where are they getting this information from?
To answer that, you have to delve into the world of the Georgia Historical Society archives. While most of this information can not be viewed online, it can be viewed in the archives.
There, you will find items like an authorization from Charles R. Armstrong which appoints Charles J. Beatty as an “Especial Agent.” This form authorized Beatty to be able to, among other things, force those who were enslaved who had returned to their enslavers back into working for the Confederate Army.
What work were they doing?
They were working on forts. Not just Fort McAllister but several forts all across the Confederacy.
These documents pertain to the years 1864 and 1867, the latter half of the Civil War and beyond it. As noted previously, the fort itself was built in 1861 but the fort was not captured until December of 1864. At that time, there was still work being done to improve the fort and make it more hospitable to those who lived there.
In the archives, you will also find the Walter Charlton Hartridge, Jr. collection, and within that, the Alfred L. Hartridge Letters.
One portion of such a letter reads:
“We are getting along very well with our battery and fortifications, as Monday the Negroes and every day we have thirty doing good work….”
Written in 1861, this letter is referred to in “Undaunted” as well as “Exceptional Valor.” Both focus on the complaints Hartridge has surrounding the conditions of living at Fort McAllister, not on the enslaved people forced to work on a fort.
Why does this matter?
Georgia’s history of anti-Black racism is undeniable. The state’s declaration of secession specifically mentioned the enslavement of Africans and people of African descent as the primary reason for its leaving of the union.
The city of Savannah is no exception to the state’s history of racism. From even before the repeal of the ban on slavery in Georgia, Savannah and surrounding areas relied on enslaved people to clear the land that would eventually become the city it is today.
Once slavery was legalized in the then colony in the 1750s, the city that was already reliant on the labor of enslaved people from South Carolina only became more entrenched in the practice. By the 1860s, Savannah had the highest concentration of enslaved people in the state of Georgia.
This history is undeniable, but it is often ignored or downplayed. Enslaved people take a back seat to the history that they were integral to. This can be seen in “Exceptional Valor,” which features no discussion of enslaved people past the quote previously shown.
To learn more about the history of enslavement in Savannah, Georgia and surrounding areas, you can read this report by the Equal Justice Initiative. If you would like to find more information, you can even take a tour by the Underground Tours of Savannah on the history of enslaved people and descendants of enslaved people in the Savannah area.