Negroes In Our Army- From the Richmond, Va., Dispatch, August 5, 1904

Negroes In Our Army

[From the Richmond, Va., Dispatch, August 5, 1904.]

General Pat. Cleburne the First to Advocate their Use.
But a Similar One was Afterwards Adopted
Some Interesting Reminiscences on the Subject,
which Show the Circumstances Prompting the Suggestion.

        In the spring of 1897 I had a letter from the War Department at Washington, asking me to authenticate a document in the files of the Confederate Record Office. Considering that paper of the first interest and value, I send, herewith, a copy, and will give your readers the circumstances surrounding it, viz.: After the disgraceful defeat of the Confederate army, at Missionary Ridge, in front of Chattanooga, on the 25th of November, 1864, the bulk of it retreated to Dalton, Ga. Cleburne's Division, which was the rear guard, on the 27th made a stand at Ringgold Gap, and without assistance, and single handed, checked and defeated the attempt of the pursuing army under General Hooker to capture the wagon, artillery, and ordnance train of Bragg's army. Holding the position until the safety of these were assured, the division retired, under orders to Tunnel Hill, some ten miles north of Dalton, where it remained on outpost.


        In December following, I noticed that General Cleburne was for several days deeply preoccupied and engaged in writing. Finally he handed me his MS., which upon reading, I found to be an advocacy of freeing the negroes and their enlistment in our military service. In reply to his question as to what I thought of it, I said while I fully concurred in his opinion as to the absolute necessity of some such step to recruit the army, and recognized the force of his arguments, still I doubted the expediency, at that time, of his formulating these views. First, because the slave holders were very sensitive as to such property, and were totally unprepared to consider such a radical measure, and many, not being in our service, could not properly appreciate that it had become a matter of self-preservation that our ranks should be filled to meet, in some degree, the numerical superiority of the enemy--consequently, it would raise a storm of indignation against him. And next that one of the corps of our army was without a lieutenant-general, that he, General Cleburne, had already achieved, unaided, a signal success at Ring gold, for which he had received the thanks of Congress, and stood in reputation first among the major-generals, and might justly expect to be advanced to this vacancy, and I felt assured the publicity of this paper would be used detrimentally to him, and his chances of promotion destroyed.
        To that he answered that a crisis was upon the South, the danger of which he was convinced could most quickly be averted in the way outlined, and feeling it to be his duty to bring this before the authorities, he would try to do so, irrespective of any personal result. To my question as to whether or not the negroes would make efficient soldiers, he said that with reasonable and careful drilling, he had no doubt they would, and as deep as was his attachment to his present command he would cheerfully undertake that of a negro division in this emergency.


        Under his instructions I made, from his notes, a plain copy of the document, which was read to, and free criticisms invited from members of his staff, one of whom, Major Calhoun Benham, strongly dissented, and asked for a copy with the purpose of writing a reply in opposition.
        The division brigadiers were then called together, and my recollection is, that their endorsement was unanimous--namely: Polk, Lowery, Govan, and Granberry. Later, a meeting of the general officers of the army, including its commander, General Joseph E. Johnston, was held at General Hardee's headquarters, and the paper submitted. It was received with disapproval by several, and before this assemblage Major Benham read his letter of protest. Not having been present, I am unable to state the individual sentiment of the higher officers, but my impression is, that Generals Hardee and Johnston were favorably disposed, though the latter declined to forward it to the War Department, on the ground that it was more political than military in tenor.
        That was a sore disappointment to Cleburne, who supposed his opportunity of bringing the matter before the President was lost, as he was too good a soldier and strict a disciplinarian to think of sending it over the head of his superior.


        The day following, Major-General W. H. T. Walker addressed him a note, stating that this paper was of such a dangerous (I think he said incendiary) character, that he felt it his duty to report it to the President, and asking if General Cleburne would furnish him a copy and avow himself its author.
        Both requests were promptly complied with, Cleburne remarking that General Walker had done him an unintentional service, in accomplishing his desire, that this matter be brought to the attention of the Confederate authorities. Communication with Richmond was then very slow and uncertain. General Cleburne, naturally, felt somewhat anxious as to the outcome of the affair, though manifesting no regrets, and in discussing the matter and possibilities, said the worst that could happen to him would be court-martial and cashiering, if which occurred, he would immediately enlist in his old regiment, the 15th Arkansas, then in his division; that if not permitted to command, he could at least do his duty in the ranks.
        After the lapse of some weeks the paper was returned endorsed by President Davis, substantially, if not verbatim, as follows:

"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. J. D."

        Upon receipt of this, General Cleburne directed me to destroy all copies, except the one returned from Richmond. This was filed in my office desk, which was subsequently captured and burned with its contents by the Federal cavalry during the Atlanta campaign.


        After the war, I was several times solicited, from both Confederate and Federal sources, to furnish copies, which was impossible, as I felt sure the only one retained had been destroyed, as above stated, and that no other existed. A few years ago Major Benham died in California, and to my extreme surprise and delight, a copy--the one supplied him at Tunnel Hill--was found among his papers. This was forwarded to Lieutenant L. H. Mangum, Cleburne's former law partner and afterwards aide-de-camp, who sent it to me to identify, which I readily did. Mangum afterwards placed it in the hands of General Marcus J. Wright, agent of the War Department, for collection of Confederate records, and it was this paper I was called upon to authenticate, the reason for which being that as it is a copy and not an original, some such official certification was desirable.


        A short while before his death, on the fatal field of Franklin, Cleburne had the gratification of knowing that a bill, embodying exactly his proposition, was advocated upon the floor of the Confederate Congress. This was subsequently passed and became a law, by executive approval.
        It is scarcely a matter of speculation to tell what the result of this measure would have been, had it gone promptly into effect early in the spring of 1864. General Hood, whose opinion is entitled to weight, probably states it correctly in his book, Advance and Retreat (page 296), when referring to Cleburne, says: "He was a man of equally quick perception and strong character, and was, especially in one respect, in advance of many of our people. He possessed the boldness and wisdom to earnestly advocate at an early period of the war the freedom of the negro and enrollment of the young and able-bodied men of that race. This stroke of policy and additional source of strength to our armies would, in my opinion, have given us our independence."

Former Assistant Adjutant-General Cleburne's Division,
Hardee's Corps, Army of Tennessee.

Source:  Southern Historical Society Papers.  Vol. XXXI. Richmond, Va., January-December. 1903.

Posted By: Joe Elia
Copyright ©2020, All Rights Reserved.