The Black Confederate Brigade in the Civil War
Once a Possibility, Now a Myth that Won’t Die
(Original Story written for Jackson Advocate January 6, 2003)
The Black Louisiana Native Guards was rejected by the Confederate leaders when they volunteered to fight on the side of the Confederacy at the outbreak of the Civil War. This longstanding military group, formed in 1749 to serve the French Army in colonial America, consisted of three black militia companies. It became the first black regiment---split into the First and Second Louisiana Corps d’Afrique--to fight on the side of the Union during the battle of Ship Island, Mississippi, in April 1863.
An undying legend that emerged out of the ashes of the bitter defeat of the Confederacy in the Civil War is the myth of the Black Confederate Brigade.
A lot of praise continues to be given to the black men who purportedly volunteered to fight to save the Confederacy from the predatory designs of the rapacious North. Old Court House Museum curator Gordon Cotton of Vicksburg claims that "in the siege lines around Vicksburg (in 1863), the only black soldiers were in Confederate uniform."
In 1907, the United Daughters of the Confederacy began laying out plans to erect a monument "to the faithful Negro slave." Even today, a small but vocal faction of Southern historians, like Cotton, heap undue praise on "the Negro Confederate," to the detriment of the black troops who actually fought on the side of the victorious North in Abraham Lincoln’s "war to save the Union."
While it is established fact that 175 black regiments (known both as the United States Colored Troops and The African Brigades), consisting of more than 200,000 troops who fought valiantly for their own emancipation on the side of the Union, there is no evidence of any such numbers coming to the support of the South in the Civil War. The bitter fact of history, says Columbia University historian Eric F. Foner, is that the South had no black fighting units or any kind of formal organization for black troops at any point during the war.
There was, however, at least one serious proposal for a Black Confederate Army Brigade made by the South’s Major General Patrick R. Cleburne. Cleburne was a general in the Irish Army and volunteered to serve the Confederacy after the Civil War actually began in April of 1861. Meeting with nearly half of Jefferson Davis’ top generals at Tunnel Hill, Georgia, on January 2, 1864, Cleburne advised his fellow Confederate commanders that "we immediately commence training a large reserve of the most courageous of our slaves" and that "we guarantee freedom within a reasonable time to every slave in the South who shall remain true to the Confederacy in this war."
Cleburne at first had the firm support of General Joseph E. Johnston, the South’s second most powerful general after Robert E. Lee. Johnston, in fact, had assembled the generals in his headquarters on the night of January 2, where the proposal was first laid out. Some of the generals there later claimed that they objected to the basic idea of arming black men and liberating them for their service to the South, but nearly all of the 15 top officers at the meeting praised Cleburne for laying out his bold blueprint for victory for the South.
The reaction from Jefferson Davis and his Secretary of War, James A. Seddon, was a blanket rejection. Despite what they saw as the "patriotic intents of the gallant author of the memorial and such of his brother officers as may have favored his opinions," they ordered an immediate "suppression, not only of the memorial itself, but likewise of all discussion and controversy respecting or growing out of it."
Surveying the manpower needs of the Confederate forces at the end of 1864, Jefferson Davis called for recruitment of every able-bodied white male into the ranks. He wanted wagon drivers, nurses, cooks and field support people to be converted to soldiers. "No effort must be spared to add to our effective force," Davis told his general staff.
Cleburne and the other generals, however, viewed the problem as one without solution along the lines proposed by the commander in chief.
"The supply from all these sources," Cleburne wrote, "together with what we now have in the field will exhaust the white race, and though it should greatly exceed expectations and put us on an equality with the enemy, or even give us temporary advantages, still we have no reserve to meet unexpected disaster or to supply a protracted struggle." By the end of 1864, he predicted, increasing casualties would consume all the fresh recruits brought in under the Davis plan.
"To meet the causes which are now threatening ruin to our country," Cleburne said, "we propose… 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."
The end of slavery was a given, suggested Cleburne, a freeborn Irishman who had fought against Irish subservience to the British in his own land. Apparently, some, if not all, of the generals and second-tier officers in Johnston’s western command agreed with Cleburne’s reasoning concerning emancipation for potential black recruits and their families. Although no one other than Cleburne signed the proposal, they reached a consensus on agreeing to have General Johnston send the proposal on to Richmond to be read by Jefferson Davis and his Secretary of War.
"As between the loss of independence and the loss of slavery," Cleburne said, "we assume that every patriot will freely give up the latter---give up the Negro slave rather than be a slave himself."
Cleburne’s African Brigade: Cleburne’s "Memorial," as it has come to be known to history, was one of the most insightful discussions of the war conditions in the South, which had been set on a losing track since the incorporation of Black troops in the northern ranks in April and May of 1863. The June 7, 1863, victory won by black troops at Milliken’s Bend across the river from Vicksburg only weeks before the city capitulated to Grant, had driven the point home to the Confederates.
"The experience of this war" Cleburne observed, "has been so far that half-trained Negroes have fought as bravely as many other half-trained Yankees." He also cited the past history of the black slaves of Haiti and of Jamaica, who both had defeated the professional armies of their European masters.
The role of black troops had now become a considerable factor in future plans for both sides in the Civil War. So far, the North had recruited and armed 100,000 black men. Cleburne proposed that a force of at least 300,000 black Confederate troops would shift the power balance to the side of the South. "The immediate effect of the emancipation and enrollment of Negroes on the military strength of the South would be to enable us to have armies numerically superior to those of the North and a reserve of any size we might think necessary; to enable us to take the offensive, move forward and forage on the enemy."
In the face of this plan, Cleburne reasoned, the North would see its recruitment ground dried up. The avarice of the slave owner, whose interests lay in cooperating with whichever side ruled the farms where they were located, would be put at an end. The black spies used by the North would no longer be available. And, most of all, the threat of insurrection on the part of hostile black slaves, would no longer be a palpable threat.
Black freedom would be the reward given for loyal support, according to Cleburne’s plan.
"The slaves are dangerous now," he said, "but armed, trained and collected in an army they would be a thousand-fold more dangerous. Therefore, when we make soldiers of them we must make free men of them beyond all question. "Winning the loyalty of the black troops by granting them freedom will guarantee the advantage to the South."
"We can do this more effectively than the North can now do," Cleburne reasoned. "For we can give the Negro not only his own freedom, but that of his wife and child, and can secure it to him in his old home." By this, Cleburne suggested that land and homesteads would be also granted to the former slaves.
"Satisfy the Negro that if he faithfully adheres to our standard during the war, he shall receive his freedom and that of his race," Cleburne said.
"By emancipating the whole race upon reasonable terms, and within such reasonable time as will prepare both races for the change, we will 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."
With worldwide anti-slavery sentiment on its side, the North had been able to recruit new troops from among European volunteers, which supplied them with "a courage and constancy" that go beyond their personal will or strength. The North’s anti-slavery crusade, Cleburne said, "is the most powerful and honestly entertained plank in their war platform. Knock this away and what is left? A bloody ambition for more territory, a pretended veneration for the Union, and the poisonous and selfish interests which are the fungus growth of war itself."
Take away that one great advantage---the fight for the black man’s freedom---that was serving to advance the Northern cause and the world would probably withdraw its wholehearted support, he concluded.
"The measure we propose will strike dead all John Brown fanaticism," Cleburne said, "and will compel the enemy to draw off altogether or in the eyes of the world to swallow the Declaration of Independence without the source and disguise of philanthropy. This delusion of fanaticism at an end, thousands of Northern people will have leisure to look at home and to see the gulf of despotism into which they themselves are rushing."
The Cleburne proposal for a Black Confederate Brigade of perhaps 300,000 troops was swiftly put aside by the top civilian command, President Jefferson Davis and Secretary of War Seddon, within days of their receiving notice of it. The response from Richmond was dated January 31, 1864, 29 days after it was first broached as an idea. None of the 15 or so top officers who had studied the "Memorial" with a fine-tooth comb and who had embraced its principles was punished. They were simply ordered to put the "memorial" aside and to cease discussing it.
"The measures advocated in the memorial are considered to be little appropriate for consideration in military circles," the secretary of war instructed his generals. Cleburne’s ideas "pass beyond the bounds of Confederate action" and could put in jeopardy "the unity and harmony" then existing between the Confederate States and the people therein.
Cleburne was killed in action in the battle of Franklin in late 1864. It was only after the South was assured of losing at about the time of Appomattox in April, 1865, that a consideration of some of his ideas were once again brought up for discussion. But it was then too late to muster and train the black Confederate troops that might have saved the South.
The document known as "Cleburne’s Memorial" was so successfully suppressed by the Confederate command that it was almost lost to history. "All known copies were destroyed, and all officers privy to it were forbidden to discuss it," one historian points out. In 1888, one of the surviving officers, a Major Benham, left the only extant copy among his papers after his death.
The retrieval of the document from the obscure recesses of Southern history is concrete proof of the Southerner’s awareness of the evil of slavery, even while fighting to preserve it through total war. The idea of granting freedom to the slave in order to preserve the master’s independence provided a logical argument for putting an end to the peculiar institution. The great failure of the top leadership of the South was that it did not submit to human logic or reason.
It was Jefferson Davis himself who ordered the end of the dream of a Black Confederate Brigade almost immediately upon receiving the proposal in February 1864. No further discussion of arming black men to fight for the Confederacy was allowed by the commander in chief until late March and early April of 1865, three weeks before the end. Lee surrendered at Appomattox on April 10, 1865. And the Civil War officially ended on May 10, 1865.
Note: The full text of the Cleburne "Memorial" is found in the official OCR documentation of the War of the Rebellion.