The following is a transcription of a speech given at the inaugural Education Conference of the Alabama Division of the Sons of Confederate Veterans:

 ‘The best men of the South have long desired to do away with the institution and were quite willing to see it abolished.’ – Robert E. Lee

‘Most informed men realized that slavery was not an institution which would last forever; that soon it would have to be modified, and eventually, relinquished. They knew that the South could not maintain it very long after it ceased to serve a useful economic and social service, and that its utility was nearing an end. They wished, however, to choose the hour and method by which they should decree its gradual extinction. Knowing the complexity of the problem, they did not desire to be whirled into a catastrophic social revolution.’ – Pulitzer-winning historian J. Allan Nevins

The story of Patrick R. Cleburne is well-known among Southerners, but Cleburne was not the first American – nor even the first Confederate – to propose arming and freeing slaves as a means of defense against foreign invasion. In fact, it was no less a figure than George Washington during the War of American Independence. As James Madison suggested, ‘To liberate and make soldiers at once of the blacks’ was ‘more consonant to the principles of liberty which ought never to be lost sight of in a contest for liberty.’ Likewise, during the War of Southern Independence, arming and freeing slaves was an idea broached from the very beginning. With the outbreak of war, slaveholders offered to organise their slaves into units while freedmen actually formed units of their own. When the slaves of James Chesnut, Jr., husband of the beloved diarist Mary Chesnut, asked to be armed so that they could fight for him, he devised a plan to reward any who enlisted with freedom and land. After winning the very first battle of the War at Manassas Junction, General Richard S. Ewell recommended such a policy to President Jefferson Davis. When President Davis claimed that Manassas was a sure sign of swift Southern victory, Ewell disagreed, replying that it was ‘the beginning of a long, and, at best, doubtful struggle,’ but that ‘emancipating the slaves and arming them’ would establish Southern independence. General Thomas C. Hindman, an old friend of Cleburne’s, sent a letter to the Congress urging them to give the slaves ‘the “chances of a white man” as against the Yankee – put him by the side of a white Southern soldier, allow him a little monthly pay, assure him of freedom for good conduct, his State consenting; let him feel that he defends his country as well as ours.’ The idea grew in popularity in Gulf States such as Alabama, Mississippi, and Louisiana, which had large slave populations and were occupied by the Federals early on in the War. After the fall of Vicksburg, for instance, the Jackson Mississippian enthusiastically endorsed the idea:

We sincerely trust that the Southern people will be found willing to make any and every sacrifice of which the establishment of our independence may require. Let it never be said that to preserve slavery we were willing to wear the chains of bondage ourselves – that the very avarice which prompted us to hold on to the negro for the sake of money invested in him, riveted upon us shackles more galling and bitter than a people ever yet endured. Let not slavery prove a barrier to our independence. If it is found in the way – if it proves an insurmountable obstacle to the achievement of our liberty and separate nationality, away with it! Let it perish! We must make up our minds to one solemn duty, the first duty of the patriot, and that is, to save ourselves from the rapacious North, WHATEVER THE COST.

A reader of the New Orleans Picayune under the pseudonym ‘Corn Bread’ denied that the War was about slavery and asserted that it was about independence. ‘We are fighting for national independence, and not for slavery, and so, I think, believes Mr. Jefferson Davis,’ declared Corn Bread. ‘Let us never forget the great fact that we are fighting for independence, independence! And perish slavery if it stands in the way.’ Corn Bread was confident that there was widespread but unspoken support for arming and freeing the slaves. ‘Let every patriotic slaveholder canvass his slaves and find out who among them will volunteer for freedom and his home,’ he urged. ‘Let him prepare the negro’s mind for the position he is about to assume, and excite in him that love of country and of home which I believe strongly exists in his breast.’ John Forsyth, editor of the Mobile Register and Advertiser, claimed that the South was ultimately fighting for independence, not slavery. ‘We protest against the theory that this is a war for the negroes; it is a war for constitutional liberty, and the rights of self-government,’ proclaimed the Register. ‘Our revolutionary sires never endured one-tenth degree of the provocation and injustice from the British government which the South had already endured at the hands of the Yankees.’ Before General Cleburne’s proposal, Forsyth was already in favor of arming and freeing the slaves. ‘We hold that it is not only legitimate, but a safe and prudent policy to fight an enemy whose purpose is our ruin with every weapon which God and Nature has placed in our hand – with fire and water, with steel and powder and ball, and with our household servant and plantation hands, if they prove necessary to avert us from the supreme calamity of subjugation,’ explained the Register. ‘If then (and we would only employ them in case of clear necessity) negro soldiers are needed to beat the enemy and conquer independence and peace, there is no argument of doubtful expediency to counterbalance the superlative end.’ President Abraham Lincoln, as many Southerners bitterly conceded, had certainly proven the value of slave soldiers. ‘No human power can subdue this rebellion without using the emancipation lever as I have done,’ boasted President Lincoln. ‘Freedom has given us control of 200,000 able-bodied men, born and raised on Southern soil.’ Lincoln challenged his ‘enemies’ in the North to ‘prove by the history of this war, that we can restore the Union without it.’

On 2 January 1864, General Cleburne convened a meeting of the commanders of the Army of Tennessee. After the disastrous Chattanooga Campaign, he had spent the winter preparing a plan which he believed would win the war for the Confederacy. Cleburne stood before the assembled leadership of the army and read from a document bearing the signatures of various generals, colonels, and other officers. ‘We have now been fighting for nearly three years, have spilled 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,’ began Cleburne, yet ‘the fruits of our struggles and sacrifices have invariably slipped away from us and left us nothing but long lists of dead and mangled.’ If things did not change, warned Cleburne, then subjugation was coming. Cleburne painted a grim picture of subjugation: ‘the loss of all we now hold most sacred,’ ‘that the history of this heroic struggle will be written by the enemy,’ and ‘the crushing of Southern manhood.’ According to Cleburne, the Confederates were losing the War for three reasons. First, they were always outnumbered by the Federals in battle, which put them on the defensive. Second, while the Federals recruited from three large sources (Northern whites, European immigrants, and Southern slaves), the Confederates recruited from a single, small source (Southern whites). Third, slavery had estranged them from Britain and France, which sympathised with them politically and were tied to them economically. President Jefferson Davis had called for increasing the strength of the military, yet the white population who comprised the class of eligible soldiers was mostly depleted. The Confederacy could no longer rely upon her white population for soldiers, but would have to turn to the large and heretofore-ignored portion of her population: the slaves. ‘Adequately to meet the causes which are now threatening ruin to our country, we propose, in addition to the President’s plan, 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 within a reasonable time to every slave in the South who shall remain true to the Confederacy in this war,’ proposed Cleburne. ‘As between the loss of independence and the loss of slavery, we assume that every patriot will freely give up the latter – give up the negro rather than be slave himself.’

Such a ‘great sacrifice to independence,’ avowed Cleburne, would finally win over the British and the French, whom would have sided with the South if not for slavery. ‘This barrier once removed, the sympathy and interests of other nations will accord with our own, and we may expect from them both moral support and material aid.’ Sacrificing slavery would puncture Northern pretenses about a ‘special mission’ to wage ‘an armed and bloody crusade’ against slavery, exposing their war for what it truly was – ‘a bloody ambition for more territory, a pretended veneration for the Union…and lastly the poisonous and selfish interests which are the fungus growth of war.’ According to Cleburne, if the Confederacy abolished slavery, then the North would be forced to choose between ‘the Declaration of Independence without the disguise of philanthropy’ and ‘the gulf of despotism into which they themselves are rushing.’ Demoralised, Northern numbers would drop, but reinvigorated, Southern numbers would rise. The Confederates would finally be able to go on the offensive and fight the enemy in his homeland rather than their own. ‘It would remove forever all selfish taint from our cause and place independence above every question of property,’ predicted Cleburne. ‘The very magnitude of the sacrifice itself, such as no nation has ever made before, would appall our enemies, destroy his spirit and finances, and fill our hearts with a pride and singleness of purpose which would clothe us with new strength in battle.’

‘If we arm and train him and make him fight for the country in her hour of distress,’ Cleburne said of the slaves, ‘every consideration of principle and policy demand that we should set him and his whole race who side with us free.’ Morally, it was ‘a first principle with mankind that he who offers his life in defense of the State should receive from her in return his freedom and his happiness.’ Practically, the ‘hope of freedom’ was a powerful ‘moral incentive’ which would inspire slave soldiers to ‘tempt dangers and difficulties not exceeded by the bravest soldier in the field.’ Of the slaves, Cleburne reasoned that Confederate emancipation would be more likely to ‘enlist their sympathies,’ as they could ‘give the negro not only his own freedom, but that of his wife and child, and secure it to him in his old home.’ Since slavery would eventually go extinct anyway – especially after the severe wartime dislocation – Cleburne suggested that the Confederacy might as well abolish it now to gain goodwill from Europe as well from their slaves. ‘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.’

‘Will the slave fight?’ asked Cleburne. The Peloponnesian helots stood by their Spartan masters in their conquests. At the Battle of Lepanto, where the Holy League defeated the Ottoman Empire’s naval invasion of Greece, galley slaves were promised their freedom and ultimately saved the day. ‘They fought well, and civilisation owes much to those brave galley slaves,’ remarked Cleburne. In Haiti, slaves had overthrown their French masters and even defeated French troops sent to quell their rebellion. Likewise, in Jamaica, slaves had overthrown their Spanish masters and resisted British troops. Most of all, however, slaves had proved their mettle in battle against the Confederates themselves! ‘The experience of this war has been so far that half-trained negroes have fought as bravely as many half-trained Yankees,’ noted Cleburne. ‘If, contrary to the training of a lifetime, they can be made to face and fight against their former masters, how much more probable is it that with the allurement of a higher reward, and led by these masters, they would submit to discipline and face dangers.’

Cleburne acknowledged and refuted a number of objections to his revolutionary proposal. Some said that abolishing slavery was incompatible with a republican form of government. ‘Even if this were true, we prefer any form of government of which the Southern people may have the molding, to one forced upon us by a conqueror.’ Some said that field labour was degrading to the white man. ‘The experience of this army during the heat of the summer is that the white man is healthier when doing reasonable work in the open field then at any other time.’ Some said that the slaves were needed on the home front. ‘Leave some of the skill at home and take some of the muscle to fight with.’ Some said it would cause ‘excitement’ (agitation) and ‘disaffection’ from the war effort. ‘Excitement is far preferable to the apathy which now exists, and disaffection will not be among the fighting men.’

Cleburne closed by reminding the commanders what was at stake:

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 centralised form of government, and to deprive us of our rights and liberties. We have now briefly proposed a plan which we believe will save our country. It may be imperfect, but in all human probability it would give us our independence. No objection ought to outweigh it which is not weightier than independence. If it is worthy of being put in practice it ought to be mooted quickly before the people and urged earnestly by every man who believes in its efficiency. Negroes will require much training; training will require much time, and there is danger that this concession to common sense may come too late.

Cleburne’s proposal was discussed among the Army of Tennessee. Cleburne himself would discuss his idea with anyone who would listen, whether fellow soldiers around the camp or citizens he met while on furlough. Captain Thomas J. Key, who Cleburne had personally convinced, described a conversation he had with another officer, Captain Charles Swett, about arming and freeing the slaves:

The Captain, at the beginning our conversation, dissented and before we had discussed the proposed action and its results pro and con he said he wanted his negro women to keep his wife from the wash tub. Nevertheless, to close the war and give us liberty he was ready to free his negroes…The idea of abolishing the institution at first startles everyone, but when it is viewed as the means of giving us victory or closing the war, every person with whom I have conversed readily concurs that liberty and peace are the paramount questions and is willing to sacrifice everything to obtain them.

For President Jefferson Davis, the War had always been about the foundational principle of American freedom, self-government – or, as he put it, ‘the independence and Union for which my father bled and in the service of which I have sought to emulate the example he set for my guidance.’ In his First Inaugural Address, Davis asserted the Confederacy’s American heritage. ‘Our present condition, achieved in a manner unprecedented in the history of nations, illustrates the American idea that governments rest upon the consent of the governed, and that it is the right of the people to alter or abolish governments whenever they become destructive of the ends for which they were established,’ announced Davis. ‘In this they merely asserted a right which the Declaration of Independence of 1776 had defined to be inalienable.’ Davis’ heart for the cause remained unconquered throughout the War, even as the Old South collapsed around him. In the summer of 1864, Davis, hoping to cast the Confederacy in the right light, agreed to an interview with two Northern envoys. The Northerners began by asking Davis how to end the War. Davis said it was simple. ‘Withdraw your armies from our territory, and peace will come of itself,’ he answered. ‘Let us alone, and peace will come at once.’ When the Northerners denied that they could allow the South to ‘repudiate the Union,’ Davis was ready with a reply. ‘You would deny to us what you exact for yourselves – the right of self-government.’ The Northerners rushed to argue that the Union was ‘essential to peace’ and without it there would be never-ending war. ‘Undoubtedly,’ responded Davis. ‘You have sown such bitterness at the South; you have put such an ocean of blood between the two sections, that I despair of seeing any harmony in my time.’ When the Northerners asked whether he would ever accept reunion as the price of peace, Davis refused:

No, I cannot. I desire peace as much as you do. I deplore bloodshed as much as you do; but I feel that not one drop of the blood shed in this war is on my hands – I can look up to my God and say this. I tried all in my power to avert this war. I saw it coming, and for twelve years I worked night and day to prevent it, but I could not. The North was mad and blind; it would not let us govern ourselves, and so the war came, and now it must go on till the last man of this generation falls in his tracks, and his children seize his musket and fight our battle, unless you acknowledge our right to self-government. We are not fighting for slavery. We are fighting for independence, and that, or extermination, we will have.

When the interview had ended and the journalists were leaving, Davis made one last remark. ‘Say to Mr. Lincoln from me, that I shall at any time be pleased to receive proposals for peace on the basis of our independence,’ he added. ‘It will be useless to approach me with any other.’ That fall, Davis toured the Confederacy to boost morale. ‘There is but one thing to which we can accede—separate State independence,’ declared Davis. ‘Some there are who speak of reconstruction with slavery maintained; but are there any who would thus measure rights by property? God forbid.’

President Davis, although supportive of the usage of slaves in an auxiliary capacity, was initially against using slaves as soldiers or emancipating them for their service. When Davis first received a copy of Cleburne’s proposal, he ordered it suppressed. After the fall of Atlanta in September of 1864, however, Davis changed his mind, realizing that desperate times did indeed call for desperate measures.  On 7 November 1864, in a presidential address to the Confederate Congress, Davis called for a ‘radical modification in the theory of the law.’ Currently, the Confederate government impressed slaves for periods of military service as non-combatants (labourers, drivers, cooks, blacksmiths, guards, nurses, etc.). Davis thought it would be more efficient if the government simply purchased the slaves altogether. ‘It would seem proper to acquire for the public service the entire property in the labour of the slave, and to pay therefore due compensation, rather than to impress his labour for short terms.’ If the government acquired slaves for military service, continued Davis, then it would also have to determine the ‘tenure’ of that service. ‘Should he be retained in servitude, or should his emancipation be held out to him as a reward for faithful service, or should it be granted at once on the promise of such service?’ asked Davis. ‘The policy of engaging to liberate the negro on his discharge after service faithfully rendered seems to me preferable to that of granting immediate manumission, or that of retaining him in servitude,’ he answered. If the Congress agreed, Davis recommended that the number of slaves in the army should be increased to 40,000. Although Davis was not yet willing to arm the slaves, he remained open to it as a last resort. ‘I must dissent from those who advise a general levy and arming of the slaves for the duty of soldiers,’ held Davis, ‘but should the alternative ever be presented of subjugation or of the employment of the slave as a soldier, there seems no reason to doubt what should then be our decision.’

Davis’ controversial, Cleburne-inspired proposal of freeing and perhaps even arming slaves was hotly debated throughout the Confederacy. The Confederate press – which remained free in contrast to the repressive United States – took sides, fiercely debated the issue, and opened up their pages to the opinions of their readers. ‘Citizens must realise that subjugation means the loss of our liberties and emancipation too,’ explained the Richmond Sentinel, edited by Richard M. Smith. ‘If, to save our liberties, we find it necessary to emancipate, we shall have, therefore, lost nothing, while we shall have gained the supreme issue – independence.’ Discussion of arming and freeing the slaves, which had been brought up by various individuals and newspapers prior to Davis’ speech, became common throughout the Confederacy. ‘If, to secure our independence, the abolition of slavery be necessary,’ concluded the Wilmington Carolinian, they were ‘prepared to adopt a conservative, safe, practical course in the matter.’ The Raleigh Confederate reprinted with approval an excerpt from speech given by the fugitive-turned-abolitionist, Frederick Douglass: ‘I am of the opinion that such is the confidence which the master can inspire over his slave, if Jeff Davis goes about in earnest to raise a black army, making them suitable promises, they can be made very effective in the war for Southern independence. If Jeff Davis will hold out to the blacks of the South their freedom – guarantee their freedom – the possession of a piece of land – the negroes of the South will fight, and fight valiantly for this boon.’ The Richmond Enquirer, edited by O. Jennings Wise and the leading newspaper in the Old South, became the staunchest advocate of the Cleburne-Davis proposal:

The employment of slaves as soldiers was never suggested as a proposition preferable to any other, but solely as a remedy to which dire necessity might eventually drive the Confederate government. Considerations of a double character are involved in this measure. There is the moral influence which the conscription of a quarter of a million of slaves to fight for their freedom, and our freedom from Yankee masters, would have upon our enemies and the world at large; and there is the physical influence of such an augmentation of our army, upon that army, our people, our enemy, and our cause. Nor should these two considerations be separated in the discussions of this proposition.

The war has slanderously been called the slaveholders’ war; undertaken for slavery, and maintained and supported solely for the perpetuation of negro slavery. Our enemies have charged, and much of the world believes the charge, that we have sacrificed the best and noblest of our land, heartlessly and cruelly, to maintain the negro property of some three hundred thousand slaveholders. The unparalleled suffering of this war has been slanderously misrepresented as detailed upon the poor and rich of these States by the selfish slaveholder for the security of his ‘human chattels.’ The people of these States know the infamous falsity of these charges, but that public sentiment of the world, which influences the action and opinions of men and nations, will not understand the base mendacity of these charges if the people of this country shall decide this question by its ultimate effect upon negro slavery…Whether or not slaves shall be conscripted must be decided upon some higher and nobler principle than the evils of free-negroism; the people of these States could have escaped these dangers by submitting to Mr. Lincoln.

The President, in that interview, indignantly repudiated the charge that this war was for slavery, and the sentiment of the country approved and applauded his declaration. If it shall appear that the necessities of the army demand more men than the white population of the country can supply, and the people of the country exhibit an unwillingness to make soldiers of their slaves, does it not give colour to the charge that the war is for slavery, and that we prefer our negroes to our liberties?

If the necessity exists, then, we say not forty thousand only, but any number that the necessity may require; for negro slavery was the mere occasion, and is not the object or end of this war. We would show to the world the lesson that, for national independence and freedom from Yankee domination, in addition to sacrifices already made, the people of these States are ready and willing, when the necessity arises, to sacrifice any number or all of the slaves to the cause of national freedom. And we would teach the enemy that ‘emancipation’ has but merely brought to our attention the fighting resources of four millions of slaves, and that the Spring campaign shall open with an army of a quarter of million of negroes, besides our noble veterans, and that the scene of operations shall be the country of the enemy. We would respond to Grant’s ‘cradle and grave’ assertion with the battle shout of an army of half a million.

‘Our cause, stripped of the prejudices which slavery has thrown around it,’ later avowed the Enquirer, would finally stand revealed in its true colours, ‘the cause of a people struggling for nationality and independence, and the United States would stand before the world as the oppressor, denying the principles by which its own struggle for liberty was justified.’ Henry W. Allen and William Smith, the respective Governors of Louisiana and Virginia, defended President Davis’ idea. ‘I would free all able to bear arms and put them into the field at once,’ Louisiana Governor Allen flatly asserted. ‘Can we hesitate, can we doubt, when the question is, whether our enemy shall use our slaves against us o we use them against him; when the question may be between liberty and independence on the one hand, or our subjugation and utter ruin on the other?’ Virginia Governor Smith asked the State legislature. One of Smith’s friends, Frederick A. Porcher, a professor at the College of Charleston, supported Smith’s statement even though he considered it to be ‘the entering wedge of a quiet plan of emancipation.’ Indeed, the most thoughtful of the Cleburne-Davis proposal’s proponents and opponents recognised that such a measure would be the beginning of the end of slavery.

Of the many opinions expressed, one of the most interesting was that of a Georgia lady writing to the Macon Telegraph and Confederate as ‘Celestia.’ After reading a pro-Davis essay from the Mobile Advertiser & Register, Celestia decided to break decorum and make her voice heard. ‘Would to God our government would act upon its suggestions at once,’ she exclaimed. According to Celestia, ‘The women of the South are not so in love with their negro property as to wish to see husbands, fathers, sons, brothers slain to protect it; nor would they submit to Yankee rule, could it secure to them a thousand waiting maids, whence now they only possess one.’ Celestia called on ladies to do more to support the war effort and scorned ‘thoughtless women’ who refused to do their duty. ‘I pray God they may never repent not having aided in this struggle for their independence,’ she snarled. ‘I cannot believe that God will hold that person guiltless, who stands indifferent to their country’s fate.’ If slaves enlisted as soldiers, then the ladies would do their duty and pick up the slack on the home front themselves. ‘Arise ye, my countrywomen,’ cried Celestia,’ and once more set to work for your liberty!’

Those who opposed the Cleburne-Davis proposal did so for various reasons. On the extreme end was the Charleston Mercury, edited by the ultra-secessionist Robert B. Rhett and his son, for which Southern independence and Southern institutions were inseparable. ‘We want no Confederate government without our institutions,’ fumed the Mercury. ‘We are fighting for our system of civilisation – not for buncomb, or for Jeff Davis.’ The Mercury boasted that Southern whites could and should win their independence on their own. ‘We are free men, and we chose to fight for ourselves – we want no slaves to fight for us.’ In a personal letter to former South Carolina Governor William Aiken, Rhett, Sr. objected that Confederate emancipation was an unconstitutional  usurpation of power. ‘There is not a word in the Constitution directly giving this power,’ noted Rhett. ‘It is claimed by inference – by construction – the very instrumentality which destroyed the Constitution of the United States.’ According to Rhett, ‘The one great principle, which produced our secession from the United States was constitutional liberty,’ yet President Davis ‘threatens to put upon us all the evils we threw off the dominion of our Yankee enemies to avoid.’ More moderate opponents, such as Edward A. Pollard and Hugh R. Pleasants, respective editors of the Richmond Examiner and Richmond Daily Dispatch, conceded that slavery should be sacrificed for the sake of independence as a last resort, but adamantly denied that they had arrived at such an impasse. ‘We must not deceive ourselves; it signifies nothing to say, we would rather give up slavery than be subject to the Yankees. So we should of course: but here, once again, this is not the alternative,’ explained the Examiner. ‘To give up slavery would not save us from being subject to the Yankees.’ The Dispatch contrasted the Confederacy with the Numantians, the Celtic people who burned themselves to death rather than be conquered by the Romans. ‘If we are reduced to the same extremity, perhaps it will be well to make soldiers of our negroes; for it seems to us that the one is about as much an act of desperation as the other,’ admitted the Dispatch. ‘But we deny that we have come to that point, or are likely to come to it.’ Proponents of the Cleburne-Davis proposal scoffed at its opponents for clinging to slavery and States’ rights. ‘We are told by some horrified individuals that this is ‘giving up the cause,’’ observed the Richmond Sentinel. ‘What cause? We thought that independence, just now, was the great question.’

At the same time as the Confederacy debated the Cleburne-Davis proposal, President Davis and his Secretary of State, Judah P. Benjamin, were secretly making overtures to Britain and France. At the start of the war, Duncan F. Kenner, a Confederate Congressman from Louisiana and one of the largest slaveholders in the Old South, recommended that Davis approach Britain and France with an offer to abolish slavery in exchange for diplomatic recognition. Davis rejected Kenner’s plan as going too far too soon, but by 1865, he recalled Kenner and sent him overseas to make such an offer. Prior to Kenner’s arrival in Paris, Secretary Benjamin sent a letter to the Confederate commissioner to France explaining Kenner’s mission. ‘The sole object for which we would ever have consented to commit our all to the hazards of this war, is the vindication of our right to self-government and independence,’ wrote Benjamin. ‘For that end no sacrifice is too great, save that of honour.’ The French Emperor agreed to recognise the Confederacy in conjunction with Britain, but the British Prime Minister regretfully refused any recognition until the Confederacy had established independence herself.

The controversial Cleburne-Davis proposal to free and perhaps even arm the slaves had some strong support, but it would take a turn for the worse in the war to overcome its opposition. In fact, while President Davis’ mere allusion to the possibility of black Confederates caused such a fierce debate, events in the war quickly reconciled Confederates to a policy of armed emancipation. In February of 1865, any hope of a negotiated peace or even just an armistice was dashed when President Lincoln insisted on unconditional surrender at the Hampton Roads Peace Conference. As Davis put it to the Confederate Congress, ‘The enemy refused to enter into negotiations with the Confederate States, or any of them separately, or to give to our people any other terms or guarantees than those which a conqueror may grant, or to permit us to have peace on any other basis than unconditional submission to their rule.’ The Confederacy erupted in indignation over the insult and with rededications of confidence in the cause. Public rallies featuring patriotic orations and popular resolutions were convened throughout the country. At one of the first such rallies in Richmond, Secretary Benjamin reiterated Davis’ idea of armed emancipation. ‘Let us say to every negro who wishes to go into the ranks on the condition of being made free – “Go and fight; you are free,”’ declared Benjamin. ‘My own negroes have been to me and said, “Master, set us free and we will fight for you; we had rather fight for you than for the Yankees.”’ At a similar rally in Lynchburg, the citizens adopted a number of resolutions,  declaring ‘our independence to be paramount to all other considerations’ and pledging to ‘compromise all differences of opinion’ on the Cleburne-Davis proposal. When Lincoln’s demand of unconditional surrender forced the Confederacy to face a fate of independence or subjugation, Southerners began turning to the last resort of arming and freeing the slaves.

In the end, the prestigious General Robert E. Lee’s public endorsement of the Cleburne-Davis proposal proved decisive. ‘In this enlightened age,’ Lee confessed to his wife before the War, ‘there are few, I believe, but what will acknowledge, that slavery as an institution, is a moral and political evil in any country.’ Lee and his wife prayed together for ‘the mild and melting influence of Christianity’ to bring ‘the final abolition of human slavery.’ Lee was against slavery and secession, but he refused to fight for a Union founded on force of arms rather than consent of the governed. ‘I can anticipate no greater calamity for the country than a dissolution of the Union,’ Lee confessed to his son. ‘Still, a Union that can only be maintained by swords and bayonets, and in which strife and civil war are to take the place of brotherly love and kindness, has no charm for me.’ During the debate over the Cleburne-Davis proposal, Lee had deliberately stayed silent, hoping to avoid the specter of military interference in civil affairs. Despite his official silence, Lee shared his support for the idea in his personal correspondence. ‘We must decide whether slavery shall be extinguished by our enemies and the slaves be used against us, or use them ourselves at the risk of the effects which must be produced upon our social institutions,’ Lee explained to a Confederate Senator from Virginia. ‘My opinion is that we should employ them without delay.’ According to Lee, any emancipation of enlisted slaves would have to be followed up with ‘a well-digested plan of gradual and general emancipation.’ Secretary Benjamin, aware that Lee agreed with him and Davis, informed Lee that if he made his opinion known, then the Congress would adopt legislation recently introduced by Mississippi Congressman Ethelbert Barksdale, authorising the enlistment of slaves as soldiers. ‘It occurs to me,’ hinted Benjamin, ‘that if we could get from the army an expression of its desire to be reinforced by such negroes as for the boon of freedom will volunteer to go to the front, the measure will pass without further delay, and we may yet be able to give you such a force as will enable you to assume the offensive when you think it best to do so.’ Lee obliged Benjamin’s request, not only polling the Army of Northern Virginia on the question of armed emancipation – the response was largely positive – but also permitted the publication of a letter to Congressman Barksdale. Lee considered ‘the employment of negroes as soldiers’ to be ‘not only expedient but necessary.’ According to Lee, rather than letting the enemy ‘use them against us,’ they should ‘use them to arrest his progress.’ Lee believed that it would not be ‘just or wise’ to deny the slaves their freedom after their military service. ‘I think those who are employed should be freed.’ Lee thought that a voluntary rather than mandatory policy would be more effective. ‘The best course to pursue, it seems to me, would be to call for such as are willing to come with the consent of their owners,’ explained Lee. ‘An impressment or draft would not be likely to bring out the best class, and the use of coercion would make the measure distasteful to them and to their owners.’

Once General Lee’s views became public knowledge, most of the opposition was either converted or simply silenced. ‘With the great mass of our people, nothing more than this letter is needed to settle every doubt or silence every objection,’ announced the Richmond Sentinel. Even the Richmond Examiner, the most prominent opponent of President Davis’ proposal, bowed to Lee. ‘Nothing, in fact, but the loud and repeated demand of the leader to whom we already owe so much, on whose shoulders we rest so great a responsibility for the future, could induce, or rather coerce, this people and this army to consent to so essential an innovation,’ admitted the Examiner. ‘Essential’ it was, however, for ‘to save our country from Yankee conquest and domination…we should of course be willing not only to give up property and sacrifice comfort, but to put in abeyance political and social theories.’ Edmund Ruffin, a fiery secessionist who was reputed to have fired the first shot at Fort Sumter, also assented. ‘In the last resort, or when it would be necessary to make every sacrifice, and to furnish every means to avoid subjugation, I would be ready not only to enlist negro soldiers, but to give up the institution of slavery itself, if that were a necessary consequence.’ According to Ruffin, ‘the extinction of slavery’ was ‘necessary to aver the greater evil of Yankee subjugation and domination.’ In particular, there was a tremendous outpouring of support for Lee’s position from the Army of Northern Virginia. A regiment of Virginians resolved that ‘if the public exigencies require that any number of our male slaves be enlisted in the military service in order to the successful resistance to our enemies, and to the maintenance of the integrity of our government, we are willing to make concessions…and to offer to those, and those only who fight in our cause, perpetual freedom, as a boon for fidelity of service and loyalty to the South.’ A brigade of Georgians resolved ‘that when, in the opinion of President Davis and General Lee, it shall become necessary to arm a portion of the slaves capable of bearing arms, and make soldiers of them, we will accept it as a necessity and cheerfully acquiesce, preferring as we do, any and all sacrifices to subjugation.’ A regiment of South Carolinians resolved ‘that we believe the liberty of the white man is better than the bondage of the slave, and, if necessary, one hundred thousand negroes should be freed and armed to assist us.’ A brigade of Mississippians resolved ‘that we are in favor of the introduction of the negro as a soldier into the military service of the Confederacy, upon such conditions as Congress as the wisdom of our rulers may see fit to determine.’ According to the Mississippians, the outcome of the War would determine ‘the destiny of our people, and everything that freemen hold dear and sacred,’ and thus all of ‘the war material of our country, regardless of colour, should be fully developed.’

The General Assembly of Virginia took the first step, passing a law paving the way for Confederate legislation. Congressman Barksdale’s bill authorised the President to request and accept the enlistment of up to 300,000 slaves as soldiers. According to Barksdale, his bill balanced the overriding objective of independence against the economic interest of slavery and constitutional interest of rule of law:

The question is not free from embarrassing considerations, and must be viewed in its varied social and moral phases, and with reference to its bearing upon the productive interests of the country; but the end which is paramount to all other considerations, and to which all else is secondary, is the achievement of our independence and our assured escape from Yankee domination. Taking this view of the subject, all concur in the opinion that if the employment of the negro be necessary to the attainment of this object, the step should be taken without delay. Does the necessity exist? The bill which I have introduced, and which has been reported favorably to the House by the special committee, leaves the decision of this question to our military authorities, and who be so competent to decide it as they? If they determine it to be necessary, the bill prescribes the method by which the object is to be accomplished. It is proposed to effect it, not by wholesale conscription – not by compulsion – not by the exercise of unauthorised power to interfere with the relation of the slave to his owner as property, but by leaving this question, where it properly belongs, to the owner himself, acting in pursuance of the laws of his State, and by an appeal to the calm reason and patriotic spirit of the people.

In addition to reading Lee’s letter aloud, Barksdale referred to George Washington and James Madison, the aforementioned Virginian slaveholders who endorsed enlisting slaves as soldiers. ‘We will not be without the encouragement which is afforded by the precept and example of the fathers who, in the Revolution of 1776, achieved the independence which we are struggling to transmit unimpaired to future generations,’ assured Barksdale. After Barksdale’s bill passed the House of Representatives, the final showdown was in the Senate. ‘When pirates are pursuing,’ argued Thomas J. Semmes, a Senator from Louisiana, ‘it is better to sacrifice the cargo, if need be, in order to facilitate escape, rather than lose both ship and cargo.’ On 8 March 1865, Confederate emancipation narrowly passed 9-8, and was signed into law by President Davis on the 13th.

Because the Confederate government had no constitutional authority over slavery – the States had reserved the right to preserve or abolish it for themselves – the law did not authorise the government to emancipate enlisted slaves, leaving that decision to their masters and State laws. Accordingly, President Davis instructed the War Department only to accept slaves with conferrals of freedom from their masters. ‘No slave will be accepted as a recruit unless with his consent and the approbation of his master by a written instrument conferring, as far as he may, the rights of a freedman’ ordered Davis. Furthermore, Davis ordered that the recruiters and commanders of slave soldiers were obligated ‘to a provident, considerate, and humane attention to whatever concerns the health, comfort, instruction, and discipline of those troops, and to the uniform observance of kindness, forbearance, and indulgence in their treatment of them, and especially that they will protect them from injustice and oppression.’ The law, as enforced by Davis, provided not just for the enlistment of slaves, but their emancipation and equality as well.

Once armed emancipation was enacted into law, recruitment began promptly, with favorable reports arriving from across the Confederacy. The most tangible progress, however, took place in Virginia. ‘There is a very favorable disposition in the country to promote this policy,’ Governor Smith informed General Lee. To slaveholders, recruiters appealed to patriotism: ‘Every consideration of patriotism, the independence of our country, the safety of our homes, the happiness of our families, and the sanctity of our firesides, all prompt to immediate and energetic action for the defence of the country.’ To slaves, recruiters promised ‘freedom and undisturbed residence at their old homes after the war…not the freedom of sufferance but honourable and self-won by the gallantry and devotion which grateful countrymen will never cease to remember and reward.’ Early estimates predicted that 100,000 black Confederates would be recruited under the new law. One of the departed General Cleburne’s old soldiers, Captain Thomas J. Azy of Georgia, offered to train an artillery battalion of black Confederates. ‘The patriotic Virginians are nobly responding to the call of that illustrious chieftain General Lee, and we hope every planter in the South will show himself equally magnanimous in, and as devoted to the cause of independence as those Virginians,’ urged Azy. ‘It is desired that the owners shall pledge themselves to emancipate such negroes as will volunteer in the Confederate service, promising them after we shall gain our independence and they should desire to return to their old homes, that proper provisions will be made for them and their families, and fair wages given.’ Cleburne would have been proud.

In contrast to the United States – where generals claimed that ‘every coloured soldier who stops a rebel bullet saves a white man’s life,’ President Lincoln assured anxious whites that the freedmen would not be their equals or even allowed in the North, and slaves were ‘emancipated’ as ‘contraband’ in concentration camps where many died of disease and starvation – Confederate emancipation was relatively magnanimous. Confederates pledged to black soldiers that they would be treated equally with whites and be integrated into society after the war. Believing that it was vital ‘to conciliate their good will’ and ‘make them forget their former position as soon as possible,’ General Lee recommended to the War Department that ‘strict orders should be given’ regarding black Confederates, ‘placing them on the footing of soldiers, with their freedom secured.’ The Richmond Sentinel was especially concerned that the promises made to the black Confederates be kept. According to the Sentinel, black Confederates’ ‘service in the public defense’ would be ‘a badge of merit and certificate of honour as long as they may live,’ granting them ‘a popular favor and respect from which they will reap large advantages.’ The Sentinel urged Virginians ‘to cheer on the coloured soldiers by showing them the favor and giving them the praise so justly due to their conduct.’ The Sentinel stressed that ‘promises made are to be redeemed with the most scrupulous fidelity, and at all hazards,’ avoiding ‘the least appearance, the slightest semblance, of bad faith.’ Indeed, after the War, while enriched Northern States resisted granting pensions to black veterans and excluded black veterans from reunions, impoverished Southern States awarded them pensions freely and welcomed them to reunions.

The notion of slaves fighting with and for their masters may seem peculiar to the modern mind, which is infected with shame, sanctimony, and other emotions that prevent a rational understanding of slavery. It made perfect sense to many Southerners, however. The South, after all, was still the slaves’ home, where all the people – white and black – and places that they loved were located. Scholars such as Ulrich B. Phillips and Eugene D. Genovese acknowledge that although slavery was an exploitative and abusive system in principle and practice, there was also genuine love and loyalty between masters and slaves. ‘Slavery, especially in its plantation setting and in its paternalistic aspect, made white and black Southerners one people while making them two,’ concludes Genovese. ‘As in a lasting although not necessarily happy marriage, two discrete individuals shared, for better or worse, one life.’ For all its evils, slavery in the Old South was simply not the nightmarish circle of hell as depicted in the artwork of Kara Walker or the upcoming Nat Turner biopic, ‘The Birth of a Nation.’ In Ulrich’s famous phrase, ‘All in all, the slave regime was a curious blend of force and concession, of arbitrary disposal by the master and self-direction by the slave, of tyranny and benevolence, of antipathy and affection.’ Before President Davis made his proposal, the Lynchburg Virginian argued this point in response to Southerners who did not trust the slaves to fight on their side:

This is their home and country. They know no other. If they desire freedom, and can be stimulated to earn it, they will make greater exertions to earn it here than elsewhere. They have grown up amongst us. They have nursed our children and known our care. They have no disposition to migrate. The power of local association is great over them, and they are attached to the soil. Can they not therefore, under the influence of the same stimulus, be made to do all for the people amongst whom they are reared, and upon the soil that has fostered them, that they would do for the enemy?

‘We should agree to give freedom to them and a home amongst us for themselves and their posterity in all time to come,’ according to the Virginian. ‘If they will fight for freedom by the side of strangers from the North, they will fight better for the same boon in the armies where the sons of their former masters contend for the homes of both master and slave.’ The fact of the matter is, as Robert F. Durden concludes in The Gray and the Black: The Confederate Debate on Emancipation, ‘there was yet a reservoir of good will between the white and black races in the South, which reservoir was very nearly tapped by the Confederacy.’

General Lee, his depleted, ragged army having been besieged in Petersburg for almost a year, was desperate for reinforcements, and anxiously corresponded with President Davis and Governor Smith on the status of the black soldiers. ‘I attach great importance to the result of the first experiment with these troops, and think that if it prove successful, it will greatly lessen the difficulty of putting the law into operation,’ Lee informed Davis. In fact, a few companies of black soldiers were training in Richmond, and had performed well in some limited use along the Confederate lines at Petersburg, but there was simply not enough time. Tragically, in late March, Lee’s lines finally broke, forcing the evacuation of Richmond. On 9 April 1865, Lee surrendered at Appomattox. Confederate emancipation ended before it truly began. As General Cleburne had warned, the concession to common sense came too late.

Bruce Levine, in Confederate Emancipation: Southern Plans to Free and Arm Slaves during the Civil War, sneers at the ‘half-hearted, feeble, and ultimately fruitless attempt to mimic and co-opt’ Federal emancipation. Indeed, throughout his book, Levine, with a seemingly pathological hatred of the Old South, attempts to discredit Confederate emancipation at every turn by attacking its motives and the men behind it. In every way, shape, and form, however, Confederate emancipation was superior to Federal emancipation. Raimondo Luraghi, in The Rise and Fall of the Plantation South, explains why:

A comparison, as far as I know, of Davis’ plan for emancipation and Lincoln’s Proclamation with the Thirteenth Amendment has very rarely if ever been made. Lincoln’s acts, important as they were, aimed to free a social class exploited by others than the group to which Lincoln belonged; whereas the Confederates were speaking of emancipating their own slaves and of hurting their own interests. Moreover, the 1862 Proclamation had been expressly intended as a confiscation act of a sort: as a matter of fact, it did not apply to loyal or already submitted slave states. As far as the Thirteenth Amendment is concerned, certainly Lincoln, had he lived, would have in some way compensated the South – with Northern money. When he was assassinated, however, any project in this direction died with him. The South was abandoned to itself, and so were the blacks; the North did not want them. The Southern plan, instead, not only freed slave-soldiers, but also granted them Southern citizenship and a homestead…

Indeed, emancipation was not to be conducted in a capitalist way – freeing the slaves to create a wide mass of jobless, homeless persons, ready to fill up the ranks of the ‘industrial reserve army’ – but in a limited and gradual way, even, socially organized to help the integration of the new, black yeoman class into the existing social order, helping the planter civilization to survive, and (who knows?) even to be strengthened.

This was certainly a rather conservative – surely not a revolutionary – way to achieve emancipation, but neither was the Northern way revolutionary, as no ruling class can be expected to commit suicide by organizing a revolution against itself. The Southern way, however, would possibly have been more humane in comparison with the Northern, certainly it would have been less demagogic and more solicitous even of the fate of the blacks by integrating them into the stable, harmonic society, paternally ruled by the seigneurial class.

According to Luraghi, Confederate emancipation was the ‘swan song’ of the Old South. Clyde N. Wilson describes it as ‘perhaps the most selfless act ever performed by a ruling class, which literally proposed to disinherit itself for national survival.’ For what it is worth, many other far more judicious scholars than the likes of Levine see something far more significant in Confederate emancipation.  It should also be noted that while President Lincoln issued his unconstitutional Emancipation Proclamation with the dictatorial stroke of a pen, President Davis’ emancipation was a duly enacted law in strict accordance with the Confederate Constitution.

Ultimately, of course, Confederate emancipation was a failure, as modern-day critics like Levine love to crow. Instead of solving the problem of slavery themselves, as Southerners had always struggled to do in and out of the Union, slavery was abolished in the worst way possible: as an unintended consequence of a deadly, devastating conquest by outsiders with no interest in the welfare of black or white Southerners. Virginian slaveholder Thomas Jefferson’s fear, that emancipation would be a ‘bloody process…excited and conducted’ by an enemy in wartime, rather than a change ‘brought on by the generous energy of our own minds,’ had come true. The significance of Confederate emancipation is not in its effect, however, but in its intent. As Abbeville Institute Chair Donald Livingston concludes, ‘This failure does not take away from what we learn about the character of the Southern people: that they had the moral and political resources to effect emancipation when the right political circumstances presented themselves.’ Surely, the fact that Southerners were willing to make the sacrifice at all—no other people in history living among slaves had ever considered freeing them, much less arming them!—and not the trite observation of ‘too little, too late,’ is the moral of this heroic story.



James Rutledge Roesch

James Rutledge Roesch is a businessman and an amateur writer. He lives in Florida with his wife, daughter, and dog.

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