Confederate General Patrick Cleburne’s Emancipation Proposal

Patrick Cleburne was born near Cork, Ireland on St. Patrick’s Day in 1828. He served three years in the British Army before emigrating to the United States in 1849. He eventually settled in Helena, Arkansas, and entered Confederate service in 1861 as Colonel of the 15th Arkansas Infantry. An outstanding  field commander who was well liked by his men, Cleburne advanced quickly and  commanded a division in the Army of Tennessee by the fall of 1862. He was  promoted to Major General in December of that year.

The Confederate armies suffered several serious defeats in 1863, including those at Gettysburg, Vicksburg, Port Hudson and at Chattanooga, where Cleburne’s command fought well and Cleburne himself received the thanks of the Confederate Congress for saving the Army of Tennessee’s supply trains. While the Confederacy was far from finished, it was obvious to Cleburne that the South could not continue down the same path and win the war. Something had to be done, and Cleburne came up with a radical proposal for a plan of action he believed would turn things around.

Early in January 1864, Cleburne presented his plan to the Army of Tennessee’s top level commanders. He began by stating that after three years of war, the South was running out of manpower, while the North was not. He pointed out that the U.S. was recruiting large numbers of African Americans for the Union Army, and that slavery had become “in a military point of view, one of our chief sources of weakness.”

Cleburne explained that foreign nations like France and England  could not openly support the Confederacy after the U.S. had declared emancipation for the slaves. To do so would  be seen as supporting slavery which was contradictory to their stated policies, thus giving the North the high moral ground in the international community. As Union armies advanced deeper into Confederate territory, slaves were of “increasing worth to the enemy for information. It is an omnipresent spy system, pointing out our valuable men to the enemy, revealing our positions, purposes, and resources, and yet acting so safely and secretly that there is no means to guard against it.”

In Cleburne’s view, the solution to these problems was simple. “We propose… that we retain in service for the war all troops now in service, and 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 the war.”

Knowing that this would be a complete shock to many officers, Cleburne explained what was to be gained by this radical measure. It would “enable us to have armies numerically superior to those of the North” and the Union Army “would no longer find every household surrounded by spies”. Also, “it would remove forever all selfish taint from our cause and place independence above every question of property.”

Cleburne cautioned that any offer to free the slaves in exchange for their fighting for the Confederacy must be sincere. “We must leave no possible loophole for treachery to creep in… when we make soldiers of them we must make free men of them beyond all question.”  Cleburne concluded his proposal with a sense of urgency. These new soldiers “will require much training; training will require time, and there is danger that this concession to common sense may come too late.”

Cleburne and 13 other officers signed the proposal. Many of the other corps commanders in the Army of Tennessee were very much opposed to the idea. General Joseph E. Johnston, commanding general of the Army of Tennessee, noted that he treated what was discussed in the meeting as confidential and that everyone present agreed. However,  Major General W.H.T. Walker, a very vocal opponent of the plan, asked Cleburne for a copy of it to forward to President Jefferson Davis. Cleburne readily agreed, as he believed Davis would see the merits of the proposal.

He was mistaken. Davis replied to Walker that “the best policy under the circumstances will be to avoid all publicity… if it be kept out of the public journals its ill effect will be much lessened”.  This message was passed on to Johnston by Secretary of War James A. Seddon. The proposal was suppressed by the Confederate government,  and that was the end of it.

It wasn’t until March of 1865, at the request of General Robert E. Lee, that the South began enlisting black soldiers. With only a few weeks left in the war, it was much too late.

Patrick Cleburne did not live to see it. He was killed at the Battle of Franklin, Tennessee on November 30th, 1864.


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