Davis Shoots Down Proposal to Free the Slaves

January 13, 1864 (Thursday)

Cleburne's got a plan to save the South.
Cleburne’s got a plan to save the South.

It wasn’t exactly a coup, or even the rumblings of such. But it was revolutionary, at least in thought. General Patrick Cleburne commanded a division in Joe Johnston’s Army of Tennessee. As a military commander, he was well respected by officers both Southern and Northern. History would remember him as the “Stonewall of the West.”

But by the end of 1863, it was becoming clear to Patrick Cleburne that the South was losing the war. After much thought given, he concluded that it was due to three specific reasons.

First, the Confederate armies were inferior, at least in numbers. Second, the Southern supply chain was running dry – poverty had overtaken the majority of them. Lastly, as Cleburne put it, “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.”

In a long and open letter written on January 2nd, Cleburne finely detailed specifically how they had become slaves to the institution of slavery and why that was to be their downfall.

While the Confederate armies had but one source of reinforcements (their own population), the Federals had three, including their “own motley population,” the freed slaves, and “Europeans whose hearts are fired into a crusade against us by fictitious pictures of the atrocities of slavery.”

Cleburne: "These gents are swell! Couldn't we have some of our own?
Cleburne: “These gents are swell! Couldn’t we have some of our own?

In Cleburne’s mind, slavery was now the chief cause of their problems. He argued that “prejudice against slavery” gave the North great strength. Due to the fact that the Southern slaves were liable at any moment leave their masters or be swept up in a Union cavalry raid, slavery had become “comparatively valueless to us for labor, but of great and increasing worth to the enemy for information.” Not only information, of course, but as a source of troops, which could not be matched by the Confederate States.

Recently, President Davis had tried to fiddle with the conscription law so that the number of exemptions might be decreased. Cleburne put forward that this would merely send boys and old men into the ranks, and mostly then to the sick lists as they could not cope with the strain of the army. And to this, he had a solution.

“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 with a reasonable time to every slave in the South who shall remain true to the Confederacy in this war.”

When it came down to it, Cleburne reasoned that even the most steadfast slave driver would rather give up his slaves than lose the war. This would also open the door to England and France – a subject that consumed much of the young nation in the early years of the war. It was understandable, of course. England and France had both outlawed slavery, and it would be asking quite a bit for them to fully support a slave-based government. But if the slaves were freed, at least nominally, “the sympathy and interests of these and other nations will accord with our own, and we may expect from them both moral support and material aid.”

Additionally, if the slaves were in the process of being freed, it would knock the moral force out of the Union cause. It would turn the war from one of emancipation to one of subjugation. This would, he asserted, bring on “a complete change of front in our favor of the sympathies of the world.”

But that was not all. Cleburne figured that the majority of new Northern recruits were joining the army specifically to free the slaves. With that motivation gone, “that source of recruiting will be dried up.” Even more importantly, “it will leave the enemy’s negro army no motive to fight for, and will exhaust the source from which it has been recruited.”

He then laid it out succinctly:

“The idea that it is their special mission to war against slavery has held growing sway over the Northern people for many years, and has at length riped into an armed and bloody crusade against it. This baleful superstition has so far supplied them with a courage and constancy not their own. It is the most powerful and honestly entertained plank in their war platform. Knock this away and what is left? A blood ambition for more territory…. Mankind may fancy it a great duty to destroy slavery, but what interest can mankind have in upholding this remainder of the Northern war platform?”

Not only would the North lose it’s “negro army,” continued Cleburne, it would “probably cause much of it to desert over to us.” While he gave no basis for this claim beyond speculation, he dreamed of such an army. “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.” Additionally, if the North continued to invade, the black population would turn from being spies for the Union to spies for the Confederacy.

Clearly one of the  "fictitious pictures of the atrocities of slavery."
Clearly one of the “fictitious pictures of the atrocities of slavery.”

Though Cleburne’s ideas seems, perhaps, far-fetched, his point was clear. The emancipation of the slaves “would remove forever all selfish taint from our cause and place independence above every question of property.”

He also made a bit of sense. While the North could emancipate the slaves it encountered as it invaded the south, they would be granted freedom, but could not be granted their homes. But if they were freed by the South, “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.” He then insisted that “we must immediately make his (the slave’s) marriage and parental relations sacred in the eyes of the law and forbid their sale.”

As he went on, Cleburne turned from emancipating only the slaves that would fight, to the whole entire race – something even the North had not yet accomplished. “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, 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.”

It could never be argued that Cleburne was an abolitionist who based his demands upon the moral idea that slavery was inherently evil. Not long after writing this piece, he insisted that if the South freed the slaves on their own, “we can control the negoes, and … they will still be our laborers as much as they now are; and, to all intents and purposes will be our servants, at less cost than now.”

Yet another?
Yet another?

In the closing of his proposition, Cleburne entertained several arguments one might have against the idea of emancipating the slaves. For the most part, they were those of a strawman, easily set up and knocked down sans effort. But his answers to himself reveal much.

“It is said slaves will not work after they are freed,” he conjectured. “We think necessity and a wise legislation will compel them to labor for a living.” It’s clear then that this freedom would only be as free as the government legislated – and that might not be so very free at all.

“It is said that slavery is all we are fighting for, and if we give it up we give up all,” he continued. “Even if this were true, which we deny, slavery is not all our enemies are fight 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 his excitement, Cleburne clearly misplaced the fact that the only rights and liberties the North wished to take away prior to the war were the right and liberty to expand slavery.

“It may be imperfect,” wrote Cleburne of his proposal, “but in all human probability it would give us our independence. No objection ought to outweigh it which is not weightier than independence.”

But on this date, there was indeed one objection that was weightier than Cleburne’s ideas, and perhaps even weightier than independence itself. This was the objection by President Jefferson Davis.

Davis had been sent a copy of the manifesto after it was read to the officers of the Army of Tennessee, and endorsed by a gaggle of generals and colonels. One in attendance, General W.H.T. Walker, called Cleburne a traitor and thought it his duty to forward it to the War Department. It arrived on or about this date.


Davis’ judgment was swift and sadly predictable. “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, I have concluded that the best policy under the circumstances will be to avoid all publicity, and the Secretary of War has therefore written to General Johnston requesting him to convey to those concerned my desire that it should be kept private. If it be kept out of the public journals its ill effect will be much lessened.”

Eventually, of course, Davis would reconsider, but it would take much more blood to finally move his hand.1

  1. Sources: Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 52, Part 2, p586-589, 595; Confederate Emancipation: Southern Plans to Free and Arm Slaves by Bruce Levine. []
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Davis Shoots Down Proposal to Free the Slaves by CW DG is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 4.0 International


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2 thoughts on “Davis Shoots Down Proposal to Free the Slaves

  1. Don’t you wonder what could have happened should Davis & the South have taken up Cleburne on his proposal? I tend to doubt the Confederacy could have tips the scales in manpower or foreign backing, but it’s still interesting to speculate.

    1. I believe that after the Emancipation Proclamation there was zero chance of any (European) country coming in to aid the Confederacy. Literally their only hope was the 1864 election, and holding out (say keeping stalemate in front of Atlanta and Petersburg) until they could make a deal with the new union president (McClellan?). Jeff Davis as usual came to the rescue to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory.

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