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

By Glenn David Brasher | Go to book overview

7
AN INVALUABLE ALLY
LATE MAY-JULY l862

“Robert Meekum and his wife Diana are the leading colored people on this plantation,” the New York Times reported on May 25, 1862, from White House, Virginia. Robert served as slave “advisor … in both spiritual and temporal affairs” on the property, and military officials engaged him to help organize the slaves to work for the U.S. army. The elderly couple (Diana was eighty-three) lived in a cabin crammed with “several children, grandchildren, and hens and chickens” and claimed to have never heard of abolitionism. Diana “did not know what the word meant,” the Times reporter noted. Years earlier, she had had a child sold away from her, and a captain on a northern vessel plying the Pamunkey River tried to ease her pain by telling her “that I should lib to see de day when all would be free; but it nebber come.” In fact, Diana had never even been away from White House Plantation. With her husband assisting the Army of the Potomac as it prepared to assault the Confederate capital, she happily exclaimed, “Now I know I hab a Lord and Savior, and I thank him.” Her master, General Robert E. Lee’s son, Rooney Lee, was serving in the Confederate army, and when the correspondent asked if she was worried that he might be killed, she indifferently replied, “De Lord[’s] will must be done unto him.”1

As the Peninsula Campaign neared its climax, the Meekums were just two of thousands of slaves providing invaluable services to both armies. General Robert E. Lee’s strategy for driving the Federals away from Richmond remained dependent on the continued impressment of slaves to work on fortifications, and black workers staffed the Confederacy’s overburdened hospitals. Yet slaves also continued to vex their owners by running away and aiding the Yankees. Blacks labored to keep McClellan’s supply line running smoothly, offered valuable military intelligence to the Federals, and helped prevent the destruction of the Army of the Potomac’s Fifth Corps.

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