The Peninsula Campaign and the Necessity of Emancipation: African Americans and the Fight for Freedom

By Glenn David Brasher | Go to book overview

3 WAR IS A SWIFT EDUCATOR
JULY-DECEMBER 186l

“SLAVES WITH THE REBEL ARMY,” both the New York Times and the Chicago Tribune boldly declared in the summer of 1861. The assertion was based on an article published by the New Orleans Crescent praising a slave named Tom who “took a fancy to go a soldiering, and his master willingly gratified him.” His owner, James H. Phelps of New Orleans, hired out the slave as a body servant to a Confederate officer who eventually served on the Virginia Peninsula. “There are hundreds of other slaves like Tom gone to kill the Yankees,” the Crescent claimed. The paper quoted a letter the slave supposedly wrote his mother from Yorktown explaining how he had been “scout[ing] about the woods” and in which he asked her to tell the “white folks” that he would not be home “until I kill a Yankee.” This questionable evidence outraged the northern editors, but the New Orleans paper was pleased. “We hope he will be gratified in hunting up and obtaining a Yankee scalp,” the paper gleefully declared.1

Meanwhile, the northern press praised slaves on the Virginia Peninsula who were laboring for Yankee troops. “While Congress and the Cabinet are casting about for a settlement of the question, ‘What shall we do with them?’” the Philadelphia Inquirer reported, “the contrabands at Fort Monroe are solving the problem practically.” The paper’s correspondent estimated that by December 1861 there were nearly 3,000 runaways working at the fort. “Those who are employed as servants receive eight dollars a month, and those who build fortifications are paid ten dollars a month.” Instead of going directly to the workers, however, the wages went into a support fund for their families.2

During the second half of 1861, both Union and Confederate troops increased their use of African American laborers. In northern Virginia, black workers constructed the fortifications that contributed to the North’s defeat at Manassas, and rumors that blacks were fighting for the South helped spur Congress into passing the First Confiscation Act. On

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