Black Confederates: Patrick Cleburne’s Radical Proposal

This blog normally stays away from the bogus controversy over whether armed black soldiers existed in the Confederate Army in significant numbers unless it has something relevant and timely to contribute. There are plenty of other good Civil War bloggers that more regularly debunk this notion as part of their blog’s mission and enthusiastically bedevil the so-called Southern heritage community for all its faults, historical and otherwise. Frankly, to pay too much attention to the neo-Confederates and their fantasy of large numbers of black soldiers in the southern army during the Civil War, is inadvertently to give this ridiculous notion credibility it does not deserve. Civil War Emancipation works to remember how the slaves became free in the Civil War without wallowing in the black Confederate issue, unless there is a compelling reason.


Patrick R. Cleburne, Major General, Army of Tennessee, CSA

What happened 150 years ago today well-qualifies as compelling. On January 2, 1864, Major General Patrick R. Cleburne and twelve other Confederate officers made a proposal to Joseph Johnston, commander of the Army of Tennessee, to enlist African Americans as soldiers in the rebel army.

It is hard for modern audiences to appreciate fully just how radical an idea Cleburne’s proposal was among the Confederates in the first days of 1864. Their ideology and their national identity was based on a belief in the racial inferiority of African Americans. Indeed, white Southerners had seceded from the Union because they believed that their slaves, without the restraints of the peculiar institution, would become nasty, violent brutes, intent on the mass slaughter of their former owners and other whites in an orgy of violence akin to Nat Turner’s Rebellion or the Haitian Revolution. So when Abraham Lincoln and the Republicans indicated their determination to stop the further spread of slavery, something most Americans believed was tantamount to putting the peculiar institution on the path to its eventual demise, and realizing politically they could no longer thwart slavery’s opponents in the national government, many white Southerners decided secession was the only course that would not only to preserve their prosperity, but also their very lives.

Indeed, when the Union Army began recruiting black soldiers in 1862 and then in earnest in 1863, many white Southerners sincerely believed their northern enemies were trying to foment a mass slave revolt like John Brown had tried to do in 1859. As an unnamed commentator wrote the New York Times in August 1862:

The danger feared by our correspondent is, of all others, least likely to happen. It is not simply because the South has not the arms for the purpose, but because the negroes cannot be trusted with arms. To take the course apprehended would be to inaugurate a servile war far more terrible than the civil one now raging; a war that would leave the women and children of the South at the mercy of the slaves; and in every way intensify the evils from which such arming is designed to save a ruined people. The slaveholders well understand against whom the blacks will use any muskets they can lay hands on. They also quite thoroughly understand the sympathy with which the negroes universally regard the progress and results of the Northern warfare. In the presence of these facts, nothing is less to be feared than the arming of the slaves.

So with the above mentality, for the Confederates to recruit slaves as soldiers into their army would have struck most white Southerners as utterly absurd. Of course, a few persons in the South had advocated the idea of black Confederate soldiers from the earliest days of the war. For an example, the May 10, 2011 edition of Civil War Emancipation discussed the May 4, 1861 proposal of John J. Cheatham, a private citizen in Athens, Georgia, to the Confederate Secretary of War. Cheatham believed that if African Americans were mixed in with whites, about ten to twenty black men to a company, they would be controllable and under the influence of their white comrades become a battlefield asset to the Confederate cause.

Patrick R. Cleburne’s argument was similar to John J. Cheatham, but also more expansive and intricate. Cleburne foresaw what would be the key weakness of the Confederate Army in 1864. With a smaller population than the North and numbers degraded by three years of war, the rebels were at a severe manpower disadvantage compared to their northern foe, something that Ulysses S. Grant, now overall commander of the Union Army, would try to exploit with multiple large campaigns to overwhelm the Confederacy’s ability to respond.

Patrick Cleburne believed that black soldiers, if recruitment began promptly, would solve the Confederate Army’s manpower problem for 1864. But to make the recruitment effort work, he believed it would not only require freeing whatever black men enlisted, but also enacting a general slave emancipation in the Confederacy. Cleburne believed that freeing the slaves would have a number of benefits. To begin with, it would undermine the diplomatic value of Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation by removing a critical obstacle to foreign recognition of the Confederacy–European disgust with their practice of slavery. But there would be more benefits. Cleburne stated in his proposal:

The measure will at one blow strip the enemy of foreign sympathy and assistance, and transfer them to the South; it will dry up two of his three sources of recruiting; it will take from his negro army the only motive it could have to fight against the South, and will probably cause much of it to desert over to us; it will deprive his cause of the powerful stimulus of fanaticism, and will enable him to see the rock on which his so called friends are now piloting him. The immediate effect of the emancipation and enrollment of negroes on the military strength of the South would be: To enable us to have armies numerically superior to those of the North, and a reserve of any size we might think necessary; to enable us to take the offensive, move forward, and forage on the enemy. It would open to us in prospective another and almost untouched source of supply, and furnish us with the means of preventing temporary disaster, and carrying on a protracted struggle. It would instantly remove all the vulnerability, embarrassment, and inherent weakness which result from slavery. The approach of the enemy would no longer find every household surrounded by spies; the fear that sealed the master’s lips and the avarice that has, in so many cases, tempted him practically to desert us would alike be removed. There would be no recruits awaiting the enemy with open arms, no complete history of every neighborhood with ready guides, no fear of insurrection in the rear, or anxieties for the fate of loved ones when our armies moved forward. The chronic irritation of hope deferred would be joyfully ended with the negro, and the sympathies of his whole race would be due to his native South. It would restore confidence in an early termination of the war with all its inspiring consequences, and even if contrary to all expectations the enemy should succeed in overrunning the South, instead of finding a cheap, ready-made means of holding it down, he would find a common hatred and thirst for vengeance, which would break into acts at every favorable opportunity, would prevent him from settling on our lands, and render the South a very unprofitable conquest. 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 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.

To drive the point home, Patrick R. Cleburne, also drew upon history, writing:

Will the slaves fight? The helots of Sparta stood their masters good stead in battle. In the great sea fight of Lepanto where the Christians checked forever the spread of Mohammedanism over Europe, the galley slaves of portions of the fleet were promised freedom, and called on to fight at a critical moment of the battle. They fought well, and civilization owes much to those brave galley slaves. The negro slaves of Saint Domingo, fighting for freedom, defeated their white masters and the French troops sent against them. The negro slaves of Jamaica revolted, and under the name of Maroons held the mountains against their masters for 150 years; and the experience of this war has been so far that half-trained negroes have fought as bravely as many other half-trained Yankees. If, contrary to the training of a lifetime, they can be made to face and fight bravely against their former masters, how much more probable is it that with the allurement of a higher reward, and led by those masters, they would submit to discipline and face dangers.

It was an eloquent proposal and certainly one given its length, thoughtfulness and the obvious historical research had not been put together in haste. Plus, it must have taken some time for Cleburne to find twelve other officers to sign such a radical document. The rebels were fighting for independence in essence to keep slavery. Now, Patrick Cleburne was telling them to improve their chances of achieving independence, the Confederates should give up the very institution they were fighting to keep and arm the slaves who they were intent on keeping in bondage precisely because they feared their violence should they become free.

The Irish-born Cleburne, who had arrived in America in the mid-1840s and never owned slaves, for all his love of the people of the South, obviously had never fully appreciated the fear, racism, and greed of white Southerners that underlay their commitment to the peculiar institution. Thinking in purely military and geo-political terms his proposal made a great deal of sense. But in the cultural, social, and political terms of the Confederacy it was anathema. His brother officers in the Army of Tennessee, out of their great respect for him as a successful military commander, heard him out on his proposal on the evening of January 2, 1864, before Joseph E. Johnston politely but firmly rejected it and refused to forward Cleburne’s proposal to Richmond. Cleburne for his part, calmly accepted the rejection and dropped the idea, but another Major General in the Army of Tennessee, William H.T. Walker, breaking the chain of command, forwarded on his own initiative Cleburne’s proposal to Jefferson Davis, who similarly rejected it, and counseled Walker and Johnston to keep the controversial document secret as it would cause great trouble if it became public.

It would not be until the last weeks of the Confederacy that a form of Cleburne’s idea would be revived as the desperate rebel leadership was finally ready to endanger the slave system to forestall total defeat. The Confederate Congress approved a plan to recruit black soldiers into their army in March 1865, and trade them freedom for their service (although it foresaw no general emancipation as Cleburne wanted) but it was too little too late, and no black units created under this law ever saw action before the final collapse of Confederate forces defending Richmond the following month. Patrick Cleburne himself did not live to see his idea of black Confederate soldiers finally accepted as he died at the Battle of Franklin in late November 1864.

In any case, if there is any historical significance to Cleburne’s proposal of January 2, 1864 to arm the slaves for the Confederacy, it is, first, to further confirm that the rebels, for all their denials, were fighting to keep slavery. While certainly soldiers like Patrick Cleburne were devoted to the idea of Confederate nationhood in its own right, the top rebel leadership could not countenance embracing emancipation merely to give their army a better chance at success in 1864. Because unlike Cleburne, they knew not only that many slaveholders would not give up their property voluntarily under any circumstances, but also that with a lifetime of oppression behind them ending slavery would likely not suddenly convert African Americans to the Confederate cause, and they feared if given arms would promptly turn them on white Southerners in an orgy of barbaric vengeance.

Second, if tens or even hundreds of thousands of African Americans fought for the Confederacy, as contemporary neo-Confederates have asserted, why did Major General Patrick Cleburne make his January 1864 proposal to recruit units that already supposedly existed? Why did his proposal fall flat with the commanding general of the Army of Tennessee and the Confederate political leadership in Richmond? Why was Cleburne’s idea resurrected in modified form in the dying days of the Confederacy as the Davis, Lee, and other rebel leaders tried to forestall the looming collapse of the Confederacy? Hence, while there is much evidence to debunk the legend of large-scale black service as Confederate soldiers, one of the most powerful pieces is Patrick R. Cleburne’s proposal in early 1864. Again, why propose what already supposedly existed unless it really didn’t exist?

Sources: 1); 2); 3)

About Donald R. Shaffer

Donald R. Shaffer is the author of _After the Glory: The Struggles of Black Civil War Veterans_ (Kansas, 2004), which won the Peter Seaborg Award for Civil War Scholarship in 2005. More recently he published (with Elizabeth Regosin), _Voices of Emancipation: Understanding Slavery, the Civil War, and Reconstruction through the U.S. Pension Bureau Files_ (2008). Dr. Shaffer teaches online exclusively (i.e., a virtual professor). He lives in Arizona and can be contacted at
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1 Response to Black Confederates: Patrick Cleburne’s Radical Proposal

  1. Excellent piece. I have always tried to communicate this to people, but they fail to look it up for themselves.

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