The proposal Patrick Cleburne made on January 2, 1864 to arm blacks to fight for the Confederacy is often understood as either promoting the use of armed slaves to preserve slavery or as a naïve proposition for emancipation that ignored what the South was fighting for. 1
It was neither. At the heart of his proposal was the conclusion that the war for slavery had already been lost. Now white Southerners were battling for survival.2
Patrick Cleburne’s proposal was not aimed at winning the victory that the Confederates had sought to win when they attacked Fort Sumter in April, 1861. That war, for a 13 state Confederacy preserving slavery, had been lost in 1863 according to Cleburne. Now the South’s whites were fighting to avoid complete subjugation by the North. Although Confederate President Jefferson Davis claimed to have plans to salvage victory, Cleburne dismissed this as a political smokescreen, writing “We…see in the recommendations of the President only a temporary expedient, which at the best will leave us twelve months hence in the same predicament we are in now.” In short, Jeff Davis failed “to meet…the depressing causes” of imminent Confederate defeat, in Cleburne’s words. 3
A Confederate collapse would lead to the inevitable end of slavery. Cleburne urged Southern whites to understand that a large part of the Confederacy had already fallen to the Union forces, and wherever those troops had marched, slavery had ceased to exist. The destruction of slavery had already occurred in Tennessee, and he predicted that Confederate armies would soon be unable to preserve it elsewhere. The Irish general warned that unless the radical action of ending slavery was taken, “we must be subjugated.”4
“Every man should endeavor to understand the meaning of subjugation before it is too late”, he warned. “We can,” he added, “give but a faint idea when we say it means the loss of all we now hold most sacred — slaves and all other personal property, lands, homesteads, liberty, justice, safety, pride, manhood.” Losing the war did simply mean losing slavery, he said, it meant having a new regime “[f]orced upon us by a conqueror.” If slavery ended only through a Union victory, then whites in the South would face “the hatred of our former slaves” who would ally themselves with the Unionists and, after the war would “be our secret police.”5
Cleburne is sometimes seen a man too naïve to understand the importance of slavery to the Confederacy. Far from it. He writes openly in his proposal that among those who might oppose his proposal it “is said slavery is all we are fighting for, and if we give it up we give up all.” His response is that “slavery is not all our enemies are fighting for.” In other words, defeat will entail a lot worse suffering for Southern whites than merely the loss of slaves. Historically, rebels were often executed or imprisoned after conquest. They might lose their homes or property. They would certainly lose their right to self-government, at least for a time.6
Cleburne believed that defeat could only be prevented if black men were enlisted in the Confederate army as part of a broad emancipation plan. However, he had to overcome the widespread belief among white Southerners that blacks were an inferior and cowardly race. Incredibly, he used three examples of black heroism fighting against whites to demonstrate their neglected capacity as soldiers. The first example was from Haiti: “The negro slaves of Saint Domingo, fighting for freedom, defeated their white masters and the French troops sent against them.” The second were Jamaican communities of resistance: “ The negro slaves of Jamaica revolted, and under the name of Maroons held the mountains against their masters for 150 years.” The third was one Southerners could see with their own eyes as black Union regiments defeated Southern soldiers: “[T]he experience of this war has been so far that half-trained negroes have fought as bravely as many other half-trained Yankees.” Cleburne’s analysis directly challenged Southern notions of white military superiority.7
Cleburne argued that the success of black soldiers in defeating the French army in Haiti proved their fighting ability.
Cleburne rejected the use of slaves as soldiers by the Confederacy. He opposed calls to force slaves to take up arms for the Confederates. “The slaves are dangerous now” due to the disruptions of war, he wrote, “but armed, trained, and collected in an army they would be a thousand fold more dangerous.” Arm the slaves, and they would turn their weapons on their “masters”. “[T]herefore”, he argued, “when we make soldiers of them we must make free men of them beyond all question, and thus enlist their sympathies also.” Any attempt to emancipate slaves who enlisted in the army would inevitably destroy slavery, he predicted, so he said “If, then, we touch the institution at all, we would do best to make the most of it…by emancipating the whole race.”8
Cleburne argued that liberating only those slaves who enlisted would demoralize black soldiers. Although they would be “free”, they would effectively be fighting to keep their wives, their children, and their communities enslaved. Contradicting the apologists of slavery who said that blacks were satisfied being slaves, Cleburne wrote that “the negro has been dreaming of freedom, and…it has become the paradise of his hopes.” To show good faith, Cleburne insisted that the Confederacy “immediately make [the slaves’] marriage and parental relations sacred in the eyes of the law” and that a comprehensive emancipation take place within a “reasonable time.” If blacks were called upon to fight, he wrote, “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.” If even a portion of blacks fought for the Confederacy, Cleburne said, “every consideration of principle and policy demand that we should set him and his whole race who side with us free.”9
Cleburne said that an army of slaves would not fight to preserve slavery, but his proposal was vague on how soon after enlisting blacks the Confederacy would end human bondage.
While Cleburne’s proposal was radical, it was unclear as to how long it would take under it to end slavery. It did not grant blacks Confederate citizenship or the vote. It also contemplated laws that would compel unemployed blacks to find work that may have been similar to the post-war vagrancy laws. In other words it would bring an end to slavery and limited civil rights, but it would not place African Americans on an equal footing with whites. 10
Cleburne’s proposal was supported by a number of officers of his own division, but when it was presented to the generals of the Army of Tennessee several wanted to suppress it while at least one viewed it as treasonous. When the proposal was sent to Confederate President Jefferson Davis, his reaction would be decisive. 11
VIDEO: Dedication of marker in Georgia at house where Cleburne made his emancipation proposal
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. January 2, 1864 Cleburne Emancipation Proposal
3. January 2, 1864 Cleburne Emancipation Proposal
4. January 2, 1864 Cleburne Emancipation Proposal
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
11. 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