Cleburne proposes to free slaves who will fight for the Confederacy

January 4, 2014

While respected for his tenacity as a fighter, Patrick Cleburne of the Army of Tennessee made headlines for a proposal he made to help the Confederate cause. Realizing the war was lost unless changes were made, Cleburne proposed to his fellow generals that the Confederacy should consider freeing Southern slaves in exchange for them fighting for the Confederate cause.

Cleburne was an Irish immigrant who made Arkansas his adopted home state. Identifying with the south, Cleburne cast his lot with the fledgling Confederacy. From the start of the war, Cleburne rose from a private to a major general over a division in the Army of Tennessee. After 1862, Cleburne was a veteran of battles of Perryville, Shiloh, Stone’s River, Tullahoma, Chickamauga, Tunnel Hill and Ringgold Gap.

Cleburne’s division was easily identified on the battlefield by their unique full moon on a field of blue battle flag. His division was considered the best in the Army of Tennessee and renowned as the best fighters. Cleburne’s military success earned him the nickname of "Stonewall of the West."

By late 1863 and early 1864, Cleburne came to the conclusion that the Confederacy would lose the war unless a drastic change was made. There was no way the South could compete with the population advantage the North had over the Confederate states. The Civil War would turn into a war of attrition with the North ultimately winning due to the South’s population shortage.

On Jan. 2, 1864, Cleburne proposed during an officer’s meeting that the South should free any slave willing to fight for the Confederacy. Cleburne’s proposal made sense. The Confederate army was about a third of the size of the Union army.

While the Confederate army had won a series of stirring victories, they could not continue winning such victories at a high cost of casualties. While the North could replace fallen soldiers from a huge population base, the South could not.

The fact that a well-respected general in the Confederate army was making this proposal was a change from the occasional journalist or politician making a similar proposal.

Cleburne pointed out that the "present state of affairs" was grim and that Confederates had sacrificed "much of our best blood" but were left with "nothing but long lists of dead and mangled."

After Vicksburg fell, The Jackson Mississippian opined, "We must either employ the negroes ourselves, or the enemy will employ them against us." The Mobile Register bemoaned the "danger to the South" from Northern use of black soldiers. The editors wrote, "Why not, if necessity requires, meet them with the same fighting material?"

Joseph E. Johnston refused to forward the memorandum to Richmond but W.H.T. Walker of Georgia did, along with his vehement protest. Jefferson Davis ordered the suppression of the proposal and any discussion of it. After making his proposal, Cleburne was passed over for promotion three times during the following eight months.

In February 1864, the Confederate Congress authorized, at Davis’ request, the use of 20,000 free blacks and slaves in noncombatant roles, such as cooks, laborers, nurses and teamsters.

It wasn’t until March 1865, when there was no hope for the South to win the Civil War that the Confederate House passed a bill calling for slaves to be armed to fight for the Confederacy with their freedom being assured.

On The web: