Were Slaves Really Loyal to the Union From the Start?

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Southerners have falsely claimed that "Black Confederates" fought in the Civil War. But the North has a myth of its own.

A group of slaves, photographed around the outbreak of the war. (Library of Congress)

If Robert Penn Warren is right, white northerners have had an easy time coming to terms with the legacy of the Civil War. In contrast with the white South, which inherited what Warren referred to as "the great alibi" -- a memory of the war built on the psychological scars of defeat and emancipation -- northerners embraced a "treasury of virtue" that celebrated both the defeat of a slaveocracy and the preservation of the Union. Within the collective memories of both regions, African Americans have proved to be essential: as devoted slaves that remained loyal to the Confederacy on the one hand and as allies in the creation of a more perfect union void of racial boundaries on the other. 

The first of these two myths can be found on hundreds of websites devoted to so-called "Black Confederate" soldiers. The proliferation of these sites, however, is in direct response to a competing myth that assumes that slaves identified with the United States from the beginning of the Civil War. As the story goes, African Americans eagerly awaited the president's call to serve, and once he did they flooded recruitment offices. In Glenn David Brasher's new book, The Peninsula Campaign & the Necessity of Emancipation, he successfully challenges both myths, and in the process, places Virginia's slave population at the center of one of the most important military campaigns of 1862 -- one he believes pushed the United States closer to a policy of emancipation.

The fighting on the Virginia peninsula in the spring and early summer of 1862 took place in a region that included a large slave population. As George B. McClellan's Army of the Potomac disembarked for what many thought would be the final campaign of the war, Virginia's slaves remained hesitant to see them as liberators -- in part, because the government's confusing contraband policy left them in a precarious position between freedom and slavery. According to Brasher, such a policy reflected the hope of many Northerners, both in the military and on the home front that the war could be won without disrupting the South's "peculiar institution." 

This policy gradually proved to be untenable as slaves supplied the Union army with much needed intelligence and assistance behind the lines. More importantly, argues Brasher, it was reports of slaves in Confederate ranks, going back to the battle of First Manassas in July 1861, that proved decisive in shaping government policy. These reports quickly filtered back to Washington, where Radical Republicans and abolitionists such as Frederick Douglass used them to convince the president and the general public that a more aggressive policy against slavery was now a military necessity. The debate was no longer framed by abstract moral concerns, but by practical questions of whether slaves would support the Union or Confederate army. 

Brasher is very careful in handling the evidence of armed slaves that filtered through camps and into northern newspapers, where they were clearly used for political purposes. Many of the reports of armed slaves were likely sightings of impressed slaves and body servants. While he concedes that some African Americans may have picked up arms and "even been caught up in the thrill of combat," the author is quick to add that "it is more likely that they were forced into service, deceived by their masters' tales about the designs of evil Yankees, or motivated by a desire to demonstrate their loyalty to owners when it was unclear who would win the war." While such a conclusion is not likely to satisfy Confederate apologists, who see loyal slaves behind every report regardless of the source, Brasher's analysis reflects the Confederate government's policy of slave impressment and continued resistance to any discussion of enlisting slaves as soldiers. 

Part of the difficulty of explaining what motivated Virginia slaves comes from the lack of evidence in their own voice. Historians are relegated to approaching the subject of slave motivation indirectly -- either through Confederate accounts, which are weighed down by a deeply rooted paternalism, or from soldiers in the Union Army, who infused their letters with their own self-serving bias. This does not deter Brasher as he tracks the Union army's movements past Yorktown and Williamsburg to within earshot of Richmond's church bells. By the time the army reached the gates of Richmond, its collective position was clear: "blacks overwhelmingly and joyously welcomed the Yankees."

Not even the support of Virginia's slaves could push McClellan to commit his force to one final assault on the Confederate capital. Between June 25 and July 1, the two armies fought a series of battles that left the Army of the Potomac dispirited, cut off from its base of operations and roughly 20 miles from Richmond. The result of the campaign, however, likely contributed to pushing the Lincoln administration closer to emancipation. The actions of slaves in both the Union and Confederate armies convinced moderate Republicans and Democrats to back a more vigorous policy that resulted in the passage of the Second Confiscation Act on July 17. It also gave rise to the Militia Act, which allowed the military to employ blacks for jobs "for which they may be found competent." Ultimately, according to Brasher, the flurry of activity related to emancipation during this campaign serves as a reminder that Lincoln "resolved to issue the Emancipation Proclamation long before Antietam."

Though it may not have been intended, The Peninsula Campaign & the Necessity of Emancipation reminds us just how much the Union and Confederacy shared in their valuation of blacks during the war. What took place on the Virginia peninsula ultimately led to the recruitment of around 200,000 African Americans into the U.S. military. But as Brasher demonstrates, this did not occur as a result of a great moral awakening, but rather an increasing recognition that their service and loyalty was essential for victory. 

The Confederacy also entertained a vigorous debate about black soldiers in response to continued military setbacks. In the end, the government in Richmond authorized the enlistment of slaves into the army, but it was too little, too late. By April 1865, a reunited nation was forced to confront the moral worth of African Americans' military service and sacrifice. It's a legacy we're still struggling to come to terms with 150 years later.

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Kevin M. Levin is a Civil War historian based in Boston.  He is the author of the book Remembering the Battle of the Crater: War as Murder and can be found online at Civil War Memory.

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