On January 12, 1864 Major General W.H.T. Walker of the Confederate Army of Tennessee forwarded a confidential document to President Jefferson Davis. The words in it, written by the Irish-born general Patrick Cleburne, were so dangerous that Walker believed that they bordered on treason. He may have hoped that when Davis read them, Cleburne’s rapid rise from immigrant lawyer to Confederate general might be halted.1
Walker began his message to Davis in an urgent tone. “I felt it my duty as an officer of the Army,” Walker wrote, to send President Davis a copy of Major General Patrick Cleburne’s draft proposal for the freeing of black slaves. Cleburne had presented the plan on January 2, 1864, a year and a day after Lincoln’s own Emancipation Proclamation. Cleburne had presented it at a special meeting of all corps and division commanders of the Army of Tennessee that was convened by the army’s commander Joe Johnston. 2
When he heard the proposal, Walker immediately sensed treason. When the initial states that seceded from the Union had announced their reasons for leaving, leading among all other reasons was the fear that the election of Abraham Lincoln signaled the beginning of the end of slavery. Walker insisted that the Confederate War Department in Richmond, Virginia, be informed of Cleburne’s dangerous emancipationist proposal which threatened to destroy that institution. In his letter to Davis, Walker told the president that General Johnston had refused Walker “permission to send it to the war Department through the proper official channel…” Walker, judging Cleburne’s proposal a danger to the Confederacy, bypassed his own commander and went directly to Davis. 3
Walker explained in his letter that he was breaking with the normal military protocol and sending Cleburne’s proposal directly to Davis because of “the gravity of the subject, the magnitude of the issues involved” and, Walker wrote, because of his conviction that Cleburne’s “further agitation of such…propositions would ruin the efficiency of our Army and involve our cause in ruin and disgrace…”4
Cleburne had a stellar record as a combat commander and he had suffered wounds and deprivation for the Confederate cause. Yet Walker now suspected him of betraying the very underpinning of the Confederate economy. What was Cleburne’s dangerous proposition? Was it as radical as Walker implied?
Before we answer those two questions, we need to look at the circumstances that gave rise to the most comprehensive emancipation proposal drafted by any major military figure in the Confederacy.
At the beginning of 1864, realists like Cleburne could see that the South was beginning to lose the war. In his emancipation proposal, Cleburne gave an accurate picture of a Confederacy on the path to defeat. He wrote:
We have now been fighting for nearly three years, have spilled much of our best blood, and lost, consumed, or thrown to the flames an amount of property equal in value to the specie currency of the world. [T]he fruits of our struggles and sacrifices have invariably slipped away from us and left us nothing but long lists of dead and mangled.5
While politicians like Jefferson Davis painted rosy pictures of a strong South, Cleburne knew that the Confederates had been run out of Tennessee in 1864, that Ulysses S. Grant had won control of the Mississippi River for the Union when he took Vicksburg, and that Robert E. Lee’s invasion of the North had ended in a bloody defeat at Gettysburg. Cleburne coldly summed up the declining power of the Confederacy when he wrote that “instead of standing defiantly on the borders of our territory or harassing those of the enemy, we are hemmed in to-day into less than two-thirds of it, and still the enemy menacingly confronts us at every point with superior forces.”6
Cleburne saw the effects of the losses on the common soldiers who fought under him. While he did not doubt the courage of the private in the Confederate ranks, he knew that they were rational men who would not sacrifice forever in the service of a lost cause. Dismissing the false optimism of so many other Confederate leaders, he wrote that “our soldiers can see no end to this state of affairs except in our own exhaustion; hence, instead of rising to the occasion, they are sinking into a fatal apathy, growing weary of hardships and slaughters which promise no results.” He understood that the Southern armies would soon disintegrate if a new path was not taken and radical measures adopted.
By the beginning of 1864, Confederate morale was beginning a long decline in the western armies.
Cleburne informed his superiors that the men were already beginning to desert the army and that many who remained refused to follow orders. The collapse of order within the Confederate army that would be apparent to everyone a year later, was already identified as a growing problem by Cleburne. “If this state continues much longer”, he wrote, “we must be subjugated.” Cleburne was not offering his emancipation proposal to the South that had left the Union strong and defiant in 1861. He was instead offering it to a declining rebel territory in the last stages of losing the war in 1864.7
As the South grew weaker, General Cleburne wrote, the North grew stronger because President Lincoln had emancipated the slaves. By the middle of 1863, Confederates were facing those former slaves on the battlefield. Cleburne wrote that Lincoln now could claim that he “has already in training an army of 100,000 negroes as good as any troops…” The Irish Confederate predicted that with “every fresh raid [Lincoln] makes and new slice of territory he wrests from us will add to this force” as newly freed slaves joined the Union army. Other Southern whites could laugh at Blacks in blue Union uniforms as monkeys in soldiers’ suits, but Cleburne knew they were already proving themselves as hard-fighting, highly motivated soldiers.8
The assault on Battery Wagner in South Carolina by the black soldiers of the 54th Massachusetts in 1863 was convincing evidence that blacks were willing to die to end slavery.
The South’s lack of diversity, its unwelcome climate for immigrants, and the continued existence of slavery limited the manpower it could muster for combat according to Cleburne. In one of his most incisive statements in his proposal, he looked at where troops for the new soldiers for the Confederate and Union armies will come from in 1864 and 1865:
Our single source of supply is that portion of our white men fit for duty and not now in the ranks. The enemy has three sources of supply: First, his own…population; secondly, our slaves; and thirdly,Europeans [immigrants] whose hearts are fired into a crusade against us by fictitious pictures of the atrocities of slavery, and who meet no hindrance from their Governments in such enterprise, because these Governments are equally antagonistic to the institution. …In touching the…cause, the fact that slavery has become a military weakness, we may rouse prejudice and passion, but the time has come when it would be madness not to look at our danger from every point of view, and to probe it to the bottom. Apart from the assistance that home and foreign prejudice against slavery has given to the North, slavery is a source of great strength to the enemy in a purely military point of view, by supplying him with an army from our granaries; but it is our most vulnerable point, a continued embarrassment, and in some respects an insidious weakness.9
Patrick Cleburne saw slavery as the central weakness of the Confederate war effort. As long as it existed, blacks would join the Union army at the first opportunity and immigrants would continue to come to America to fight for emancipation. He radically asserted that “slavery, from being one of our chief sources of strength at the commencement of the war, has now become, in a military point of view, one of our chief sources of weakness.”10
His emancipation proposal would be just as radical as the military analysis that spurred its creation.
1. Meteor Shining Brightly: Essays on Major General Patrick R. Cleburne by Mauriel Phillips Joslyn Terrell House Publishing (1998); Stonewall of the West: Patrick Cleburne and the Civil War by Craig L. Symonds published by University Press of Kansas (1997) pp. 50-51; Biographical Sketches of Gen. Pat Cleburne and Gen. T.C. Hindman by Charles Nash published by Tunnah & Pittard (1898); Biographical Sketch of Major-General P.R. Cleburne by Gen. W.H. Hardee Southern Historical society Papers Vol. XXXI edited by R.A. Brock 1903 pp. 151-164; Confederate Emancipation: Southern Plans to Free and Arm Slaves during the Civil War Bruce Levine published by Oxford University Press (2006) Kindle; January 12, 1864 Letter of W.H.T. Walker to Jefferson Davis Official Records of the War of the Rebellion Series I Volume 52 Part 2 p. 595.
2. Meteor Shining Brightly: Essays on Major General Patrick R. Cleburne by Mauriel Phillips Joslyn Terrell House Publishing (1998) pp. 99-100; Stonewall of the West: Patrick Cleburne and the Civil War by Craig L. Symonds published by University Press of Kansas (1997); January 12, 1864 Letter of W.H.T. Walker to Jefferson Davis Official Records of the War of the Rebellion Series I Volume 52 Part 2 p. 595.
3. Meteor Shining Brightly: Essays on Major General Patrick R. Cleburne by Mauriel Phillips Joslyn Terrell House Publishing (1998) pp. 99-100; Stonewall of the West: Patrick Cleburne and the Civil War by Craig L. Symonds published by University Press of Kansas (1997); January 12, 1864 Letter of W.H.T. Walker to Jefferson Davis Official Records of the War of the Rebellion Series I Volume 52 Part 2 p. 595.
4. January 12, 1864 Letter of W.H.T. Walker to Jefferson Davis Official Records of the War of the Rebellion Series I Volume 52 Part 2 p. 595.
5. January 2, 1864 Cleburne Emancipation Proposal
6. January 2, 1864 Cleburne Emancipation Proposal
7. January 2, 1864 Cleburne Emancipation Proposal
8. January 2, 1864 Cleburne Emancipation Proposal
9. January 2, 1864 Cleburne Emancipation Proposal
10. January 2, 1864 Cleburne Emancipation Proposal
The Immigrants’ Civil War is a series that examines the role of immigrants in our bloodiest war. Articles will appear twice monthly between 2011 and 2017. Here are the articles we have published so far:
1. Immigrant America on the Eve of the Civil War – Take a swing around the United States and see where immigrants were coming from and where they were living in 1861.
2. 1848: The Year that Created Immigrant America – Revolutions in Europe, famine and oppression in Ireland, and the end of the Mexican War made 1848 a key year in American immigration history.
3. Carl Schurz: From German Radical to American Abolitionist– A teenaged revolutionary of 1848, Carl Schurz brought his passion for equality with him to America.
5. …And the War Came to Immigrant America -The impact of the firing on Fort Sumter on America’s immigrants
10. Immigrant Day Laborers Help Build the First Fort to Protect Washington-The Fighting 69th use their construction skills.
12. Immigrants Rush to Join the Union Army-Why?– The reasons immigrants gave for enlisting early in the war.
17. Immigrant Regiments on Opposite Banks of Bull Run -The Fighting 69th and the Louisiana Tigers
39. A German Regiment Fights for “Freedom and Justice” at Shiloh-The 32nd Indiana under Col. August Willich.
40. The Know Nothing Colonel and the Irish Soldier Confronting slavery and bigotry.
43. Union Leader Ben Butler Seeks Support in New Orleans-When General Ben Butler took command in New Orleans in 1862, it was a Union outpost surrounded by Confederates. Butler drew on his experience as a pro-immigrant politician to win over the city’s Irish and Germans.
49. The Irish Brigade Moves Towards Richmond-The Irish brigade in the Peninsula Campaign from March 17 to June 2, 1862.
50. Peninsula Emancipation: Irish Soldiers Take Steps on the Road to Freedom-The Irish Brigade and Irish soldiers from Boston free slaves along the march to Richmond.
54. Making Immigrant Soldiers into Citizens-Congress changed the immigration laws to meet the needs of a nation at war.
60. Emancipation 150: “All men are created equal, black and white”– A German immigrant reacts to the Emancipation Proclamation
106. The Draft Riots End in a Sea of Blood-July 14-15, 1863.
Immigration Vacation -Civil War Sites