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

By Glenn David Brasher | Go to book overview

CONCLUSION MONARCHS OF
ALL THEY SURVEY

On August 2, 1862, “while public enthusiasm is at low ebb,” the New York Times heralded the “silver lining” in the Army of the Potomac’s disheartening failure to capture Richmond. The editors believed that McClellan had clearly been “out-generaled,” but the defeat demonstrated that the South had mustered all its resources to hold off Union forces, and thus it had convinced Northerners that they needed to make a similar all-out effort to win the war. A major component of that commitment was to put “negro labor to our own use in digging intrenchments, &c.” Doing so would “add new heart and muscle to our overtaxed soldiers” and would subtract strength from the Confederacy. Senator John Sherman wrote from Ohio, “You can form no conception at the change of opinion here as to the Negro Question.” The senator explained to his brother, General Sherman, “Men of all parties [now understand] the magnitude of the contest” and “agree that we must seek the aid and make it the interests of the negroes to help us.”1

The public’s growing acceptance of the military necessity argument and Lincoln’s intention to enforce the Second Confiscation Act thrilled abolitionists. “A year has wrought great changes, even among those whose prejudices were most inveterate,” Horace Greeley optimistically claimed. William Lloyd Garrison agreed: “The war is shaping itself, as a matter of necessity on the part of the government, into an Anti-Slavery War.”2

Down on the Peninsula, the Army of the Potomac’s presence at Harrison’s Landing continued to be a means of liberation for Virginia slaves. At the expense of local slaveholders, McClellan increased his use of black laborers to strengthen his position and to keep the army supplied. When the Union army finally retreated, it caused a labor shortage that plagued the region for the rest of the war. But McClellan’s campaign did not simply undermine the master-slave relationship on the Peninsula, it helped to cause the destruction of the institution of slavery itself.


“Most will make good their escape”

Unaware that Lincoln had already decided to issue the Emancipation Proclamation and that he was only waiting for a Union victory to release it, abolitionists continued to lecture him on the military necessity for emancipation. To Moncure Conway, for example, Lincoln seemed like an

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