Major General Patrick Cleburne and the Proposal to Arm Slaves
by Eric A. Jacobson
Originally published in the Battlefield Dispatch Vol. 2 No. 1 Winter 2014 - read the rest of the issue here.
On January 2, 1864, one of the most controversial documents presented during the American Civil War was distributed to a small group of Confederate officers in Dalton, Georgia. The author, Maj. Gen. Patrick R. Cleburne, was about to experience firsthand the depth to which many in the Confederate high command were willing to defend slavery.
Cleburne’s document detailed the numerical advantage held by Northern forces and a general outline of the war’s status. He went on to say “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.” As he read aloud to those in the room that night 150 years ago, some must have wondered where the well-respected Cleburne was headed with his words. Then he dropped the bombshell. He advocated arming slaves to serve in the Confederate armed forces. Specifically he said that efforts should “immediately commence” to train “a large reserve of the most courageous of our slaves, and further that we guarantee freedom within a reasonable time to every slave in the South who shall remain true to the Confederacy in this war. 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.”
Cleburne also made the argument that by allowing slaves to serve the Confederacy, a vital method of recruitment would be denied the North. He well understood the dangers that slavery presented to any hopes of Southern independence. Toward the end of his proposal he said, “For many years, ever since the agitation of the subject of slavery commenced, the negro has been dreaming of freedom, and his vivid imagination has surrounded that condition with so many gratifications that it has become the paradise of his hopes. To attain it he will tempt dangers and difficulties not exceeded by the bravest soldier in the field. The hope of freedom is perhaps the only moral incentive that can be applied to him in his present condition.”
In many ways Cleburne could not have been more correct. But in many ways he could not have more acutely misjudged the feelings of many of his peers. A number of officers were immediately and vehemently opposed. Perhaps the most vocal was Brig. Gen. W. H. T. Walker, who protested in vivid terms to Gen. Joseph E. Johnston. Word of Cleburne’s proposal soon made its way to Confederate President Jefferson Davis, who ordered the entire matter suppressed and all copies of the document destroyed. However, the matter made its rounds in the weeks to come. Several officers, including Brig. Gens. Patton Anderson and States Rights Gist, voiced their disgust. Gist went so far as to describe Cleburne’s proposal as “monstrous…” Anderson said such action would violate the very thing the Confederacy was fighting for. Maj. Gen. Joseph Wheeler suggested Cleburne would have been hanged had he suggested such a thing in Alabama and Lt. Gen. A. P. Stewart likewise exhibited deep reservations.
No one will ever know what the result of arming slaves would have had on the Southern war effort, or how they would have performed even if large numbers had been armed. What we do know is that Pat Cleburne was a very practical man, and he viewed the numbers disparity accurately. Yet he was born in Ireland and never owned slaves. Cleburne was fully committed to the goal of a separate Confederate nation, but he seems to have never fully understood the commitment of the powerful, the rich, and the aristocrats to preserve slavery at all costs. To the latter, arming black men was their worst nightmare come true. Giving them their freedom meant offering them pseudo-equality. Cleburne, who much more closely identified with the common man, never seems to have understood this, or if he did he was likely aware that it would not be well accepted.
Some have argued that Cleburne’s slavery proposal prevented him from ever again being promoted. There is no evidence to support this contention, but others did advance up the chain of command instead of him. The promotions of several other officers in the Army of Tennessee in 1864 show that perhaps Cleburne was indirectly punished for his radical suggestion. Whatever the case, he continued to serve in the army and on November 30, 1864 led his division into the maelstrom at Franklin. He was killed just south of the Carter cotton gin, and the South was deprived of one of its best field commanders. Less than four months later, when it was all too late, the Confederate Congress finally authorized the raising of black troops.
Patrick Cleburne’s well known proposal might never have been known to the public had it not been for one of the officers opposed to it. Maj. Calhoun Benham, who served as Cleburne’s chief of staff, was firmly against arming slaves and also disobeyed the order to destroy his copy of the document. After the war he lived in San Francisco and died there in 1884. After his death the copy of the slavery proposal was found in his papers. At the time the War Department was actively compiling the Official Records of the War of the Rebellion and the document was forwarded to Marcus Wright in Washington, D. C. So it was only through an odd set of circumstances that this remarkable piece of history survived and subsequently made its way into the largest collection of contemporary Civil War papers ever published. Today it is well known in Civil War circles, but for one man it would have been suppressed and lost forever.