A Confederate General's Emancipation Attempt

Article excerpt

The might-have-beens are often the most fascinating speculations of history. What might the nation have been spared, even after the horror of a civil war, if Richmond had listened to a visionary Irishman?

Might the Rev. Jesse Jackson now be the national commander of the Sons of Confederate Veterans? Would Colin Powell be president of the Confederacy?

Improbable speculation, to be sure. But Pat Cleburne was an improbable Southerner, an even more improbable Confederate hero. But he was both. Cleburne only recently has begun to achieve his full measure of posthumous fame as "the Stonewall Jackson of the West" - a laurel he earned at Shiloh, Chickamauga, Ringgold Gap, Atlanta and finally the battle of Franklin outside Nashville, Tenn. He certainly might have become the Southern white man most honored by American blacks.

Cleburne's story is told in a new book, "Stonewall of the West," by Craig L. Symonds, a professor of history at the U.S. Naval Academy, and a fascinating story it is. This is a military analyst's book, but written in a style that makes Cleburne's story accessible to the layman.

Though Mr. Symonds traces and examines a remarkable military career with a scholar's skill, with all the heroics of battle and triumphs of command, the chapter on Cleburne's vain attempt at emancipation is particularly poignant in the context of today's supercharged racial sensibilities.


Late in 1863, with the South's prospects fraying, Cleburne wrote a "memorial" intended for the eyes of Jefferson Davis, proposing that slaves be granted their freedom on enlisting in the Confederate army. He could not have foreseen the anger he would arouse among certain colleagues.

Cleburne's letter was signed by 13 other senior officers, a tribute first to the heroics that had made him one of the most admired generals of the Confederacy.

Cleburne was aware, as Mr. Symonds writes, that the political issue of slavery had provoked the war, but in Cleburne's view, slavery was an issue, but not the principle, at stake. "I never owned a Negro," he wrote to his brother in Cincinnati early in the war, "and care nothing for them." Except for the New England abolitionists, this was as about as close as any white man, North or South, would come to expressing moral outrage over slavery. Lincoln, after all, was an unapologetic proponent of white supremacy, if not slavery, and so were most of his officers and soldiers as the war began.


Nevertheless, Cleburne misjudged the complicated issue of slavery in his adopted land. As a leader of men as well as one of the Confederacy's shrewdest tacticians, Cleburne was necessarily preoccupied with the arithmetic of the war. Confederate armies, as Mr. Symonds notes, routinely fought larger Union armies, and even when the Southerners won - which until Gettysburg was most of the time - the victories were more than the South could long sustain.

With a population of just more than 6 million, exclusive of slaves who could not be conscripted, the 11 Southern states were outnumbered nearly 4-to-1, and newly arriving German and Irish immigrants were inducted at the water's edge in New York, Boston and Philadelphia. Cleburne understood that the Confederacy was doomed by the arithmetic.

In May 1863, for example, Robert E. Lee had routed Joe Hooker at Chancellorsville in what has been called the most nearly perfect military victory in the textbooks of war, inflicting more than 11,000 casualties on the much larger Union army, a kill rate of nearly 11 percent. But he took nearly 11,000 casualties of his own, including the irreplaceable Stonewall Jackson, the original, a kill rate of nearly 19 percent. Many more victories like that, as the South was learning, and the war would be over sooner rather than later.

"The Confederacy wants more men," Cleburne confided to his diary. …