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Fresh look at Civil War Campaign

Major role of slaves in Richmond spotlighted

By Clint Schemmer

The Free Lance-Star

WANT PROOF that history isn’t dead? Look no further than Glenn David Brasher’s revelatory account of what happened in Virginia 150 years ago this summer.

Many skilled authors have written of Gen. George B. McClellan’s ambitious Peninsula Campaign, the North’s first attempt to seize the South’s capital in 1862.

But none accomplished what Brasher does in “The Peninsula Campaign & the Necessity of Emancipation.”

This native of Birmingham, Ala., encouraged by the eminent historian George Rable,He shines a light on part of our past that belongs in every high-school history curriculum.

Simply, Brasher shows that freedom wasn’t something that happened to enslaved Virginians. They seized it the first moment they could.

At the same time, enslaved blacks whom Robert E. Lee diverted from their plantations helped him build the ramparts around Richmond and Yorktown, and even manned Confederate artillery in the latter’s earthworks.

On both tracks, they changed the course of the war. Their actions forced Northerners to consider African–Americans’ ability to bolster Confederate defenses and act as Union army informants, spies and, perhaps, fighting men. And what should be done with the thousands of Negroes flooding into Union lines?

As debate raged in Congress, some  lawmakers thought that inaction would disillusion Southern blacks and they would  return to the service of their masters.

Something had to be done to discourage those in bondage from aiding the Southern war effort. Richmond’s formidable fortifications, which so daunted McClellan, proved that.

President Lincoln, who was no abolitionist, clearly reached such a conclusion. Within weeks of conferring with McClellan after his defeat by Lee in the Seven Days’ Battles, Lincoln sprang the first draft of his Emancipation Proclamation on the Cabinet.

Without Lee’s victories around Richmond, and without slaves’ mass sprint to freedom as Union troops advanced up the Peninsula, the war might have ended much sooner, with slavery intact.

The important, eye-opening result isn’t the heroic Civil War stuff of yore. But this story’s protagonists were no less daring, no less valiant than any group of soldiers in the field.

To quote historian Barbara J. Fields: “It was [the slaves] who taught the nation that  it must put the abolition of slavery at the head of its agenda.”

That happened right here in Virginia in the most dramatic and powerful way. Glenn Brasher’s seminal book makes it hauntingly real.

Clint Schemmer is an editor and reporter with The Free Lance–Star.


By Glen David Brasher

(UNC Press, $39.95, 304 pp.)


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