Why the Black Confederate Myth Will Remain a Myth

We all know that certain Civil War narratives die hard, none more so than the black Confederate myth.  While it will continue to spread on the Web and rear its ugly head from time to time in various popular forums it will never gain legitimacy in our most respected private and public historical institutions.  This fact has nothing to do with a conspiracy to conceal the facts from the general public or some vaguely defined liberal bias and everything to do with what we know about this subject.

Consider the Georgian Historical Society’s plan to mark the location (pictured above) where General Patrick Cleburne first suggested a plan to enlist slaves as Confederate soldiers.  While the marker is set to be dedicated in a few weeks, we do have a few excerpts from the text:

The text of the marker makes it clear just how abhorrent many of his fellow generals considered the proposal. The marker says “almost all of the other generals present were strongly opposed.”  “Gen. Patton Anderson said the proposal ‘would shake our governments, both state and Confederate, to their very foundations,’ Gen. William Bate said it was ‘hideous and objectionable,’ and Gen. A.P. Stewart said it was ‘at war with my social, moral and political principles,’” according to the text of the marker.  The marker says Gen. W.H.T. Walker considered the proposal treasonous and informed Confederate States of America President Jefferson Davis, who ordered any mention of it to be suppressed.  The marker also notes that, over a year later, as the South’s final defeat grew near, the Confederate Congress approved the drafting of slaves. But only a handful were drafted and few saw combat. By contrast, nearly 200,000 free blacks served in the U.S. Army and Navy.

16 comments… add one
  • Eric Jacobson Jun 6, 2011 @ 17:30

    For whatever my opinion is worth, Bruce’s Stewart’s book Invisible Hero (the latest Cleburne bio) covers the propsoal over the course of an ENTIRE chapter. It is far more in depth than Symonds or Purdue and really details the heart of the matter. On white hot display is the virulent reaction against Cleburne and the numerous statements by his peers about precisely what the Confederacy was fighting to protect. The statement by States Rights Gist is particularly interesting. Funny name, but he wasn’t talking about states right when he was slamming Cleburne. He was talking about “the serpent of abolitionism…” This little history nugget is always fun to toss into the mix when someone is lecturing about how the war wasn’t really about slavery.

  • TF Smith Jun 6, 2011 @ 9:37

    I don’t know if Symonds addresses it, but given Cleburne’s British Army service, could his proposal have simply arisen from the British/English policy of routinely recruiting “locals” (for lack of a better word) to serve, often against their brethren?

    And (potentially) against their own interests, as witness Irish, Scots, and Welsh in the British Isles; Africans in the West Indies and western and southern Africa; Gurkhas, Hindus, Moslems, and Sikhs in India; etc?

    Not to draw too fine a point, but the line between an Irish Catholic tenant turned rifleman or a Punjabi Sikh laborer turned sepoy and his English Protestant officers was probably not worlds away, at times in the Eighteenth and Nineteenth centuries, than the lines between an enslaved AA and his “masters” were in what became the CSA.

    How did other foreign-born CSA general officers (Polignac, maybe?) react to the idea?

  • Damian Shiels Jun 4, 2011 @ 3:57

    It is interesting to note that it is somewhat fortunate that we are still able to read a copy of Cleburne’s proposal, as after Davis had ordered it suppressed Cleburne ordered all the copies destroyed. Only one survived the war, somewhat by chance, and was uncovered some years later. When Cleburne first made his adjutant Irving Buck aware of the document he was writing, Buck (a Virginian and native born Southerner) was more than aware of the reaction it would get. He told Cleburne that ‘slaveholders were sensitive as to such property, and totally unprepared to consider such a radical measure’. He also told him it would affect his chances of promotion. I agree with Andy, Cleburne’s chief concern in making this proposal was undoubtedly a military one- to supply the Confederate armies with more manpower. Cleburne by 1864 thought of himself as more of a southerner than an Irishman, but in the proposal is the evidence that he still didn’t understand the South. He states that ‘as between the loss of independence and the loss of slavery, we assume that every patriot will freely give up the latter- give up the negro slave rather than be a slave himself.’ In this he was entirely wrong, as the reaction and subsequent suppression of the document illustrates.

  • Matt McKeon Jun 3, 2011 @ 18:14

    In “Confederate Reckoning” Stephanie McCurry recounts damage the Confederate military was doing to slavery, mostly because it sought to use slaves as military assets (laborers etc.) against the wishes of their owners. It put a government purpose(the war effort) both into and above the relationship of master and slave.

  • Rob Jun 3, 2011 @ 8:13

    I am somewhat glad that Cleburne is getting some notoriety though. With the recent cannonball structure in Franklin, TN the statue in Ringgold, GA and now the marker. Though there is the significance of the document itself, as well as the reaction to the said document, it does represent the willingness to improve. I do agree that it was a cold calculated decision of man power, but I do not see that was any different from the position in the North. Black’s in the North were still second class and often underpaid to their white counterparts. I think that argument is really a product of the generation and not so much of an individual part. Remember also that Cleburne was an Irishman that really had no care for slavery And when I say care, I mean, didn’t care one way or another. Much like the northern counterpart Irish and the New York City Draft Riots. Ultimately I think this issue is a rather complex one all the way to the core, starting from it’s actual proposal of being Cleburne’s idea, through to whether or not this actually caused him to receive no more promotions. But the complexity makes Cleburne so much fun to study in my opinion and definitely not boring. I would like to throw another excellent book about Cleburne though, “Cleburne and His Command” by Irving A. Buck. It is a primary source written by Cleburne’s Adjutant. Helps to get a better look at the man.

    • Kevin Levin Jun 3, 2011 @ 8:18


      Thanks for the comment. You are right to point out that much of the debate in the North that led to the recruitment of black soldiers hinged on the issue of necessity, but many of those voice, including Douglass, did point out the moral dimension. That was almost entirely lacking in the Confederacy. Cleburne is indeed an interesting case study, but I don’t know what you men when you suggest that the document “does represent the willingness to improve.” Perhaps you can explain further.

      Finally, I am not attempting to draw any broad moral comparisons between the North and South in this post. The debate in the North is a separate matter here.

      • Rob Jun 3, 2011 @ 8:25

        Oh no I totally agree that the debate is a different category all together I was just drawing the linear between the two to point out that this wasn’t a singularity of mindset but something that was expansive. And even though there were counterparts to that emotion such as Douglas and the abolitionists, their voices were still sadly a minority. A very loud and motivating minority though. What I meant by the willingness to improve, wasn’t even to say that it was intentional. It was merely an idea to change the status quo. There were other’s before him that made the same observation of allowing slaves to fight for freedom, but at least the acknowledgement of freedom was in place. This is in contrast to the later CSA Congress improved of arming slaves, without the promise of freedom. It still shows the separation.

        • Kevin Levin Jun 3, 2011 @ 8:25

          Got it. Thanks for the follow up, Rob.

          • Rob Jun 3, 2011 @ 8:28

            No problem, always a pleasure to read your posts.

  • Andy Hall Jun 3, 2011 @ 6:45

    Couple thoughts:

    1. The article, and perhaps the marker, mentions that the Confederacy did finally authorize the enlistment of slaves in the very last weeks of the war. This suggests the government eventually accepted a plan like Cleburne’s, but unlike Cleburne’s proposal (and Lee’s, later on) the Confederacy did not authorize emancipation for those so enlisted. Even as the concussion of Federal guns rattled windows in Richmond, that was a step they still could not abide. The article and marker should make that distinction.

    2. In all the modern fooferraw that surrounds Cleburne’s proposal (read it here), it’s important to keep in mind that he and the officers who co-signed it were not making a moral argument against slavery, or claiming that slaves were patriotic and willing supporters of the Confederate cause (quite the contrary); he saw that circumstances beyond the South’s control had made the “peculiar institution” more of a liability than it was worth, and that it would, unless upended in a dramatic way, take the Confederacy down with it. Cleburne didn’t see the institution of slavery itself as a great moral detriment to the Confederacy; it was just a really bad image problem when contrasted with the Union’s use of African American troops and the reframing of the conflict in the wake of the Emancipation Proclamation. It was not a great moral or ethical epiphany on his part; it was a cold calculation on his part that the Confederacy had to choose which of the two things they desired most, the preservation of slavery or the success of their military struggle against the North. It the end, the Confederacy insisted on having both, and got neither.

    KG1 (above) is correct; Cleburne’s proposal is an important document and a milestone, but its real historical significance lies not in the document itself, but in the official reaction to it.

    • Kevin Levin Jun 3, 2011 @ 6:53


      You are absolutely right. I highly recommend Craig Symond’s biography of Cleburne to anyone who is interested in his position on slavery. He was clearly not making a moral claim about slavery and the proposal itself reflects his own lack of understanding of the place of slavery and white supremacy within southern society.

      Regarding the final bill it is important to also keep in mind how close the vote was in both the Confederate House and Senate. The Virginia General Assembly had to quickly pass legilslation that overturned a previous law that denied black men the right to carry rifles.

    • Margaret D. Blough Jun 3, 2011 @ 7:05

      Andy-IMHO Cleburne didn’t comprehend the powerful attachment
      white Southerners had towards the South’s dominant “slavery as a positive good” rarionale & how his proposal threatened to blow down the whole house of cardsm

  • KG1 Jun 3, 2011 @ 6:27

    A desperate proposal in desperate times. Cleburne’s proposal was DOA. What is worth noting is the absolute hostility to it.

  • Margaret D. Blough Jun 3, 2011 @ 2:36

    The only conspiracy involved was the effort by the Confederate government to conceal that the Cleburne proposal had ever taken place.

    • Kevin Levin Jun 3, 2011 @ 2:37

      Somehow that little fact gets left out. 🙂

Now that you've read the post, share your thoughts.