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

By Glenn David Brasher | Go to book overview

6
THOSE BY WHOM THESE RELATIONS
ARE BROKEN MAY 1862

When Union troops entered Yorktown, they found it deserted by all but a few slaves, who claimed their advanced age had prevented them from running to the Federals. Soldiers gathered around these gentlemen and aggressively sought information. The correspondent for the Philadelphia Press told of one slave who “might have [had] a thousand tongues … and [yet] fail to answer half the questions that [were] propounded to him in chorus.” The soldiers asked where the Rebels had gone, when and why they left, how many soldiers they had, and the mood of their army. “Each of these interrogatories was propounded a dozen times at least in my hearing,” the reporter claimed, “and appeared to afford unspeakable gratification” to the slave. With their masters in flight, the joyous slaves relished the attention. When asked about the siege, one black sage asserted “dat he seed dat ting before,” claiming to have been alive when Cornwallis surrendered at Yorktown during the Revolution. He “always has a band of eager listeners around him,” the paper noted, “when, in an amusing way, he tells the incidents of two sieges.”1

The Confederate withdrawal and subsequent Federal advance up the Peninsula had the potential to bring even more slaves into Union lines, a fact well understood by Confederate artillerist James DeWitt Hankins. The day before his regiment withdrew from its fortifications on the lower Peninsula, he wrote his father, “God only knows what will happen within the next two weeks…. I expect to learn that many of your negroes have deserted. If the Yankees take occupation [of more areas of the Peninsula] it is impossible to keep the negroes from running away.”2 The Rebel soldier’s prediction was accurate, and the runaways soon provided the Union army with valuable assistance.

As McClellan approached the Confederate capital, the debates surrounding the second confiscation bill entered a new phase. Coupled with Union military success in other theaters of war, the Army of the Potomac’s

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