Cleburne: Let Blacks Fight for the Confederacy

By Joseph Gannon

Cork-born Patrick Ronayne Cleburne had a proposal that could have saved the Confederacy. His call: Let the South's 1.4 million slaves fight for emancipation.

(Right: A 1st Sgt. of the Federal army's 1st S.C. Volunteers (Colored) by Don Troiani. Would men like him have fought for the south if given the chance?)

In the American Civil War's fourth year, with the Confederacy stumbling badly, Irish-born Patrick Ronayne Cleburne had a clear vision of the battles that lay ahead, and what was needed to win them. In his vision, he saw tens of thousands of new troops flocking to fight under the Confederate battle flag, and they had black skin.

Cleburne's notion was revolutionary, explosive, and one of the greatest ironies to emerge from the four-year struggle to vouchsafe the Confederate States of America. In His proposal, formally tendered to his commander in January 1864: former slaves, newly freed by their decision to fight, would replenish the thinning ranks of the Confederate army.

A look at the 1860 census reveals one of the reasons Cleburne would make this sort of radical (to slave-owners) proposal. The population of the North in 1860 — excluding the border states of Delaware, Maryland, Kentucky and Missouri — was approximately 18.5 million. The population of the 11 soon-to-be Confederate states was about 9 million.

This manpower deficit of 2 to 1 would seem a formidable obstacle, but actually these figures are misleading. Some 40 percent of the South's population, about 3.5 million individuals, were slaves. Without tapping into that potential source of soldiers, the South faced a 3-to-1 disadvantage in manpower. A reasonable person might conclude, as Cleburne must have, that 3 to 1 was nearly impossible to overcome, but 2 to 1 might not be.

Though never allowed to officially serve in the Confederate army until it's waning days, some number of blacks did wear the gray uniform. This controversal book examines this issue, which has stirred much debate among Civil War historians in recent years. Buy it here:Black Southerners in Gray : Essays on Afro-Americans in Confederate...

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Would the slaves have fought for their former masters? Might this have been the death knell for slavery in the South, opening doors of opportunity and equality to blacks generations earlier?

The question became moot, for Cleburne's scheme was seen by Confederate leaders as incendiary. The specter of armed blacks terrified the South, evoking memories of slave rebellions in generations past. In fact, these same leaders earlier deemed that black Federal soldiers were not to be taken alive. The fathers of the Confederacy, which embraced George Washington on its currency, recoiled from the notion.

Of all the off-the-field actions taken by officers in the American Civil War, Cleburne's proposal for emancipating Southern slaves in return for military service stands out as one of the most fateful.

At the moment Cleburne, a major general, put forth this proposal, the war was in its fourth year, and he was at the zenith of his career after his stunning victory at Ringgold, Georgia, a victory that he himself engineered and commanded. There was no command in the Confederate Army that he might not have reasonably aspired to then.

When Cleburne first showed his notes on this proposal to staff officer Irving Buck, Buck told him it would raise a "storm of indignation against him." He also cautioned him that there was at that moment a corps in the Army of the Tennessee (the primary western Confederate army) with no lieutenant general to command it, and that he would certainly be a leading candidate for the post, given that the Confederate Congress had just voted him the thanks of the nation for Ringgold. Buck told Cleburne he was certain that this proposal would destroy his chances for promotion.

Cleburne must have been aware of that already, but Buck laid it before him in no uncertain terms. Cleburne would not be deterred. He told Buck he felt it was his duty to bring forth the proposal, no matter what the personal cost.

"Deeming it to be injurious to the public service that such a subject should be mooted ..."

Was the Civil War fought over the issue of slavery, or states' rights? This question has been debated long and hard ever since that tragic war. Cleburne's proposal, it would seem, strikes directly to the heart of that argument. Surely his proposal proves that Cleburne believed the war about states' rights, and not slavery, because he was willing to end slavery to retain this new country that he had already shed blood for, his and that of hundreds of men under him.

That said, what does the reaction of a large percentage of Cleburne's fellow Confederate generals and most especially the reaction of the Confederate government tell us? Gen. Joe Johnston commander of the Army of Tennessee, decided it was a bad idea to even let the government know it had been proposed. (Johnston's judgment proved correct, for it cost Cleburne any prospects for further advancement, arguably dooming him to his eventual death at the command of a division at the Battle of Franklin on Nov. 30.)

When Gen. William Walker (right) — who was incensed by the proposal — bypassed Johnston, sending it directly to President Davis, the reaction by Davis was swift and unambiguous. He sent a message to Johnston immediately stating, in part "Deeming it to be injurious to the public service that such a subject should be mooted, or even known to be entertained by persons possessed of the confidence and respect of the people ...," he instructed Johnston to hush up the entire incident.

Later in the year, when the circumstances of the Confederacy had worsened considerably, a bill very close to Cleburne's proposal was introduced in the Confederate Congress. Even then, with the demise of their cause staring them in the face, many Confederate politicians were bitterly opposed to the idea.

A representative from Mississippi said, "All nature cries out against it. The Negro was ordained to slavery by the Almighty. Emancipation would be the destruction of our social and political system. God forbid that this Trojan Horse should be introduced among us." So it would seem that not all shared Cleburne's view that saving their nation was more important than saving slavery.

The bill allowing blacks to enlist in the Confederate army would ultimately pass March 13, 1865, far too late for it to matter. And, in any event, the law did not even specifically state that those who enlisted would be freed. Some in the Confederate Congress, it would seem, could not bring themselves to place "slave" and "free" in the same sentence, even at the very end.

In the end, Cleburne's judgment was vindicated, and we are all left to wonder what might have been if, in January 1864, Jeff Davis and the rest of the politicians of the Confederacy had possessed his foresight, as well as his courage to act on it. — J.E.G.

For further reading:

Copyright © 2012 GAR Media LLC. This article may not be resold, reprinted, or redistributed without prior permission from the author. Direct questions about permissions to

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Tags: American, Civil, Cleburne, Confederacy, Patrick, Ronayne, Slaves, War


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