Scholar’s Blog - Brooks D. Simpson

JANUARY 2, 1864: GENERAL CLEBURNE PROPOSES THAT THE CONFEDERACY FREE AND ENLIST ITS SLAVES

As 1864 began, both northerners and southerners believed that the coming year would prove decisive in the ongoing conflict. Although the Confederates had suffered several serious setbacks in 1863, they were far from finished. If they could just fend off and frustrate the Yankees in 1864, enough voters in the North might grow weary of the seemingly endless bloodshed and vote Abraham Lincoln out of the White House, paving the way for a negotiated settlement that would recognize southern independence. But how best to realize that goal?

Major General Patrick R. Cleburne, a hard-fighting division commander in the Army of Tennessee, thought he had the answer. An Irishman from County Cork who had settled in Arkansas in 1850, Cleburne was committed to winning Confederate independence, but by the end of 1863 even he wondered whether the future promised success. Despite having “spilled much of our best blood” and spending “an amount of property equal in value to the specie currency of the world,” after three years of fighting the Confederates had nevertheless found that “the fruits of our struggles and sacrifices have invariably slipped away from us and left us nothing but long lists of dead and mangled.” Exhausted soldiers were “sinking into a fatal apathy, growing weary of hardships and slaughters which promise no results.” Lacking sufficient manpower and resources, the Confederacy seemed doomed. Moreover, slavery, “one of our chief sources of strength at the commencement of the war,” had become “in a military point of view, one of our chief sources of weakness.”[1]

Cleburne believed he knew how to remedy these shortcomings. So long as his fellow Confederates were willing to sacrifice everything to secure independence, all was not lost. As 1863 came to an end he committed his thoughts to paper, confided in officers who had fought under him, and then presented his ideas to a meeting of his fellow generals in the Army of Tennessee held at Dalton, Georgia, on January 2, 1864.

In Cleburne’s view, slavery explained much about the current military situation: “it is our most vulnerable point, a continued embarrassment, and in some respects an insidious weakness.” Slavery antagonized European powers that opposed the peculiar institution, while the slaves themselves offered Union arms a source of strength that unnerved white southerners. It was time to turn the tide by enlisting slaves to serve as Confederate soldiers, and to “guarantee freedom within a reasonable time to every slave in the South who shall remain true to the Confederacy in this war.” It was time for every Confederate to “give up the negro slave rather than be a slave himself,” which would be the fate all Confederates would suffer should the Yankees prevail.[2] Freeing and arming the slaves would make Great Britain and France look more kindly upon the cause of southern independence; blacks would no longer need to join the Union army to fight for their freedom; southerners white and black would join together to defend their homeland with renewed commitment; and Confederate armies, their ranks swelled by these new recruits, would sweep to victory.

Cleburne’s address shocked many of the generals present at the Dalton meeting. After all, Confederate authorities had rejected offers to serve made by free creoles in Louisiana and Alabama in 1861. Although slaves were employed (and impressed) to support Confederate military operations, they were used as cooks, teamsters, laborers, and servants, while Confederate authorities strove to identify and remove the handful of black men (usually individuals of mixed racial heritage) who sought to serve as soldiers. Moreover, Cleburne had justified ending slavery upon the grounds of military necessity, the same grounds that none other than Abraham Lincoln had cited as the basis for his Emancipation Proclamation. While corps commanders William J. Hardee and Thomas Hindman expressed interest in Cleburne’s proposal, other generals were outraged. Patton Anderson declared that the mere idea was “revolting to Southern sentiment, Southern pride, and Southern honor,” while William B. Bate asserted that adopting an emancipatory policy promised “to discard our recieved theory of government, destroy our legal institutions and social relations.”[3] General Joseph E. Johnston, the commander of the Army of Tennessee, preferred that nothing more be said about the subject, but a copy of Cleburne’s address made its way to Richmond, where Jefferson Davis quickly rejected any notion of arming the slaves and ordered the suppression of all discussion about the proposal.

Cleburne would fight stubbornly throughout 1864 before being killed in the Battle of Franklin on November 30. By that time, in the aftermath of the fall of Atlanta and Lincoln’s reelection, there was renewed southern interest in the possibility of enlisting enslaved blacks as soldiers, with some Confederates (notably Robert E. Lee) adding that enlistment should be accompanied by emancipation. Critics maintained that the quest for southern independence meant nothing if one did away with the basic reason white southerners sought that independence: to protect slavery. On March 8, 1865, the Confederate Congress approved enlisting slaves under certain conditions, but by then it was too late: at best a few hundred black recruits were undergoing training in Richmond just before that city fell to the Yankees in April 1865.  


[1] Patrick R. Cleburne, Memorandum on Emancipation and Enlisting Black Soldiers, January 2, 1864, Brooks D. Simpson, ed., The Civil War: The Third Year Told By Those Who Lived It (New York: Library of America, 2013), 678–679.

[2] Ibid., 680–681.

[3] Bruce Levine, Confederate Emancipation: Southern Plans to Free and Arm Slaves during the Civil War (New York: Oxford University Press, 2006), 28, 40.


Brooks D. Simpson is Foundation Professor of History at Arizona State University.


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