Imagining Confederate Emancipation Then and Now

cleburne_webToday 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.

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24 comments… add one
  • Patrick Young Jan 11, 2014 @ 4:32

    Just a few final words on this.

    Pat Cleburne’s plan combining the enlistment of blacks in the Confederate army was nearly unanimously rejected by the Confederate cabinet and by those top military men who knew of it. However, it had significant support among the officers of Cleburne’s own division. This fact made it crucial that the proposal not only be ignored, but also suppressed. Since it might attract support from non-slaveholders among the lower-ranking officers and the enlisted men, it was a dangerous proposition.

    I think that there was at least a perception by Davis that a portion of non-slaveholding Confederate loyalists would be sympathetic to Cleburne’s approach.

  • Patrick Young Jan 10, 2014 @ 2:48

    Here is the last installment of my three-parter on Pat Cleburne’s emancipation plan. A lot of Confederates in 1864 thought it was a big deal.

    • Kevin Levin Jan 10, 2014 @ 4:06

      Thanks for sending along the link. Great job with this series of posts, Pat.

      • Patrick Young Jan 10, 2014 @ 11:32

        Thanks Kevin. I appreciated your attention to this often misunderstood episode.

  • Nathan Towne Jan 3, 2014 @ 10:15


    I have recommended elsewhere Russell Brown’s phenomenal biography of William Henry Talbot Walker. It is worth purchasing for his chapter on the emancipation debate within the Army of Tennessee alone even if one is not particularly interested in the remainder of Walker’s life, his military career or military history in general, even though Brown’s study is an exceptional military history.

    Nathan Towne

    • Kevin Levin Jan 3, 2014 @ 10:17

      Thanks for reminding me of it. Will check it out.

  • Kevin Dally Jan 2, 2014 @ 15:44

    “It is said slaves will not work after they are freed. We think necessity and a wise legislation will compel them to labor for a living.”

    Interesting, looks like Cleburne is telling folk that after all is said and done, nothing has to change much after the war.

    • Patrick Young Jan 2, 2014 @ 17:42

      Actually, he is sketching out a world similar to the one African Americans lived in from 1877 until 1954.

      • Nathan Towne Jan 3, 2014 @ 10:05


        You do realize that from December of 1865, with the complete formal and legal destruction of the institution (although of course not always practical), if you trace Federal Government studies up through approximately 1925, you will witness one of the greatest instances of social mobility amidst a group of people, as in this case the African American population, the vast majority of whom had been liberated from the institution over the preceding four years in human history. This notion of a nation reneging upon its “promise of freedom,” which was ultimately fulfilled in the Civil Rights era is simply preposterous and is not at all demonstrable through the use of empirical evidence.

        Nathan Towne

        • Patrick Young Jan 3, 2014 @ 12:58

          The greatest moment of “mobility” came with the end of slavery.

          • Nathan Towne Jan 4, 2014 @ 6:55


            I may not be understanding your argument. The destruction of the institution of slavery enabled mobility, it didn’t necessarily create it by itself. Those human beings, for the most, still entered society at the lowest ends of the spectrum.

            Nathan Towne

            • Patrick Young Jan 4, 2014 @ 8:02

              Moving from slave to non-slave was the greatest moment of mobility.

              • Nathan Towne Jan 4, 2014 @ 8:39


                I think we are going to have to simply agree to disagree. From the period around 1865 up through the 1930’s (and in some cases beyond) the African American population achieved astonishing mobility. Literacy rates, Intelligence and aptitude testing results scoring, health status, essentially all measures of standard of living for that matter, per capita income, purchasing power e.t.c. all rose exponentially and with tremendous speed. According to one Federal Government report cited in a study by an economist named Thomas Sowell for example, by the year 1925, the eligible male African American population was a full 98% percent employed within the market. If you track the Federal Government’s studies, along with census data as well as state and local data you will see the degree of mobility clearly reflected. The point is that this notion of a static population of people who were reintroduced to oppressive measures in the reconstruction period, the yolk of which were finally shed, “freeing” them if you will in the 1950’s and 1960’s is just nonsense. The evidence is very clear that African Amerian individuals introduced into free society achieved their own levels of status through the framework of society, despite the degree of discrimination that inevitably those individuals where exposed to. Not the other way around.

                Nathan Towne

              • Nathan Towne Jan 4, 2014 @ 8:42

                We should be careful not to get too far off track in terms of the purpose of the post however, even though it is an interesting discussion.

                Nathan Towne

  • Damian Shiels Jan 2, 2014 @ 8:59

    It has been argued that Cleburne’s proposal demonstrated a lack of a real understanding of the South and its attachment to slavery, despite him having lived there for so long. One of the most telling passages in the proposal is where he says: ‘As between the loss of independence and the loss of slavery, we assume that every patriot will freely give up the latter- give up the negro slave rather than be a slave himself.’ This was a misjudgment, as the reaction of Walker and others highlighted- they clearly viewed independence without slavery as no independence at all. Although some (indeed many) of the other officers took a pragmatic approach to Cleburne’s proposal I wonder what would have happened had he not been such a lauded General, relatively fresh from his heroics at Ringgold Gap where he had saved the Army. His Adjutant, Virginian Irving A. Buck, described the proposal as ‘one of the most remarkable documents of the war’ which tells its own story about how left-field arming slaves was regarded at the time. We are extremely fortunate that the text of the document survived- the only known copy was found in the papers of Major Benham in California when he died a number of years after the war- it was very effectively suppressed at the time.

    • Kevin Levin Jan 2, 2014 @ 9:10

      Craig Symonds makes this point and I think it’s a reasonable one. That said, you do find a certain segment of enlisted men who were willing to consider some version of enlistment rather than suffer military defeat. That’s not surprising given their sacrifice up to that point.

      It is important to remember that the final version authorized by the Confederate Congress constituted a very limited enlistment policy that left the decision to individual masters. Finally, Confederate enlistment ought not to be confused as a general policy of emancipation. It was designed to minimize the damage it might do to the slave system.

  • Patrick Young Jan 2, 2014 @ 8:17

    Great post Kevin.

    It is important for modern readers not to confuse Cleburne’s proposal, which envisioned the end of slavery as a precondition of the survival of the CSA, with the proposals floated a year later by Davis/Lee/Benjamin or with the actual black enlistment authorized by the Confederate Congress.

    Cleburne began with a cold as steel analysis of the state of Confederate military fortunes on the second day of 1864. I’ve outlined that analysis here:

    He proceeds from a spot on view of the coming death of the Confederacy to an identification of slavery as a principal cause of the CSA’s failure. He is not fool enough to not understand that slavery was a major factor in the creation of the Confederacy, but he says that now that the war has changed the facts on the ground, the CSA’s main goal was no longer to preserve slavery, but to stave off conquest of its remaining territory.

    To do this, he offers a radical proposal for emancipation that leads Bragg to brand him an abolitionist.

    Cleburne never condemns slavery as morally wrong, but he does see it as the practical impediment to black enlistment.

    Just a note, anyone who views Cleburne’s proposal as a mere “arming the slaves” plan overlooks its analysis of what it would take to secure the loyalty of Southern blacks. And while Cleburne’s plan presumes white supremacy in a post-war South, so did many Northern supporters of emancipation.

    As you say Kevin, the reaction to the plan says a lot about where elite Southern white opinion was in 1864.

    • Patrick Young Jan 2, 2014 @ 8:26

      Sorry, I left you with a broken link to my article on Cleburne’s analysis of the Confederate military situation. Hopefully this one works:

    • Kevin Levin Jan 2, 2014 @ 8:27

      It is important for modern readers not to confuse Cleburne’s proposal, which envisioned the end of slavery as a precondition of the survival of the CSA, with the proposals floated a year later by Davis/Lee/Benjamin or with the actual black enlistment authorized by the Confederate Congress.

      Absolutely. For a nice overview, see Jaime Martinez’s entry at Encyclopedia Virginia.

      As you say Kevin, the reaction to the plan says a lot about where elite Southern white opinion was in 1864.

      I think it’s safe to say that this sentiment went beyond the elite. It was debated extensively in the ranks and on the home front, which is reflected in numerous newspaper editorials.

      • Adam Badeau Jan 2, 2014 @ 9:24

        Wow! For one who cautions against others getting information off the Internet, this site takes the cake.

        In a letter to Andrew Hunter of the Virginia Legislature on January 11, 1865 General Lee wrote “In my opinion the best means of securing the efficiency and fidelity of this auxiliary [Africian-American] force would be to accompany the measure with a well-digested plan of gradual and general emancipation.”

        In a speech at the African church in Richmond on February 6, 1865 Judah Benjamin said, “Let us say to every Negro who wishes to go into the ranks, on condition of being made free, ‘go and fight — you are free’.”

        • Kevin Levin Jan 2, 2014 @ 9:38

          What do you mean? I cited my sources at the bottom of the post. What exactly do you take issue with? Be specific. For those interested here is Lee’s letter in full. What point are you trying to make here? You need to do some explaining. Same with the Benjamin quote. You seem to think that these passages speak for themselves.

        • Bryan Cheeseboro Jan 2, 2014 @ 13:27

          these two documents you cite would mean a world of difference if they were dated 1862 instead of 1865

          • Kevin Levin Jan 2, 2014 @ 13:32

            Both quotes are well known, but it is unclear what interpretation ought to be attached. Perhaps the interpretation is forthcoming.

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