A Confederate Plan For Arming The Slaves
[From the Charlotte Observer, November, 1901.]
It was overlooked at the time of its publication in the Richmond Dispatch, but the New York Sun makes a summary of a strikingly interesting documentary contribution to our Richmond contemporary by Mr. Irving A. Black, who, during the civil war, was assistant adjutant-general on the staff of General Patrick R. Cleburne, who commanded a division in Hardee's corps of the Confederate Army of the Tennessee. The document is a paper prepared by General Cleburne in December, 1863, in which for the first time a military officer of prominence definitely advocated the employment of slaves as soldiers for the South. The paper was submitted to the brigadier-generals of the division, and Mr. Buck's recollection is that the project was approved by them unanimously; but when it was referred to the general officers of the army it was opposed by several of them, though, continues Mr. Buck, "my impression is that Generals Hardee and Johnston, however, declined to forward the paper to the War Department on the ground that in tenor it was more political than military. Subsequently it was sent through another channel to Jefferson Davis, who indorsed on it these words, substantially:
"While recognizing the patriotic motives of its distinguished author, I deem it inexpedient, at this time, to give publicity to this paper, and request that it be suppressed.
All copies were supposed to have been suppressed, but a few years ago one was found among the effects of a deceased officer of General Cleburne's staff and sent to the Confederate Record Office of the War Department at Washington, by which it was referred to Mr. Buck for authentication.
General Cleburne in this paper, according to the narrative, described the straits to which the Confederacy was reduced in the latter part of 1863, and said:
"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 "extraordinary change" advised by him was this:
"That we retain in service for the war all troops now in the service, and 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 true to the Confederacy in this war."
He goes on to argue his case with very considerable ability, referring finally, to the military aptitude of negroes as displayed in the Union army and elsewhere, and concluding by saying that "If 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?"
General Cleburne--an Irishman born and a gallant spirit--was killed in the battle of Franklin, November 30, 1864. A little while before this event, a bill had been introduced in the Confederate Congress which embodied some of the features of his plan. It was bitterly opposed, a representative from Mississippi saying, for example:
"All nature cries out against it. The negro was ordained to slavery by the Almighty. Emancipation would be the destruction of our social and political system. God forbid that this Trojan horse should be introduced among us."
Finally, however, the bill was passed, but with a provision "that nothing in this act shall be construed to authorize a change in the relation of the said slaves." But Mr. Hunter, of Virginia, had denounced it as involving emancipation, advancing this argument, among others, that "negroes now are deterred from going to the enemy only by the fear of being put in the army. If we put them in they will all go over." But the bill passed only a few months before General Lee's surrender, and never became operative.
The Sun asks whether or not, if it had been made effective at the time General Cleburne proposed it, it might not have changed the whole course of events. Reason and religion both say no. The seeds of that war were implanted in the Constitution, and their germination was only a question of time. War was inevitable, and, like other things, the manner of its termination was directed by the innate Power. But for the consolation afforded by this belief, the Southern people, at its conclusion, would have been of all men most miserable.
Source: Southern Historical Society Papers. Vol. XXIX. Richmond, Va., January-December. 1901.
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