The Yankees are Coming!

Major Getulius “Julius” Kellersberger licked his lips at the prospect of the sumptuous meal that awaited him at Austin’s Metropolitan Hotel.  Tasked by General John Magruder, Confederate commander of the western district including Texas, New Mexico and Arizona, with fortifying the city of Austin against an expected Yankee invasion, Major Kellersberger had only recently arrived in town and settled into his quarters in a drafty old rock house when the invitation from local citizens appeared.  Having heard rumors of local opposition to the militarization of the city, Kellersberger expressed pleasure at the invitation’s friendly tone.   He donned his newly-brushed uniform “and in eager and delighted anticipation that I was again to eat a nice meal, I went forth to the famous hotel.”

Upon arrival Major Kellersberger was escorted to the ladies salon, where he found a dozen or so women of various ages clustered around a large table.  His polite greeting elicited only cold stares, after which one woman stood up and began haranguing the major.  “Barbarian!” she railed.  How could he, a Southern officer, allow such profanity?  As she finished, another woman began to spill forth her own fury.  But as this woman’s voice trailed off a colleague jumped into the breach to press the attack further.  The tirade continued until each of the women had fired a volley.

As silence descended Major Kellersberger realized that the women now expected him to leave.  “I did not take the hint,” he later recalled, “but peremptorily demanded that I might defend myself.”  His plea only triggered another blast from some of the women.  Eventually the storm subsided, though, and Kellersberger launched his explanation.

Presumably all of the women confronting Major Kellersberger were white.  Why else would they complain about the black slaves being quartered in a local church?  To supply his labor needs in fortifying the city, Kellersberger had brought to Austin some 500 slaves gathered from their owners near La Grange.  These men had to sleep somewhere.  Some of them had been assigned a place in the church of a white congregation.  The women facing Major Kellersberger thought this a sacrilege.  They had demanded to know how “an officer of the Southern Army [could] be so profane as to quarter negroes in their holy church and sanctuary and in such manner desecrate it.”

Major Kellersberger was already aware of this situation, having inquired of his sergeant earlier in the day about the location of the slaves in question.  The sergeant’s answer “did not please me at all,” he told the ladies, but he was blameless.  His duties did not include locating quarters for his workers, this being the job of the local quartermaster.  The quartermaster had been warned that the use of a church would be unpopular, but he claimed that the congregation had divided and abandoned the building for another and that there was no other lodging available.  Major Kellersberger nevertheless had safely packed away all of the church’s sacred articles, roped off the altar and stationed a guard to keep the slaves from disturbing it.  He asked the angry women, “Now, my esteemed ladies, who is the sacrilegious person, your own quartermaster, a member of your congregation, or I?”

The major’s explanation set the women to buzzing amongst themselves.  Finally, one of them told Kellersberger that the congregation had indeed split and that land was needed for at least one new church building.  The quartermaster had expressed interest in selling a building site to one congregation or the other.  The ladies postulated that his use of the church as slave quarters represented a cynical ploy to further his financial interest in that “thereafter no white person would enter the church again.”  Not wishing to become involved in a local fight, Kellersberger excused himself.  In his memoirs he wrote, “Four years later when I passed through the city the church had been converted into a livery stable.”

Austin residents seethed at more than perceived desecration of a church.  Many evidently felt the militarization of the city to be unnecessary.  Only two decades previously they had scoffed at the notion that the national archives were endangered by two separate Mexican army incursions that reached San Antonio.  They had beaten off the Mexicans then and would beat of the Yankees now!  After all, the closest Federal Army lay at Brownsville, 350 miles to the south.  Furthermore, Dick Dowling and his brave men had just driven off the Yankee invasion at Sabine Pass.

In September 1863 Lieutenant Dick Dowling and 44 men defeated a Union naval force attempting to capture Sabine Pass.

Dick Dowling’s success at Sabine Pass was due in large part to the efforts of the man under fire from the ladies of Austin, Major Julius Kellersberger.  It was Kellersberger that had organized and supervised the construction of the defensive works at Galveston and Sabine Pass.  As Kellersberger noted, “it [Sabine Pass] was the most successful battle in Texas.”  The victory would have been impossible without Kellersberger’s handiwork.

Born in Switzerland in 1820, Getulius Kellersberger studied engineering in Austria before immigrating to New York in 1847.  Working as a surveyor in Central Park failed to hold his interest and after only a few weeks he headed to Texas.  After following the 1849 gold rush to California Kellersberger ended up in San Francisco, where he was named deputy surveyor-general of California.  His boss was none other than Jack Coffee Hays of Texas Ranger fame.  The two men collaborated in platting and surveying the newly-founded city of Oakland.

Major Getulius "Julius" Kellersberger, engineer in charge of constructing the fortifications at Austin in 1863.

James Buchanan’s election to the presidency in 1856 cost Kellersberger his politically-appointed job.  He found another working on a railroad in Mexico.  The line straddled the Isthmus of Tehuantepec to connect the Gulf of Mexico with the Pacific Ocean, thus becoming North American’s first transcontinental railroad.  But when the Civil War broke out in 1861 Kellersberger left Mexico to return to his family in Galveston.  There he secured a major’s commission and the post of chief military engineer for East Texas.  Sabine Pass proved a triumph but shortly thereafter Federal forces seized Brownsville and Texas commander John Magruder ordered Kellersberger to Austin.

When Robert E. Lee thought John Magruder too passive at the Seven Days Battles, he reassigned him from an eastern command to the western district of Texas, New Mexico and Arizona.

After weeks of exhausting labor on the coast Major Kellersberger thought he had earned a trip to see his family.  From Sabine Pass he rode to General Magruder’s headquarters in Houston.  Surprised, Magruder asked his chief engineer why he was not on his way to the capital.  Kellersberger pleaded his case but to no avail.  General Magruder “became most irritated and asked me whether I was not familiar with the duty of a soldier.”  Kellersberger accepted his fate and proceeded to Austin, stopping at La Grange long enough to see a few relatives and gather the 500 slaves donated by area landowners.  The unfortunate slaves “were half frozen” in the cold winter weather.  With the temperature dipping as low as 11 degrees Kellersberger marched the poorly clad men to Austin.  As this force entered the city “people stared at us very curiously and our arrival caused a great deal of anxiety.”  The Tri-Weekly State Gazette noted on December 23, 1863 the arrival of “the indefatigable engineer” and predicted that he would soon “place Austin and its passes in a defensible position.”


This map shows the location of the three Confederate forts in Austin constructed under the supervision of Major Julius Kellersberger.

To do so Kellersberger constructed three forts.  Their locations are neatly summarized in an article by Michael Barnes appearing in the September 15, 2012 edition of the Austin American-Statesman.  Guarding the southern approach to the city, Fort Magruder occupied land now straddling Ben White Boulevard between South First and Congress Avenue.  An unnamed fort dominated the western approach from high ground at West 15th Street and West Avenue.  The third, called variously Fort Colorado and Fort Prairie, blocked an eastern approach near what is now Webberville Road in the vicinity of the Austin Wildlife Rescue.

Not all Austinites scoffed at the Yankee threat.  On December 1, 1863 residents gathered to adopt several resolutions aimed at stiffening Confederate resolve.  The first fiery paragraph assured the locals that the “Abolitionists are waging a war of rapine and plunder.”  Furthermore, the enemy had armed freed slaves and instructed them to pillage, loot, and rape at will.  The Yankees intended to stand by and watch “the enormities they [the slaves] would practice upon our wives, mothers, sisters, and daughters by compelling them to treat negroes as equals and to listen to their tales of love, and even to be led to the altar by them.”  Any southern man who would not act to prevent such abominations “is a coward . . . and a traitor to his country.”

Illustration showing the layout of Fort Magruder superimposed upon a modern street map of Austin.  (From an article by Michael Barnes in the November 3, 2012 edition of the Austin American-Statesman).

To counter this evil the citizens called upon Congress to pass laws requiring military service from every male age 16 and above “no matter what his age or infirmities may be.”  Prominent committee members drafting the resolutions included Aaron Burleson and John “Rip” Ford.

The Battle of Austin never materialized.  Early in 1864 Federal forces withdrew from Brownsville when Union commanders shifted their focus to the Red River.  General Magruder ordered Major Kellersberger to Houston to supervise a foundry; the partially-completed fortifications were abandoned.  Left behind were thousands of tree stumps, including those of a beautiful grove of ancient live oaks on land now occupied by the University of Texas. 

After the war Julius Kellersberger sent his family to Europe and went to work again on a Mexican railroad.  In 1868 he rejoined his family in Aargau, Switzerland.  Soon thereafter his only son moved to Blanco County.  Julius and his wife Caroline followed.  Years later, after his wife died, Julius became homesick for his homeland and returned to Switzerland.  He died there in 1900. 

Major Kellersberger left his mark on Austin, though, in the form of earthworks and acres of cleared land.  Development undoubtedly would have claimed many of those trees anyway, but my heart aches for the beautiful live oaks destroyed for the sake of a lost cause.

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