1864: “We Must Make Free Men Of Them Beyond All Question”

Confederate Army of Tennessee – January 2, 1864

…Like past years, 1864 will diminish our ranks by the casualties of war, and what source of repair is there left for us? We therefore see in the recommendations of the President only a temporary expedient, which at the best will leave us twelve months hence in the same predicament we are in now. The President attempts to meet only one of the depressing causes mentioned; for the other two he has proposed no remedy. They remain to generate lack of confidence in our final success, and to keep us moving down hill as heretofore. Adequately to meet the causes which are now threatening ruin to our country, we propose, in addition to a modification of the President’s plans, 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 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. 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 success and sweep the invader from our country.

Our country has already some friends in England and France, and there are strong motives to induce these nations to recognize and assist us, but they cannot assist us without helping slavery, and to do this would be in conflict with their policy for the last quarter of a century…

It is a first principle with mankind that he who offers his life in defense of the State should receive from her in return his freedom and his happiness, and we believe in acknowledgment of this principle. The Constitution of the Southern States has reserved to their respective governments the power to free slaves for meritorious services to the State…. 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 effectively 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….

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…. We have now briefly proposed a plan which we believe will save our country. It may be imperfect, but in all human probability it will give us our independence. No objection ought to outweigh it which is not weightier than independence…

Confederate General Patrick Cleburne and other Confederate officers; January 2, 1864

(Source: The Civil War: The Third Year Told by Those Who Lived It; Brooks D. Simpson, Editor, 2013, pages 677-686)

A slave auction house in Atlanta, GA (1864). If Cleburne’s proposal had been accepted, slave auctions would have ended in the Confederacy.

Cleburne’s Memorandum

On January 2, 1864, Confederate General Patrick Cleburne and other officers released a memorandum, proposing a form of emancipation and the enlistment of Southern slaves into the Confederate army. Today’s featured primary sources is excerpts from that historic document.

The officers cited continual moral problems, lack of manpower, lack of European ally possibilities, exponential growth of Union armies, and the efforts to keep slavery in place as reasons to get rid of the institutional bondage, offering freedom in exchange for military service in the white man’s cause. In addition to Cleburne, thirteen other officers from his command in the Army of the Tennessee signed the document.

Groundbreaking and culture-defying in its suggestions, the memorandum created shock waves in the Confederate government and military. Before it got too far, President Jeff Davis ordered its suppression, saying that such opinions would create “discouragement, distraction, and dissension” within the Confederacy. The suggestions were tabled and would not be tried or seriously considered by the Army of Tennessee or any other Confederate force. However, Davis kept Cleburne at the head of a division and did not attempt to punish him for the memorandum.

Patrick Cleburne

Patrick R. Cleburne

Born in 1828 on St. Patrick’s Day, Patrick Ronayne Cleburne grew up in County Cork, Ireland. He wanted to attend medical school, but when those hopes failed, he enlisted in the 41st Regiment of Foot which was a Welsh unit in the British Army. After three years in the British Army, Cleburne immigrated to the United States. He moved across the eastern states before settling in Helena, Arkansas, and worked as a druggist. Cleburne passed the bar examination and became a lawyer prior to the Civil War.

In 1861, Cleburne sided with the Confederacy and got elected as colonel of the 1st Arkansas Infantry. He fought at Shiloh and Perryville, Stones River, Chickamauga, Chattanooga, and Missionary Ridge – gaining the rank of major general and commanding a division. Nicknamed “Stonewall of the West,” his successes became legendary in his army and region of the war. At headquarters in Dalton, Georgia, with Joseph E. Johnston taking over command from Braxton Bragg, Cleburne and some of his brigade and regimental commanders put their names on the historic memorandum.

Following Davis’s rejection and suppression of his suggestion, Cleburne stayed quiet and kept his division command. However, during the summer, he was passed over for promotion several times and other generals whispered that he was politically unreliable, an abolitionist, and a man who could not be trusted. In November 1864, Cleburne would be killed while leading his troops at the Battle of Franklin.

Historical Musings

Cleburne’s plan had flaws. It still offered a justification for slavery and no open recognition of its wrongs. Cleburne saw his plan as a way to save Confederate independence in a practical way. Ironically, he focused on saving Southern freedom and thought he’d found the golden ticket in offering freedom to slaves.

The concept was not entirely foreign in America. During the Revolutionary War, the British commanders offered freedom to any slaves who fled to the English ranks and served a minimum time in the fight against the Colonial Rebels. It was another example of offering freedom in exchange for dangerous military service.

Despite the problems with Cleburne’s proposal, it offered a definite alternative to a Confederacy with perpetual slavery. It was an idea so revolutionary to the slaveholders and Southern traditionalists that they called it “monstrous” and “revolting.” While they claimed to fight for freedom and independence, only a handful of Confederate officers tried to publicly offer an idea for freedom and emancipation for all at the beginning of 1864.

Your Historian,

Miss Sarah

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