Patrick Cleburne & Failed Confederate Emancipation

Friends of Padre Steve’s World

In light of some of the historical revisionism of parts of the Confederate heritage movement which claim that many blacks fought for the Confederacy. The fact is that this is not true. Though there are account of a few slaves who fought with their masters, the fact is that the Confederacy impressed the labor of slaves to do unarmed non-combat jobs such as cooks, teamsters and laborers while remaining slaves with no promise of freedom.  

This article deals with the reality that until the very end most leaders of the Confederacy fought against emancipation and did not want African Americans, slave or free to fight their battle. One non-slave owning Irish immigrant who rose to become a Confederate General disagreed and urged emancipation and equality for blacks who would fight for the Confederacy. His arguments were rejected and he was killed in action well before any other Confederate even considered emancipation.

The story of Cleburne demonstrates the lie that the leaders of the Confederacy desired nothing else than continued slavery for African Americans. It also demonstrates that there were individual Confederate leaders who saw the future and were pushed aside when they spoke up. Their political power in comparison to the aristocracy of the slave owners, traders and white supremacists was insignificant, and their heretical ideas doomed to failure.

This is another section of my Civil War and Gettysburg Staff Ride Text. I hope that you enjoy. 

Have a nice and thoughtful night.


Padre Steve+


General Patrick Cleburne 

In the South, politicians and many senior Confederate Officers fought against any allowance for blacks to serve, for they knew if they allowed this, that slavery itself must be swept away. Despite this, a few such as General Patrick Cleburne, an Irish immigrant and a division commander in the Army of Tennessee demonstrated the capacity for forward thinking in terms of race: Cleburne advocated that blacks serve as soldiers should be emancipated.

Cleburne, known as “the Stonewall Jackson of the West” was a bold fighter who put together a comprehensive plan. He noted that the Confederacy was losing the war because it did not have soldiers, the supplies or resources; and most significantly that “slavery, from being one of our chief sources of strength at the beginning of the war, has now become in a military point of view, one of our chief sources of weakness.” [1] Cleburne recommended 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 to the confederacy in this war.” [2]

Cleburne’s realism came through in his appeal:

“Ever since the agitation of the subject of slavery commenced the negro has been dreaming of freedom and his vivid imagination has surrounded the condition with so many gratifications that it has become the paradise of his hopes.” It was also shrewd politically: “The measure we propose,” he added, “will strike dead all John Brown fanaticism, and will compel the enemy to draw off altogether or in the eyes of the world to swallow the Declaration of Independence without the sauce and disguise of philanthropy.” [3]

The Irishman’s “logic was military, the goal more men in uniform, but the political vision was radical indeed.” [4] He was asking more from his fellow Southerners than they could risk. He was “asking them to surrender the cornerstone of white racism to preserve their nation” [5] and he presented it in stark terms that few could stomach “As between the loss of independence and the loss of slavery, we can assume that every patriot will freely give up the latter- give up the Negro slave rather than be a slave himself.” [6] Cleburne’s words were those of a heretic, he noted “When we make soldiers of them we must make free men of them beyond all question…and thus enlist their sympathies also.” [7]

In January 1864 General W.H.T Walker obtained a copy of Cleburne’s proposal and sent it to Davis. Walker opposed it and expressed his outrage over it. Cleburne’s proposal went from being a military matter to a political matter and Davis intervened to quash the proposal. “Convinced that the “propagation of such opinions” would cause “discouragements, distraction, and dissension” in the army, Jefferson Davis ordered the Generals to stop discussing the matter…The only consequence of Cleburne’s action seemed to be the denial of promotion to this ablest of the army’s division commanders, who was killed ten months later at the Battle of Franklin.” [8] In fact Cleburne was “passed over for command of an army corps and promotion to lieutenant general” three times in the next eight months, and in “each care less distinguished, less controversial men received the honors.” [9] All copies of Cleburne’s proposal were destroyed by the order of Davis.

Cleburne was not the only military man to advocate the formation of Negro units or even emancipation. Robert E. Lee was one of the chief proponents of this. Lee said after the war that he had told Davis “often and early in the war that the slaves should be emancipated, that it was the only way to remove a weakness at home and to get sympathy abroad, and divide our enemies, but Davis would not hear of it.” [10]

Ten months later Davis raised the issue of arming slaves, as he now believed that military necessity left him little choice. On November 7th 1864 he made his views known to the Confederate Congress, and they were a radical departure from the hitherto political orthodoxy of slavery. In light of the manpower needs of the South as well as the inability to achieve foreign recognition Davis asked their “consideration…of a radical modification in the theory of law” of slavery…” and he noted that the Confederacy “might have to hold out “his emancipation …as a reward for faithful service.” [11]

This drew the opposition of previously faithful supporters. Davis was now opposed by some of his closest political allies including Howell Cobb who warned “The day that you make soldiers of them is the beginning of the end of the revolution. If slaves will make good soldiers our whole theory of slavery is wrong.” [12] Lee wrote to a member of Virginia’s legislature “we must decide whether slavery shall be extinguished by our enemies and the slaves used against us, or use them ourselves at the risk of the effects which may be produced on our social institutions…” and he pointed out that “any act for the enrolling of slaves as soldiers must contain a “well digested plan of gradual and general emancipation”: the slaves could not be expected to fight well if their service was not rewarded with freedom.” [13]

The debate began in earnest in the fall of 1864 and revealed a sharp divide in the Confederacy between those who supported the measure and those against it. Cabinet members such as Judah Benjamin and a few governors “generally supported arming the slaves.” [14] The Southern proponents of limited emancipation were opposed by the powerful governors of Georgia and North Carolina, Joe Brown and Zebulon Vance, and by the President pro-tem of the Confederate Senate R.M.T. Hunter, who forcibly opposed the measure. Led by Governor “Extra Billy” Smith, Virginia’s General Assembly finally approved a law in 1865 “to permit the arming of slaves but included no provision for emancipation, either before or after military service.” [15]

Finally in March of 1865 the Confederate Congress passed by one vote a watered down measure to allow for the recruitment of slaves. It stipulated that “the recruits must all be volunteers” [16] and those who volunteered must also have “the approbation of his master by a written instrument conferring, as far as he may, the rights of a freed man.” [17] While this in itself was a radical proposition for a nation which had went to war to maintain slavery, the fact was that the slave’s service and freedom were granted not by the government, but by his owner, and even at this stage of the war, few owners were willing to part with their property. It was understood by many that giving freedom to a few was a means of saving the “particular institution.” The Richmond Sentinel noted during the November debate: “If the emancipation of a part is the means of saving the rest, this partial emancipation is eminently a pro-slavery measure.” [18] Thus the law made “no mention of emancipation as a reward of military service” [19] and in deference to “state’s rights, the bill did not mandate freedom for slave soldiers.” [20]

But diehards opposed even the watered down measure. Robert Kean, who headed the Bureau of War and should have understood the stark reality of the Confederacy’s strategic situation, note in his diary, that the law:

“was passed by a panic in the Congress and the Virginia Legislature, under all the pressure the President indirectly, and General Lee directly, could bring to bear. My own judgment of the whole thing is that it is a colossal blunder, a dislocation of the foundations of society from which no practical results will be reaped by us.” [21]

It was Lee’s prestige alone that allowed the measure to pass, but even that caused some to question Lee’s patriotism. The Richmond Examiner dared to express a doubt whether Lee was “a ‘good Southerner’: that is, whether he is thoroughly satisfied of the justice and beneficence of negro slavery.” [22] Robert Toombs of Georgia stated that “the worst calamity that could befall us would be to gain our independence by the valor of our slaves” [23] and a Mississippi congressman stated, “Victory itself would be robbed of its glory if shared with slaves.” [24] On March 23rd 1865 the War Office issued General Order Number 14, which authorized the call up and recruitment of slaves to the Confederate cause and on March 25th two companies were formed for drill in Richmond’s Capitol Square and as they did so to the sounds of fifes and drums, “Small boys jeered and threw rocks” [25] at them. None of those few volunteers would see action as within a week the Confederate government had fled Richmond.

But some would see that history was moving, and attitudes were beginning to change. It took time, and the process is still ongoing. As imperfect as emancipation was and though discrimination and racism remained, African Americans had reached “levels that none had ever dreamed possible before the war.” [26] In April 1865 as Jefferson Davis and his government fled Richmond, with Davis proclaiming, “again and again we shall return, until the baffled and exhausted enemy shall abandon in despair his endless and impossible task of making slaves of a people resolved to be free.” [27]

The irony in Davis’s empty vow was stunning. Within a week Lee had surrendered and in a month Davis himself would be in a Federal prison. The Federal troops who led the army into Richmond came from General Godfrey Weitzel’s Twenty-fifth Corps, of Ord’s Army of the James. The Every black regiment in the Army of the James was consolidated in Weitzel’s Corps, along with Ferrero’s former division that had suffered so badly at the Battle of the Crater. “Two years earlier in New Orleans, Weitzel had protested that he did not believe in colored troops and did not want to command them, and now he sat at the gates of Richmond in command of many thousands of them, and when the citadel fell he would lead them in and share with them the glory of occupying the Rebel capital.” [28] Among Weitzel’s units were regiments of black “cavalrymen and infantrymen. Many were former slaves; their presence showed their resolve to be free.” [29]


[1] Ibid. Thomas, The Confederate Nation p.262

[2] Ibid. Thomas, The Confederate Nation p.262

[3] Winik, Jay April 1865: The Month that Saved America Perennial an Imprint of Harper Collins Publishers New York 2002 p.53

[4] Ibid. McCurry Confederate Reckoning p.327

[5] Ibid. Guelzo Fateful Lightening p. 370

[6] Ibid. Thomas, The Confederate Nation p.262

[7] Ibid. McCurry Confederate Reckoning p.327

[8] Ibid. McPherson. The Battle Cry of Freedom p.833

[9] Ibid. Thomas, The Confederate Nation p.262

[10] Ibid. Gallagher The Confederate War p.47

[11] Ibid. McCurry Confederate Reckoning p.335

[12] Ibid. Guelzo Fateful Lightening p. 370

[13] Korda, Michael. Clouds of Glory: The Life and Legend of Robert E. Lee Harper Collins Publishers, New York 2014 p.643

[14] Ibid. Thomas, The Confederate Nation p.293

[15] Ibid. Foote. The Civil War, A Narrative. Volume Three pp.754-755

[16] Ibid. Foote. The Civil War, A Narrative. Volume Three p. 755

[17] Ibid. Thomas, The Confederate Nation p.296

[18] Ibid. McPherson. The Battle Cry of Freedom p.836

[19] Ibid. Foote. The Civil War, A Narrative Volume Three p.755

[20] Ibid. McPherson. The Battle Cry of Freedom p.837

[21] Ibid. Foote. The Civil War, A Narrative Volume Three p.860

[22] Ibid. McPherson. The Battle Cry of Freedom p.837

[23] Ibid. Foote. The Civil War, A Narrative Volume Three p.860

[24] Ibid. McPherson. The Battle Cry of Freedom p.835

[25] Ibid. Foote. The Civil War, A Narrative Volume Three p.860

[26] Ibid. Guelzo Fateful Lightening p. 386

[27] Levine, Bruce Half Slave and Half Free: The Roots of the Civil War Revised Edition, Hill and Wang, a division of Farrar, Strauss and Giroux, New York 1992 and 1995 p.241

[28] Catton, Bruce Grant Takes Command Little, Brown and Company Boston, Toronto and London 1968 p.411

[29] Ibid. Levine Half Slave and Half Free pp.241-242


Filed under civil war, History, leadership, Military, Political Commentary

3 responses to “Patrick Cleburne & Failed Confederate Emancipation

  1. Padre Steve, you don’t have an “About” page and I wasn’t sure where to put this, but I would like to pass the Hearts as One Drumbeat Award to you. I came upon your blog about a week ago, have been reading it since, and believe that you deserve this award. I hope that you accept. You can find the award photo, its meaning, and rules at;

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