In order to defend one’s beliefs, it is sometimes necessary to defy the social conventions with which a person has lived for many years. It takes courage, and it takes vision. Today, nearly one hundred and fifty years after it ended, the American Civil War is often seen as a struggle between slavery and emancipation. It is known that the Union fought for the slaves’ freedom, but there was a brief moment during the war when the South might have also offered emancipation. In early 1864, one Confederate general offered a proposal that would give African-American slaves their freedom if they fought for the Confederacy. In doing so, he went against the beliefs of his adopted society. His name was Patrick Cleburne. This is the story of his visionary plan to win the war for the Confederacy.
Patrick Ronayne Cleburne never quite seemed in the mainstream of conventional society. He was born into the Protestant upper class of Ireland and enjoyed a different upbringing than most Irish Catholic laborers. He had the further distinction of being an Irishman who served in the British army and rose to the rank of corporal. After three and one half years, he left the army and his home and immigrated to America. Arriving in New Orleans, he spent a short time in Cincinnati, Ohio before moving to Helena, Arkansas. There he worked as the manager of a drugstore before pursuing a career as a lawyer. He also helped to start a local newspaper as he became more involved in Southern politics. He did not own any slaves and did not appear to hold strong convictions about the institution. Yet, as the Civil War began, this Irish immigrant declared, “I am with Arkansas….”
After Arkansas seceded from the Union, Patrick Cleburne joined the Confederate army with a belief that the Union was waging an unjust war. He was immediately chosen to command his regiment and quickly advanced to brigade command. He distinguished himself in action at Shiloh and within a year commanded a division in the Army of Tennessee. At the battle of Chattanooga in November 1863, he and his division held back the Union advance and allowed the rest of the army to withdraw. To many in the South, he was a hero. General Robert E. Lee called him “a meteor shining from a clouded sky,” and Confederate President Jefferson Davis called him the “Stonewall of the West,” comparing him to the legendary Stonewall Jackson. Despite his service to the South, Cleburne was not a native Southerner and did not truly understand the Southern culture. If he had, he would have known that any attempt to change the Southern mindset regarding slavery was doomed from the start.
From the beginning of the war, Patrick Cleburne was convinced that the South fought for independence and self-government. He had shouldered a musket to prevent the Confederacy’s military conquest by the North. He believed that Southerners should live under their own laws, a concept embodied in the states’ rights argument. In his mind, the North’s call for emancipation was a calculated decision to justify the invasion and subjugation of the South. He could not help but observe, however, that emancipation aided the North’s numerical superiority while the South’s troop strength dwindled through irreplaceable attrition. The loss of men would be the Confederacy’s ultimate undoing. In the late winter of 1863, he studied the situation and the alternatives available to the country. For him, the answer to the South’s problem was self-evident.
In December 1863, Patrick Cleburne declared to his officers that “a crisis was on the South,” and he had a duty to help avoid it. He then spoke of an untapped reservoir of manpower. He began writing a document that grew to more than two-dozen pages and was revolutionary in scope. In it, Cleburne boldly advised that the South should arm the African-American slave population residing in the individual states. He had seen how former slaves fought bravely in the Union army. Cleburne argued they would fight just as well if led by Southern officers. He understood that the slaves would need an incentive to fight. For that reason, he recommended that any slave who took up arms be granted their freedom and the freedom of their families. Cleburne was convinced that such an act would benefit the Confederacy by destroying the Union’s declaration that it fought for emancipation. Instead, it would show Northerners to be nothing but invaders.
When he had finished writing, Cleburne showed the proposal to some of his officers. Those who read it were skeptical and tried to persuade him against presenting it. Cleburne would not be dissuaded though and offered it to his brigade and regimental officers. He obtained greater support from them and decided to offer it to his fellow commanders in the Army of Tennessee. He made the presentation on the evening of January 2, 1864. He began by reminding his listeners that the Confederacy had waged war for nearly three years and that the enemy had conquered one-third of the country. He gloomily predicted defeat if the scenario continued much longer. He then insisted that slavery was a burden that prevented military and political success. The logical solution, Cleburne said, was to enlist the slave population in the army. He expressed his belief that, faced with a choice between losing independence and losing slavery, most Southerners would “freely give up the latter — give up the negro slave rather than be a slave himself.” He ended his presentation by saying that he and the officers under his command considered it “a plan which we believe will save our country.”
The immediate reaction of many of his listeners showed their disbelief in and hostility to the plan. To some, the plan compromised the very values of the society that Cleburne had pledged his sword to defend. One officer even implied that it was treason against the South and sounded more like the calls of Northern abolitionists than a supposed Southern patriot. To these Southern officers, the arming and freeing of the slaves stood in direct contrast to professed views about African-Americans. To them, Southern independence and slavery were inseparable. The Confederacy could not have one without the other.
Patrick Cleburne listened to the attacks on his plan and was extremely disappointed that the officers could not see the validity of his argument. The commander of the Confederate army understood how explosive Cleburne’s proposal was and ordered that there be no more talk of it. Still, one of the officers sent news of the proposal to the Confederate government in Richmond, Virginia. President Jefferson Davis saw how controversial it would be if word of such a topic leaked out to the Southern people. He immediately ordered that there be no further consideration of or discussion regarding the plan. Any possibility for Southern emancipation ended there.
Despite his disappointment and the censorship of his plan, Patrick Cleburne continued to serve the Confederacy. Throughout the summer of 1864, his division fought with distinction in the long struggle to save Atlanta, Georgia. Then he took part in the ill-fated invasion of Tennessee. As he led his men against entrenched Union troops during the late afternoon of November 30, 1864, Major General Patrick Ronayne Cleburne was killed in battle at Franklin, Tennessee. Little could he have known that four months later, in March 1865, with Union forces closing in, the Confederate government would finally pass a law providing for the arming of slaves. Though the act came too late to save the South and there was no mention of emancipation, the act appeared to be a vindication of Cleburne’s beliefs. Patrick Cleburne, a fearless and devoted commander in battle, also had the courage and vision to challenge the accepted thinking and to push for what he saw was right. Had he been listened to, the course of the war, and even its outcome, might have been fundamentally altered.