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COL. JULIUS G. KELLERSBERGER:
SWISS ENGINEER BUILT TEXAS' CONFEDERATE DEFENSES

By W. T. Block

Reprinted from Beaumont ENTERPRISE, Oct. 4, 1976.

In 1896, as wintry blasts swept down the valley of the River Aare in northern Switzerland, an old man consumed endless hours in his ancestral home while laboring to complete a manuscript. With head and beard as snow-capped as the neighboring peaks, Julius Getulius Kellersberger, who felt that life was slowing ebbing away, wrote and rewrote each page with the masterful precision that a civil engineer might express, before shipping the finished version of his manuscript to Juchli and Beck, book publishers of Zurich.

After 49 years in America, Kellersberger, former Forty-Niner, surveyor, town and railroad-builder, and Confederate chief engineer for East Texas, bade farewell to a son and four daughters, his grandchildren, the grave of his wife, all at Cypress Mill, Blanco County, Texas. He then left the state he had grown to love and returned to his Alpine homeland for two purposes -- to write his German-language memoirs and die in the huge stone house where he had grown up and had abandoned as a youth to seek his fortune in America. Although a hundred or more of his descendants in the United States still spell his name with its original Swiss spelling, the engineer enlisted in the Confederate Army under the name of 'Kellersberg,' which for purposes of simplication, the writer will adopt for the remainder of this biography. And although Kellersberg was promoted to lieutenant colonel during the closing days of the war, he was a Confederate major of artillery, in the engineering service, for much of the time span of this story.

Kellersberg, born in the Swiss province of Aargau in 1820, was educated in the military sciences and engineering in Austria, and by age 25, was superintendent of an Austrian army arsenal. Restless for adventure, the youth embarked for New York in 1847. While aboard ship, he met his future wife, Caroline, a German immigrant bound for Texas and daughter of a pioneer Texas Lutheran pastor. For some weeks, he worked as a surveyor in New York's Central Park, but he soon abandoned that project for Texas, where he also married.

In 1849, when news of the California gold strike arrived, Julius and Caroline Kellersberg embarked for California on a year-long voyage around Cape Horn. Disliking the gold-mining camps (in one of which Kellersberg's brother had been murdered), the young immigrant settled at San Francisco, where he was soon appointed deputy surveyor-general of California under Col. Jack Hays. Between 1851-1855, he platted and surveyed the original townsites of Oakland and Santa Barbara, the early maps and field notes of which still carry his name. In 1856 he was a member of the San Francisco vigilantes. (The author has photocopies of two articles of this period of his life which have appeared in California historical publications.)

A victim of the political "Spoils System" under the Buchanan administration in 1857, Kellersberg left California for a railroad assignment in Mexico, which was actually the first transcontinental railroad to connect the Gulf of Mexico with the Pacific Ocean, across the Isthmus of Tehuantepec in Mexico. With the outbreak of the American Civil War in 1861, he left Mexico to return to his family in Galveston, arriving on the last vessel to enter the harbor before the permanent blockade began in June.

Obtaining a commission as major under Col. Valery Sulakowski (chief engineer for the District of Texas), the Swiss immigrant was soon appointed chief military engineer for the sub-district of East Texas. His first assignment was to begin building the artillery defenses of Galveston.

In July 1862, he was sent to Jefferson County to inspect the fortifications of Sabine Pass. He reported everything there as being inadequate, the fort (Sabine) as built on ground subject to tidal overflow, guns too small and short-ranged for defense, and a severe shortage of fuses, shells, and other necessary equipment. He added that "the Pass at Sabine is certainly a very important point, and in fact, the only port from where we receive our powder and other articles."

Sabine Lake, however, was soon occupied by the Federal Navy at a time when yellow fever was raging in Sabine City. Following an urgent plea from Col. A. W. Spaight at Beaumont, the major returned to Jefferson County on Oct. 1, 1862, bringing with him 24 and 32-pound pieces of artillery and a contingent of engineering troops and slaves. At Port Neches, he built Fort Grigsby (where the asphalt plant office buildings now stand) so that its battery of 24-pound guns could sweep across a horseshoe bend in the lower Neches River. Near the Sabine River delta, he built another fort, where he installed two 32-pound guns. As a further precaution against the Federals ascending the rivers, the major sank 80-foot barges of clam shell on the bars of both rivers.

While Kellersberg was in Jefferson County, a Federal squadron under Commander W. B. Renshaw occupied Galveston Island and Bay, and Kellersberg for a few weeks was cut off from his wife and children. Since a full-scale invasion of Texas appeared imminent at that time, the major was sent to the mouth of the Brazos River, where he built Forts Quintana and Velasco, fortifications on Caney Creek, and another fort at the mouth of the Trinity. On New Year's Day of 1863, he participated in the Battle of Galveston, where he won commendations for bravery. During the wee hours before dawn, he help sneak artillery pieces on flat cars over the railway trestle to the island, and at dawn he took part in the Confederate attack on Kuhn's Wharf, where the 42nd Massachusetts Regiment surrendered intact. Kellersberg was soon reunited with his family.

Given command of the Confederate foundry in Galveston, with its staff of German-immigrant machinists and technicians, the major was reassigned to the defenses of Galveston. With only about one-tenth of the heavy guns on hand that were needed to defend the island properly, he set his mechanics to work building 200 "Quaker" guns of logs, a ruse which helped stave off invasion for the remainder of the war. The "quakers" were milled and bored to precise measurements, polished and painted with such authentic detail and care that even the Confederates had difficulty at detecting the fake ones from 100 yards away. Since rails connected all of the beach batteries, the engineer moved the real guns to different points on the beach at night and conducted gunnery practice each morning. And although the Federal fleet soon learned that there were 'quaker' guns ashore, they were never quite sure which ones were real and which one were not.

In March, 1863, Gen. J. B. Magruder sent Kellersberg back to Sabine Pass with 30 engineers and 500 slaves. His orders were to construct a new Fort Sabine (soon to be renamed Fort Griffin) of sufficient size and armament that it could properly defend the seacoast city. The engineer selected a prominent point which projected out into the channel, which would allow the fort's guns to traverse a 270-degree arc. The site was one mile farther inland from the old fort, at a place where the Louisiana and Texas channels exited from the oyster reef.

During the next five months, his staff completed six gun emplacements, with five bombproofs beneath, in the sawtooth front of the triangular fort. The walls and ramparts were constructed of logs, crossties, dirt, and oyster shell, and the bombproofs and gun emplacements were then "covered with two layers of railroad iron, two feet of solid timber and logs, and four feet of earth on top of that."

Kellersberg then abandoned the river forts and moved their four guns, ammunition, and all stores to Fort Griffin. In Aug., 1863, whenever Lt. Dick Dowling's Co. F of the First Texas Heavy Artillery was detailed from service aboard the gunboat "Josiah Bell" to garrison duty at Fort Griffin, only the mud fort's north rampart, or back wall, was still unfinished, but two more 32-pound guns were needed if the fort were to be adequately armed.

Advised by his Houston headquarters that no more guns for the fort were available, Kellersberg recalled an old fisherman's tale about two guns that had been spiked and buried the previous year when old Fort Sabine was abandoned to the Federals. After an hour's probing, he and the fisherman located a quantity of solid cannon balls and the two 32-pound long iron guns, both of which had been severely damaged. The barrels had been spiked with round files, a solid shot was jammed in one gun, and the four cannon trunnions (swivels) had been chiseled away.

Leaving his subordinate, Lt. Nicholas H. Smith, in charge of the remaining construction, the major took the guns by rail to the Galveston foundry. Day and night, he and his chief machinist labored to repair them, for it was already rumored that a Texas invasion armada was being outfitted in New Orleans for action along the coast.

To dislodge the spike files and solid shot was comparatively easy. To replace the trunnions, however, required the moulding of 16-inch rings and stretching them into place while the barrels and rings were white hot and glowing red. They then threaded rings in each barrel one-half inch deep and one and one-half inches wide, over which the threaded wrought iron rings were set in place. The greatest hazard lay in boring the grooves too deep, which might cause the barrels to burst when fired. Kellersberg feared that during a period of sustained fire, the barrels would not even be accorded the minimum precaution of swabbing out (which they weren't).

About Sept. 1, 1863, the engineer returned with the guns to Fort Griffin, where he found Lt. Dowling and his men engaging in daily gunnery practice. The engineer then mounted the repaired guns on carriages, test-fired them, and he drove white stakes in both channels to mark the maximum gunnery range. With his work completed he returned to Galveston.

At 5:00 A. M. on Sept. 8, the major received a telegram at his home to the effect that a Federal invasion force had arrived offshore from Sabine Pass. Commandeering a rail handcar and four slaves, he raced over the 48-miles of track to Houston in time to catch the special train with the general and his staff to Beaumont. Upon arrival at Sabine the following morning, he found the carnage of battle strewn everywhere, along with the dead and the dying and a jubilant Confederate garrison of 47 men in the fort, none of whom had received a scratch. The major's subordinate officer, Lt. Nicholas H. Smith, had taken command of one battery of guns during the battle and had become one of the immortal heroes.

Kellersberg's staff began repair work immediately, equipping Fort Griffin with longer range Parrott rifles removed from the captured ships. They laid lines of torpedoes," built wagon supply roads of corduroy, breatworks, and other defenses, for the general's greatest fear was a renewal of the attack.

The major was soon ordered to construct Fort Manhassett, 6 1/2 miles west of Sabine Pass, in order to thwart any beach landing up Redfish Bayou (now silted over) to Knight's Lake and a subsequent attack from the rear. Kellersberg and his slaves labored feverishly there throughout the month of October, completing five redoubts, where he installed six 24 and 32-pound guns. A small four gun fort was built at the mouth of Taylor's Bayou, but the feared second attack never materialized.

The major spent much of 1864 preparing the defenses of the city of Austin, after which he was appointed superintendent of the Houston foundry. In appreciation of his engineering feats among the city's defenses, the city council of Galveston adopted a proclamation on March 4, 1864, which read:

"Resolved, that the thanks of the Mayor and the Aldermen of the City of Galveston are hereby tendered to Col. V. Sulakowski and to Col. J. Kellersberg, the two distinguished engineers who have displayed so much scientific and military skill in erecting defenses around the city and other vulnerable points on the gulf coast, which stand in bold defiance, now complete, to resist any force our common enemy can bring to bear against us."

A naval historian wrote that, more than a month after Gen. Robert E. Lee's surrender, of all the Confederate defense bastions, "only the forts at Sabine pass are still defiantly held."

During the summer of 1865, when the Southland was in physical and economic shambles, Col. Kellersberg sent his family to live in Switzerland so that his children could attend school. In company with Gen. Magruder, the engineer returned to Mexico, where he helped construct the Vera Cruz and Mexico City Railroad until 1868. He then rejoined his family in Aargau, Switzerland.

Soon homesick for America, his only son then returned to Blanco County, Texas, and the other family members soon followed. With old age approaching, Kellersberg remained in business there for many years. After his wife's death, the old ex-Confederate said a final goodbye to his children in 1893, a parting that was apparently less painful to him than the thought of his death and burial away from the Alpine homeland that he loved so dearly. In 1897, he was the lone ex-Rebel at an encampment of seventeen Swiss veterans of the American Civil War. Although in ill health, Julius Kellersberger lingered on for three more years, eventually dying in his ancestral home. He is buried nearby in the city of Aargau.

Kellersberger's German-language memoirs, Recollections of a Swiss Engineer in California, Mexico, and Texas During the Time of the American Civil War, were translated into English by his great granddaughter, and hundreds of his descendants still reside in Travis, Blanco, and neighboring counties.

Compiled from the memoirs, family records, and information furnished by Kellersberg's grand daughter, now deceased, of Marble Falls, Texas. The author owns copies of both Kellersberg's German language memoirs as well as its translation into English.

Copyright 1998-2012 by W. T. Block. All rights reserved.
Unless otherwise indicated, the material published on this site is copyrighted by William T. Block.
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