Patrick Cleburne’s plan for arming slaves might have turned the tide of the Civil War at a time when all other hope for the Confederacy was lost.

On January 2, 1864, a month after the South’s devastating defeat at Chattanooga, General Joseph E. Johnston, the new commander of the Army of Tennessee, gathered several of its top officers at his headquarters in Dalton, Ga., for a meeting born of desperation. Johnston had been sent by President Jefferson Davis to reorganize the demoralized, undersupplied and undermanned army of 40,000 men, the only major force standing between 100,000-plus Federals and the Confederate heartland.

Anticipation, anxiety and fascination no doubt filled the room as a grim-faced, taciturn Irishman rose to address his fellow officers. Major General Patrick Cleburne was grave. The South had been dealt a crippling blow at Gettysburg in addition to losing Vicksburg and now nearly all of Tennessee. Danger loomed for Richmond and Atlanta. In Cleburne’s mind, there was one, and only one, hope for the Confederates—the slaves many of them had fought so hard to keep.

Although there had been glorious moments at Manassas, Fredericksburg, Chancellorsville and elsewhere, the Confederacy had largely been unable to overcome a devastating and obvious battlefield liability throughout the war—Southern soldiers were constantly outnumbered by Union forces. At the time of Johnston’s council, the Union had mustered millions of men into uniform compared to the Confederacy’s hundreds of thousands. Hopes for support from England and other European powers had faded after Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation, and were dead after the defeat in Pennsylvania.

When Cleburne stood to read a proposal he had been working on for several weeks, he knew he was walking on dangerous ground, presenting not just a radical idea, but one that might even get him court-martialed for treason. Nonetheless, in his mind, the only choice left was obvious and logical: “We must immediately commence training a large reserve of the most courageous of our slaves.”

The idea of arming slaves had already worked for the North. The 54th Massachusetts Infantry had distinguished itself six months earlier at Fort Wagner in South Carolina. But those slaves had been freed. Giving guns to men who were in bondage was altogether different. Cleburne had worked that problem out: He insisted that a bargain be struck, calling for a guarantee of freedom “within a reasonable time to every slave in the South who shall remain true to the Confederacy in this war.”

As his comrades stared at him in outrage, disbelief and horror, Cleburne sharpened the choice. “As between the loss of independence and the loss of slavery, we assume that every patriot will freely…give up the negro slave rather than be a slave himself.”

Just a few months before Johnston’s council the Army of Tennessee, if not the entire South, remained confident that the war could be won. Hope had come as recently as September 20, when these same soldiers defeated Maj. Gen. William Rosecrans and the Army of the Cumberland at Chickamauga, forcing them to retreat back over the border into Tennessee. Lincoln had commented afterward that Rosencrans seemed “confused and stunned, like a duck hit on the head.”

Exhilarated Rebel troops surged toward the fleeing enemy, but their cautious commander, General Braxton Bragg, worried that he lacked enough men, supplies and wagons to ensure victory. Instead he placed his men in fortified positions on the hills surrounding Chattanooga, hoping to starve the bluecoats out of the city.

Weeks later, in November, Maj. Gen. Ulysses S. Grant’s troops seized nearby Lookout Mountain and began to claw their way up Missionary Ridge in the face of daunting Confederate artillery fire. Despite the strength of their positions, Bragg’s men broke and retreated to Dalton. Davis removed Bragg from command, and on December 27 a Western & Atlantic Railroad train puffed into the Dalton station bearing his successor, “Old Joe” Johnston.

The new general had endured just about as many setbacks as his new command. The trim Virginian had been forced to give up command in the East after being wounded twice at Seven Pines in May 1862. A year later he led a futile effort to help prevent the fall of Vicksburg. He had long quarreled with President Davis, who feared that Johnston favored retreat more often than advance. But with few options available, Davis placed Johnston in charge of the Army of Tennessee.

Before his war council commenced, Johnston knew that Cleburne had circulated his proposal privately among the officers of his division. Fourteen of them, ranging from brigadier generals to colonels, had joined him in signing it.

Johnston had to take the proposal seriously because Cleburne was deeply respected by the other officers. He had fought brilliantly and courageously at Shiloh, Murfreesboro, Chickamauga and elsewhere and had defended the army’s right flank during the Battle of Missionary Ridge, repeatedly hurling back the Federal attacks and securing the railroad tunnel under the mountain. When the Rebels atop the ridge pulled out, Cleburne and his men skillfully covered their retreat. They had orders to hold a strongpoint in the hills of Ringgold, Ga., “at all hazards,” and saved the Confederates from ruin by doing so. Cleburne, who had become known as “the Stonewall Jackson of the West,” received the thanks of the Confederate Congress for his actions.

Slender, wiry and straight as an arrow, Cleburne had a high forehead, high cheekbones, hollow cheeks and a firm chin and mouth. His black hair was tinged with gray, as were his moustache and imperial. His eyes were a clear, steely gray, usually making him look cold and distant when he was lost in thought. “He was much given to fits of absent mindedness, his dreamy poetic nature seeming to beckon him away from realities,” said one close friend.

Another friend said this “blunt, impassive man only needed the flames of battle to kindle his dull features, to stir the depths of his strong nature, to show forth a soldier for stoutness of heart, for stubbornness of fight, for shining valor and forgetfulness of self rarely to be matched.” And yet another observer called him “one of the most loyal of men…a man of rare intelligence but extremely guarded in speech.”

Nothing was guarded about Cleburne’s words as he rose to address his peers in Dalton. “We have now been fighting for nearly three years, have spilt much of our best blood and lost, consumed or thrown to the flames an amount of property equal in value to the specie currency of the world,” he began. “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 today into less than two thirds of it, and still the enemy menacingly confronts us at every point with superior forces. Our soldiers can see no end to this state of affairs except in our own exhaustion; hence, instead of rising to the occasion, they are sinking into a fatal apathy, growing weary of hardships and slaughter which promise no results.”

Cleburne continued methodically: “In this state of things it is easy to understand why there is a growing belief that some black catastrophe is not far ahead of us, and that unless some extraordinary change is soon made in our condition we must overtake it. The consequences of this condition are showing themselves more plainly every day; restlessness of morals spreading everywhere, manifesting itself in the army in a growing disregard for private rights; desertion spreading to a class of soldiers it never dared to tamper with before; military commissions sinking in the estimation of the soldiers; our supplies failing; our firesides in ruins. If this state continues much longer we must be subjugated.”

Cleburne then noted “three great causes operating to destroy us.” The first, he said, was “the inferiority of our armies to those of the enemy in point of numbers; second, the poverty of our single source of supply; third, the fact that slavery, from being one of our chief sources of strength at the commencement of the war, has now become, in a military point of view, one of our chief sources of weakness.”

President Lincoln, said Cleburne, boasts that “he has already in training an army of one hundred thousand negroes as good as any troops” and from every slice of territory he takes in the South, he adds more. “Slavery is a source of great strength to the enemy by supplying him with more troops but it is a weakness to the Confederacy now.” Once slavery was disturbed, even by a cavalry raid, he explained, “the whites can no longer, with safety to their property, openly sympathize. The fear of their slaves is continually haunting them and, from silence and apprehension, many of them soon learn to wish the war stopped on any terms. The next stage is to take the oath to save property and they become dead to us, if not open enemies.” The slaves, said Cleburne, provide the enemy with “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.”

Thus the Irishman dared to tell the truth about the slave system—that the supposedly happy, contented and loyal blacks were spying on their masters for the benefit of the invaders and dropping the mask of loyalty as soon as Union troops came in to set them free. His cold gray eyes also looked straight at the unpleasant truth that so many Southerners sought to avoid—that most of the soldiers who were AWOL or deserters would not return to duty, despite all appeals to their manhood and patriotism. Even if forced back into service, they would be “unwilling and discontented soldiers.” Where, then, could the Confederacy obtain the thousands of fresh troops that it must have to survive?

To this point, Cleburne’s fellow officers listened to his appeal in agreement, for they knew he was telling the truth about the low morale and bitterness in the ranks. The officers knew that every day soldiers were slipping out to go home and look after their families, which were facing hunger, insecurity or even destitution— with no relief in sight.

They also knew that the Army of Tennessee must have about twice the number of troops that it currently possessed to have a realistic chance against the juggernaut of Maj. Gen. William T. Sherman’s invaders, who would start their march to Atlanta in the spring. Lee faced similar odds against Grant, who would open his drive on Richmond at the same time.

Cleburne argued that his plan would “enable us to have armies numerically superior to those of the North and a reserve of any size we might think necessary…. It would restore confidence in an early termination of the war”—with victory and independence for the South.

Cleburne also pointed out that if “we arm and train the negro and make him fight for the country in her hour of dire distress,” then “we should set him and his whole race…free.” He stated, “We must immediately make his marriage and parental relations sacred in the eyes of the law and forbid their sale.”

He then addressed several questions that he knew would surface against his radical idea. “Will the slaves fight?” he asked rhetorically. “The experience of this war has been so far that half-trained negroes have fought as bravely as many other half-trained Yankees. It is said that an army of negroes cannot be spared from the fields. A sufficient number of slaves is now administering to luxury alone to supply the place of all we need….It is said slaves will not work after they are free. We think necessity and wise legislation will compel them to labor for a living. It is said it will cause terrible excitement and some dis-affection from our cause. Excitement is far preferable to the apathy which now exists and disaffection will not long be among the fighting men. 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 closing, Cleburne admitted that his plan might “be imperfect, but in all human probability it would give us our independence.” He pleaded for immediate action because “negroes will require much training; training will require time, and there is danger that this concession to common sense may come too late.”

To no one’s surprise, Cleburne’s plan evoked cries of horror and outrage from some of the generals, who had listened to it in disbelief. Brigadier General Patton Anderson denounced it as “revolting to Southern sentiment, Southern pride, Southern honor.” The idea of placing guns in the hands of slaves and freeing their families ran counter to all the ingrained beliefs of many Southerners, who considered the institution essential to preserving white supremacy. As these people saw it, they had seceded to protect that supremacy; why give it up now? Cleburne’s answer was that the victorious Yankees would abolish slavery anyway; with his plan, the South would at least keep its independence.

“What are we to do?” Anderson asked Lt. Gen. Leonidas Polk, commander of Confederate troops in Mississippi and east Louisiana. “If this thing is once openly proposed to the army,” Anderson wrote, “the total disintegration of the army will follow in a fortnight.” He added, “I will not attempt to describe my feeling on being confronted by a project so startling in its character—and not the least painful of the emotions…is that it met with favor by others beside the other in high station then present.” Anderson dreaded that publicizing Cleburne’s proposal would “bring down the universal indignation of the Southern people and the Southern soldiers upon the head of at least one of our bravest and most accomplished officers.”

Equally horrified, Maj. Gen. William Bate commented: “I thought I knew the temper of the troops and felt it was an entering wedge which, driven in these dismaying times, would rift and scatter our army, defeating the very object it proposed to secure. I regarded…the seductive argument as the rose beneath which the serpent of abolition is coiled. Pluck it and you lay bare a political hydra, the deformity of which is shocking to contemplate. Its proposition contravenes the principles upon which I have…acted…[and] would result in breaking down all barriers between the black and white races.”

Captain Irving A. Buck, the assistant adjutant general in Cleburne’s division, called the daring proposal “one of the most remarkable documents of the war.” A close friend of Cleburne’s, Buck warned him “that the slaveholders were totally unprepared to consider such a radical measure….It would raise a storm of indignation against you.” Furthermore, Buck expressed fears that advocating the plan would destroy Cleburne’s bright prospects of being promoted to command a corps, with the rank of lieutenant general. The captain was prophetic in his concern. Cleburne, one of the most capable generals on either side in either theater, was never promoted beyond the rank of major general, and only briefly received command of a corps. No official reason was ever given for his lack of advancement, even while inferior officers were being promoted all around him.

Cleburne replied to Buck that “a crisis was upon the South” and he felt it was his duty to bring this before the authorities regardless of its effect on his own career. “I would cheerfully undertake command of a negro division in this emergency,” the general declared. His worst fate, he said, would be “a court martial and cashiering,” in which case he would enlist as a private in his old Arkansas regiment and “do his duty in the ranks.”

Cleburne had hoped that his plan could be presented directly to President Davis for action, but General Johnston decided against forwarding it to Richmond on the grounds that it was a political, not a military, matter. Major General W.H.T. Walker, who violently opposed Cleburne’s plan, sent a copy to Davis in hopes of crushing it. The concept of arming slaves stirred up a storm inside the inner circle in Richmond, although the Southern people never knew anything about it. Bragg, who was now the president’s chief military adviser—and still smarting over his removal from command of the Army of Tennessee—commented: “Great sensation is being produced by the Emancipation project of Hardee, Cheatham, Cleburne and Co. It will kill them.” His remarks linking Lt. Gen. William Hardee and Maj. Gen. Benjamin Cheatham to Cleburne illustrate his belief that those generals showed some sympathy with the idea.

Davis, fearing an uproar among the populace if it ever found out about the idea of arming slaves, issued an order suppressing all copies of Cleburne’s letter and barring any discussion of it. Such controversy, he feared, would produce only “discouragement, distraction and dissension.”

Secretary of War James A. Seddon relayed the president’s disapproval to Johnston, who obediently passed it along to the officers who had read or heard the revolutionary proposal. “The agitation and controversy which must spring from the presentation of such views by officers high in public confidence are to be deeply deprecated,” Seddon declared, adding, “Such views can only jeopard among the states and people unity and harmony when successful cooperation and the achievement of independence are essential.”

Accepting his rebuff like a good soldier, Cleburne kept silent and turned his attention to personal affairs. Hardee, his good friend and admirer, chose Cleburne to be the best man at his wedding. On January 13, at a plantation near Mobile in south Alabama, Hardee married Mary Foreman Lewis, the daughter of a wealthy planter.

At that wedding the reserved Irishman met the well-connected maid of honor, Sue Tarleton, and fell in love with her at first sight. A few months later they were engaged. They could not be married immediately, however. The idyllic interlude was rudely interrupted by the Union’s preparations for a massive attack on the Army of Tennessee, and Cleburne quickly returned to duty in Georgia.

Through the late spring and summer Sherman’s juggernaut pushed the smaller Confederate army through the mountains of north Georgia while General Johnston stubbornly combined defensive maneuvers and hard fighting to check the Yankees’ drive on Atlanta. Cleburne, as always, distinguished himself in combat.

Desperate to save Atlanta and distrustful of Johnston’s repeated retreats, Davis removed him from command on July 17 and replaced him with an aggressive, ambitious young Kentuckian from the Army of Northern Virginia, Lt. Gen. John Bell Hood. The belligerent Hood, who had long favored an offensive, made a series of attacks on the much larger body of invaders but could not succeed in saving Atlanta. The city fell to Sherman in early September.

Only when faced with this crushing loss, which portended the Confederacy’s ultimate defeat, did the authorities in Richmond finally realize that Cleburne had proposed the one sure way of raising enough fresh troops to prevent the South’s subjugation. In November 1864, the Confederate Congress debated a bill to enlist some negro troops—but still avoided the idea of freeing the slaves.

At long last on March 13, 1865, the Congress enacted a statute authorizing the president to enlist some slaves “to perform military service,” and the first black Confederate soldiers paraded in the streets of Richmond. A few weeks later Richmond fell—and then the Confederacy.

Cleburne did not live to see his idea carried out by the Congress—albeit in a futile gesture that obviously was too little and too late. He was killed, at 36, while courageously leading his troops against entrenched Federals in the Battle of Franklin on November 30, 1864, during Hood’s disastrous attempt to capture Nashville and recover Tennessee. President Davis paid him this tribute: “Around Cleburne thickly lay the gallant men who, in his desperate assault, followed him with the implicit confidence that in another army was given to Stonewall Jackson; and in the one case, as in the other, a vacancy was created which could never be filled.”

“Major General Cleburne had been distinguished for his admirable conduct upon many fields, and his loss, at this moment, was irreparable,” Hood said in his memoirs. He added: “He was a man of equally quick perception and strong character and was, especially in one respect, in advance of many of our people. He possessed the boldness and the wisdom to earnestly advocate…the freedom of the negro and the enrollment of the young and able-bodied men of that race. This stroke of policy and additional source of strength to the armies would, in my opinion, have given us our independence.”

Although Davis had ordered all copies of the Cleburne memorial destroyed, one copy remained in the possession of a Cleburne aide, Major Calhoun Benham. After Benham’s death, the letter was found and went to the War Department. It finally came to light in 1898, when it was published in a volume of the Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies in the War of the Rebellion. In that document lay the mind of a man who was before his time, and a plan that very well could have changed history.


Originally published in the October 2007 issue of Civil War Times. To subscribe, click here