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

By Glenn David Brasher | Go to book overview

4
THE BEST INFORMED RESIDENTS
IN VIRGINIA DECEMBER l86l–
april 1862

On a dank and frigid night in January 1862, William Davis, a slave from Hampton, Virginia, nervously awaited introduction on a stage at New York City’s Cooper Institute. The opening speaker, the Reverend L. C. Lockwood, an abolitionist, had asked the forty-seven-year-old African American to come north on a speaking tour to solicit donations for the contrabands. That night at the Cooper Institute, Lockwood gave a brief description of the slaves at Fort Monroe, and then he struggled to find a proper phrase to describe Davis’s status. Because the slave had not worked on the Confederate works before coming into Union lines, he did not meet the criteria of the Confiscation Act and was technically not free. Lockwood settled for calling him “one of Uncle Sam’s slaves.” The minister jokingly assured the audience that William Davis had no connection to Confederate president Jefferson Davis, “except the relation of antagonist.” With that, the Peninsula slave stood up before the podium and told his story.1

The crowd was smaller than expected due to the bad weather, but Davis impressed those in attendance with an emotional description of his slave life, which included being sold several times as a child, instances of whipping, and his rise to slave foreman on his master’s small Virginia Peninsula farm. His owner had sold five of Davis’s seven children away, including a son auctioned off the previous New Year’s Day.2

Davis explained that upon the arrival of the Union army on the peninsula, his widowed owner had fled Hampton and left her slaves behind. Davis, his wife, and two of their children then entered Federal lines at Fort Monroe. While he labored for the government, his children received an education from the abolitionist missionaries, something the young blacks described as “getting white.” That his progeny were going to school filled Davis with profound joy, and according to the New York Times, he

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