I opened up the latest issue of one of the major Civil War magazines today and noticed a full-page spread announcing the publication of a graphic novel titled Cleburne by Justin Murphy, which tells the story of his plans to arm slaves. You can read an interview with the author here. Check out these choice quotes from that interview:
Ultimately, Cleburne is not so much about African Americans fighting for the Confederacy, as it is the idea of it, and what that idea ultimately cost the South’s most promising military leader. It is the story of a true underdog who challenged the institutions of the very society he fought to defend.
What many today do not know is that there were a large number of Confederate officers and enlisted men who were opposed to slavery. Every one of General Cleburne’s regimental commanders put their names on his proposal to free and arm the slaves. This was a huge career risk for them and they would not have allied themselves with him unless they strongly believed in his idea. So what then were they fighting for if not to preserve slavery? The truth is many Southerners felt they had no choice but to defend their home states, and others were fighting against what they believed to be an over-reaching Federal government (a problem Americans are still dealing with today).
I’m aware of the political-incorrectness of such a subject and I’m also aware of the sensitivity of the issue. Some historians and educators may speak out against this book and accuse me of fabrication, but I’m ready for them. The truth is I’ve probably spent more hours studying the subject than they ever will. As far as speaking at schools, I will admit it can be difficult to stand in front of a classroom full of black students and try to explain why they should care about someone who (they’ve been told) fought for a government that wanted to keep their ancestors enslaved. It’s an uphill battle and I don’t blame them for being a little suspicious. There’s very spotty evidence for black confederate soldiers, but the proof is still there in the eyewitness accounts, and the concept seems to capture public’s imagination. That is why I have used the image in so much of my advertising.
Murphy's responses are a clear reflection of the sloppiness that often accompanies discussion of so-called black Confederates. First, it is unclear to me why we are so fascinated with Cleburne and his proposal to arm slaves. If I remember correctly, he wasn't even the first; Gen. Richard S. Ewell proposed a similar plan in 1861. Also notice the inference that because an officer supported the plan they must have been anti-slavery or that this plan was meant as a first step towards general emancipation. What Murphy never mentions, of course, is that the plan was debated throughout the Confederacy and throughout much of the war, and from what historians can tell it never really had a chance. That the plan was only passed in the final weeks of the war suggests that few white Southerners were able to contemplate such a development. In fact, the passage of the proposal, along with R.E. Lee's support, was meant as a way to save the Confederacy and slavery and not as a step towards general emancipation.
Murphy also falls into the trap of failing to distinguish between the outlines of Cleburne's plan and the experiences of individual slaves who were present with Confederate armies. Their presence had nothing to do with Cleburne. They served as slaves in various capacities and a few may even have picked up a rifle and fired it at a "Yankee" at one point or another. This ought not to be confused with serving officially as Confederate soldiers, although there may even be some exceptions in this case.
If you are interested in the history of Cleburne and black Confederates I recommend Bruce Levine's Confederate Emancipation: Southern Plans to Free and Arm Slaves During the Civil War and if you would like to learn more about Cleburne himself, check out Craig Symonds's Stonewall of the West: Patrick Cleburne and the Civil War. Finally, here is a brief trailer for Murphy's graphic novel. Enjoy.