Cleburne Proposes Black Recruitment

January 2, 1864 – Major General Patrick R. Cleburne, one of the best division commanders in the Confederate Army of Tennessee, wrote an extraordinary letter proposing that the Confederacy induct slaves into the military.

Gen P.R. Cleburne | Image Credit: Wikipedia.org

Cleburne was one of the most respected officers in the Confederate army, having earned the nickname “Stonewall Jackson of the West.” In a paper he presented to his fellow officers, Cleburne declared that the Confederacy could very well lose the war. He argued that this was due to the growing manpower shortage in the armies, dwindling supplies and resources, and “the fact that slavery, from being one of our chief sources of strength at the commencement of the war, has now become, in a military point of view, one of our chief sources of weakness.”

According to Cleburne, the Confederacy could only rely on its own population for manpower, while the North could pull from its “own motley population,” emancipated and confiscated slaves, and “Europeans whose hearts are fired into a crusade against us by fictitious pictures of the atrocities of slavery.”

Furthermore, the growing “prejudice against slavery” had given the Federals the moral advantage in the contest, encouraged valuable slave labor to not only leave the South but to fight against it, and compelled European nations to refuse to recognize Confederate independence. Consequently, Confederates now faced “the loss of all we now hold most sacred–slaves and all other personal property, lands, homesteads, liberty, justice, safety, pride, manhood.”

Cleburne argued that retaining the institution of slavery for labor purposes had become pointless because slaves could now flee their masters in search of freedom, or be confiscated by Federal occupation forces at any time. This made slaves “comparatively valueless to us for labor, but of great and increasing worth to the enemy for information.”

President Jefferson Davis had recently signed a bill into law limiting the number of exemptions to the Conscription Act in the hopes of drafting more able-bodied white men into the military. But Cleburne argued that this would only bring in those who did not want to serve, otherwise they would have already volunteered. Instead, Cleburne recommended:

“Adequately to meet the causes which are now threatening ruin to our country, we propose, in addition to a modification of the President’s plans, that we retain in service for the war all troops now in service, and that we immediately commence training a large reserve of the most courageous of our slaves, and further that we guarantee freedom with a reasonable time to every slave in the South who shall remain true to the Confederacy in this war.”

Since Great Britain and France were reluctant to recognize a slave-owning nation, this would mean that “the sympathy and interests of these and other nations will accord with our own, and we may expect from them both moral support and material aid.” If both North and South embraced emancipation, the North would immediately become the aggressor in the conflict, looked upon as seeking to subjugate the South. This would be “a complete change of front in our favor of the sympathies of the world.”

For northerners joining the Federal army to free the slaves, “that source of recruiting will be dried up.” Also, “it will leave the enemy’s negro army no motive to fight for, and will exhaust the source from which it has been recruited.” Cleburne then declared:

“The idea that it is their special mission to war against slavery has held growing sway over the Northern people for many years, and has at length riped into an armed and bloody crusade against it. This baleful superstition has so far supplied them with a courage and constancy not their own. It is the most powerful and honestly entertained plank in their war platform. Knock this away and what is left? A blood ambition for more territory…. Mankind may fancy it a great duty to destroy slavery, but what interest can mankind have in upholding this remainder of the Northern war platform?”

Guessing that the Federal “negro army” would “desert over to us,” Cleburne wrote:

“The immediate effect of the emancipation and enrollment of negroes on the military strength of the South would be: To enable us to have armies numerically superior to those of the North, and a reserve of any size we might think necessary; to enable us to take the offensive, move forward, and forage on the enemy.”

To Cleburne, emancipation “would remove forever all selfish taint from our cause and place independence above every question of property. The very magnitude of the sacrifice itself, such as no nation has ever voluntarily made before, would appall our enemies… and fill our hearts with a pride and singleness of purpose which would clothe us with new strength in battle.”

Only the Confederacy could “change the race from a dreaded weakness to a (source) of strength. We can do this more effectually than the North can now do, for we can give the Negro not only his own freedom, but that of his wife and child, and can secure it to him in his old home.” To do this, “we must immediately make his marriage and parental relations sacred in the eyes of the law and forbid their sale.” Cleburne wrote:

“If, then, we touch the institution at all, we would do best to make the most of it, and by emancipating the whole race upon reasonable terms, and within such reasonable time as will prepare both races for the change, secure to ourselves all the advantages, and to our enemies all the disadvantages that can arise, both at home and abroad, from such a sacrifice.”

Cleburne finally concluded:

“It is said slaves will not work after they are freed. We think necessity and a wise legislation will compel them to labor for a living. It is said that slavery is all we are fighting for, and if we give it up we give up all. Even if this were true, which we deny, slavery is not all our enemies are fighting for. It is merely the pretense to establish sectional superiority and a more centralized form of government, and to deprive us of our rights and liberties. It may be imperfect, but in all human probability it would give us our independence. No objection ought to outweigh it which is not weightier than independence.”

The proposal had been endorsed by 12 of Cleburne’s brigade and regimental commanders. The idea of slave emancipation was not new; it had been debated in the southern press for over a year. In one example, the Jackson Mississippian editorialized:

“Let not slavery prove a barrier to our independence. Although slavery is one of the principles that we started to fight for… if it proves an insurmountable obstacle to the achievement of our liberty and separate nationality, away with it!”

However, this was the first time that a high-ranking Confederate military officer had proposed such a thing. While most southerners viewed slavery and independence as one in the same, Cleburne’s letter asserted that one may have to be sacrificed for the other.

Confederate officers outside Cleburne’s division expressed shock and outrage at such an idea, which they unanimously rejected. One officer called it a “monstrous proposition… revolting to Southern sentiment, Southern pride, and Southern honor.” A corps commander said that it was “at war with my social, moral, and political principles.” Another general maintained that “we are not whipped, & cannot be whipped. Our situation requires resort to no such remedy… Its propositions contravene the principles upon which we fight.” General Howell Cobb argued:

“I think that the proposition to make soldiers of the slaves is the most pernicious idea that has been suggested since the war began. You cannot make soldiers of slaves, or slaves of soldiers. The day you make a soldier of them is the beginning of the end of the revolution. And if slaves seem good soldiers, then our whole theory of slavery is wrong.”

Major General William H.T. Walker was so offended that he considered Cleburne’s letter treasonous and secretly forwarded it to President Davis. The president read the document and issued a statement:

“Deeming it to be injurious to the public service that such a subject should be mooted, or even known to be entertained by persons possessed of the confidence and respect of the people, I have concluded that the best policy under the circumstances will be to avoid all publicity, and the Secretary of War has therefore written to General (Joseph E.) Johnston (commanding the Army of Tennessee) requesting him to convey to those concerned my desire that it should be kept private. If it be kept out of the public journals its ill effect will be much lessened.”

Cleburne’s letter did not resurface until the Official Records of the war were being compiled a generation later. Some claimed that the letter cost Cleburne any chance of future promotion. However, the idea would come up again later in the year, and this time Davis would not be so quick to dismiss it.

—–

References

Bailey, Ronald H., The Battles for Atlanta: Sherman Moves East (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 27; CivilWarDailyGazette.com; Foote, Shelby, The Civil War: A Narrative: Volume 2: Fredericksburg to Meridian (Vintage Civil War Library, Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, Kindle Edition, 2011), p. 953-54; Foote, Shelby, The Civil War: A Narrative: Volume 3: Red River to Appomattox (Vintage Civil War Library, Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, Kindle Edition, 2011), Kindle Locations 15758-15768; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 387; Linedecker, Clifford L. (ed.), The Civil War A to Z (Ballantine Books, 2002), p. 39; McPherson, James M., Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era (Oxford History of the United States Book 6, Oxford University Press, Kindle Edition, 1988), p. 832-33; Ward, Geoffrey C., Burns, Ric, Burns, Ken, The Civil War (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1990), p. 253

Advertisements

Tagged: , , , ,

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: