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

By Wineman, Bradford A. | The Virginia Magazine of History and Biography, July 1, 2012 | Go to article overview

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


Wineman, Bradford A., The Virginia Magazine of History and Biography


The Peninsula Campaign and the Necessity of Emancipation: African Americans and the Fight far Freedom * Glenn David Brasher * Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2012 * via, 288 pp. * $39.95

George B. McClellan's unsuccessful Peninsula Campaign of 1 862 has received its welcome share of attention from Civil War historians, primarily documenting the fall of McClellan from grace and the beginning of the rise toward the virtual deification of Robert E. Lee. David Brasher's recent monograph, however, departs from the traditional analysis of commanders and battalions by exploring not only the actions of the two armies but also the role of local slaves of southeast Virginia who shaped the outcome of the campaign itself and concurrently contributed to the broader political movement for their own emancipation.

According to Brasher, in the early stages of the war - when political rhetoric focused on the preservation of the Union and the protection of southern rights - slavery was very much on the minds and actions of armies, politicians, and civilians on both sides. The enslaved themselves forced the issue at the war's outset when three escaped bondsmen sought refuge at Union-controlled Fort Monroe in May 1861. The fort's commander, Maj. Gen. Benjamin F. Butler, refused to return the runaways to their masters. He audaciously identified the men as "contraband of war," thereby classifying the slaves as confiscatable property because of their value to the enemy as laborers who enabled them to prosecute war. This decision set into motion intense political discussions that debated the value of emancipation on the grounds of military necessity. Radical northern lawmakers harnessed the growing outrage fostered by reports concerning the Confederate army's reliance on exclusively slave labor to build fortifications to thwart Union military efforts.

Once the campaign began in April 1 862, the role of slaves became critical to both armies: digging entrenchments for the South and eventually providing intelligence information for northern commanders that would prove crucial to victory in several battles. The slaves' contributions to the Union army and their perceived ones to the Confederate army during the Peninsula Campaign ultimately compelled Lincoln to commit to the issuance of the Emancipation Proclamation in July of 1862. …

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