Georgia Historical Society Gets It Right

…and corrects a number of misconceptions about Patrick Cleburne’s proposal to arm slaves.

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20 comments… add one
  • Phil Ross Jul 21, 2011 @ 8:04

    I coordinated the historical marker program in Ohio for a number of years and I can tell you it isn’t easy to convey much more than the outline of a topic in 140-or-fewer words. Folks who think the topic wasn’t done justice from their perspective might try the experiment of writing their own text within those constraints.

    That said, the few lines at the bottom of the marker that identify the sponsors–the folks who paid for the marker–often say a lot about the topic at hand. In this case, it was a partnership of the Georgia Historical Society, the Georgia Battlefields Association, and the Georgia Department of Economic Development. In lots of states, commemoration via historical marker is strictly a grass-roots effort; topic, initial text, and funding come from interested groups or individuals. This appears to be more of a top-down effort. My guess is that a select committee chose the topic for this marker, likely as part of a larger group of similar markers. Honestly, in my experience these have the best chance of conveying an evenhanded treatment of the subject at hand.

  • London John Jul 18, 2011 @ 5:59

    Lincoln’s speeches about the war being only to restore the Union are often brought up, but surely the point is that he made these speeches while all time getting on with actually abolishing slavery. My impression (and please correct me if I’m wrong) is that all Lincoln’s speeches were given for a political purpose, and not to share his real ideas with the world. Since his actions commanded the support of the abolitionists, he might as well say a few words to try to keep the Constitutional Unionists on board.
    I guess a statesman whose actions are better than his words is rather hard to believe.

    • Winn Jul 18, 2011 @ 7:57

      Lincoln was definitely planning some kind of assault on slavery when he gave those speeches about preserving the Union. But it was as much if not more a war measure, as it was anything for the abolitionists.

      Remember in 1861 that Lincoln backed the pro-slavery Corwin Amendment as a last ditch way to hold the Union together. And in his private negotiations he clung to a antislavery strategy of the compensated emancipation + colonization variety, even offering compensation for the slaves as a way to end the war as late as the Hampton Roads Conference in 1865. Lincoln was antislavery, but he was always Preserve the Union first and abolish slavery second.

  • Tim Jul 16, 2011 @ 13:42


    Notice either way you approach that, your logic is flawed by stereotyping and presumption based on opinion only.

  • Tim Jul 16, 2011 @ 13:22

    Kevin states in his criticism that his opinion is he knows what 20th Century opinion would be based on what a large percentage of 19th Century opinion was. And, in my opinion, he no doubt thinks it needs to be reformed. That logic is as patently absurd as the 19th Century opinion was.
    Maybe it was just stated poorly and was not intended to look that way.

    Contrary to some opinions expressed about the collective mind set of americans in both centuries, everyone did and does not believe the same things based on a stereotyped version of history.

    Cleburne was progressive in his beliefs to use black troops in a combat role 75 years before the post Civil War United States. (That is of course if you do not count the Buffalo soldiers).
    No matter how you try to spin what Cleburne said it gives credibility to the notion blacks were human beings worthy of the nobility obtained by such an endeavor as fighting to the death for your friends and family.

    Contrary to some beliefs here, all southerners (and copper heads) did not and do not believe racial inequality is justifiable or civilized in any way.

    Just because your opinion may be the attitude or political position of Cleburne does not raise the possibility everyone in question might not believe in racial equality does not make it the case.

    • Kevin Levin Jul 16, 2011 @ 13:54

      My response to your comment has nothing to do with the 20th century and that was my point. The issue is the proper context in which to understand Cleburne. I suggest you pick up a copy of Craig Symonds’s excellent biography, Stonewall of the West (University of Kansas Press).

      You said: “Cleburne was progressive in his beliefs to use black troops in a combat role 75 years before the post Civil War United States. (That is of course if you do not count the Buffalo soldiers).”

      I hate to break this to you but African Americans served in the Continental Army during the Revolution and 200,000 served in the United States Army during the Civil War. Cleburne was not the first Confederate military officer to talk about the possibility of recruiting slaves as soldiers.

  • Tim Jul 16, 2011 @ 8:10

    The 19th Century morality play is kind of like an old soap opera. It was not that interesting when they ran it the first time.

    Cleburne was very interesting and gives us insight into what a 20th Century american with an independent streak, that is brave and true, would be like later.

    Offering the slaves freedom and a fair (minimum) wage (let’s not get carried away here) would have been the perfect way to win the war.
    Is the proposal too simple to understand? Who would want to lose a major war just to stand on a principal you believed made you better than someone else. Go figure. Win the war first! Idiots!!

    I should have been in charge instead of Davis.

    • Kevin Levin Jul 16, 2011 @ 12:27

      You said: “Cleburne was very interesting and gives us insight into what a 20th Century american with an independent streak, that is brave and true, would be like later.”

      No, it doesn’t. It tells us a great deal about Cleburne’s view of the Confederacy’s prospects for victory during the winter of 1863-64. Jefferson Davis ordered him not to discuss the issue openly and though most white Southerners would have agreed with Cleburne’s outlook on the military state of affairs they refused to go down the road of enlisting slaves. That the government did not do so until the last few weeks of the war gives us a sense of slavery’s importance.

    • Brooks D. Simpson Jul 17, 2011 @ 8:27

      “Cleburne was very interesting and gives us insight into what a 20th Century american with an independent streak, that is brave and true, would be like later.”

      How do you know? Isn’t this a case of your reshaping Cleburne to be in line with what you want him to be? Aren’t you loading this with a lot of assumptions? Alabama governor George Wallace was a 20th century American with an independent streak, too.

    • Bob Huddleston Jul 19, 2011 @ 15:40

      Had the slave states been interested in freeing the slaves, there would have been no reason for secession And 1860 slave state residents with your ideas would have been, if lucky, merely tarred and feathered, rather than immediately lynched.

  • Billy Bearden Jul 15, 2011 @ 23:07

    You’re on the right track Winn.
    Those people from GHS in Dalton were all to eager to use a brief sound byte of Cleburne, but not a more rounded discussion. Charlie Crawford, president of the Georgia Battlefields Association said “…So I say to those who say the Civil War wasn’t about slavery, you’re wrong.”

    Sorry Charlie, I tend to believe President Abraham Lincoln, General Grant and Lt General Cleburne, who said the war was not about slavery, but then hey, they didn’t hold a comfy position on the GBA like you…..

    ” I am with the South in life or in death, in victory or defeat. I never owned a negro and care nothing for them, but these people have been my friends and have stood up to me on all occasions. In addition to this, I believe the North is about to wage a brutal and unholy war on a people who have done them no wrong, in violation of the Constitution and the fundamental principles of the government…We propose no invasion of the North, no attack on them, and only ask to be let alone”. Patrick R. Cleburne

    “It is said 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” – Patrick Cleburne

    “I have no doubt in the world that the sole object is the restoration of the Union. I will say further, though, that I am a Democrat – every man in my regiment is a Democrat – and when-ever I shall be convinced that this war has for its object anything else than what I have mentioned, or that the Government designs to use its soldiers to execute the purposes of the Abolishionists, I pledge you my honor as a man and a soldier that I wilt not only resign my commission, but will carry my sword to the other side, and cast my lot with that people.” – US Grant

    “My enemies say I am now carrying on this war for the sole purpose of abolition. It is & will be carried on so long as I am President for the sole purpose of restoring the Union…” President Lincoln

    • Kevin Levin Jul 16, 2011 @ 1:40

      What does this have to do with his decision to propose arming slaves as well as the response by Davis and the difficulty of passing legislation to bring his idea to fruition? The Lincoln quote has nothing to do with it apart from some perceived notion on your part that this is all about making sure that the moral scales remain intact. Sorry, but this seems to me more about you than the subject at hand.

    • Marc Ferguson Jul 16, 2011 @ 2:27

      I note your willingness to use a “quote” from Grant that has long been discredited.

      • Billy Bearden Jul 16, 2011 @ 6:33

        Mark, if it is wrong then I’ll stop using it. I understood it to be from a quote in a book from 1868.
        Lead me in the direction of the debunking.

        • Andy Hall Jul 16, 2011 @ 8:41

          I understood it to be from a quote in a book from 1868.

          Factually true, but deeply disingenuous on your part. It’s given as a years-old reminiscence by a third party and printed in The Democratic Speaker’s Hand-Book, subtitled “containing every thing necessary for the defense of the national democracy in the coming presidential campaign, and for the assault of the radical enemies of the country and its Constitution.” It is a compilation of anecdotes and quotations to be used as what we would now call talking points for Democratic campaigners to use at rallies and in editorials against Grant and other Republican candidates. Given its provenance, I don’t see how any serious person can attribute that as an actual quote, in good faith.

    • Bob Huddleston Jul 19, 2011 @ 15:34

      Aside from all the other mistakes in this post, I would point out that Cleburne was only a major general, not a lieutenant general It has been a whole since I read Symonds’ excellent biography,but, IIRC, among the other reasons he was not promoted was his radical proposal to arm slaves

  • Rob Jul 15, 2011 @ 12:21

    I don’t think that is a bad marker. Given the fact that there are numerous markers in and around the area with signs marking historical districts, I think the casual onlooker can figure out what is going on. As with any marker, its direct information warrants further investigation to comprehend the entire issue, but I am glad that this was done correctly. I may drive down later today to see it.

  • Winn Jul 15, 2011 @ 6:36

    Exactly how is that “getting it right”? The marker contains exactly one short descriptive sentence about Cleburne’s proposal, followed by a long paragraph of quotes by his critics before trailing off into an only loosely related and detail-sparse set of remarks linking it to the March 1865 business about arming the slaves as a last ditch effort. It’s fine if you want to tell that story, but the simple lack of proportion between what the text conveys and what the marker purports to be commemorating is…well…rather absurd.

    Consider this: Despite all the information above about its aftermath, the marker says absolutely nothing about the specific details of Cleburne’s proposal & contains no quotes from Cleburne himself. It offers no insight to Cleburne’s own motives or ideas, and presents no context as to why this particular marker is being placed at this location, or what its own historical significance happens to be. It contains no biographical data about Cleburne. It doesn’t even explain what he was doing in Georgia and how that fit into the course of the war – i.e. information that may actually be useful to a casual tourist who happens upon this marker and wants to know some basic details of what happened there. Rather, it reads as if the author used it as little more than a platform to make an argument debunking black confederates. Agree with him or not, it’s the wrong message on the wrong medium.

    • Kevin Levin Jul 15, 2011 @ 6:45

      Thanks for the comment, Winn. You make a number of good points, but keep in mind that it’s a historical marker. I was commenting more on the fact that it avoids many of the popular myths about the relationship between the Confederacy and black southerners.

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