[This article is crossposted at UNCPressCivilWar150.com.]
When rumors of “development” encroach upon areas with rich historical backgrounds, they most likely will find a wall of resistance waiting. This is the current situation in the Virginia Peninsula, where the site of the Battle of Williamsburg is now vulnerable to such an unfortunate fate. Glenn David Brasher, author of The Peninsula Campaign and the Necessity of Emancipation: African Americans and the Fight for Freedom, recently discussed the battle’s significance and how development threatens to destroy a significant landmark in African American history.
In May of 1862, Union General George B. McClellan sought to capture Richmond, Virginia, by way of the Virginia Peninsula. However, he ran into difficulty when Confederate troops subverted his attack at Yorktown and withdrew through the Chickahominy swamps. The Confederates then set up a defensive line with fortifications in Williamsburg, but, as Brasher explains, slaves provided information and guidance that proved instrumental in the Union Army’s ultimate success at the Battle of Williamsburg:
Fortunately, sixteen slaves who had been forced to work on these fortifications came to Union lines and explained that there were forts on the Confederate left that were unoccupied. Other slaves brought in similar reports and revealed that if Union troops filled the empty works they would be in a protected position on the flank of the Confederate army. Even more fortuitous, one slave knew of a hidden path that led right to the empty works.
Once Union attacks elsewhere stalled, Union commanders finally decided to send at least one brigade down the secluded trail. General Winfield Hancock was ordered to occupy the abandoned Confederate works but not to move his brigade any farther without orders. The path was narrow and at times the men had to hack their way through dense foliage. For the last leg, the slaves led the Yankees across a mill dam, as well as a gorge that pond water had sliced into a hillside. Eventually the brigade emerged from the wooded labyrinth and found the works abandoned, just as the slaves said they would be.
Brasher’s complete article can be found at The Civil War Monitor’s blog “The Front Line.” Currently, the battle site is only partial protect by the National Park Service’s Colonial Parkway; the rest of the site is owned by Anheuser Busch and a local family, both of which are using a “mixed-use overlay” to allow for development. Brasher warns that doing so would destroy the site of one of the most significant moments in African American history:
When the Battle of Williamsburg took place in 1862, white northerners were bitterly divided over the issue of whether the government should attempt to liberate the slaves. When the Civil War began, most white northerners felt that the war’s only aim should be to keep the south from seceding, not to end slavery. Yet, after a year of conflict those sentiments were changing. It had become obvious that the South was effectively forcing its slave population to build earthen fortifications (like those around Yorktown and Williamsburg) that slowed the advance of Union troops. At the same time, however, black southerners had also proven their desire to help the north win the war, and their services (as in the Battle of Williamsburg) had become invaluable to northern armies.
Both these considerations ultimately played a large role in the northern government’s decision to turn the war into one that freed the slaves. Those that favored emancipation repeatedly pointed to the events that transpired on the Virginia Peninsula to make their case, and these factors figured greatly in President Abraham Lincoln’s deliberations over the Emancipation Proclamation. By the start of 1863, African Americans were finally being recruited as soldiers.
Read Brasher’s full post at the Civil War Monitor.
Glenn David Brasher is instructor of history at the University of Alabama and author of The Peninsula Campaign and the Necessity of Emancipation: African Americans and the Fight for Freedom.