The Peninsula Campaign and Emancipation

I recently finished reading Glenn David Brasher’s new study of 1862′s Peninsula Campaign for a book review that will appear in The Register of the Kentucky Historical Society. It is entitled, The Peninsula Campaign & the Necessity of Emancipation: African Americans & the Fight for Freedom (UNC Press, 2012). It is a terrific book and one I hope will receive much deserved critical praise and awards. If your book budget is tight like mine, Brasher’s book is well worth making a priority buy.

So why am I singing the praises of this book? First, because it combines the best of traditional military history with the newer social history of the Civil War. Brasher studies one of the pivotal campaigns of the American Civil War, George McClellan’s unsuccessful effort to flank Richmond’s main defenses by making an amphibious landing south of the city on the peninsula between the James and York rivers. The story of the failed Peninsula Campaign is well known, so I will not repeat it here yet again. What sets apart Glenn David Brasher’s study is how he restores African Americans to their central place in the history of the campaign, as a logistical force multiplier for both armies, and makes a case for how Union defeat on the Peninsula proved pivotal in shifting public opinion in the North in favor of emancipation. As he writes, “The contributions that African Americans had made to both armies, coupled with the failure of McClellan’s Peninsula Campaign, played a role in turning many Northerners in favor of emancipation” (191).

Just as important is Brasher’s trenchant analysis of contemporary accounts of African Americans fighting for the Confederacy during the Peninsula Campaign. As a responsible scholar, he does not accept the fantasy promoted by modern neo-Confederates that tens or even hundreds of thousands of African Americans fought as soldiers for the Confederacy. But wisely, neither does he reject these stories outright. I too have come across them in other contexts early in the Civil War, particularly in the aftermath of First Bull Run, and have written about them extensively in this blog (see July 27, July 28, August 1, and August 17 of 2011).

Indeed, one of the most useful contributions of The Peninsula Campaign & the Necessity of Emancipation is the intelligent and insightful analysis that Brasher makes about the stories at the time of armed blacks in Confederate service, placing them in the larger context of the debate over emancipation in the North during the spring and summer of 1862. His basic point here, in a nutshell, is while some armed black men probably were scattered across the Confederate forces on the Peninsula and probably fired their weapons against Union forces, their numbers were quite small, as the Confederate government at the time and until the last days of the war rejected arming slaves or even free blacks. But their existence or stories of their existence was used and exaggerated by supporters of immediate abolition and enlisting black men in the Union army. It was in abolitionists’ interest to maximize the perceived value of African Americans to the Confederacy, Brasher argues credibly, to convince white Northerners that they should have African Americans as soldiers in the Union army and free them and other people of their race without delay. He writes:

Obviously there were exaggerations and fabrications in these accounts, but the evidence does suggest that early in the war at least some blacks were observed fighting in Confederate ranks. Most were probably body servants, and while some may have been caught up in the thrill of combat, it is more likely that they were forced into service, deceived by their masters’ tales of the designs of the evil Yankees, or motivated by a desire to demonstrate their loyalty to their owners when it was unclear who would win the war (53).

An important reason Glenn David Brasher’s interpretation in this regard is credible is that it makes sense of Frederick Douglass’ heretofore puzzling comment in Douglass’ Monthly in September 1861, accepting black Confederate soldiers as an established fact. Evidently, Douglass was inclined to believe these accounts because they bolstered his argument in favor of enlisting African Americans in the Union Army and immediate emancipation. According to Brasher, it was an argument that Douglass and other abolitionists would make and continue to make until the Lincoln administration finally embraced emancipation and African Americans as soldiers.

Still, The Peninsula Campaign & the Necessity of Emancipation is not without blemish. Brasher takes his interpretation a little too far, arguing that had McClellan triumphed on the Peninsula in 1862 that emancipation likely would not have occurred. Clearly, Brasher accepts the idea that had Richmond fallen that year the Confederacy would have fallen with it, before enough white Northerners had accepted emancipation as a military necessity, allowing slavery to survive the war. This idea is flawed. While the Richmond’s fall in 1862 would have been a hard blow for the South, it is likely the Confederate government and army would have survived. Psychologically and logistically, in 1862, the Confederacy was not ready for defeat, and still had the will and means to continue to resist, even without Richmond. The city was not the Confederacy’s center-of-gravity. That belonged with the Confederate army and more broadly with the white population of the South. It would take three more years, and the hard war of Grant, Sherman, and other Union commanders to break the Confederacy.

So, Glenn David Brasher, like many scholars before him, tries to squeeze a little too much significance out of his argument, but this flaw does not diminish the overall highly insightful quality of The Peninsula Campaign & the Necessity of Emancipation.  I very much recommend it. Indeed, it is my present candidate thus far for best book of 2012 on the American Civil War (prize committees please take note).

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About Donald R. Shaffer

Donald R. Shaffer is the author of _After the Glory: The Struggles of Black Civil War Veterans_ (Kansas, 2004), which won the Peter Seaborg Award for Civil War Scholarship in 2005. More recently he published (with Elizabeth Regosin), _Voices of Emancipation: Understanding Slavery, the Civil War, and Reconstruction through the U.S. Pension Bureau Files_ (2008). Dr. Shaffer teaches online exclusively (i.e., a virtual professor). He lives in Arizona and can be contacted at donald_shaffer@yahoo.com
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5 Responses to The Peninsula Campaign and Emancipation

  1. Arleigh Birchler says:

    I like your analysis. Without any good evidence I tend to believe that even after the Seven Days Battles McClelland could have taken Richmond. I can see your point that it would not have ended the War. From everything I know McClelland would never have supported emancipation. More importantly, the past is the past. It is pointless to speculate too much on what would have happened if …

  2. Glenn B says:

    Donald, as a long-time reader of your blog (which I greatly admire), I am very grateful for your review and kind words. Honestly, I have been very curious about what you would think of it, so its great to see your comments. I believe that your review does my book a great service, as you really hone in nicely on what my intentions were and get to the heart of my argument (something that I feel not even the book’s dust jacket does well). Your criticism is also extremely fair, and I agree that it is a very debatable point as to whether the war would have ended had McClellan taken Richmond. Obviously, I feel that with everything going on in the West at that time, and the loss of such an important point (industrial base, railroads, symbolic value, etc, etc), the blow at that moment may well have been fatal to the Confederacy at a time before Lee’s successes had helped build Confederate nationalism (Gary Gallagher of course comes to mind here). Still, the point is still debatable to say the least, which is why I point out in the book that even if it had not ended the war, it would have at the least legitimized McClellan’s belief in fighting the war without touching slavery, and certainly would have weakened the “military necessity” argument for emancipation. (Which as we know, was the legal justification for the Emancipation Proclamation). With all the victories in the West, and the fall of Richmond, I am not sure how anyone could have bought the idea that freeing the slaves was a military necessity anymore. With that in mind, I still cling to my basic argument about the importance of the Peninsula Campaign to emancipation, whether the fall of Richmond had ended the war or not.

    Lastly, please allow me to say that I am very humbled by your last sentence, especially because I greatly value your own knowledge and expertise on the subject of emancipation.

    • Hi Glenn. Thanks for the kind words and the further explanation concerning what might have happened if Richmond had fallen to McClellan in 1862. The truth, I suppose, is we have no real idea what would have happened. That’s the problem with counter-factual history–you can make educated guesses, but they remain guesses. That is why I try to discourage my students from doing “what if” history. But it is so fun and tempting to do it, and sometimes insightful as it is here.

  3. Thanks for the recommendation Donald. I just downloaded it and hope to enjoy Brasher’s book.

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