At Battle for the Virginia Peninsula, Slaves Immigrate From the Confederacy to the United States

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A full list of articles in The Immigrants’ Civil War series appears at the bottom of the page.

The arrival of the Union Army of the Potomac on the Virginia Peninsula brought the jurisdiction of the United States into the heart of the Confederacy. As the army moved towards the Confederate capital at Richmond, it became an unwitting army of liberation.1

Blacks had been part of the war effort since near the onset of fighting, but they were used almost exclusively by one side. The Union, which claimed that ending slavery was not a war aim, disdained the help of black men. The Confederacy, an explicitly slaveholding republic, made extensive use of the labor of free and enslaved blacks for military purposes.2

When 120,000 Union soldiers landed on the Peninsula, they found their advance towards Richmond blocked by line after line of Confederate fortifications. White Southern soldiers, who often protested against the menial labor of digging trenches, were not the primary laborers behind the building of these strong forts. The principal workforce was made up of enslaved African Americans.3

Many Union soldiers began to recognize that slaves were making a significant contribution to the Confederate war effort, but that when they were free from their owners’ control, blacks were reliably opposed to the Confederacy. One of those who recognized this first was an immigrant officer.

Philippe Regis de Trobriand had immigrated to the United States when he was 25 years old. A handsome, well-educated Frenchman, he earned his living publishing a French-language newspaper in New York for his fellow Francophone expatriates. After the attack on Fort Sumter in 1861, he organized a French regiment, the 55th New York, better known as the Gardes Lafayette.4

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Philippe Regis de Trobriand

During the Peninsula Campaign, de Trobriand found that the only reliable intelligence information he could get from local people came from blacks. He and other white officers came to depend on the secretive information network within the community of enslaved African Americans for reports on Confederate troop movements, the morale of enemy troops, and political conditions inside rebel territory. One escaped slave was brave enough to swim across a river for the French colonel, spy on the Confederate army, and return with word that they were evacuating trenches near the old Virginia capital at Williamsburg.5

At the start of the Peninsula Campaign, the Virginia slaves Philippe Regis de Trobriand came to see as allies were living in the Confederacy, the first republic ever founded explicitly for the preservation of slavery. As Union troops moved west from the coast, however, they brought with them the jurisdiction of the United States government: Just months earlier, Congress had authorized the freeing of slaves who were forced to work for the Confederate armies. This meant that when slaves escaped and took refuge inside the Union lines, they were immigrating to another country, one with new laws antagonistic to slavery.6

Slave owners tried to inoculate slaves against the freedom flu by telling them lies about the treatment they would receive from Unionists. “In an effort to ensure that their slaves would not assist Federal troops, masters had been telling horror stories about Northerners,” historian Glenn David Brasher says in a new study of the campaign. Slaves were told of “Yankees who bored holes in black skin, cut off limbs, harnessed slaves like horses, and drove them by the lash,” writes Brasher. The most common lie told was that Union troops would trick slaves into coming over to them and then sell them for a huge profit to slave owners in Cuba, where they would be permanently separated from their families.7

In spite of the propaganda of slave owners, blacks knew that the Union invasion was the best chance for freedom most of them would ever have. Months before Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation, slaves on the Virginia Peninsula had concluded that a Union victory could doom slavery. They took great risks to aid Union troops, supply information to Union officers, and perform work vital to the Union war effort.8

African American resistance to slavery was rooted in the very nature of the institution. Blacks were denied all legal rights, did not own their own labor, and did not control their relationships with their spouses and children. A child could be taken from her mother and sold away as soon as a baby was weaned. Torture was used as a common method of controlling enslaved African Americans, most often through whippings. Samuel Chilton, a freed Virginia slave, said, “Whip em? Yes I seen ‘em whipped…Dey take yo’ shirt off an beat your bare back. Dey whup you ‘till de blood come.” In Williamsburg, today a colonial tourist attraction, there was a public whipping post for the beating of blacks with a cage next to it in which slaves were placed on display after their torture.9

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An escaped slave in Mississippi during the Civil War shows effects of torture by whipping.

Not all slave owners were sadists, of course, but even the slaves of “kindly” masters were prone to run to the Unionists. “Kind treatment is a good thing but it isn’t liberty,” one former slave said.10

When the first escaped slaves arrived in Union camps, officers were only legally authorized to free those who had worked for the Confederate government. All other slaves were supposed to be returned to their owners. Ordinary soldiers, many of whom were not abolitionists at the start of the war, quickly denounced the ludicrousness of pausing during a violent military campaign to conduct an inquiry into who had employed the escapee, then returning the person to an owner who was likely to be a Confederate soldier.11

Added to that was the fact that slaves often came into Union lines with awful scars and other symbols of mistreatment. Many Union soldiers had never met a black person before joining the army and had no direct experience of slavery. They were shocked by the abuse they learned about firsthand. Slaves told of being raped, seeing their young daughters sold off to lecherous owners, and being punished for resisting the breakup of their families. Soldiers began refusing to allow slave catchers into their camps to retake runaways.12

The decision by slaves to “immigrate” into the lines of the Union army, their important role in guiding Union troops, and the work they performed had a profound effect on the advance toward ending slavery. According to historian Glenn Brasher, “the ways in which African Americans participated in the campaign helped prepare Northerners to accept emancipation as a military necessity.”13

“No More Auction Block for Me” was a song sung by escaped slaves who assisted or joined the Union Army during the Civil War:

For more on Robeson, click here.

Resource
This article relies heavily on a new book examining the role of slaves in the Peninsula Campaign, The Peninsula Campaign and the Necessity of Emancipation: African Americans and the Fight for Freedom (Civil War America) by Glenn David Brasher, University of North Carolina Press (April 2, 2012).

Video: Glenn David Brasher discusses African Americans in the Peninsula Campaign

Sources
1. The Peninsula Campaign and the Necessity of Emancipation: African Americans and the Fight for Freedom (Civil War America) by Glenn David Brasher, University of North Carolina Press (April 2, 2012); George B. McClellan: The Young Napoleon by Stephen Sears, published by Ticknor and Fields, pp. 95-192 (1988) “McClellan Organizing the Grand Army” by Phillipe Comte de Paris in Battles and Leaders of the Civil War Vol. II (1887); “The Peninsula Campaign” by Gen. George B. McClellan inBattles and Leaders of the Civil War Vol. II (1887); “Yorktown and Williamsburg” by Warren Lee Goss in Battles and Leaders of the Civil War Vol. II (1887); “Manassas to Seven Pines” by Joseph E. Johnston in Battles and Leaders of the Civil War Vol. II (1887); “Two Days of Battle at Seven Pines” by Gustavus W. Smith in Battles and Leaders of the Civil War Vol. II (1887); Battle Cry of Freedom by James McPherson, Oxford; To the Gates of Richmond by Stephen Sears, published by Ticknor and Fields (1992).

2. The Peninsula Campaign and the Necessity of Emancipation: African Americans and the Fight for Freedom (Civil War America) by Glenn David Brasher, University of North Carolina Press (April 2, 2012).

3. The Peninsula Campaign and the Necessity of Emancipation: African Americans and the Fight for Freedom (Civil War America) by Glenn David Brasher, University of North Carolina Press (April 2, 2012) p. 119.

4. The Peninsula Campaign and the Necessity of Emancipation: African Americans and the Fight for Freedom (Civil War America) by Glenn David Brasher, University of North Carolina Press (April 2, 2012) p. 130.

5. The Peninsula Campaign and the Necessity of Emancipation: African Americans and the Fight for Freedom (Civil War America) by Glenn David Brasher, University of North Carolina Press (April 2, 2012) p. 130.

6. The Peninsula Campaign and the Necessity of Emancipation: African Americans and the Fight for Freedom (Civil War America) by Glenn David Brasher, University of North Carolina Press (April 2, 2012).

7. The Peninsula Campaign and the Necessity of Emancipation: African Americans and the Fight for Freedom (Civil War America) by Glenn David Brasher, University of North Carolina Press (April 2, 2012) p. 41.

8. The Peninsula Campaign and the Necessity of Emancipation: African Americans and the Fight for Freedom (Civil War America) by Glenn David Brasher, University of North Carolina Press (April 2, 2012).

9. The Peninsula Campaign and the Necessity of Emancipation: African Americans and the Fight for Freedom (Civil War America) by Glenn David Brasher, University of North Carolina Press (April 2, 2012) p. 28.

10. The Peninsula Campaign and the Necessity of Emancipation: African Americans and the Fight for Freedom (Civil War America) by Glenn David Brasher, University of North Carolina Press (April 2, 2012) p. 27.

11. The Peninsula Campaign and the Necessity of Emancipation: African Americans and the Fight for Freedom (Civil War America) by Glenn David Brasher, University of North Carolina Press (April 2, 2012).

12. The Peninsula Campaign and the Necessity of Emancipation: African Americans and the Fight for Freedom (Civil War America) by Glenn David Brasher, University of North Carolina Press (April 2, 2012).

13.  The Peninsula Campaign and the Necessity of Emancipation: African Americans and the Fight for Freedom (Civil War America) by Glenn David Brasher, University of North Carolina Press (April 2, 2012) p. 14. According to Brasher, here are several of the core elements showing that the Peninsula Campaign to help foster emancipation: 1) When Union forces moved west from Fort Monroe they were blocked by strong entrenchments built with slave labor; 2) Stories circulated, some based on direct evidence, that slaves were being used to man cannons and engage in other military activities; 3) Slaves provided valuable information on geography and enemy movements; 4) Slave owners that troops encountered were nearly all pro-Confederate; 5) Some Union soldiers found their racist views challenged by direct experience with blacks; 6) The violence of slavery was brought home to Unionists who were viewing it up close for the first time; 7) Black workers relieved Union soldiers of duties they would have otherwise have had to perform; 8) Escaped slaves expressed a desire to take up arms in support of the Union; 9) The ultimate defeat of the Army of the Potomac in the Peninsula Campaign signaled to Northerners that a harsher war would be necessary to defeat the South.

The Immigrants’ Civil War is a series that examines the role of immigrants in our bloodiest war. Articles will appear twice monthly between 2011 and 2017. Here are the articles we have published so far:

1. Immigrant America on the Eve of the Civil War – Take a swing around the United States and see where immigrants were coming from and where they were living in 1861.

2. 1848: The Year that Created Immigrant America – Revolutions in Europe, famine and oppression in Ireland, and the end of the Mexican War made 1848 a key year in American immigration history.

3. Carl Schurz: From German Radical to American Abolitionist– A teenaged revolutionary of 1848, Carl Schurz brought his passion for equality with him to America.

4. Immigrant Leader Carl Schurz Tells Lincoln to Stand Firm Against Slavery.

5. …And the War Came to Immigrant America -The impact of the firing on Fort Sumter on America’s immigrants

6. The Rabbi Who Seceded From the South

7. The Fighting 69th-Irish New York Declares War

8. The Germans Save St. Louis for the Union

9. New York’s Irish Rush to Save Washington

10. Immigrant Day Laborers Help Build the First Fort to Protect Washington-The Fighting 69th use their construction skills.

11. Carl Schurz Meets With Lincoln To Arm the Germans

12. Immigrants Rush to Join the Union Army-Why?– The reasons immigrants gave for enlisting early in the war.

13. Why the Germans Fought for the Union?

14. Why Did the Irish Fight When They Were So Despised?

15. The “Sons of Garibaldi” Join the Union Army

16. The Irish Tigers From Louisiana

17. Immigrant Regiments on Opposite Banks of Bull Run -The Fighting 69th and the Louisiana Tigers

18. The St. Louis Germans Set Out To Free Missouri

19. Wilson’s Creek Drowns Immigrant Dream of Free Missouri

20. English-Only in 1861: No Germans Need Apply

21. After Bull Run: Mutineers, Scapegoats, and the Dead

22. St. Louis Germans Revived by Missouri Emancipation Proclamation

23. Jews Fight the Ban on Rabbis as Chaplains

24. Lincoln Dashes German Immigrants Hopes for Emancipation

25. When Hatred of Immigrants Stopped the Washington Monument from Being Built

26. Inside the Mind of a Know Nothing

27. The Evolution of the Know Nothings

28. The Know Nothings Launch a Civil War Against Immigrant America

29. The Know Nothings: From Triumph to Collapse

30. The Lasting Impact of the Know Nothings on Immigrant America.

31. Lincoln, the Know Nothings, and Immigrant America.

32. Irish Green and Black America: Race on the Edge of Civil War.

33. The Democratic Party and the Racial Consciousness of Irish Immigrants Before the Civil War

34. The Confederates Move Against Latino New Mexico

35. Nuevomexicanos Rally As Confederates Move Towards Santa Fe—But For Which Side?

36. The Confederate Army in New Mexico Strikes at Valverde

37. The Swedish Immigrant Who Saved the U.S. Navy

38. The Confederates Capture Santa Fe and Plot Extermination

39. A German Regiment Fights for “Freedom and Justice” at Shiloh-The 32nd Indiana under Col. August Willich.

40. The Know Nothing Colonel and the Irish Soldier Confronting slavery and bigotry.

41. Did Immigrants Hand New Orleans Over to the Union Army?

42. Did New Orleans’ Immigrants See Union Soldiers As Occupiers or Liberators?

43. Union Leader Ben Butler Seeks Support in New Orleans-When General Ben Butler took command in New Orleans in 1862, it was a Union outpost surrounded by Confederates. Butler drew on his experience as a pro-immigrant politician to win over the city’s Irish and Germans.

44. Union General Ben Butler Leverages Immigrant Politics in New Orleans

45. Thomas Meager: The Man Who Created the Irish Brigade

46. Thomas Meagher: The Irish Rebel Joins the Union Army

47. Recruiting the Irish Brigade-Creating the Irish American

48. Cross Keys: A German Regiment’s Annihilation in the Shenandoah Valley

49. The Irish Brigade Moves Towards Richmond-The Irish brigade in the Peninsula Campaign from March 17 to June 2, 1862.

50. Peninsula Emancipation: Irish Soldiers Take Steps on the Road to Freedom-The Irish Brigade and Irish soldiers from Boston free slaves along the march to Richmond.

51. Slaves Immigrate from the Confederacy to the United States During the Peninsula Campaign

52. The Irish 9th Massachusetts Cut Off During the Seven Days Battles

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