AS Talks to Historian Glenn David Brasher

In our ongoing series of interviews with scholars working on the Civil War and Reconstruction, After Slavery blogger Brian Kelly interviews historian Glenn David Brasher about his award-winning study, The Peninsula Campaign & the Necessity of Emancipation (UNC Press, 2012). Brasher, formerly a battlefield site interpreter for the US National Park Service, teaches nineteenth-century US history at the University of Alabama in Tuscaloosa. He is the recipient of the 2013 Wiley-Silver Award from the Center for Civil War Research at the University of Mississippi.

BK: In the introduction to The Peninsula Campaign, you discuss your experience in coverthe National Park Service and your dissatisfaction with the way the war was presented to the public as an early motivation for undertaking this study. Can you share with our readers some of what compelled you to begin the research and follow it through to publication?

GDB: I was a seasonal park ranger at Richmond National Battlefield Park for 8 summers during the 1990s, and during that time I saw very few African American visitors. This fact stood out to me, because black participation in the Civil War was one of the first things that got me really interested in studying the conflict. As a young white college student from Alabama, seeing the movie Glory in 1989 was a particularly eye-opening experience. From the African-American perspective, the war was a fight for personal freedom, and that aspect seemed especially intriguing to me. Thus it seemed strange that very few blacks seemed to be interested in the war.

Yet at that time, the National Park Service was only just then starting to feature interpretation that included stories about slavery, slaves, and black troops. At Richmond, the displays were very dated and mostly just told stories about white soldiers and battlefield tactics. There was essentially nothing about slavery’s centrality to the causes of the war, or the war’s impact on bringing emancipation—much less anything about African-American participation in the war. I had to wonder, if blacks did come to the battlefields, was there anything there to particularly intrigue them or educate them about the role of blacks in the Civil War? The answer seemed to offer a good explanation for why few ever came.

BrasherMuch of this has changed now, and the Richmond Battlefield has come very far in placing the war into a larger context, especially in its main visitor’s center at the Tredegar Ironworks. I have friends who work there, and I can tell you that there are some very fine historians on that staff who see the war as more than just battlefield tactics. Additionally, the park includes sites associated with the 1864 battles around the city, and this allows them to nicely incorporate the story of black troops later in the war.

Still, most of the park’s sites are associated with the 1862 Peninsula Campaign, and African-American perspectives on this event are much less obvious. The Union failure in the campaign was one of the primary events that convinced many Northerners that it was a military necessity to emancipate slaves in order to win the war. It is no coincidence that in the weeks after the campaign, Congress passed the Second Confiscation Act and Lincoln proposed an Emancipation Proclamation to his cabinet.

Yet the battlefield park’s interpretations focused almost exclusively on Union general George McClellan’s failure to capture Richmond and Robert E. Lee’s ascension to command. There was basically nothing to show that the campaign had had such a pivotal role in turning the war into one that led to emancipation. Even less featured at the park was the role that African Americans themselves played in shaping the campaign.

Frank Leslie's Illustrated, Nov. 1861
“Morning Mustering of the Contrabands” (Fortress Monroe)
Frank Leslie’s Illustrated, Nov. 1861

In many ways, my book was written as an effort to correct these shortcomings. I’d really like to play some role in changing the ways that we look at the Peninsula Campaign—not just the Park Service, but also the public at large. I’m not interested in writing books that only find an audience among other academics. As a result, my book avoids jargon and theory, and just tries to tell a good story—a story that hopefully will get people looking at this military campaign in a new way. I was drawn to Civil War history by a movie, and my time as a park interpreter honed my conviction that public history has an essential impact on shaping perceptions of historical events. Thus I firmly believe that as academics we have to get more involved in bringing solid interpretations to larger audiences.

BK: I’ll come back to the interpretive angle of your work later, because I think you’re being a bit modest in that regard, but let me ask you about one of the central contributions, as I see it: your focus on the essential role that slaves played—usually as impressed laborers—in making it possible for the Confederate military to prosecute the war. In the end its dependency on this source of labor seems to come back to haunt the Confederacy. Can you elaborate?

GDB: It does come back to haunt them in a big way. From the start of the war, Southerners publicly boasted that their slaves would be a source of strength to their cause, and in the first two years that certainty turned out to be true: not because the enslaved voluntarily served the Confederacy, but because they were impressed into building fortifications and entrenchments. Most white Southerners viewed menial labor as work fit only for black men, and Confederate leaders found it exceedingly difficult to get white soldiers to perform this essential labor effectively (this changed by the end of the war). As a result, the early Confederacy relied heavily on slave impressment.

As other historians have shown, slaveowners grumbled and complained about impressment because of how hard their slaves were worked by the government, and because the war deprived masters of the services of their laborers at critical times in the agricultural season. Stephanie McCurry’s Confederate Reckoning, for example, argues that slaveowner resistance is another indication of how weak the Confederacy was internally: she uses it to question the degree and power of southern nationalism. I think my own work, and especially Jaime Amanda Martinez’s recent monograph, Confederate Slave Impressment in the Upper South, have both shown that these impressments were more of a southern strength than McCurry acknowledges. But I think there was something more important going on with slave impressment that ultimately played a larger role in Confederate defeat, and that was the effect it had on making Northerners begin to see emancipation as a military necessity.

As early as First Manassas, the northern press pointed out that slave-built fortifications significantly hindered Union military operations.  During the Peninsula Campaign, these assertions grew louder and louder, and came from soldiers, newspaper editorialists, and most significantly, from the floor of Congress. In pushing for a Second Confiscation Act, politicians repeatedly pointed out that slave-built entrenchments were stalling McClellan’s drive on Richmond—proof that depriving the Confederacy of their slave laborers was becoming essential to winning the war.

Additionally, when the campaign ended in defeat after the Seven Day’s Battles, the argument was made that Lee’s army had been able to attack the Army of the Potomac with so much energy and aggressiveness because southern soldiers had been better rested than Yankee soldiers, who had been compelled to build their own fortifications while the Confederates relied on their slaves.

Battery at Yorktown, May 1862
Yorktown Battery, May 1862
George Townsend, a correspondent traveling with the Union military, referred to these fortifications as “monuments to Negro labor”

I found that in July 1862 these points were being made repeatedly by a broad spectrum of Northerners (not just radical Republicans and abolitionists), and this created a momentum for emancipation as a military necessity that could not be ignored by Congress or the president. Based on what I found in my own research, I feel that other historians have not emphasized this dynamic enough when discussing the factors that led to support for emancipation. In my mind it was absolutely critical.

BK: This is perhaps a good point to return to the interpretive angle of your work. In the developing debate over whether the northern war was one for ‘Union’ or ‘emancipation’, you place your own work fairly explicitly in the ‘war for the Union’ camp. In the introduction, for example, you point out the problems in pursuing a purely ‘bottom-up’ approach to the war—its tendency to downplay the importance of political and military leadership. But it strikes me that your own research—for a monograph that is first and foremost concerned with military history—stakes out a kind of elusive middle ground, and suggests the inadequacy of the ‘either/or’ proposition for capturing the dynamic quality of the War: it demonstrates a clear relationship between slave self-activity and the wider transformation of the war, for example. Do you want to clarify your own position on this?

GDB: It is interesting to me that you say this, because my intention was to place myself in the middle ground on the question of “Who freed the slaves?”—not so much the question of “Union or emancipation?” Of course the two overlap in many ways, and perhaps, as you suggest, my work has demonstrated how.

I do place myself in the “War for Union” camp. Lincoln and the Republican Party were definitely an anti-slavery group that was committed to destroying the institution in the long run. Yet they believed that this could only constitutionally be done by preventing the spread of it into the new territories and by concurrently cutting off all federal support for it and using the national government to encourage gradual, compensated emancipation (and possibly colonization). The fact that they promoted this anti-slavery agenda is what created the paranoia in the south that led to secession. Of course there is nothing controversial about these statements.

However, recently James Oakes has argued, in Freedom National, that the core of the party also believed that emancipation might be effected quicker if a war for the Union occurred, and if that happened they were more than ready to free the slaves as a “military necessity.” While some Radicals in the party embraced this idea, I don’t think that it has been proven that the core of the party embraced such radical measures even before the war started (my online review of Freedom National makes my reservations about the work fairly clear). In line with northern sentiment, the party was committed to fighting a war to stop secession, and nothing further. Of course many radicals immediately hoped and even predicted that the war would wind up freeing the slaves, but they were a pretty significant minority, not only within the country as a whole, but also within the Republican party. So what happened to change that? Why did so many come to believe that saving the Union required emancipation? This is where my book tries to make a contribution.

The war’s military contingencies caused the change. The fact that there was a war did not alone make it a “military necessity” to free the slaves, either legally or in the minds of most Northerners. Most optimistically believed that 22 million Northerners could defeat 9 million Southerners without having to call on the slaves. And in fact, most felt that emancipation would only hurt their cause because it might encourage more southern resistance as well as lose the Border States.  But as events unfolded, the radical argument that slaves must be freed in order to win the war gained credence. As previously noted, it became increasingly apparent that the South gained significant military advantages by tapping into their supply of slave laborers to build fortifications and entrenchments, and rumors even circulated that they were using slaves in combat roles. Additionally, the enslaved community provided military intelligence that significantly helped Union military operations and the case was made that such aid could be increased if more slaves were encouraged to abandon their masters.

But the argument that emancipation was a military necessity could not have been successfully proven had the war’s contingencies not strengthened the point. If McClellan had been a more effective commander, it is possible that Richmond would have fallen in the spring of 1862. Combined with Union military successes elsewhere, the capture of the Confederate capital at that time would have made a pretty convincing case that freeing the slaves was NOT a military necessity. How could it be necessary, legally or otherwise, if the war was clearly being won without resorting to emancipation?

I firmly believe that had military events shown that emancipation was not necessary to preserve the Union, and the war then successfully won, slavery would have survived the conflict essentially intact. Having preserved the Union, Lincoln and his anti-slavery party would then simply have turned to combating the institution in the long term with the tactics that they had campaigned and been elected on—stopping its spread, cutting support, encouraging gradual and compensated emancipation, etc.

Thus the failure of the Peninsula Campaign was pivotal in showing Northerners that emancipation was required in order to win the war. It is at that point that preservation of the Union and slave emancipation became wedded to one another (and let’s not forget that significant resistance to this connection continued for the duration). This melding of Union and emancipation absolutely required the war’s military events to have unfolded in the way that they did. And those events played out the way that they did because of the actions of military and political leaders, as well as the actions of the slaves themselves.

Eastman Johnson, A Ride for Liberty: The Fugitive Slaves March 1862
Artist Eastman Johnson recorded that his painting, A Ride for Liberty: The Fugitive Slaves (March 1862) was directly inspired by the dramatic events he saw unfolding in the Virginia in 1862

BK: This is I suppose the central contribution of your study: as you suggest, it was the North’s inability to make significant breakthroughs on the battlefield—McClellan’s failure to inflict a defeat on numerically inferior Confederate forces—that compelled a rethinking both among the Union rank-and-file and on up the chain of military and political command. At the same time Lincoln’s attempt to persuade the Border States of the merits of voluntary emancipation is reaching the end of the road. In this context the argument about emancipation as a “military necessity” becomes difficult to counter. Here I wonder if we can move onto more speculative ground: was there a context that might have allowed Lincoln and the Republicans to move from ‘mere’ pragmatism to principle, to consolidate a body of northern opinion that might uphold black equality after military necessity had ceased to be an issue—that is, after the war was ended?

GDB: This is an interesting question, and I have been pondering an aspect of it for my next project. I’ve argued that the actions of African Americans during the war played a significant role in convincing Northerners that emancipation was a necessity, but of course freedom and equality are two different things. Did black military involvement in the war also help convince a broad spectrum of Northerners that Africans Americans were full human beings that deserved equal rights? We know that recruiters and promoters of the USCT’s insisted that military service was a path to gaining citizenship rights. We also know that near the end of his life, Lincoln himself argued that black soldiers and “the intelligent” deserved consideration for certain rights, specifically suffrage. And as Barbara Gannon has shown in her monograph, The Won Cause, the post-war Grand Army of the Republic contained significant numbers of white veterans who were sympathetic to the rights of black veterans.

Despite all of this, as your question indicates, radical Congressional Reconstruction ultimately failed. Why? We could go with David Blight’s explanation, that reconciliation between North and South was achieved only through the North’s willingness to absorb some of the tenets of the Lost Cause, effectively obliterating the memory of black services in the war and shunting slavery and emancipation far into the background of the war’s causes and outcomes. But while there is undeniable truth to many aspects of this influential thesis, I believe that Caroline Janney’s new work, Remembering the Civil War, has blasted considerable holes into it. Union veterans were not willing to simply forget what their efforts in the war had done for African Americans, nor were they always willing to forget what blacks had done to help win the war.

So could Reconstruction have turned out differently? I do believe that Lincoln’s shift at the end of his life, the sentiments of many (though hardly all, and very far from most) white Union veterans, as well as the goals of the radical Republicans, could have all gelled nicely to create a more long lasting commitment to black citizenship rights. But, at the risk of sounding too much like I embrace the “Great Men” approach to history, I believe the essential ingredient had to be Lincoln.

Throughout the war, we know that he proved himself a master at keeping a leash on the radicals, holding back their impulses until public opinion could catch up with their goals. Had he survived the war, he would have been at the height of his powers to influence and shape the course of political events. That is not to say that there would not have been a fight between him and the radical Congress, and there is no way for us to say with absolute certainty that he would have won that fight, slowing down the push for black rights until public opinion could catch up. Who knows? The fight might have ruined his presidency, but we can all agree that he stood a better chance in that fight than his successor. Andrew Johnson was obviously little qualified to slow the impulses of the radicals, and in fact, his defiant actions only unleashed their revolutionary impulses. These unrestrained efforts were met with the massive and violent southern resistance that played such a significant role (though hardly the only one) in causing Northerners to want to move on to other national issues.

But to answer your question most directly, I believe that had Lincoln lived, his political clout and leadership, reinforced by sentiment among that minority of white veterans that supported the rights of their black comrades, could have created a more enduring northern support for black citizenship rights. To support this cause, my sense is that both Lincoln and those veterans would have pointed to the significant and effectual role that African American had played in the war that had saved the Union. With both Lincoln and these veterans behind this argument, I believe it would likely have played much better with the public than the more radical one based on moral principle (just as it had done during the war), at least initially. In my mind, Lincoln’s last speech—when he suggested that black veterans be given the right to vote—was his opening salvo for making just such a case. It was perhaps the first small step in a gradual process. Southern white resistance would have remained, of course, but Lincoln’s slower pace, his ability to reign in the radicals, and his emphasis on the role that African Americans had played in the war, might possibly have won the day in the long term.

2 thoughts on “AS Talks to Historian Glenn David Brasher

  1. I’m not a historian, but came to this blog by way of Janette Thomas Greenwood’s book about Worcester and North Carolina—and came to that by way of the Mass Moments series from MassHumanities. I found this interview fascinating–including Brasher’s account of his experience as a battlefield interpreter, feeling the gap in the interpretation, setting out to help fill that gap, and also his commitment to public history. So here I am, part of that public, and grateful for the efforts of both interviewer and interviewee!

    1. Grateful for your comment, and we’re glad you enjoyed the interview Polly. Janette Thomas Greenwood set a high standard for these, and we hope to get a couple more up over the holiday break. I’ve had a lot of dealings with NPS personnel over the past few years, and its good to know that Glenn has plenty of company among rangers and site interpreters eager to bring a fuller and more complex understanding of he Civil War to a broader audience.

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