Confederate Emancipation: Southern Plans to Free and Arm Slaves during the Civil War

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Confederate Emancipation: Southern Plans to Free and Arm Slaves during the Civil War. By Bruce Levine. (New York: Oxford University Press, 2006. Pp. viii, 252. Illustrations, acknowledgments, notes, sources cited, index. $29.95.)

At the end of 1863, after the fall of Vicksburg and the Confederate failure at Gettysburg, Gen. Patrick R. Cleburne of Arkansas, commander in the Army of Tennessee, reached a remarkable conclusion: the South could win the war only by using slaves as soldiers to counteract the manpower advantage of the North, in effect sacrificing slavery to save the Confederacy. He advanced this plan in a formal proposal that was discussed, rejected, and suppressed by President Jefferson Davis and his cabinet in January 1864. Nine months later, faced with a much bleaker military situation, Davis changed his mind and was ready to put blacks into grey uniforms, as were many other southern leaders, including Robert E. Lee. The Confederate Congress acted slowly, however, and gave Davis the power to do so only in March 1865. At the end of the war a month later, the colored troops of the Confederacy consisted of fewer than 200 untrained recruits, while nearly 200,000 black soldiers and sailors, most of them former slaves, had played a vital role in the Union victory.

While the strategy known as southern emancipation was a failure, it has had a place in the might-have-been analyses of Confederate defeat. Some historians feel that a positive response to Cleburne's plan at the time he proposed it would have allowed the Confederacy to win the war, citing the effective use of slave labor on military construction projects as evidence that the bondsmen could also have been soldiers. Levine is surely correct, however, in arguing that the slaves had already chosen sides in the conflict, having fled to Union lines whenever they could and demonstrated an enthusiasm for fighting against their former owners. …