Civil War Book Review: The Peninsula Campaign and the Necessity of Emancipation

by Brett Schulte on March 19, 2012 · 3 comments

Editor’s Note: This book will be available to the public on April 2, 2012.

Brasher, Glenn D. The Peninsula Campaign and the Necessity of Emancipation: African Americans and the Fight for Freedom  (The University of North Carolina Press, April 2, 2012). 304 pages, illustrations, 2 maps, bibliography, endnotes, index. ISBN: 978-0-8078-3544-9 $39.95 (Hardcover).

What campaign is most closely associated with emancipation?  Most non-academic students of the Civil War would say Antietam, but are they correct?  While some academic historians have argued instead for the Peninsula Campaign, Glenn D. Brasher for the first time explores in detail exactly WHY in The Peninsula Campaign and the Necessity of Emancipation: African Americans and the Fight for Freedom.

ThePeninsulaCampaignAndTheNecessityOfEmancipationGlennDBrasherAuthor Glenn David Brasher was born in Alabama, a white Southerner.  In the book he freely admits to celebrating the South’s military history unabashedly…until he watched Glory.  From that moment on he knew he would look at the war in a different way.  Brasher is currently an instructor of history at the University of Alabama and has worked for the National Park Service in the Richmond area.

In the early portion of 1862, the Civil War looked increasingly like it would be won by the North without the need for extreme measures such as emancipation.  Northern victories in the west by May had pushed the front lines as far south as Corinth in northern Mississippi.  George B. McClellan’s massive Army of the Potomac had landed on the York-James Peninsula in southeastern Virginia with a goal of reaching the Confederate capital at Richmond.  Only the abolitionist and radical newspapers were championing the need to free the slaves.  Others preferred to wait, not wanting to use what they deemed to be extreme measures unless absolutely necessary.

However, events on the ground in Virginia were slowly turning Northern public opinion in the direction of not only full emancipation, but also the need to arm Blacks as a “military necessity.”  Benjamin Butler’s presence at Fort Monroe on the tip of the Peninsula caused Union soldiers for the first time to run into the large numbers of slaves concentrated in the area east of Richmond.  As positive interactions between slaves and Union soldiers grew the thorny issue of what to do with runaway slaves arose.  Butler neatly bought time by declaring the slaves “contrabands of war.”  As the numbers of runaways grew exponentially, this became an even bigger problem.

George B. McClellan

George B. McClellan, ironically on whose quick success on the Peninsula the survival of slavery depended.

Numerous reports of Blacks being used as soldiers arose after the First Battle of Bull Run.  These reports continued as McClellan launched his Peninsula Campaign.  In addition, John B. Magruder, the Confederate general opposing McClellan on the Peninsula, used thousands of slaves to create the extremely strong fortifications running across the Peninsula and anchored at Yorktown.  Union soldiers, civilians, and politicians began to see that Blacks were being used to advantage by Confederates.  Not only taking away that advantage, but making it an advantage for the North, started to seem like a very good idea.

In The Peninsula Campaign and the Necessity of Emancipation: African Americans and the Fight for Freedom, Brasher spends much time recounting how Blacks helped the Union army on the Peninsula in many ways.  Former slaves provided labor unloading supply ships at Fort Monroe and White House.  Others worked on fortifications away from the front lines.  Runaway slaves and free Blacks provided many accurate reports of Confederate movements, including the evacuation of Yorktown and Stonewall Jackson’s whereabouts prior to the Seven Days.

In addition, Union soldiers saw firsthand the horrors of slavery.  More than one anecdote in the book covered the disgust of soldiers upon seeing the slave quarters in comparison to the beautiful mansions of their masters.  Overseers who whipped slaves in sight of Union soldiers were threatened with their lives.  Stories of families being broken apart by masters without a second thought incensed some in the Union army.  As thousands of former slaves fled to the Union army at every opportunity, the question of what to legally do with these people continued to grow and became a vexing issue for Congress.

Confederate slaveholders, for their part, were incensed and disgusted when they realized their slaves held no loyalty to them at all and ran away at the first good opportunity.  They tried to hold back slaves from working on Confederate fortifications for fear of losing them to the Union army as runaways.  Ironically, Southerners complained when the North started to use slaves in the same roles as the Confederacy.

The Virginia Peninsula from a Civil War Era Newspaper

Ultimately, as the Peninsula Campaign neared and reached its climax, the clamor for the need to free the slaves in the North grew immensely.  If McClellan, as thoroughly Democratic and anti-emancipation as any man in the Union army, failed in his quest to capture Richmond and end the war quickly, the climate would be ripe for the country to accept full emancipation as a “military necessity.”  McClellan did fail, and Brasher argues that this failure along with the experiences with Blacks by Northern soldiers on the Peninsula created an environment where the Northern public accepted the need for and in some cases demanded emancipation.  The Peninsula, not Antietam, writes Brasher, was the match which lit the fuse of emancipation.  It was, he says, a foregone conclusion as of July 1862.

Brasher is quick to point out many in the North held the same paternalistic, condescending attitudes as their White Southern counterparts.  He is also fair in dealing with numerous reports of “Black Confederates” throughout the early stages of the war.  Entire Black Confederate regiments were said to have fought at First Bull Run, and reports of Black Confederate sharpshooters and other soldiers were spotted on the Peninsula.  These reports were picked up and circulated by Northern newspapers and believed to be absolutely true, ironically paving the way for the “emancipation as military necessity” argument.

"Slaves Entering Sally Port of Fort Monroe," Frank Leslie's Illustrated Newspaper, June 8, 1861 (Library of Congress)

The author uses a variety of period newspapers, almost 50 in number according to the bibliography, labeling them variously with terms such as Democratic, radical Republican, abolitionist, moderate, etc. for the benefit of the reader.  He shows how each sub-group changed its tune over time and that by July 1862 even heavily Democratic papers were clamoring for emancipation to weaken the South and help win the war.  His look at newspapers mirrors examples of Northern senators and congressmen gradually seeing the need for emancipation in order to win the war, even those who began the war with a hatred of abolitionists.

The book contains many quotes from slaveholders, abolitionists, Union soldiers and of course slaves and Free Blacks.  Brasher skillfully uses these sources to bring the friction on the ground in southeastern Virginia to life.  Examples of runaways aiding the Union at every opportunity as guides, laborers, informants, and spies abound.

The author moves easily in traditional military circles.  His blending of military history with the social and political history during the first year of the Civil War and more specifically the Peninsula Campaign results in a pleasing, informative and compelling narrative.  The use of period diaries, letters, newspapers, and the proceedings of Congress creates a very strong argument for the Peninsula Campaign and the thousands of experiences it contained as a lightning rod for emancipation.

The Peninsula Campaign and the Necessity of Emancipation: African Americans and the Fight for Freedom explores for the first time exactly why McClellan’s Peninsula Campaign created the atmosphere in the North to make emancipation not only feasible but expected.  The author recounts the experiences of runaway slaves and Union soldiers as they encountered each other for the first time on a large scale on Virginia’s York-James Peninsula.  As Confederates used Blacks to their benefit, the obvious questions were asked in the North.  These questions were not only about how to prevent this from happening, but also how to double down and use willing Blacks as allies in the fight against the Confederacy and slavery.  Brasher uses a multitude of varying sources, making sure to provide examples from various viewpoints and political leanings.  Military, social, and political history is blended together seamlessly.  The Peninsula Campaign and the Necessity of Emancipation is a short but satisfying read, breaking new ground and laying the groundwork for future studies of Black/White relations on the front lines of the Civil War.  This excellent book is well written, extensively researched, and convincingly argued.  The University of North Carolina Press has a winner here.

Click here for today's (May 27, 2017) low price for The Peninsula Campaign and the Necessity of Emancipation on Amazon. Discounts change every day, so check out today's price now!

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This book was provided gratis for the purposes of this review.
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{ 3 comments… read them below or add one }

LetUsHavePeace March 19, 2012 at 11:27 am

It is – apparently – impossible for someone in present day academia to understand how people in the 19th century – both North and South – could vehemently oppose slavery and yet be “racist”(sic). Grant, for one, never once doubted the rightness of the cause of Union, nor did he waver as President from using the Army to enforce equality under the law for former slaves, Indians and Chinese and Mexican immigrants. At the same time he had serious doubts about the ability of many people from these groups to become active American citizens. That seemed to him common sense; given their history of slavery and near-slavery and illiteracy, how could they? Using the word “Black” may be an appropriate concession to political correctness but it is hardly the word to be used for historical discussions about slaves and former slaves. It is not a term the people of that period would ever have used. One of the ironies of the present multicultural age is that we are far less aware of individuals’ differences of appearance than people were in 1850, 1865 and 1880. Even a common (sic) person could distinguish Cubans from Guatemalans, people from the Caribbean from those from West Africa, degrees of European heritage among slaves and former slaves, and the differences among Indian tribes. We may find those people “racist”; they would have found our labeling our current President as “black” unbelievably crude and an indication of how racially obtuse we are about the subtleties of individual heritage.

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CW001 March 20, 2012 at 2:01 pm

@LetUsHavePeace—-Actually, most academic historians, if not all, understand perfectly well how someone could be a “racist” and yet oppose slavery. I would encourage you to read up more. Especially significant books would be academic biographies of Lincoln. Chandra Manning’s -What This Cruel War Was Over- also comes to mind.

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Brian Kelly September 21, 2012 at 8:48 am

Agreed, Brasher has given us an excellent contribution to the historiography here, weaving together (as you say) social and military history in a way that few scholars manage. The book did puzzle me in one respect: Brasher suggests in his introduction that his work calls into question the ‘self-emancipation’ thesis that Macpherson, Gary Gallagher and others have argued against in recent years, but I find this problematic. Partly bc there are, in reality, few or no historians who argue that the slaves ‘freed themselves’. Read Ira Berlin’s fine essay on ‘Who Freed the Slaves?’ and tell me where you find an argument suggesting ‘self-emancipation. But the more substantive point is that to my mind at least Brasher’s work lends powerful support to those who have argued (contra Gallagher) that emancipation was central, and that the slaves’ contribution made a very substantial difference in delivering victory to the Union. So I like the book a lot but think that Brasher has not positioned it well in the historiography.

The other piece

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