Past is Prologue

Clint Schemmer writes about history, heritage preservation and the American Civil War.  On Facebook: Past is Prologue  On Twitter: @prologuepast  ContactEmail Clint or call 540/374-5424.

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Bryant: Civil War’s progress drives politics, emancipation

The town of Culpeper, sketched during the Civil War. LIBRARY OF CONGRESS

This weekend’s well-attended Civil War in Culpeper program covered a lot of ground, both intellectually and physically. It had something for everyone: military affairs, political intrigue, civilian heartache, and new scholarship on African Americans.

My story in Monday’s print edition just scratches the surface.

It may take me a few days, but I’ll try to touch on all of that in posts here over the next few days, so you can get a sense of what participants in Saturday’s events learned.

I’ll lead off with part of the second speaker’s presentation during the morning’s symposium, titled “Anguish and Freedom: The Yankees Descend Upon Culpeper,” at Germanna Community College’s Germanna Campus.

Dr. James K. Bryant II, author of two volumes of Civil War history–with a third due out this summer–gave a talk entitled “To Keep My Freedom: African Americans, Emancipation Politics, and the [Virginia] Military Campaigns of 1862.”

Bryant, formerly an associate professor of history at Shenandoah University and a historian at Fredericksburg and Spotyslvania National Military Park, explained how  the politics of emancipation mesh with the progress of the war in 1862.

A giant pivot point came when Gen. George B. McClellan’s march up the Virginia Peninsula failed to take Richmond, the Confederate capital, he said.

On July 7, President Abraham Lincoln arrived to confer with the commander at Harrison’s Landing on the James River, the spot to which McClellan withdrew his army upon being pressed by Robert E. Lee’s forces in the Seven Days’ battles east of Richmond.

The next day, McClellan handed Lincoln a letter stating his views on political policy. “Military power should not be allowed to interfere with the relations of servitude,” McClellan advised the president. “A declaration of radical views, especially upon slavery, will rapidly disintegrate our present Armies.”

Lincoln read the letter, thanked the general for it, and said nothing more.

“He let his future actions speak for him,” Bryant said.

Soon after Lincoln returned to Washington, it grew clear that Gen. John Pope–summoned from the West–would lead further offensives, not McClellan, he said.

Three days after his Harrison’s Landing visit, Lincoln told Secretary of State William H. Seward and Navy Secretary Gideon Welles that he wanted to issue a proclamation freeing the South’s slaves, Bryant noted.

“[Lincoln] had given it much thought and had about come to the conclusion that it was a military necessity absolutely essential for the salvation of the Union,” Welles recorded in his diary. “[T]hat we must free the slaves or be ourselves subdued.”

Seward’s fear that word of emancipation would prompt Britain and France to recognize the Confederacy, and Pope’s August defeats on Virginia battlefields, forced Lincoln to move cautiously. He waited until the Battle of Antietam, declared a Union victory, to issue his preliminary Emancipation Proclamation.

Lee saw the policy as giving him more leverage to end the war in favor of the Confederate States of America, Bryant said.

After Antietam, Lee told President Jefferson Davis,  “that I have strong hopes that the conservative portion of that people, unless dead to the feelings of liberty, will rise and depose the party now in power.”

Which came within a whisker of  happening.

Lee also felt that Lincoln’s actions would swell the ranks of the Confederate armies. Which happened that fall.

Yet Lincoln didn’t back down. Emancipation was now a war aim.

“Without slavery, the rebellion could never have existed,” Lincoln told Congress on Dec. 2, 1862. “Without slavery, it could not continue.”