Thursday, July 19, 2012

Just Finished Reading

The University of North Carolina Press continues to impress me with the books they publish. It seems that each one I read is better than the last. And, while most of the credit must go to the scholar authors, UNC Press must have excellent editors and advisers who decide what gets accepted and what doesn't.

My latest read is yet another outstanding contribution to the fine family of UNC Press Civil War era books. Glenn David Brasher's The Peninsula Campaign and the Necessity of Emancipation: African Americans and the Fight for Freedom makes such a strong argument obvious it makes one wonder why someone had not explored this particular topic previously.

Brasher contends, and I agree, that African Americans in the James/York River peninsula region were active agents in bringing about social and political changes in the first two years of the war. Even before Gen. George McClellan began his famous campaign, slaves almost a year earlier flocked to Fortress Monroe where Gen. Benjamin Butler coined the term contraband. From the very beginning of the war the slaves knew the conflict was about slavery and that they had a high stake in the outcome.

It was the Confederate's use of slave labor to build fortifications and provide additional manpower to the Southern armies on the peninsula, Brasher argues, that prompted the Union to come to the conclusion that either they too must employ blacks or be beaten. Brasher musters an army of evidence from numerous perspectives to make his claims. Letters from both Union and Confederate soldiers, as well as civilians, politicians, newspaper editors and the bondsmen themselves, all give insight into how African American slaves running away to Union lines brought about enormous and previously unfathomable changes.

Particularly intriguing and ironic was Brasher's use of numerous accounts of African American Confederates, many of whom were body servants of armed white soldiers, that were witnessed as picking up arms and killing and wounding Union soldiers. These accounts became widespread through the Northern press and prompted radical politicians to call with greater vehemence for the Federal government to at least use blacks in labor situations if not as strict soldiers.

White Union soldiers quickly found out during the Peninsula Campaign that the only reliable information they could depend on came from slaves and free blacks. In order to prevent slaves from conversing with Union soldiers slave owners told their chattels that the Northern soldiers would scoop them up and sell them to Cuba, or that Union soldiers had one eye like a cyclops and horns on their heads. The efforts to terrify slaves most often fell on deaf ears though as slaves reasoned if owners did not want them talking to the enemy then the enemy must indeed be their friends. Slaves knew the back roads and the waterways like no others and the Union army used this information to move their troops up the Peninsula. Brasher even posits that Gen. Winfield Scott Hancock earned his sobriquet "Superb" at the Battle of Williamsburg due to information gained from a slave that helped him find an obscure path that led to the Confederate flank.

Brasher makes a point to say that if indeed McClellan had captured Richmond to cap off the campaign then the war would have probably ended with slavery intact, and that it was only through the repulse of the Army of the Potomac that made Congress, and finally Lincoln, realize that emancipation was a necessary war measure. I have a minor quibble with this point. In my opinion if Richmond had fallen to McClellan in the summer of 1862 the Confederates would have moved the capital to another city and would have continued to fight on. There was simply still too much to lose that early in the war for the Confederates to surrender with the loss of the capital city.

To me, The Peninsula Campaign and the Necessity of Emancipation is required reading for those who need evidence that whether or not Lincoln said it or believed it at that point, the end of slavery and the perpetuation of the Union was one in the same. On a scale of 1 to 5, I give it a full 5.          

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