Today is the 150th anniversary of General Patrick Cleburne’s proposal to enlist slaves into the Confederate army. It’s an extraordinary document, in term of what it says and – in light of the continued influence of the black Confederate myth – what it does not say. The Civil War Trust has made the text of Cleburne’s proposal available with certain sections highlighted. If you don’t have the time stick to the highlights.
As many of you know 150 years ago citizens of the Confederacy were not aware that a high-ranking general had issued such a proposal because President Jefferson Davis ordered that it be suppressed. Cleburne’s proposal was not the first, but the military situation of the Confederacy and the widespread use of black men in the Union army gave it much more weight. Indeed by the middle of the year Confederates in the army and on the home front were debating various proposals. Most thought the idea was absurd and those who sanctioned it did so only as a means to stave off defeat.
Why it was deemed to be absurd comes out clearly in Cleburne’s proposal.
If we arm and train him and make him fight for the country in her hour of dire distress, every consideration of principle and policy demand that we should set him and his whole race who side with us free. It is a first principle with mankind that he who offers his life in defense of the State should receive from her in return his freedom and his happiness, and we believe in acknowledgment of this principle.
Imagining the end of slavery and a society based on white supremacy was simply too much of a stretch for slaveowners and non-slaveowners alike by 1864. Many had already seen the disintegration of slavery in various parts of the South where Union armies were operating. In my own research on the summer of 1864 I find a renewed commitment, especially among Lee’s men in Virginia, to the Confederate cause.
Don’t expect a wave of posts and commentary on this anniversary from the Confederate Heritage forums. Cleburne’s proposal does nothing for their presentist agenda of muddying our understanding of the role that thousands of free and enslaved blacks played in the Confederate war effort. And that brings us to what Cleburne’s text did not include:
- Nowhere did he mention that blacks were already fighting as soldiers in his or any Confederate army.
- At no time did he acknowledge that the presence of musicians, teamsters, body servants, cooks, etc. constituted a relationship with the Confederate government that implied emancipation.
This would be a step in a new direction. In fact, all the nonsense that has been written by people who claim to be defending Confederate heritage and history makes Cleburne look like a complete fool. Clearly, he did not operate in the fantasy land that has been constructed by the Confederate heritage community over the past few years.
Cleburne was not a fool. His decision to share his thoughts through this proposal tells us a great deal about his commitment to the Confederate experiment. The response to it tells us a great deal about what many Confederates thought a worthwhile and hopefully successful experiment would look like.
Further Reading: The best biography of Patrick Cleburne is Craig Symond’s Stonewall of the West: Patrick Cleburne and the Civil War and on the Confederate enlistment debate there is no better book than Bruce Levine’s, Confederate Emancipation: Southern Plans to Free and Arm Slaves during the Civil War.