The Peninsula Campaign and the Necessity of Emancipation: African Americans and the Fight for Freedom (review)
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The Peninsula Campaign and the Necessity of Emancipation: African Americans and the Fight for Freedom. By Glenn David Brasher. (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2012. Pp. 288. $39.95 cloth)

Glenn David Brasher's The Peninsula Campaign and the Necessity of Emancipation looks at an old Civil War topic in a new way. Much scholarship has been devoted to George McClellan's ill-fated effort in 1862 to outflank the northern defenses of Richmond by floating his army to the peninsula between the James and York Rivers, and then marching on the Confederate capital from its less-defended southern approaches. To his credit, Brasher finds a novel and consequential way to approach this topic—by reincorporating African Americans and the significant role they played in it.

Yet this book is about a lot more than simply rewriting the Peninsula campaign with black people included. Brasher also endeavors [End Page 587] to show its significance in the coming of emancipation in terms of popular opinion. He asserts that, "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" (p. 191). In particular, Brasher demonstrates convincingly how the events on the Peninsula drove home for white Northerners the military value of slaves. Not only were slaves able to construct substantial fortifications for the Confederacy quickly, blocking McClellan's advance and helping to convince him falsely he was outnumbered, but African Americans also thoroughly demonstrated to "Little Mac's" men, if not to the general himself, their value as allies. Many Peninsula slaves, believing that the Union army had come to free them, eagerly offered valuable intelligence on Confederate activities, guided the northern soldiers through the confusing geography of the Peninsula, and eagerly did the same labor for the Union army that they did under duress for the Confederates.

Another subject on which Glenn David Brasher offers valuable insight is the controversy over the supposed mass participation of black men as soldiers in the Confederate army. Brasher wisely does not accept the historical validity of this proposition, but neither does he totally dismiss accounts of African Americans in armed service for the Confederacy during the Peninsula campaign (The author of this review has also encountered similar accounts from the first year of the Civil War). Brasher's interpretation of them is both credible and astute. He contends that they show that a small but noticeable number of servants and sundry African Americans informally fought side by side with the Rebels, especially early in the war, for reasons of personal loyalty, fear, and the hope of reward; however, black men never did have a formal place as soldiers in the Confederate army in 1862. Their existence was exaggerated at the time by proabolitionist Northerners to maximize the perceived military value of African Americans in making the argument that blacks should be recruited into the Union army and slavery abolished. [End Page 588]

While Glenn David Brasher's argument about so-called "Black Confederates" is convincing, he takes his conclusions about the historical significance of the Peninsula campaign to emancipation too far. Brasher asserts that had McClellan succeeded in taking Richmond in 1862, it would have ended the Civil War, leaving too many white Northerners unconvinced that emancipation was necessary and thus slavery would have survived the Civil War. This interpretation assumes that the capture of Richmond in 1862 would have ended Confederate resistance, which is a dubious proposition. The war was only a year old when the Peninsula campaign began, and despite recent reverses, the Confederacy still had the means and will to continue resistance even after the fall of Richmond. The hard war had not yet begun which would eventually degrade the Confederate army and impoverish its white population to the point that surrender was the only viable option; that would take three more years. In any case, even though Glenn David Brasher takes his argument about the role of the Peninsula campaign in emancipation too far, on the whole The Peninsula Campaign and the Necessity of Emancipation is a highly praiseworthy work that succeeds...