Nearly three years before Patrick Cleburne presented his commanding general with a plan to raise a black Confederate army by ending slavery, the Vice President of the Confederacy had spoken in Savannah, Georgia on the “cornerstone” on which the new country rested. Alexander Stephens told his audience that the new Confederate Constitution of 1861 “put at rest, forever, all the agitating questions relating to our peculiar institution African slavery as it exists amongst us the proper status of the negro in our form of civilization.” He said that the North’s desire to restrict slavery “ was the immediate cause of the…present revolution” by the South.1
The basis of the Declaration of Independence, that “all men are created equal”, was wrong he said. Jefferson and the Founding Fathers were wrong to think that “the enslavement of the African was in violation of the laws of nature; that it was wrong in principle, socially, morally, and politically.” The principles of the Framers of the Constitution, he said: “were fundamentally wrong. They rested upon the assumption of the equality of races. This was an error.”2
The new Confederate government, he said, “is founded upon exactly the opposite idea; its foundations are laid, its corner- stone rests, upon the great truth that the negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery subordination to the superior race is his natural and normal condition.” He heralded the Confederacy as “the history of the world, based upon this great physical, philosophical, and moral truth.”3
Stephens said that there was a sharp cultural divide between Northerners and Southern whites. Northerners, he said “assume that the negro is equal, and hence conclude that he is entitled to equal privileges and rights with the white man.” Northerners, he said “were attempting to make things equal which the Creator had made unequal.”4
Stephens’ philosophy was shared by many Southern leaders. From Washington’s and Jefferson’s belief that slavery was a temporary necessity that would one day fade away, the 1830s had seen more and more spokesmen for slaveholders describe slavery as beneficial for both whites and blacks and as natural. For example, in 1853, Robert Toombs, who would become Confederate Secretary of State, said that “the African is unfit to be intrusted [sic] with political power and incapable of serving his own happiness or contributing to the public prosperity… Whenever the two races co-exist a state of slavery is best for him and society.”5
The charts below, prepared by The Civil War Trust, analyze how much space was devoted in each of four Confederate states’ Declaration of Causes for leaving the United States to its reasons for seceding:
On January 2, 1864 Patrick Cleburne’s proposal to arm blacks included the radical proposition that for his plan to work, slavery must end. Modern readers assume that as an immigrant he did not understand how important the preservation of slavery was to the very creation of the Confederacy. As a non-slaveowner, they think, he undervalued slavery to the South’s economy. In fact, a reading of his proposal demonstrates that he grasped the centrality of slavery to many of his peers in the officer corps and his superiors in Richmond. 6
In his proposal, Cleburne sketched out the five primary anti-emancipation claims that he anticipated would be raised against it.
The first was that a true republic “cannot exist without the institution.” This may sound strange to modern ears, but many in the Confederate elite argued that the North could not be a true republic because white men employed other white men to work. This meant that elite whites controlled lower class whites in some aspects of their lives. In the South, at least in the mythology of the 1850s, whites did not work for whites. Only black slaves worked for whites. The implication was that white men in the South were “freer” than white men in the North. 7
The second argument Cleburne anticipated was that “It is said the white man cannot perform agricultural labor in the South.” Cleburne understood that a scientific racism was on the rise in the pre-war South which claimed that the bodies of blacks were more able to endure the harsh conditions of agricultural labor in hot cotton fields or sugar cane wetlands. The third objection springs from the second, “It is said an army of negroes cannot be spared from the fields.”8
The fourth “It is said slaves will not work after they are freed,” refers to Southern whites’ need for a dependable, low-cost agricultural workforce. Finally, the fifth objection echoes Vice President Stephens’ speech; “It is said slavery is all we are fighting for, and if we give it up we give up all.”9
Whether one finds Cleburne’s answer to these objections convincing or distressing, he was not naïve. He may have been a relative newcomer to the South, but in his decade and a half there he had learned that slavery was a central institution in its economy and in the daily lives of its people, white and black. He did not expect a quick embrace of his proposal and he understood that it put him at odds with the deeply held beliefs of men he fought beside. But he believed that slavery as an institution was dead, and that the only chance to save anything for the Confederacy was to bury its corpse.110
When Cleburne read his proposal to his fellow generals of the Army of Tennessee, the reaction was strongly negative. General William B. Bate called it “infamous”, “hideous”, and “objectionable,” and implied that Cleburne was an abolitionist. General James Patton Anderson said that it was “monsterous” and “revolting to Southern sentiment, Southern Pride, and Southern honor.’ General W.H.T. Walker, who would report on Cleburne’s proposal to Confederate President Jefferson Davis, describes Cleburne as a leader of the “abolition party.”11
Former Army of Tennessee commander Braxton Bragg, a friend of Jefferson Davis, also described Cleburne as an “abolitionist” and suggested that he and his supporters needed to be watched. For a Confederate general, being suspected of being an abolitionist would have been as detrimental in 1864 as for a United States general suspected of being a communist in 1954 during the Cold War.12
When W.H.T. Walker informed President Davis of Cleburne’s dangerous idea, Davis presented the Cleburne proposal to his cabinet. All but one cabinet member, the postmaster general, opposed it.13
Jefferson Davis, seated at the table to the left, and his cabinet. The standing officer is General Robert E. Lee.
Davis quickly sent word to Army of the Tennessee commander Joe Johnston that Cleburne’s proposal was a grave danger to the Confederacy. He warned that even allowing it to circulate would produce “dissension” among Southern whites. He ordered Johnston to destroy the proposal itself and to forbid “all discussion…respecting or growing out of it.”14
The emancipation proposal was dead, and in a short time Pat Cleburne would be as well. When his proposal was resurrected in a more limited form after his death, the reaction of some elites in the South was harsh. The Richmond Examiner, a leading Confederate newspaper, thundered that emancipation was “opposite to all the sentiments and principles which have heretofore governed the southern people.” Tennessee Congressman Henry Foote asked angrily “if this government is to destroy slavery, why fight for it.” Robert Barnwell Rhett, whose newspaper The Charleston Mercury had been one of the strongest advocates for secession, reminded his readers that it had been “the mere agitation in the Northern States to effect the emancipation of our slaves” that had led to the Confederacy being formed in the first place.15
By February 1865, just a few months before his army surrendered, General Robert E. Lee, commander of the largest Confederate army, informed Jefferson Davis that it had become “necessary” to enlist black men for the first time. He said that those who enlisted should be given their freedom, a much more limited emancipation than Clayburne envisioned. Davis agreed, but he could not get the Confederate Congress to even approve of this plan because it anticipated that at least some slaves would be freed. Instead, Congress passed a law allowing for blacks to be forced into the army, but providing no promise of freedom. Fighting and dying for the Confederacy was to be no different from picking cotton. It was a duty slaves would be ordered to do, and they would do it or suffer the consequences. 16
As the Confederate government was packing up to flee Richmond, the first small units of blacks assembled in the city about to be captured by Ulysses S. Grant. The Union armies would include nearly 200,000 free black men, mostly born in the South. The Southern armies would have only 200, few of whom ever saw combat.17
Video: Historian Walter Johnson on the Centrality of Slavery
The Civil War Trust has published the four Declarations of Causes of Seceding States. These provide the reasons that four of the Confederate states gave for leaving the Union.
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. Cleburne and His Command by Irving A. Buck published by Neale Publishing Co. (1908); The Gray and the Black: The Confederate Debate on Emancipation by Robert F. Durden published by LSU Press (1972); “Corner Stone” Speech by Alexander H. Stephens Savannah, Georgia March 21, 1861; River of Dark Dreams: Slavery and Empire in the Cotton Kingdom by Walter Johnson published by Harvard University Press (2013); Shifting Grounds: Nationalism and the American South, 1848-1865 by Paul Quigley published by Oxford University Press (2011)
2. “Corner Stone” Speech by Alexander H. Stephens Savannah, Georgia March 21, 1861
3. “Corner Stone” Speech by Alexander H. Stephens Savannah, Georgia March 21, 1861
4. “Corner Stone” Speech by Alexander H. Stephens Savannah, Georgia March 21, 1861
5. “Corner Stone” Speech by Alexander H. Stephens Savannah, Georgia March 21, 1861; Confederate Emancipation: Southern Plans to Free and Arm Slaves during the Civil War Bruce Levine published by Oxford University Press (2006) Kindle Location 175
6. Cleburne Emancipation Proposal January 2, 1864
7. Cleburne Emancipation Proposal January 2, 1864
8. Cleburne Emancipation Proposal January 2, 1864
9. Cleburne Emancipation Proposal January 2, 1864
10. Cleburne Emancipation Proposal January 2, 1864
11. Confederate Emancipation: Southern Plans to Free and Arm Slaves during the Civil War Bruce Levine published by Oxford University Press (2006) Kindle Location 672-685.
12. Confederate Emancipation: Southern Plans to Free and Arm Slaves during the Civil War Bruce Levine published by Oxford University Press (2006) Kindle Location 682
13. Confederate Emancipation: Southern Plans to Free and Arm Slaves during the Civil War Bruce Levine published by Oxford University Press (2006) Kindle Location 693
14. In 1861 when Jefferson Davis visited his army after the First Battle of Bull Run, Richard Ewell, later a Confederate corps commander, suggested that slaves be freed in exchange for their enlistment. Davis is said to have called the suggestion “stark madness.” In 1863, Major Gen. Dabney Mauray proposed allowing the enlistment of free Creoles of mixed race in Louisiana. Secretary of War Seddon rejected this proposal, even though it did not include an emancipation element.. Confederate Emancipation: Southern Plans to Free and Arm Slaves during the Civil War Bruce Levine published by Oxford University Press (2006) Kindle Location 693, 402, 455, 465.
15. Confederate Emancipation: Southern Plans to Free and Arm Slaves during the Civil War Bruce Levine published by Oxford University Press (2006) Kindle Location 117-125
16. Confederate Emancipation: Southern Plans to Free and Arm Slaves during the Civil War Bruce Levine published by Oxford University Press (2006) Kindle Location 132
17. Confederate Emancipation: Southern Plans to Free and Arm Slaves during the Civil War Bruce Levine published by Oxford University Press (2006) Kindle Location
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