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

By Glenn David Brasher | Go to book overview

1
PRELUDES WAR, SLAVERY, AND THE
VIRGINIA PENINSULA

In May 1862, a debate raged in the U.S. Congress as the Army of the Potomac prepared to attack the capital of the Confederacy. For months, radical Republicans had insisted that because slaves were a Confederate asset it was a “military necessity” to liberate them. Slaves labored for the southern army, and several congressmen also claimed that Rebel troops were using some blacks in combat. Ohio’s abolitionist senator Benjamin Wade, for example, was outraged to “see black regiments put forward to shoot down my sons who are in the war … [and to] see these black chattels thrust forth in front of their ‘chivalrous’ owners to shoot down, murder, and destroy our men.” Such allegations were not new—many Northerners had widely published and discussed these controversial and provocative claims since the early days of the war. At the same time, however, several congressmen pointed out that slaves on the Virginia Peninsula were demonstrating their desire to aid the Union army by providing military intelligence and labor. Referring to the American Revolution to illustrate his point, New York representative Charles B. Sedgwick summarized the military rationale for emancipation by maintaining that when fighting an enemy that possessed slaves, “no civilized nation ever failed” to weaken its opponent and strengthen itself by “proclaim[ing] the freedom of the slaves.”1

As Sedgewick pointed out, the Peninsula Campaign is only one example of the connection between war and slavery. During the Civil War, Northerners were shocked to hear reports of slaves fighting alongside their masters. They should not have been surprised to find slaves laboring and fighting on both sides of the conflict, however. Throughout history, warfare has frequently served as a means of emancipation, and although most often slaves have gained freedom by aiding their masters’ enemies, they frequently have done so by demonstrating “loyalty” to their owners.

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