In the Peninsula Campaign of spring 1862, Union general George B. McClellan failed in his plan to capture the Confederate capital and bring a quick end to the conflict. But the campaign saw something new in the war—the participation of African Americans in ways that were critical to the Union offensive. Ultimately, that participation influenced Lincoln’s decision to issue the Emancipation Proclamation at the end of that year. Glenn David Brasher’s unique narrative history delves into African American involvement in this pivotal military event, demonstrating that blacks contributed essential manpower and provided intelligence that shaped the campaign’s military tactics and strategy and that their activities helped to convince many Northerners that emancipation was a military necessity.
Brasher introduced one influential figure in intelligence-gathering for the Union, William Ringgold, in a recent article for the New York Times’ Disunion series. Read his post, “The Steward-Turned-Spy,” at the Times’ website.
Here, we offer an excerpt from Brasher’s new book, The Peninsula Campaign and the Necessity of Emancipation: African Americans and the Fight for Freedom. (pp. 75-76, 78-79):
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 for 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 to Confederate president Jefferson Davis, “except the relation of antagonist.” With that, the Peninsula slave stood up before the podium and told his story.
The crowd was smaller than expected due to 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.
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 discussed it “in terms not only of impressive feeling, but in many cases, of real eloquence.”
Turning to the war, Davis confirmed reports that some slaves were armed and fighting for the South, but he assured his audience that it “was done solely on compulsion.” Having been a slave foreman, he perceptively compared their plight to that of slaves who “were often made to fill the place of whipping-master.” He maintained that the best way to prevent the South from continually taking military advantage of the enslaved community was to free the slaves so they could “go forth conquering.” Davis compared his mission to that of Moses before Pharaoh. He had come from the Virginia Peninsula to ask the government to “let the people go.”
As the New Yorkers applauded William Davis in the early days of 1862, other members of Virginia’s African American community were also helping to shape the future direction of the Peninsula Campaign and the war. For the Federals, African Americans proved to be an important source of not only labor but also military intelligence. In northern Virginia, slaves demonstrated for McClellan the usefulness of information gleaned from runaways, and their reports played a small role in where the general began his campaign to capture Richmond. To increase the likelihood that the Union army would liberate them, blacks may have also given deceptive and exaggerated statements to the Federals concerning the South’s military use of slaves. The statements of runaways and other reports from the Peninsula continued to bolster emancipationists’ warnings that Southerners were arming their slaves. Meanwhile, Confederate general John Magruder considered slave labor indispensable for defending the Peninsula, and he continued to clash with local slaveholders over the impressment of their slaves. Nevertheless, he effectively used black labor to build fortifications that delayed the Union offensive.[ . . . ]
In the early months of 1862, allegations that Southerners were coercing African Americans into combat continued to be a regular feature in the speeches and editorials of emancipationists. In pushing for both emancipation and the recruitment of black troops, the abolitionist newspaper Principia maintained that the Confederates “have been fighting in close companionship with negroes, from the beginning!” Southern blacks, the paper claimed, “are regularly drilled for the service. And the proportion of negro soldiers is increasing.” Anywhere from 800,000 to 1 million male slaves were of fighting age, Indiana representative George Julian warned Congress on January 14, and “they cannot be neutral. As laborers, if not as soldiers, they will be allies of the rebels, or of the Union. . . . The rebels organize regiments of black men, who shoot down our loyal soldiers.”
Two famous abolitionists shared these concerns. At the Cooper Institute, William Lloyd Garrison repeated the assertion that 800,000 male slaves were capable of fighting. “They are at the service of the country whenever we accept them. But the Government will not accept them, and the rebel slaveholders are mustering them in companies, and in regiments, and they are shooting down Northern men.” Wendell Phillips presciently observed in February 1862 that if the Confederacy started to lose the war, the arming of their slaves would only become more widespread. They would play their “last card” by calling “the negroes to their aid [and] offering liberation in return.” Thus, immediate emancipation was required. A month later, Phillips reiterated the point while lecturing at the Smithsonian. “If Abraham Lincoln does not have the negro on his side,” he told the audience, “Jefferson Davis will have him on his.”
From The Peninsula Campaign and the Necessity of Emancipation: African Americans and the Fight for Freedom, by Glenn David Brasher. Copyright © 2012 by the University of North Carolina Press.
Glenn David Brasher is instructor of history at the University of Alabama.
This article is crossposted at uncpresscivilwar150.com.