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. Continue reading →
The most recent issue of The Civil War Monitor contains a letter-to-the-editor about a recent essay of mine on Confederate camp servants [Spring 2013]. From Mr. John H. Whitfield:
While the article was enlightening on the issue of enslaved Africans who were wartime “body servants,” it presented a rather narrow view of the panoply of roles in which the enslaved were critical to the Rebel war effort. For instance, the impressment of slaves, authorized throughout the Confederacy in 1862, sent countless men to construct earthworks at various strategic locations.
I am in the home stretch with Bruce Levine’s wonderful new book, The Fall of the House of Dixie: The Civil War and the Social Revolution That Transformed the South. It’s extremely well written and is an excellent introduction to the story of the Confederacy and the central role that slavery played in its ultimate failure. It should come as no surprise that Levine spends a good deal of time toward the end of the book exploring the debate over the enlistment of black soldiers into Confederate ranks. The following two paragraphs address the conflict between the recruitment of blacks into the army and the stated goals of the Confederate government to protect the institution of slavery.
What follows serves as a reminder of how dangerous it is to generalize about what Confederates were fighting for outside of any historical context. This is especially true for those who reduce this complex question to states’ rights.
Some of the measure’s [recruitment of blacks] champions responded coyly to this most fundamental of objections. The editors of two Richmond papers declared that they and the white South as a whole had been fighting not for the sake of slavery but to secure states’ rights and southern independence. “We are told by some horrified individuals,” said the Richmond Sentinel in affected surprise, “that this is ‘giving up the cause.’” But, its editor demanded, just what cause are they referring to? “We thought that independence was, just now, the great question.” “This war is waged for the liberty, independence, and nationality of these States,” the Enquirer chimed in, and it was “for this object only” that “the people have made the tremendous sacrifices of the last four years.” It follows as night the day that “any measure which secures the liberty, independence and nationality of these States is justified and made our imperative duty.”
Davis’s opponents found this claim simply laughable. Yes, they retorted, we value states’ rights. But the purpose of those rights has always been to protect the southern master from interference by a potentially hostile national government. All southerners knew that “slavery–aggressions upon it by the North, apprehensions for its safety in the South”–was the “cause of Secession and that “all other questions were subordinate to it,” one Georgian now reminded his president. “The principle of State Sovereignty” was “important to the South principally, or solely, as the armor that encased her peculiar institution.” They had finally opted for full-scale independence for the same reason–to guarantee slavery’s future. “Of what value is ‘self-government’ to the South,” one Texan demanded, once “the very fabric of Southern prosperity” has been lost? (252-53)
What I find so interesting is that the eventual bill that was passed through the Confederate Congress authorizing the enlistment of slaves into the army was rendered entirely ineffective because individual states and slaveholders held so tightly to their individual property rights in opposition to what they perceived to be an overly intrusive federal government in Richmond. The only slaves that would be welcomed into the Confederate army were those who had been manumitted by their masters and who freely chose to join. In the end, Confederates understood what states’ rights was all about.
Update: Bruce Levine emailed the following to me: “Of course — as would (should?) be clear to anyone who hears or reads the text of my short talk — my point was that facts like the ones I cited are today misconstrued as proof for the preposterous claim that the Confederate army included thousands of black soldiers. That two people who enthusiastically participate in this kind of shameless distortion of historical facts should do the same to my own expose of such chicanery just seems par for the course.”
. . . and some slaves served as personal servants to white soldiers. It was not unusual for such slaves to be given uniforms; and occasionally, one of them even picked up and fired his master’s musket at northern soldiers. Thereby, perhaps, winning for themselves some additional approval and trust from the white confederate soldiers all around them . . . These things are well known facts. They are not controversial. Nobody that I know of denies them.
The passage was pulled from a presentation that Professor Levine gave at the recent Virginia Sesquicentennial Conference held at Norfolk State University. You can watch the video here, which should leave little doubt as to Levine’s position. I’ve written extensively about this book and its authors so there is no reason to repeat myself. Either DeWitt and Weeks made a conscious decision to misrepresent Levine’s position or we are left with the more likely conclusion that the two are incapable of even the most rudimentary analysis of a historian’s interpretation. Either way they have misrepresented his position and the passage ought to come down.
Those of you who are sincerely interested in the subject of how the Confederacy utilized its large black population during the war should begin with this presentation by Professor Bruce Levine from the recent Virginia Sesquicentennial Conference at Norfolk State University. The approach of throwing out random accounts without any analysis/interpretation gets us nowhere. We need serious research and Levine has given us a thorough analysis of the public debate that took place throughout the Confederate South over whether to arm its slaves. I highly recommend that you begin your reading with his book, Confederate Emancipation: Southern Plans to Free and Arm Slaves during the Civil War. Levine’s presentation is hardly controversial among scholars. Any attempt to throw out a random account, as is the norm in this debate, must come to terms with the broader narrative that clearly demonstrates that Confederate military and civilian officials stood squarely against enlisting its slave population with few exceptions.