By Paul D. Escott
“What shall we do with the Negro?” was a question posed in Northern newspapers as early as the summer of 1861. The question, of course, revealed an underlying attitude— white people still regarded African Americans as objects, not equals, and not a part of the polity. The status of freed slaves clearly presented a problem for the North. But in fact it played an important role in Confederate war councils as well. And ultimately the conflict proved how unready either side was to deal with it constructively.
The first serious proposal to overturn the Confederacy’s system of racial slavery came from a surprising source: Maj. Gen. Patrick Cleburne, a zealous supporter of Southern independence, who was supported in his views by 13 other high-ranking officers in the Army of Tennessee. An Irish immigrant who had established himself as a successful lawyer in Arkansas, Cleburne became one of the Confederate Army’s finest commanders. By January 1864, however, he viewed the Confederacy’s dimming prospects with dismay.
Maj. General Patrick R. Cleburne. Library of Congress
Others Southerners had earlier voiced concern about the future of former slaves. After the fall of Vicksburg in July, a few citizens of Mississippi and Alabama had also felt the despair that weighed on Cleburne. In September 1863, the Jackson Mississippian had opined, “We must either employ the negroes ourselves, or the enemy will employ them against us.” The Mobile Register decried the “danger to the South” from Northern use of black soldiers. Its editor asked, “Why not, if necessity requires, meet them with the same fighting material?” The Montgomery Weekly Mail urged its readers to bow to that same necessity, even if it was “revolting to every sentiment of pride, and to every principle that governed our institutions before the war.”
But no one developed as thorough an argument for arming and freeing the slaves as Cleburne. The “present state of affairs” was grim, the general pointed out in a proposal that he sent to his immediate superior. Confederates had sacrificed “much of our best blood” and immense amounts of property, yet they were left with “nothing but long lists of dead and mangled.” The South’s forces, “Hemmed in” and menaced “at every point with superior forces, ” could “see no end to this except in our own exhaustion.” A “catastrophe” lay “not far ahead unless some extraordinary change is soon made.” Cleburne felt the South must act to avoid “subjugation” and “the loss of all we now hold most sacred.”
“Three great causes, ” he wrote, were “operating to destroy us.” Most fundamental was the Army’s inferiority in numbers. Closely related to that problem was the Confederacy’s “single source” of manpower compared to the enemy’s “several sources.” Cleburne’s third cause was the most controversial: “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.”
Jefferson Davis had recently proposed several steps to increase the size of the Army, but Cleburne said these were simply inadequate, listing the reasons why. Many deserters were outside Confederate lines and would not make reliable soldiers, even if captured. Ending substitution would merely bring into the Army an “unwilling and discontented” element. Drafting young boys and old men would “swell the sick lists more than” augment the ranks. The South’s economy needed most of the men who were currently exempt, so few additional men could be gained from that source. Only Davis’ idea of using black men “as wagoners, nurses, cooks, and other employe[e]s” made sense to Cleburne.
But he and his fellow officers also urged a far more drastic step: “We propose that we immediately commence training 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.” To make that shocking proposal more palatable, Cleburne claimed that “every patriot” would surely prefer to lose slavery rather than his own independence—choose to “give up the negro slave rather than be a slave himself.”
More eyebrow-raising assertions followed. Slavery, the general declared, “has become a military weakness, ” and in point of fact the Confederacy’s “most vulnerable point.” Not only were black soldiers swelling the Union ranks, but slavery was also undermining the South from within. “Wherever slavery is once seriously disturbed” by Union advances, whites ceased to “openly sympathize with our cause, ” he claimed. “The fear of their slaves is continually haunting them, ” and “they become dead to us.” Meanwhile, the slaves worked as “an omnipresent spy system, ” aiding Union troops. Cleburne added, “for many years the negro has been dreaming of freedom, ” and it would be “preposterous” to “expect him to fight against it.” It was equally preposterous to expect him to fight for the Confederacy without it. “Therefore when we make soldiers of them we must make free men of them beyond all question, and thus enlist their sympathies also.” The South, Cleburne emphasized, had to face “the necessity for more fighting men.” After countering possible objections and arguing that slaves could make good soldiers, he closed by urging prompt action on what he described as a “concession to common sense.”
Throughout most of 1864, Cleburne’s proposal went nowhere. His superior, General Joseph E. Johnston, declined to forward it to Richmond on the grounds that “it was more political than military in tenor.” But another Army of Tennessee officer, scandalized by the notion of interfering with slavery, sent the document to Jefferson Davis in protest. At that point the Confederate president directed that Cleburne’s idea should not even be discussed. With an eye on the 1864 elections in the North, Davis wanted to avoid dissension in the Southern ranks. He was hoping that the image of a strong, resolute Confederacy might help to defeat President Abraham Lincoln. But after the fall of Atlanta in September 1864, Davis knew his strategy had failed. The Army had to be enlarged.
On November 7, 1864, Davis urged Congress to increase the number of slaves used by the Army to 40, 000. To reach that number he recommended purchasing the slaves and “engaging to liberate the negro on his discharge after service faithfully rendered.” This amounted to proposing a sizable program of compensated emancipation. More significant was his statement that “should the alternative ever be presented of subjugation or the employment of the slave as a soldier, there seems no reason to doubt what should then be our decision.”