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.
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
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”.
I opened up the latest issue of one of the major Civil War magazines today and noticed a full-page spread announcing the publication of a graphic novel titled Cleburne by Justin Murphy, which tells the story of his plans to arm slaves. You can read an interview with the author here. Check out these choice quotes from that interview:
Ultimately, Cleburne is not so much about African Americans fighting for the Confederacy, as it is the idea of it, and what that idea ultimately cost the South’s most promising military leader. It is the story of a true underdog who challenged the institutions of the very society he fought to defend.
What many today do not know is that there were a large number of Confederate officers and enlisted men who were opposed to slavery. Every one of General Cleburne’s regimental commanders put their names on his proposal to free and arm the slaves. This was a huge career risk for them and they would not have allied themselves with him unless they strongly believed in his idea. So what then were they fighting for if not to preserve slavery? The truth is many Southerners felt they had no choice but to defend their home states, and others were fighting against what they believed to be an over-reaching Federal government (a problem Americans are still dealing with today).
I’m aware of the political-incorrectness of such a subject and I’m also aware of the sensitivity of the issue. Some historians and educators may speak out against this book and accuse me of fabrication, but I’m ready for them. The truth is I’ve probably spent more hours studying the subject than they ever will. As far as speaking at schools, I will admit it can be difficult to stand in front of a classroom full of black students and try to explain why they should care about someone who (they’ve been told) fought for a government that wanted to keep their ancestors enslaved. It’s an uphill battle and I don’t blame them for being a little suspicious. There’s very spotty evidence for black confederate soldiers, but the proof is still there in the eyewitness accounts, and the concept seems to capture public’s imagination. That is why I have used the image in so much of my advertising.
Murphy's responses are a clear reflection of the sloppiness that often accompanies discussion of so-called black Confederates. First, it is unclear to me why we are so fascinated with Cleburne and his proposal to arm slaves. If I remember correctly, he wasn't even the first; Gen. Richard S. Ewell proposed a similar plan in 1861. Also notice the inference that because an officer supported the plan they must have been anti-slavery or that this plan was meant as a first step towards general emancipation. What Murphy never mentions, of course, is that the plan was debated throughout the Confederacy and throughout much of the war, and from what historians can tell it never really had a chance. That the plan was only passed in the final weeks of the war suggests that few white Southerners were able to contemplate such a development. In fact, the passage of the proposal, along with R.E. Lee's support, was meant as a way to save the Confederacy and slavery and not as a step towards general emancipation.
Murphy also falls into the trap of failing to distinguish between the outlines of Cleburne's plan and the experiences of individual slaves who were present with Confederate armies. Their presence had nothing to do with Cleburne. They served as slaves in various capacities and a few may even have picked up a rifle and fired it at a "Yankee" at one point or another. This ought not to be confused with serving officially as Confederate soldiers, although there may even be some exceptions in this case.