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Excerpts from Getulius Kellersberger's Memoirs

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Excerpts from Getulius Kellersberger's Memoirs


This text is a transcription of a translation of Erlebnisse eines schweizerischen Ingenieurs in Californien, Mexico und Texas zur Zeit des amerikanischen Bürgerkrieges 1861-1865, a memoir by Swiss-born Confederate engineer Getulius Kellersberger. The translation was done by Helen S. Sundstrom, a descendant of Kellersberger's, who deposited both the published memoir and her translation in Fondren Library sometime in the 1950s. In the excerpts transcribed here, Kellersberger discusses his role in the construction of the fortifications at Sabine Pass, his observations after arriving on the scene on the morning after the Battle of Sabine Pass, and his subsequent experience when assigned to build fortifications in Austin. At several points, Kellersberger mentions the role that slaves played in the construction of the fortifications as laborers conscripted by the state.


Kellersberger, Getulius


Excerpts from Getulius Kellersberger, Memoirs of an Engineer in the Confederate Army of Texas, trans. Helen S. Sundstrom (n.p., n.d.), 27-31, 32-33.


Published here by Rice University


Undated, possibly circa 1945









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From Getulius Kellersberger, Memoirs of an Engineer in the Confederate Army of Texas, trans. Helen S. Sundstrom (n.p., n.d.).

[p. 27]

The battle of Galveston on January 1, 1863, put us back into possession of the port and city from which we had been driven on September 15, 1862. Unfortunately, this battle had no halting effect upon the progress of the war; however, it did result in the fortification of the entire Texas coast,3a thus protecting Texas from much of the war’s fury. Our General, an energetic officer, gave an order to fortify the entire island as he had been assured that he would be sent twenty heavy cannon from the city of Richmond. We had approximately 5,000 negroes at our disposal and a corps of 300 good and dependent German craftsmen, who knew that so long as they stayed with me there was no danger that they would be sent to the front. I was Major and Chief of the Engineering Corps of the State of Texas at that time, and luckily I had contracted to serve only in this state. For a short time we had a Polish superior who was an excellent theoretical military engineer on our staff. We worked steadily and built six excellent casemated bulwarks out of shale and

Editor Telegraph: *** Galveston is now being rapidly put in a state of defence that will prove her the Vicksburg of Texas. Gen. Magruder is a working man, and is not ashamed to give the boys a hand, even at the shovel and pick, if necessary. Col. Forshey, who constructed the famous South battery here, has charge of the engineering department. He is assisted by Major Kelsburger (Kellersberger), who was for a long time in the European armies and many other able assistants***. “Letter from Galveston, Jan. 6, 1863” in The Tri-Weekly Telegraph, dated Friday, Jan. 9, 1863.

[p. 28]

railroad ties, and we were scarcely half through when we received the sad news that Richmond could not spare the cannon and we should see how we could come through without them. Our General was much disturbed and no one was able to give him any encouragement or help. Then I asked whether he would leave the matter to me, and in a very short time we had laid our plans. We soon found that “necessity is the mother of invention.”
On that very same day I took charge of an abandoned foundry where there was stored a good supply of lumber. I put twenty of the best German craftsmen into the foundry and let the news be generally spread about that we, ourselves, wanted to fashion the cannon in this instance. Volunteers brought old and new iron to our foundry – much of which was lying about in the sea town. It did not occur to anyone that the iron pile was growing larger each day while the supply of wood was diminishing each day. Visiting officers, who had not been let in on the secret, declared that for each cannon there must first be made a model. Near the end of March, 200 wooden cannon barrels had been completed. They were nightly polished and built exactly to the specified dimensions so that from a distance one could not detect the difference at all. Since the usual early morning fog that year (1863) lasted longer than usual, we were able to place our “deaf and dumb” cannon4 into position. We set them up on the 20-foot parapet with the mouths of the cannon facing out, and in the back, instead of using a gun carriage, we nailed two wooden legs onto them, and to an outsider the battery made a very respectable appearance. Since we had locked ourselves in while working on these batteries, their existence remained a secret for a long time over which we were very much pleased; however, a circumstance developed which set us all in great alarm.
There was a standing order that in case one such cannon was damaged that the repair be made at night so that no one could see it. Now, unfortunately, there was a whole company of mountaineers in the casemate and one stormy night the wind blew over one of the “mutes” on the outside right wing. One of its legs was broken and it had fallen on its back part onto the platform and stretched its mouth two feet over the parapet into the air. The cannon were of wood, but the regular gunners were equally “wooden” for they awaited nightfall very patiently all day so that they could repair the damage. Each of these cannon had an iron rod going through it by which it was fastened and by which it could also be dismantled. This iron rod was about eight inches longer than normally, for by catching hold on each end of the rod the cannon could be transported by hand. Now it so happened that among this company of “mountaineers” was one of those six-foot Texans who lifted the defective “dummy” onto his shoulder while his companion nailed on a new leg and placed the thing back into its position without calling the matter to the attention of the commander. As was well known, each blockade ship, of which there were eleven in the port, always had two men in the scuttle with excellent binoculars who watched day and night what was going on on the land, and undoubtedly, this watch had witnessed the whole affair, which likely must have caused a great deal of joking and jubilation among the Yankees. So fourteen days passed in great anxiety.
About half way from the port to the fleet was an iron tripod which had been grounded in the sand, and this point was declared neutral by both warring parties. If the northerners had any kind of communication, were it for the consulate or otherwise, a white flag was raised from the tripod and our truce officer rode out, with white flag waving, and communications were exchanged. On one beautiful morning, about fourteen days after the episode of setting the cannon’s broken leg, a white flag was waved on the well-known neutral ground, and our officer was ordered, along with six sailors to ride out. As they were nearing the neutral ground they heard great shouting, hurrahs and laughter from the Yankee spectators, so that we believed the North had wrought a victory over us about which we knew nothing. As the messages were exchanged, the Yankee lieutenant very brazenly replied that any time they felt like tying in with us that they were welcome. Then the Yankees broke into hellish laughter and the officer declared to the lieutenant

Commonly called the “Quaker” cannon.

[p. 29]

that about fourteen days ago they had seen two of our artillerymen carry a large cannon, which ordinarily weighed some 5,400 pounds, into position all alone, and they did not think it advisable to tie into such strong men as that. Then the laughter again broke loose, and our lieutenant, with his men, turned hastily to the port, the cold sweat running down his back. There was nothing more urgent at the present moment than to report this incident to the General.
The General immediately sent an orderly for men, and without suspecting anything unpleasant, I rode into headquarters where other high officers were assembled planning the next move – that of leaving the city during the night; in fact, evacuating. I asked what had happened and the General, who was very excited, asked the flag-officer to explain the whole situation to me. I had long been aware of the incident and when it was told to men, I could not help laughing aloud, which the General did not appreciate at all; however, I said that I did not think the Yankees had any intentions of striking at us now. If they had that in mind they would have struck the same day they discovered us putting the wooden leg on the cannon and they would not have waited fourteen days, and, furthermore, they would hardly dare to tell us that they would attack. Most of the officers agreed with me, and the order to evacuate the island was recalled. The General remarked that I was the instigator of the whole thing, so it would fall my lot to make amends, which I promised I would do.
At the beginning of the fortification of Galveston we had built a railroad from the depot to each casemate. We had remaining from the battle of Galveston two large gravel carts each equipped with an 8-inch cannon. These carts fit in all the casemates and thus it was possible to equip each casemate with a replica of the real cannon. That night I took 20 negroes who pulled the carts into the casemates and set the wooden cannon into position, interspersed by the real ones. Usually at nine o’clock in the morning the troops were exercised and I rode down. I let them load well and fire the cannon, repeating this procedure several times. Each week we went through the same maneuvers in each casemate. The Yankees knew that we had wooden cannon but they did not know where they were since we always had a genuine one placed among them. So these “mutes” remained untainted in their maidenly innocence of our precarious position until the end of the war. Today it is well-known that they contributed substantially to protecting Texas from foreign invasion, and that Texas was the only state which suffered little from the war. Substantiating this statement we find the following:

“Galveston, March 12, 1864. Alderman Nash introduced the following resolution, which was unanimously adopted: ‘Resolved, that the thanks of the Mayor and Aldermen of the city of Galveston are hereby tendered to Colonel V. Sulakowski and Colonel G. Kellersberger, the two distinguished engineers who have displayed so much scientific and military skill in erecting defences around the city and other vulnerable points on the gulf coast, which stand in bold defiance now complete, to resist any force which our common enemy can bring to bear against us’.”

After the fortification of Galveston had begun to reach its completion, I received an order to lay out a large battery at Sabine Pass. This pass was located at the mouth of the Sabine River which formed the boundary between Texas and Louisiana and which was of strategic importance. The coast was very flat and swampy at this point, the village itself stood on piles and was only five feet above the water and was deserted at this time. During the first years of the war, the Yankees had burned the two large sawmills and most of the houses, and had destroyed some of the entrenchments thrown up by the inhabitants along the railroad which led into the interior of the land. From the mouth of the river to the city it was some two miles, to which had been built a crooked and narrow ship channel. The harbor was blockaded by enemy ships, which lay something like two miles from the lighthouse. As we examined the channel and made

[p. 30]

some requisite surveys, we discovered that the Yankees had been leisurely watching us from the lighthouse; however, we did not want to spoil their fun so that night we sent out two boats with twenty men aboard who hid in the reeds and later cut off the retreat of the curious spectators. After this incident we had nothing more to fear from the onlookers!

We staked off the battery at a site where we had the sweep of the whole channel and where the enemy could bring only the border cannon into fire. I immediately ordered out 500 negroes with the necessary overseers and 30 men of my own and the work went on rapidly. But where were we to secure cannon – the wooden ones could not be used here and we only had one 12 pound and one six pound field cannon. None of the inhabitants had remained in the city, but I chanced to meet an old fisherman who told me that the knew very well that there had been two large ship’s cannon at the demolished battery, both of which had been spiked, thrown into the trenches and earth dumped over them, and that surely they should still be there. I immediately took some of the men with probing poles and the fisherman showed me the spot. After an hour we found some cannon balls of the 32-pound type, and by and by two of the rusted cannon came into view. They were spiked with round files, the trunnions had been chipped off with a cold chisel and the other had a cannon ball wedged in its barrel. There was not much to be done about them, but I had the firing pieces cleaned and took the two of them on the train to our foundry in Galveston. Our Polish chief, who was not a learned mechanic, discouraged me in doing anything with the cannon; however, I had my own plan to repair them which I wanted to carry out.
The two barrels were carefully screwed off where the trunnions were. I had two strong rings, each 16 inches in circumference and five inches in diameter, molded from the best iron we had. These were carefully and precisely bored out and heated in the slow wood fire until they were a glowing red. To heat them further I dared not, as the rings could burst. Fortunately, everything went along famously. The rings were stretched, while still warm, onto the cannon barrels which that the shortest trunnions. Then I twisted a groove ½ inch deep and 1 and ½ inches wide in the barrel in front of the rings; then the two rings with a larger diameter than the barrel itself were wrought in iron and were threaded so that they would fit into the groove. When this was done we cut two rings into two halves an stuck them into the threaded groove. Since the diameter of these rings was larger than that of the cannon barrel, we could place the threaded and glowing heavy wrought iron rings on them, and the whole project was accomplished in fine time. The craftsman who had turned out the repaired cannon still lives in Galveston today (1896) and he talks of it very proudly. The vents too were restored and the wedged cannon ball was painstakingly removed. In order to save time, the two cannon were painted twice during our journey back to Sabine Pass, and two days thereafter we mounted them in the battery. We had a supply of gun carriages; however, some of them needed to be cut down and the sides made stronger. I painted a line of direction with white paint on the barrels of the cannon and instructed the commandant that a thousand feet from the battery just where the most difficult part of the ship channel was, and were it virtually made a right angle turn, we had driven a stake, the inner side of which was painted white so that it was easily discernible.

The garrison consisted of forty Irishmen under a most energetic lieutenant, who had orders to hold his fire until the moment the first ship passed this stake. In the village itself there lay destroyed a half battalion of infantry and a dragoon squadron. I was very much worried lest these repaired cannon would not withstand the onslaught, and I had many a sleepless night over it. We had long since received news that an expedition out of New Orleans was being sent into East Texas, and from the sea here our battery made no military impression, which, however, turned out to be to our advantage later.

On Saturday, September 8, 1863, I received a telegram in Galveston about five o’clock in the morning, requesting that I go to headquarters immediately, a distance of 48 miles. I took my corn coffee, bucked on my revolver, and drove out with four stocky negroes on our velocipede to Houston where the Polish chief awaited me at the depot and advise me that at two o’clock that morning he had received reliable information that the expected expedition from New Orleans had sailed with some thousand land

[p. 31]

troops, likely to Sabine Pass, and that we both had been ordered to supervise the fortification of the place. A locomotive was ready for us and around ten o’clock we steamed off. At half past three we came to the little town of Liberty, where we took on water and wood, and had something to eat at a friend of the chief’s. We arrived at the river which flowed toward Sabine Pass a little before dark, but there was no boat there and a mounted patrol, which had just come up informed us that at 4 o’clock that afternoon they had heard some heavy shooting. We had 22 miles to go in swamps and morass, and we were furnished with an ambulance wagon and a stocky negro driver and two good donkeys. The mosquitoes were terrible and the journey went slowly forward. A little before midnight the driver declared that he had lost the way. I had the greatest difficulty in preventing the Pole from putting a bullet straight through the head of the negro. We turned back again and soon found our way. Twice we had to unhitch the donkeys on account of the swamps and lowland, leave the wagon standing, lead the donkeys singly onto firm ground, tie ropes (which I had in all preparedness allowed the quartermaster to give me) onto the wagon and let the donkeys pull it out. After this horrible night we arrived at daybreak on September 9 at Sabine Pass, just thirteen hours after the battle. While this was an extraordinary fortunately development for us and my patched-up cannon had famously withstood the fire, it was very unpleasant to me that we had not reached there in time. Upon later investigation it developed that the news had not reached the General until too late and naturally it reached us too late also.

There was a great state of excitement. The two captured cannon boats were completely destroyed – blood and scattered human debris were lying around, as was the meal which was spilled all over the deck, and which had been used to alleviate those scalded by the steam, but seventeen died. It is horrible to see a person die of such scalding, as the skin simply falls away from the body. The commanding lieutenant told me that he had been diligently exercising his men since the Monday before, and on Saturday before noon the expedition came into sight, and at three o’clock that afternoon the two cannon boats steamed up opposite the battery and opened fire, but too high. As they passed the fateful stake where the ships had to turn off at right angle, the Irish answered fire. One cannon ball demolished the ship’s cannon and killed three men and the 24th, the next to last one, went through the cylinder dome and scalded many men. Horrible cries of pain could be heard, and as the steam cleared away, he saw hoisted a white flag on each of the two ships. They had run aground and they surrendered. The other steamer and transport ships quickly retreated without attempting a landing, or attempting to aid the two lost ships. One of the officer prisoners told us that they had warned the captain not the steer so close to the battery because of the uncertainty of the channel, but he replied did they not see that these were “dummy” cannon there as there were in Galveston, just not made quite so well? So this was the ignominious end of this expedition with 400 enemy land troops. It was the most successful battle in Texas and all the newspapers commented on it.5 Unfortunately, however, it did not have any effect on the progress of the war which was fought to an end in Virginia. All in all, after this Texas was rather well protected from the war, and we had to take away all the unattached troops from our coast and send them to the North. I received the command of the large military foundry with the rank of chief-lieutenant in which position I remained until the surrender in 1865.

“While they thought there was but one small fort at that place, which they could easily take, they found the fort quite a large and powerful one, supplied with heavy guns; and, in addition, quite a number of masked batteries, supported by seventeen thousand infantry and cavalry troops lying a few miles back ***.” From a private letter dated October 1, 1863 an appearing under “News from Sabine Pass” in the State Gazette, Austin, October 12, 1863.

[p. 32]
[...] We had to go to Austin from Sabine Pass, a distance of 250 miles on horseback. On the second day we arrived at headquarters, and I presented myself. The General was surprised to see me and asked why I was not on my way to Austin. All my pleading to send another officer in my place was to no avail; in fact, he became most irritated and asked me whether I was not familiar with the duty of a soldier. There was clearly nothing to do about it; however, since instructions and plans were not forthcoming from him either, I thought I would just proceed as I thought best so long as such procedure was of no harm to our land.
I met the 500 negroes in La Grange. They were half frozen since the winters of 1863 and 1864 were very cold ones. We had 11 to 12 degrees weather and naturally no winter clothing, and because of such cold we had to bind the stirrups of our saddles in straw. My mother-in-law lived not very far from La Grange with one of her daughters, and I took with me a soldier, who also had relatives in the vicinity, and we left to visit them, despite the extreme cold. I stayed there one day and on Sunday night we arrived in Austin. People stared at us very curiously and our arrival caused a great deal of anxiety.
The city itself lay at the foot of hilly terrain, and it was possible to see from one fortification to another and I became quite curious myself just how this whole thing would turn out. My quarters were in an old rock house, where my men had to paste newspapers over the windows to keep out the cold. As I was drinking my maize coffee at five in the afternoon, I asked my sergeant where the negroes were quartered, and he told me that they were quartered in an old church just on the other side of the street. This did not please me at all. We took a lantern and a few men and went over, and truly, it was a church with an altar, carpeting, candlesticks, flowers and paintings and a large Bible. I sent immediately to the quartermaster, who had quartered them there, but he was not to be found. I then packed everything that was movable into a large case; the altar was scantily covered and I roped off the approach to it from the negroes. As I returned to my quarters, I received a friendly invitation to be at the Hotel Metropolitan promptly at eight o’clock. That, at least, was a small recognition, which pleased me very much, as I knew only too well that the populace was much opposed to the fortification, and that they may speak their

[p. 33]

mind about it unreservedly.
My servant brushed my much worn uniform, and in eager and delighted anticipation that I was again to eat a nice meal, I went forth to the famous hotel. When I arrived I was shown into the ladies’ salon, where about fourteen young and old ladies were gathered, some sitting on a table and others grouped around. I announced my name and greeted them politely, which courtesy, however, was not reciprocated. The hostess then got off the table, and overwhelmed me with all manner of insolence – I was a barbarian, how could an officer of the Southern Army be so profane as to quarter negroes in their holy church and sanctuary and in such manner desecrate it; they had certainly not expected that a stranger who had the honor of wearing the esteemed uniform of the Confederate Army would permit such barbarism – and so on and on! As she became exhausted, another took up the tirade. All thought of dinner had vanished, and since it appeared that all of them were now finished with me they wanted to dismiss me. I did not take the hint, but peremptorily demanded that I might defend myself, whereupon the tirade was set off afresh. Presently I realized that there was a good many curious ones standing about who wanted to hear what my true mission was, but it was some time before there was silence enough to make myself heard. I answered the ladies as follows: A corps engineer’s duty did not include the quartering and care of working negroes – he had only the duty of assigning them the work. The matter of quartering them concerned the local quartermaster, and I had long since received my orders; that when my men were told where to quarter the soldiers by the quartermaster he was told that I would not like the idea of the negroes being stationed in the church, and the quartermaster had answered that the church was no longer in use; that the congregation had long ago split up and that a new church was being built, and that in this great cold he did not know of any other place to put them. As we had arrived that evening I had ascertained, through military channels, where the negroes were to be quartered and when the men told me of it, I ordered four of them to go with me with a lantern to find it, and rightly it was a church. I had immediately sent word to the quartermaster, who could not be located, so I took a crate from our magazine and had packed all the sacred articles in it, covered the altar, roped off the approach thereto, and ordered the guard not to permit any negroes to come near it – more I could not do. Now, my esteemed ladies, who is the sacrilegious person, your own quartermaster, a member of your congregation, or I? Now the talking began anew and I soon found that the quartermaster had wanted to sell the church members a building site, and since the church had split up into two groups he thought this would be a good opportunity to put the negroes in the church, knowing that thereafter no white person would enter the church again, and that he could sell his building site at his own price. The incident was over and I excused myself. Four years later when I passed through the city the church had been converted into a livery stable. [...]

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