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

By Glenn David Brasher | Go to book overview

5
THE MONUMENTS TO NEGRO LABOR
APRIL-MAY 1862

As more of McClellan’s army landed on the Virginia Peninsula, three male slaves entered Union lines at Newport News after hiding out for two months near Mulberry Island. A northern newspaper correspondent asked them why they ran to the Federals, and the runaways explained that they escaped after each had received fifty lashes for being off their plantation without a pass. In addition, they claimed that another slave had been shot and killed after authorities caught him a second time trying to visit his wife on a neighboring plantation. The First Confiscation Act ensured that such horrific experiences were now over for the three runaways. Because the men claimed that the Confederate government had previously forced them to labor on fortifications, upon reaching the Union army the federal law liberated them. They were not alone: “Runaway slaves continue to come into our army almost every day,” the correspondent noted. One Union soldier described the area near Fort Monroe as “crammed full of contrabands.”1

During the siege of Yorktown, soldiers in the Army of the Potomac received important military information from runaway slaves, and many came to appreciate their presence in camp. At the same time, Yankees grew frustrated that the southern army was effectively using black laborers to strengthen the entrenchments that stalled Union efforts on the lower Peninsula. Even more infuriating were the multiplying reports that the Confederates were coercing slaves into combat, and such claims were becoming more specific and potentially explosive during the siege. The contributions that African Americans made to both armies bought time for congressional radicals to patiently debate the second confiscation bill and provided them with compelling evidence in their fight against the moderates and conservatives of both parties.

-102-

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