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

By Glenn David Brasher | Go to book overview

8
A HIGHER DESTINY JULY l862

“Very bad,” New Yorker George Templeton Strong remarked as the first word of McClellan’s retreat appeared. “What news will come tonight no man can tell, but just now … things look disastrous.” During the first days of July, Northerners clamored for more information about the Army of the Potomac’s fate. The latest from the Virginia Peninsula was “the all-absorbing theme of public conversation,” according to the Philadelphia Inquirer. “Scarcely any other topic is heard on the street.” Northerners were soon relieved to learn that the army had at least fought well in its retreat and was now safe at Harrison’s Landing on the James River. As reports trickled in, however, it became clear that after months of ever-rising expectations, McClellan had failed to capture the Confederate capital. “The details fell … with the most disheartening effect,” the New York Times noted, “and produced a shock which has never before been felt.” Lincoln shared the public’s despair: “I was as nearly inconsolable as I could be and live,” the president reportedly declared.1

As Northerners sifted through the newspapers for more information, the Cleveland Herald published a letter from a correspondent with the Army of the Potomac. “History will record that the only friends found by this army in Eastern Virginia are among the slaves,” he claimed just before the climactic battles began. Maintaining that he had spoken to many officers in the topographical department, the correspondent noted that most of the army’s faulty maps had been “corrected by contrabands,” that various reconnaissance missions had been greatly aided by the slaves, and that “the best maps were drafted upon information communicated by negroes.” The fact that politicians and military officers were not giving blacks an even larger role in the war struck the correspondent as “stupidity and heartlessness.”2

As they reflected on the failed campaign over the next few weeks, Northerners of varying political stripes would come to agree with the correspon

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