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

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

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

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


In the Peninsula Campaign of spring 1862, Union general George B. McClellan failed in his plan to capture the Confederate capital and bring a quick end to the conflict. But the campaign saw something new in the war--the participation of African Americans in ways that were critical to the Union offensive. Ultimately, that participation influenced Lincoln's decision to issue the Emancipation Proclamation at the end of that year. Glenn David Brasher's unique narrative history delves into African American involvement in this pivotal military event, demonstrating that blacks contributed essential manpower and provided intelligence that shaped the campaign's military tactics and strategy and that their activities helped to convince many Northerners that emancipation was a military necessity.
Drawing on the voices of Northern soldiers, civilians, politicians, and abolitionists as well as Southern soldiers, slaveholders, and the enslaved, Brasher focuses on the slaves themselves, whose actions showed that they understood from the outset that the war was about their freedom. As Brasher convincingly shows, the Peninsula Campaign was more important in affecting the decision for emancipation than the Battle of Antietam.


On July 1, 2001, 139 years after the Battle of Malvern Hill, I stood before a small crowd that had gathered to tour the site. It was my seventh year as a seasonal park ranger for the Richmond National Battlefield Park, and I had spent untold hours walking the ground and researching the fighting. I was capable of providing the visitors with what most came for: descriptions of troop movements, anecdotal stories of bravery, and heartrending tales of sacrifice. However, I planned to offer more than the standard battlefield tour.

Weeks earlier, the park’s supervisory ranger, Michael J. Andrus, had asked me to lead the anniversary tour. He had suggested that I discuss the battle as more than just the climactic engagement of the 1862 Peninsula Campaign. He knew that I had researched the connections between Virginia slavery and the Richmond battles, and he wanted the tour to include more content than just “guns and glory.” Andrus hoped visitors would leave with a better understanding of why Northerners and Southerners slaughtered each other on that field in such horrific numbers and how the battles around Richmond had affected the institution of slavery.

I knew what Andrus was looking for, and why. In the early 1990s, the National Park Service had received much criticism for doing little more at its battlefields than explaining who shot whom and where. Understanding that many adult Americans receive much of their continuing education at the national parks, a 1998 meeting of park superintendents resolved to expand historic interpretation at Civil War battlefield sites. The agency also asked teams of professional historians to evaluate these sites and make recommendations. Richmond National Battlefield Park was one of many locations the scholars criticized for having embarrassingly outdated exhibits that failed to offer visitors a broader understanding of the Civil War. The Park Service accepted these assessments, and soon many battlefield sites began the process of overhauling their interpretations. Richmond National Battlefield Park eventually opened a state-of-the-art visitors’ center at the site of the historic Tredegar Iron Works, and it impressively adhered to the Park Service’s new goals.

Nevertheless, for many observers the changes were not occurring rapidly enough, and they correctly pointed out that the Park Service’s battlefield interpretations still did not reflect the centrality of slavery to the . . .

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