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. It would be preposterous then to expect him to fight against it with any degree of enthusiasm, therefore we must bind him to our cause by no doubtful bonds; we must leave no possible loop-hole for treachery to creep in. The slaves are dangerous now, but armed, trained, and collected in an army they would be a thousand fold more dangerous; therefore when we make soldiers of them we must make free men of them beyond all question, and thus enlist their sympathies also. We can do this more effectually than the North can now do, for we can give the negro not only his own freedom, but that of his wife and child, and can secure it to him in his old home. To do this, we must immediately make his marriage and parental relations sacred in the eyes of the law and forbid their sale. The past legislation of the South concedes that a large free middle class of negro blood, between the master and slave, must sooner or later destroy the institution. If, then, we touch the institution at all, we would do best to make the most of it, and by emancipating the whole race upon reasonable terms, and within such reasonable time as will prepare both races for the change, as will prepare both races for the change, secure to ourselves all the advantages, and to our enemies all the disadvantages that can arise, both at home and abroad, from such a sacrifice.
- General Patrick Cleburne, Army of the Tennessee, January 2, 1864The last installment of Forgotten Americans told the story of John Laurens, a South Carolinian who proposed freeing slaves who enlisted in the Continental Army to fight the British, a proposal rejected three times by his state legislature.
Eighty years later, another Southerner, this time from Arkansas, made an even more radical wartime proposal to emancipate every slave in the Confederacy and it came from the man considered the best division commander in the Confederacy, Patrick Cleburne. The proposal, and its reception, illustrated the chasm that existed between what Cleburne thought the Confederacy was fighting for and what, in reality, it was actually fighting for.
Pat Cleburne was an Irish Protestant immigrant to the U.S. Born in Ireland in 1828 he enlisted in the British Army serving as a corporal in the 41st Regiment. In 1849 he purchased his release from the army and came to America with his two brothers and sisters, ending up in Helena, Arkansas where he eventually became a lawyer and co-owner of a local newspaper. When secession came, Cleburne went with his adoptive state believing wholeheartedly in state's rights and that the North was trying to assert its sectional superiority threatening the liberties of Southerners though he was never a slave owner (one of his brothers who settled in Ohio, joined the Union Army while another who settled in Kentucky remained neutral). Perhaps most of all he was understandably grateful to a community that had accepted him and given him a chance to succeed.
Well regarded by his neighbors and respected for his military experience he was elected Captain of a local militia company and then appointed Colonel of the 15th Arkansas Regiment. By March 1862 he was a Brigadier-General in the Army of the Tennessee, the Confederate force charged with defense of the expanse of the Confederacy running from the Appalachian Mountains to the Mississippi River. Over the next two years Cleburne led a brigade and then a division in battle after battle; Shiloh, Perryville, Stones River, Chickamauga and Missionary Ridge among them. In every battle he gained laurels for the performance of his troops as well as his personal bravery resulting in his nickname of "Stonewall of the West" in homage to Stonewall Jackson and to praise from Robert E Lee, Commander of the Army of Northern Virginia, as "a meteor shining from a clouded sky".
The problem was that in most of the battles he fought in the Army of the Tennessee lost despite the efforts of his troops. For some perspective, think about the American League in the 1950s and the relative status of the New York Yankees and the Kansas City Athletics; one was the perennial world champion, the other a doormat and derogatorily considered the "farm team" of the Yankees. The relationship between the Army of Northern Virginia and the Army of the Tennessee was similar. Lee's army got the glory, often defeating and always, till the end, stalemating the Unionists, while the western army continually took its licks at the hands of a series of Union generals, including U.S. Grant.
Nothing demonstrated both Cleburne's abilities and the incompetence of the leadership of the Army of the Tennessee than the Battle of Missionary Ridge on November 25, 1863. The Confederates were besieging the Union Army at Chattanooga. U.S. Grant had devised a plan to lift the siege which involved General Sherman leading an assault on the right of the Confederate line along Tunnel Hill, so-named because of the railroad tunnel running through it. Meanwhile a diversionary attack under General Thomas was to be launched against the center of the Confederate line along the highest part of Missionary Ridge.
Sherman's attack failed despite a 4:1 superiority in numbers due to mishandling of his forces and Cleburne's brilliant leadership opposing him. Meanwhile, under circumstances that still remain controversial today, General Thomas' troops ascended Missionary Ridge against the main part of the Army of the Tennessee which collapsed, fleeing the scene and and only being saved from total destruction by Cleburne's rearguard action.
By the end of 1863 it was clear, at least to Patrick Cleburne, that the Confederacy was in grave danger of collapse and was simply running out of soldiers (see Civil War Demographics for more background). It was then that he began developing his dramatic proposal.
Cleburne believed that slavery was not the prime reason for the Confederates (for how mistaken he was see Forever Free: Why?). Though he may have been naive in this belief, he clearly gave much thought to laying out a sophisticated argument in support of his proposal which he set forth in a letter that he read to the assembled leadership of the Army of the Tennessee, including its new commander, Joseph E Johnston, on January 2, 1864 in its winter camp in northern Georgia. THC urges you to read the entire letter.
He had also taken care to have the letter co-signed by thirteen fellow officers, including three generals and the commanders of regiments from Arkansas, Mississippi, Alabama, Tennessee and Texas.
Cleburne started by summarizing the dire circumstances:
Through some lack in our system the fruits of our struggles and sacrifices have invariably slipped away from us and left us nothing but long lists of dead and mangled. Instead of standing defiantly on the borders of our territory or harassing those of the enemy, we are hemmed in to-day into less than two-thirds of it, and still the enemy menacingly confronts us at every point with superior forces.After spelling out the consequences of defeat he went on to say:
In touching the third cause, the fact that slavery has become a military weakness, we may rouse prejudice and passion, but the time has come when it would be madness not to look at our danger from every point of view, and to probe it to the bottom.In the final part of his proposal Cleburne raised arguments that, intended or not, called out its recipients to come to grips with what they were really fighting for:
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. If we are correct in this assumption it only remains to show how this great national sacrifice is, in all human probabilities, to change the current of success and sweep the invader from our country.
It would remove forever all selfish taint from our cause and place independence above every question of property. The very magnitude of the sacrifice itself, such as no nation has ever voluntarily made before, would appal [sic] our enemies, destroy his spirit and his finances, and fill our hearts with a pride and singleness of purpose which would clothe us with new strength in battle.
It is said slavery is all we are fighting for, and if we give it up we give up all. Even if this were true, which we deny, slavery is not all our enemies are fighting for. It is merely the pretense to establish sectional superiority and a more centralized form of government, and to deprive us of our rights and liberties.In addition to the audacity of the substance of his proposal, in the process Cleburne also challenged two tenets of white Southerner belief about slavery; that the slaves were happy in their relationship with their masters and were incapable of demonstrating courage. Cleburne stated directly that slaves were dissatisfied with their status, capable of being brave, courageous soldiers if motivated by freedom and imbued with moral agency:
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.
Most threateningly he advocated not just freeing of those slaves who fought for the Confederacy, but also their families and, carrying his proposal to its logical conclusion, all slaves held under any circumstances.
After Cleburne finished reading the letter he was met by silence from his fellow officers. There was no discussion. Privately, the reaction was different as described by Patrick Young in a recent article:
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".Cleburne's proposal was discussed by Jefferson Davis with his Cabinet which rejected it. Davis wrote General Johnston that there must be no further discussion of the proposal and all copies should be collected and destroyed and for many years after the war it was assumed that no record of the proposal existed. However in the 1890s, one of General Cleburne's aides died and among his papers was found the one remaining copy which he had preserved despite orders to turn it in. It is the only reason we know of the proposal today as no mention of it had been made by any of the participants in the immediate aftermath of the war.
Cleburne continued to loyally lead his division seeing extensive action at the Battle of Atlanta (July 1864). On November 30, 1864 General John Bell Hood, ordered the Army of the Tennessee to make a frontal assault over open ground against an entrenched Union force at Franklin, Tennessee. Hood insisted on the attack despite the objections of several of his officers, among them Cleburne. It was a disaster. More than six thousand Confederate soldiers were killed, wounded or captured and six generals killed, including Patrick Cleburne. Cleburne, whose horse was killed under him, was last seen advancing on foot towards the Union line waving his sword and urging his men on.
UPDATE: The day after posting this THC happened to see a talk on C-SPAN by Craig Symonds of the Naval Academy and author of a biography of Patrick Cleburne. Of Cleburne's proposal, Symonds remarked that he had been working on it since the spring of 1863 and proceeded with it despite attempts to dissuade him by almost everyone he spoke about it with. Symonds described Cleburne as a "true believer" that the South was fighting for liberty and if forced to chose between it and freeing the slaves it would free the slaves and said that Cleburne was "astonished" at the negative reception to his proposal. He attributed this to his Irish background and relative newness to America; while he admired his new neighbors he had not fully absorbed the essential importance of slavery in white Southern thought and attitudes.
Regarding the Battle of Franklin, Symonds pointed out that the charge involved a larger force than that in Pickett's Charge across a much wider piece of open ground and, unlike the Gettysburg charge, unsupported by artillery. When one of Cleburne's aides (who survived the charge) remarked to the General that the charge would be suicidal, Cleburne responded "if we are to die, let us die like men".
John Laurens and Patrick Cleburne were both brave men. They believed in leading their troops from the front and some characterized their behavior as reckless. Both died leading their troops in the waning days of a war. Perhaps their willingness to rethink slavery and the courage to make proposals that certainly seemed reckless to many of their contemporaries stemmed from the same personal characteristics that exhibited in their battlefield behavior. While one fought to make the declared independence of the new United States and the other fought to dismember it both deserve to be remembered.