General Patrick Cleburne Proposes Black Soldiers for the Confederacy Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

As the Army of Tennessee shivered in its winter quarters around Dalton, Georgia, in December 1863, one of its most popular division commanders formulated a startling proposal. Major General Patrick R. Cleburne, like many others, had taken stock of the Confederacy’s gradually diminishing chances for military success. He could see defeat in drawn faces of the soldiers in his own army. Cleburne discussed his proposal with anyone who would listen–including his close friend and fellow general, Thomas Hindman–and composed a “memorial” detailing the plan’s reasoning and advantages. Before taking the plan to the army’s leadership, Cleburne enlisted the support of the generals and colonels in his division, who quickly added their names to the document.

On January 2, 1864, Cleburne and his supporters presented the memorandum to the Army of Tennessee’s other general officers, including its commander, General Joseph E. Johnston, with the hope of gaining their endorsement before sending it to the Confederate government in Richmond. While a few officers expressed support for Cleburne’s proposal, many others violently rejected the idea. A “monstrous proposition,” one called it; “treasonous,” said another. The opposition to the proposal meant that it would get no further up the chain of command, but a copy was leaked to Richmond anyhow. Jefferson Davis, the Confederate president, and his cabinet considered the plan so inflammatory that they forbade Cleburne and his associates from discussing it further. The resistance to Cleburne’s proposal is not surprising, for he had suggested nothing more than a complete reversal of the very cause the Confederacy fought for: he had proposed that the South free slaves and allow them to serve as soldiers in the struggling nation’s army.

Summary Overview

As the Army of Tennessee shivered in its winter quarters around Dalton, Georgia, in December 1863, one of its most popular division commanders formulated a startling proposal. Major General Patrick R. Cleburne, like many others, had taken stock of the Confederacy’s gradually diminishing chances for military success. He could see defeat in drawn faces of the soldiers in his own army. Cleburne discussed his proposal with anyone who would listen–including his close friend and fellow general, Thomas Hindman–and composed a “memorial” detailing the plan’s reasoning and advantages. Before taking the plan to the army’s leadership, Cleburne enlisted the support of the generals and colonels in his division, who quickly added their names to the document.

On January 2, 1864, Cleburne and his supporters presented the memorandum to the Army of Tennessee’s other general officers, including its commander, General Joseph E. Johnston, with the hope of gaining their endorsement before sending it to the Confederate government in Richmond. While a few officers expressed support for Cleburne’s proposal, many others violently rejected the idea. A “monstrous proposition,” one called it; “treasonous,” said another. The opposition to the proposal meant that it would get no further up the chain of command, but a copy was leaked to Richmond anyhow. Jefferson Davis, the Confederate president, and his cabinet considered the plan so inflammatory that they forbade Cleburne and his associates from discussing it further. The resistance to Cleburne’s proposal is not surprising, for he had suggested nothing more than a complete reversal of the very cause the Confederacy fought for: he had proposed that the South free slaves and allow them to serve as soldiers in the struggling nation’s army.

Defining Moment

Three years of pressing defeat drew Cleburne to this point. Though the Confederate military had experienced some inspiring successes on the battlefield in 1862 and 1863, the larger strategic situation appeared increasingly gloomy. The armies of the United States encroached on every point of the Confederate frontier. The Army of the Potomac, despite enduring the repeated blows of the Army of Northern Virginia, still hovered a few-day’s march from Richmond. Ulysses Grant’s Union forces had stormed down the Mississippi River in 1862 and by the following summer had opened not only that passageway, splitting the South in two, but along with the Union Army of the Cumberland, had largely cleared Tennessee of Confederate troops. The Union navy and army likewise had captured New Orleans, and occupied great swaths of coastal territory around the Gulf Coast, Charleston, South Carolina, and a vast chunk of eastern North Carolina. The recent agony of Cleburne’s own Army of Tennessee only accentuated the frustration of Confederate armies. Just four months before composing his memorial, the Army had squandered an unexpected victory at Chickamauga and followed-up by being ignominiously swatted away from Chattanooga by Grant’s forces, thus permanently abandoning Tennessee, and the door to the heartland, to the invaders.

Beyond the dismal military situation, the ability of the Confederacy to maintain itself as a viable and independent state seemed ever more in doubt. Confederate leaders had long hoped for diplomatic recognition and military assistance from England and France. In fact, as the war lengthened, they considered intervention necessary to their success. Yet England and France not only did not move decisively to help the Confederacy, their hesitation to support a slaveholding power bespoke a larger condemnation of the Southern cause. England had emancipated slaves in its empire in 1833 and had since championed liberal politics and free-labor: two principles the Confederacy stood pointedly against. As hope from abroad faded, the domestic scene failed to offer any bright spots. Politics divided the Confederacy, as the Davis administration enacted policies to centralize authority in the Richmond government and opponents like North Carolina’s governor Zebulon Vance and Georgia’s governor Joseph Brown moved to oppose that power shift. Cabinet members and other policy makers could not strengthen the Confederate economy or unify its nascent industrial capacity in complete service to the war effort. All the while, inflation caused the price of food and other necessary items to skyrocket while shortages of everything plagued the Southern factory and home.

Less visible but more insidious threats to the Confederate nation loomed beyond the control of the nation’s military and political leaders. Dissent by ordinary Southerners suggested eroding popular support for the war. Groups of poor women mobbed Confederate supply depots for food and cloth all over the South in the spring of 1863. The disaffection prompted a chronic desertion problem in the army as enlisted men decided that protecting their own families had priority over protecting a tenuous nation. A more ominous sign of disintegration was how quickly enslaved black people disobeyed their masters or fled altogether when the Union army ranged near. Confederates’ rhetoric had insisted that black men and women would remain loyal to their white owners, presenting a united front against the interloping Yankees. But the speed at which blacks abandoned slavery in favor of freedom unnerved observant Confederates.

Cleburne’s friend, Thomas Hindman, first raised the option of arming slaves for service in the army. But he did so anonymously in an open letter published in Georgia just weeks before Cleburne made his memorandum known. Thus Hindman became the first high-ranking Confederate (in either the army or the government) to seriously address the problem of manpower with the solution of slaves. Hindman’s letter placed the problem front-and-center: the Confederacy had suffered setbacks, and the Union army would only grow stronger since it had begun recruiting black southerners into its ranks. Both Hindman and Cleburne, in his proposal, offered the first attempt to think through and publically discuss why, and more importantly, how, the Confederacy could turn on its founding principles and embrace the idea of black soldiers.

Author Biography

Patrick Ronayne Cleburne had come to his generalship by a unique path. Born in Ireland in 1828 to a Protestant gentry family, he idylled in the countryside and attended school until his father’s unexpected death when Patrick was fifteen years old. His family’s newly desperate circumstances forced Patrick to search out work. After a few years as an apprentice druggist, he joined the British army and served for three years as an enlisted man in a locally stationed regiment performing constabulary duties. At the height of the potato famine in 1848, Patrick and several of his brothers and sisters migrated to the United States. He landed first in Cincinnati but quickly found work as a store manager at a pharmacy owned by a pair of doctors in Helena, Arkansas.

In Helena, Cleburne’s fortunes rose and he eventually co-owned the store and turned to the study of law. During his apprenticeship at law, Cleburne came under the influence of a politically ambitious and often-violent contemporary named Thomas C. Hindman. Cleburne became a lawyer, dealing principally in land transactions. His political mentorship at the hands of Hindman included an induction to Democratic party politics. Cleburne wrote and spoke against the Know-Nothing party and in the process, imbibed the political rhetoric of states’ rights and anti-abolitionism. At the secession of Arkansas, Cleburne raised a company of infantry and was quickly elevated to the rank of Colonel in command of his regiment and then Brigadier General in command of his brigade.

Cleburne did not possess an outsized personality like so many Confederate generals. In fact, the Irishman was known to be a shy man, uncomfortable and awkward in social situations. An officer on his staff observed, “He is quiet, has little to say, and any one to see and not know him would take him much sooner for a private than a Major Gen’l.” Cleburne’s introverted nature, however, did not hide his considerable skill as a military commander. His devotion to the regular drill of his brigade, and later, division, ensured his command’s exemplary performance on the battlefield. Cleburne’s own discerning decisiveness under fire when so many of his peers blustered ineffectively underscored that hard work and competence, not fearless machismo, made successful generals. With the confidence and love of his soldiers, the esteem of the Army of Tennessee’s leadership, and continued demonstration of battlefield prowess, Cleburne, by the Autumn of 1863 earned a nationwide reputation as one of the Confederacy’s shining stars.

Document Analysis

Patrick Cleburne’s memorial laid out his proposal for the arming of slaves with the rhetorical skills of an attorney. He presented the problem, offered a solution, countered potential critics, and finished with an appeal for action. In addition to the straightforward suggestion about arming slaves, Cleburne slyly and skillfully advocated a wholesale reconsideration of the Confederate cause–a reversal which advocates and opponents alike could not help but notice.

Cleburne began with a stark vision of the present and the probable future. He noted that the Confederacy has spent blood and treasure on the war effort but instead of standing victorious, its armies are “hemmed in.” The chief cause of this calamity was the overwhelming numbers the Union army was able to command, and this fact was apparent to every Southern soldier. Confederates were “sinking into a fatal apathy,” Cleburne noted. He then painted a vivid picture of the “black catastrophe” that awaited a defeated South. Our dead will be dishonored and our living will be despised. Our teachers will be vindictive Yankees, bent on imposing a hostile racial order. Our conquerors will turn our loyal slaves against us and engender a mood among them of animosity and suspicion. Cleburne reeled off a remarkably succinct list of “all we now hold most sacred” that would be sacrificed in defeat: “slaves and all other personal property, lands, homesteads, liberty, justice, safety, pride, [and] manhood.”

He reiterated the potential cause of defeat–the numerical inferiority of Confederate armies and the inability to replenish its ranks with new recruits. Then Cleburne introduced a set of facts that did not accord with Southern rhetoric about the value of slavery and therefore had not been widely considered. The time had come, he insisted, to face the fact that slavery was not a strength but, in fact, a weakness. How so? First, the enemy has successfully turned our slaves against us by recruiting them into their armies and utilizing their skills as guides and spies in Confederate territory. Further, in occupied areas, loyal slave owners eagerly cooperate with Union forces because to do otherwise would ensure the destruction of their property and the escape of their slaves. Finally, slaves had shown a shocking willingness to throw off their shackles and flee to the Yankees whenever armies were near. Thus, Confederate military strategy had been hampered by a need to not just protect militarily important junctions or strike at Federal armies, but to guard all our “vulnerable points,” which “are found where there is a slave to set free.”

Cleburne considered the administration’s plan to modify the exemption laws to squeeze a few more men into the army unworkable and merely “a temporary expedient.” He then stated his audacious idea, “that we immediately commence training a large reserve of the most courageous of our slaves, and further that we guarantee freedom within a reasonable time to every slave in the South who shall remain true to the Confederacy in this war.” The plan to arm and train blacks for Confederate service was one thing, but Cleburne directly embraced the wider implication of his plan: universal emancipation. An honest state, after all, had to honor dangerous service with the benefits of freedom (if not complete political equality.) Thus, by abandoning claims to slavery itself, Cleburne found benefits far beyond hundreds of thousands of potential Confederate soldiers. By toppling slavery from its position as chief reason for secession, the Confederacy could execute a brilliant rhetorical move that would completely undermine its enemies and earn it new friends.

Removing slavery as the Confederate casus belli would reveal what many Southerners considered the venal and greedy intent that lay behind the North’s moral posturing, and thus clear-eyed people in America and Europe would immediately drop their support for the Union war effort. England and France would be relieved of their moral qualms and come to the South’s rescue. Most importantly, Cleburne contended, the move would give Southern slaves a reason to fight for the Confederacy if they believed that doing so would ensure their freedom. After all, Cleburne reasoned, if a black man had to be free, would not he much rather fight with his family and home at stake than on behalf of insidious Northerners who did not truly know or care for him?

Cleburne understood that a cause predicated on wealthy men keeping other men in bondage could be interpreted as a fundamentally “selfish” idealism. He reasoned that slavery had been the issue that obscured potentially higher-minded and more widely acceptable reasons for Southern independence. Therefore, dropping the pretense of slavery meant that the South could then “place independence above every question of property.”

The general pithily dismissed potential objections to his plan. To those who claimed that republicanism could not survive without slavery, he pointedly noted that a compromised republicanism was preferable to complete subjugation. To those who insisted that white men could not labor in the way black slaves did in hot Southern fields, Cleburne raised the example of Confederate soldiers digging trenches and marching along dusty roads in the summer heat. White men could indeed endure it. Would not the idea of arming slaves cause too much “excitement” in the Confederacy? Cleburne claimed that excitement would be better than the present apathy. Finally, if an opponent insisted that “slavery is all we are fighting for, and if we give it up we give up all,” then he replied that the war had revealed that the North fought for “sectional superiority…a more centralized form of government, and to deprive us of our rights and liberty.” Was not opposing them a higher principle?

Cleburne’s memorial received a cool reception at the Army of Tennessee headquarters. Other generals and staff officers condemned it outright. General William Bate declared it “hideous and objectionable…the serpent of Abolitionism.” Cleburne clearly understood the rhetorical and practical intricacies of slavery, but had misjudged the attachment of Southerners to slavery as the preferred method of racial control. Upon observing the virulent opposition to Cleburne’s plan, Johnston decided that it should go no further, and ordered Cleburne to cease promoting it. Cleburne did not send it along to Richmond, but opponents, alarmed by the apparent treachery in the officer corps, sent it to the Confederate capital to raise an alarm.

Essential Themes

When a leaked copy of Cleburne’s memorandum found its way to Richmond, Jefferson Davis and his cabinet insisted that it not be circulated. In fact, he ordered the proposal squelched, not even to be discussed further. The concept of arming slaves proved, in early 1864, to be too heretical a thought. Davis and many in the Confederacy still maintained a conviction that more white men could be found for the army; that a signal battlefield victory could turn back the Union tide; that England could intervene; and that the Southern nation could still weather its current setbacks. In January 1864, Confederate leaders looked to another summer of vigorous defense, not to a capitulation of their core convictions about race relations in the South.

Indeed, what Cleburne had suggested struck at the very heart of the Confederate racial ideology that had driven the Southern states to assert independence in 1861. Southern whites built their convictions about race relations on a self-deceiving and occasionally contradictory ideology, but one they held as observable fact. Slavery, for white Southerners, provided necessary government of how the races related to one another. It was a necessary relationship and ensured that whites remained dominant and blacks subservient, reflecting a God-ordained social order. Blacks, without the controlling influence of whites and allegedly unable to govern their passions or their society, would run rampant in an orgy of violence before succumbing to indolence-induced starvation. Thus whites, even non–slave owners, considered slavery the key to personal and political safety, and all worked tirelessly to ensure that blacks never occupied any position of equality to a white man. To do otherwise would lead to white people being subservient to black people, an exchange that Cleburne acknowledged in his proposal to be unconscionable to Southern whites.

Curiously, whites maintained that enslaved blacks enjoyed and appreciated their subservient status as slaves. Whites fervently believed the notion that blacks loved their masters, clung to them for safety, and would stand by them in times of crisis–a fiction, indeed, but one that most Southerners genuinely believed. Abolitionists, Southerners claimed, did not care for actual black people: their insistence on abolition clearly indicated that they wanted blacks to suffer and starve without the helpful guidance of white masters. No, abolitionists wanted simply to lord a false moral superiority over white Southerners and instigate a cataclysmic race war in the South in furtherance of a policy of political and cultural greed. Thus, when the Republican Abraham Lincoln won the Presidency in 1860, eleven slaveholding states acted to ensure the perpetuation of slavery and their own safety by removing themselves from the Union.

Politicians and editors in 1860 and 1861 trumpeted the fact that secession was first and foremost a move to maintain the existing relationship between whites and blacks, that of slavery. That is what made Cleburne’s proposal so startling. Advocates and opponents of the black-soldier plan knew that despite the delicate parsing of rights and privileges afforded to proposed emancipated soldiers, the process would, in time, encompass two dangerous and unthinkable precedents: the eventual emancipation of all slaves and the elevation of blacks to implied equality with whites by service alongside one another in the ranks. In January 1864, few Confederates, who had seceded to prevent those very things, could countenance the idea.

Bibliography
  • Levine, Bruce. Confederate Emancipation: Southern Plans to Free and Arm Slaves during the Civil War. New York: Oxford UP, 2006. Print.
  • Symonds, Craig L. Stonewall of the West: Patrick Cleburne and the Civil War. Lawrence: UP of Kansas, 1997. Print.
Additional Reading
  • Daniel, Larry J. Soldiering in the Army of Tennessee: A Portrait of Life in a Confederate Army. Chapel Hill: U of North Carolina P, 1991. Print.
  • Dew, Charles B. Apostles of Disunion: Southern Secession Commissioners and the Causes of the Civil War. Charlottesville: U of Virginia P, 2001. Print.
  • Levin, Kevin M. “Confederate Like Me,” Civil War Monitor, Vol. 3, No. 1 (Spring 2013). Print.
  • Oakes, James. The Ruling Race: A History of American Slaveholders. New York: Norton, 1998. Print.
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