When a yankee teacher comes down to Georgia, who you gonna call? Continue reading
This past February the Museum of the Confederacy hosted its annual “Person of the Year” for 1864. As you already know the audience selected William T. Sherman. The event was broadcast this weekend on C-SPAN. Here is John Marszalek reflecting on Sherman’s victory. Marszalek offers some interesting thoughts at the beginning in response to a question of whether he was surprised by the audience’s choice. I agree with his response in that it tells us as much about the profile of the audience as it does about the relevant history.
- Joe Mobley on Zebulon Vance
- Gary Gallagher on Robert E. Lee
- Craig Symonds on Patrick Cleburne
- John Marszalek on William T. Sherman
- Harold Holzer on Abraham Lincoln
Again, congratulations to “Uncle Billy.”
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
General Patrick Cleburne’s plan to arm slaves is often highlighted as an enlightened vision of racial progress in the Confederacy, which proves that slavery was incidental to the formation and maintenance of the Confederate nation. As David T. Gleeson explains in his new book, The Green and the Gray: The Irish in the Confederate States of America (University of North Carolina Press, 2013), it’s a bit more complicated.
Cleburne may have been naive about the possibility of emancipation, but not in the importance of slave labor to the Confederacy. Cleburne’s vision was for black soldiers, not black citizens in the Confederacy. On the contrary, their “emancipation” was to be a limited one. While family relationships would be legalized, “wise legislation” would be needed to “compel [former slaves]. . . to labor for a living.” Somewhat ironically, Cleburne drew on the Irish experience he had fled from, concluding in one letter that “writing a man ‘free’ does not make him so, as the history of the Irish laborer shows.” Cleburne understood clearly then that the subordination of blacks would be a key element of the independent Confederacy that he continued to fight for with such gusto. Through his proposal, he believed that “we can control the negroes. . . and they will still be our laborers as much as they now are; and, to all intents and purposes will be our servants, at less cost than now.” To let the North win and the Confederacy be destroyed would, instead, lead to the dreaded racial “equality and amalgamation.” (p. 96)
That’s a pretty straightforward explanation of Cleburne’s proposal, but it got me thinking.
Just how different was the plan to enlist black soldiers in the United States army? Of course the crucial distinction is that freedom in the North was guaranteed by 1865 for all African Americans while Cleburne’s proposal called for a very limited emancipation. However, while African Americans clearly viewed military service as a stepping stone toward increased civil rights, it was certainly far from the majority view in the United States. Certainly, many white Northerners entertained some of the apocalyptic visions of their Southern neighbors regarding the political and social consequences of emancipation. There was nothing inevitable about the passage of the Reconstruction Amendments and we know the sad story of their enforcement throughout much of the country by the end of the nineteenth century.
Just as Cleburne hoped that the Confederacy would be able to maintain a strict racial hierarchy indefinitely even through the disruption caused by military service, it could be argued that much of the history of this country during the postwar period, in part, was a struggle to come to terms with the tension between emancipation/military service and a very deep commitment to white supremacy. Just a thought.
…and corrects a number of misconceptions about Patrick Cleburne’s proposal to arm slaves.
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.
[Hat-Tip to Lee White]
Back in 2008 I commented on a graphic novel that tells the story of Patrick Cleburne’s plan to arm slaves in exchange for their freedom. I expressed a number of concerns in that post and I appreciate the author of the novel for offering his own perspective. Now it looks like that story is coming to the big screen. Unfortunately, it looks like the misinformation and blatant abuse of history that is present in the graphic novel will make it into the movie. Consider the web page on the history behind the subject. It begins with the standard list of half-truths and outright falsehoods about the roles of blacks in the Confederate army as well as the views of some of the more prominent Confederate such as Forrest and Jackson. Ed Bearrss is cited as having spoken out in support of the black Confederate narrative even though he has denied ever making such a claim. And can someone tell me where Ervin Jordan describe this as a “cover up”? I can’t seem to find it in his book, but perhaps I am looking in the wrong place. You will also notice the doctored photograph of the Louisiana Native Guards at the top of the page. Consider the following choice “facts” about black Confederates:
- Many Black Confederates actually engaged in combat including the Battles of First Manassas, Chickamauga, Seven Days, Thompson’s Station, Franklin, and others.
- Black Confederates were known to frequent veteran reunions years after the war and many posed proudly for photographs with Confederate Battle Flags.
Such a sloppy description of how free and enslaved black southerners functioned in the Confederate army raises more questions than anything approaching understanding of such a complex subject. But it gets even worse. Consider the brief description of Cleburne and his proposal:
On a cold winter night in January 1864, Patrick Cleburne put forth a controversial plan to the Confederate high command. It was a written proposal to free over 300,000 slaves and enlist them as soldiers in the Southern armies. He made few allies and many enemies, and from that moment on, his career would come to a dead halt. Cleburne was no ordinary commander. He had never lost a battle and was even called the “Stonewall Jackson of the West”. None of this would matter once his revolutionary views were made known to the Confederate government and President Davis.
Ironically, Black troops had already been serving as teamsters in the Confederate ranks for years, but what Cleburne proposed was not merely service, but official military enlistment. He even went as far as to imply that the entire plan would begin the steps toward the complete emancipation of all African Americans from slavery.
The movie presents Cleburne as having “fought two wars. One with the North, the other with the South.” Such a description makes it seem as if Cleburne was operating in a vacuum when his proposal surfaced. Actually, the debate about arming slaves had started back in 1861 and Cleburne wasn’t even the first Confederate general to offer such a proposal. More importantly, we must not lose sight of the fact that these proposals do not reflect a desire to end slavery in the South. In fact, they tell us much more about the extent to which white Southerners would go to gain independence as a means to preserve the institution of slavery. That fact tells us why most white southerners were not willing to arm slaves and free blacks. You can expect that I am going to closely follow this story
As bad as all of this is what truly disappoints me is that one of my favorite actors, Philip Seymour Hoffman, is slated to play the role of Judah Benjamin.
This past weekend the city of Ringgold, Georgia unveiled a Civil War statue dedicated to General Patrick Cleburne. The connection to Ringgold seems tenuous at best as he was there only once in his life and only for a few hours at that. Cleburne took charge of an effective rear guard action at Ringgold Gap against elements of Joe Hooker’s Corps in the wake of the Confederate defeat at Missionary Ridge outside of Chattanooga in November 1864. Let’s face it, Cleburne has always been an appealing Confederate military figure. A number of biographies have recently been published, including Craig Symonds’s The Stonewall of the West: Patrick Cleburne & the Civil War (University of Kentucky Press, 1997). In addition, a graphic novel was recently published. Cleburne has also bee painted by a host of Civil War artists. He’s got the cool sobriquet, “Stonewall” which conjures up images of Jackson and he’s also got the whole Irish immigrant thing in his favor. Clearly, he was a charismatic and talented division commander. Better yet, he died in a blaze of glory in a forlorn assault at Franklin, Tennessee on November 30, 1864. But still, one could ask, why Cleburne?
No doubt, part of the appeal of Cleburne is his controversial, but widely misunderstood, proposal to arm slaves in exchange for their freedom. At first glance, such a proposal singles out Cleburne as something of a progressive minded white Southerner who seems to be on the right side of history fighting for a government pledged to the maintenance of slavery and a society built on white supremacy. The problem that most fail to understand about Cleburne and others who supported some version of the plan is that they were not, in any way, pushing for the abolition of slavery. In fact, one way to understand Cleburne’s proposal is as a means of preserving the institution of slavery. [Once again, I highly recommend Bruce Levine’s treatment of this debate in Confederate Emancipation (Oxford University Press, 2006). The debate that raged throughout much of 1864 (and even earlier in the war) challenged some of the most basic assumptions of a slave holding society. While Cleburne – and eventually Robert E. Lee himself – called for enlistment of slaves in exchange for freedom others believed that it was possible to compel slaves to fight for the Confederacy. Cleburne and Lee understood, however, that slaves would make poor soldiers, but that observation no doubt was reinforced by their experience maintaining a cohesive fighting force. They also had to deal with the growing evidence of large numbers of runaway slaves, some of whom were returning with the Union army by 1864. How many white Southerners had difficulty coming to terms with the very idea that slaves desired to be free? Didn’t part of the justification for slavery itself assume that slaves had achieved a kind of freedom through the paternalistic embrace of the master?
When I reflect on Cleburne’s proposal I can’t help but be impressed with the desperation of a division commander who clearly perceives the military challenges standing in the way of Confederate victory. The recruitment of former slaves into the Union army reinforced the need for drastic action. But that is how this plan must be undestood. It was not a step toward emancipation, but as a means to achieve military victory. That the Confederacy did not begin recruiting slaves into the army until it was too late suggests not only the controversial nature of the plan, but perhaps also how little Cleburne understood of his adopted “country”.