On Jan. 2, 1864, Confederate Gen. Patrick Cleburne presented his fellow Southerners with a question about the war they were fighting.
“Was the war about independence? Or was the war being fought primarily to preserve slavery?” said former Georgia labor commissioner Michael Thurmond.
The overwhelming answer Cleburne received was that the war was primarily about preserving slavery, not Southern independence, Thurmond said.
Thurmond gave the keynote speech on Thursday at the unveiling of a new historical marker outside the Cook-Huff House on Selvidge Street in Dalton. Gen. Joseph Johnston, commander of the Confederate Army of Tennessee, kept his headquarters in that house while his army spent the winter of 1863-64 camped in Dalton.
It was there that Cleburne presented his fellow generals with a proposal that is commemorated by the marker. The Confederacy, Cleburne said, was facing a manpower shortage and was losing the war to the numerically superior Union forces. To end that shortage, Cleburne proposed emancipating slaves who volunteered to enlist in the Confederate army and fight for the South.
“The reaction to what Gen. Cleburne proposed was almost universally negative,” said Charlie Crawford, president of the Georgia Battlefields Association. “If you want to sum it up, almost all the generals who opposed it said ‘If we can arm black men and make them free in return for arming them, what was this war for? Why did we secede? What have we been fighting about for the last two and a half years?’ So I say to those who say the Civil War wasn’t about slavery, you’re wrong.”
The text of the marker makes it clear just how abhorrent many of Cleburne’s fellow generals considered the proposal. It says “almost all of the other generals present were strongly opposed.”
“Gen. Patton Anderson said the proposal ‘would shake our governments, both state and Confederate, to their very foundations,’ Gen. William Bate said it was ‘hideous and objectionable,’ and Gen. A.P. Stewart said it was ‘at war with my social, moral and political principles,’” according to the text of the marker.
The marker says Gen. W.H.T. Walker considered the proposal treasonous and informed Confederate States of America President Jefferson Davis, who ordered any mention of it to be suppressed.
More than a year later, as the South’s final defeat grew near, the Confederate Congress finally did approve a bill to draft and arm slaves. But it did not promise them their freedom. The marker says only a handful of slaves were actually drafted and none saw combat. By contrast, nearly 200,000 free blacks fought in the Union forces.
“While some have argued that there were as many as 32,000 black Confederates during the war, most served in non-combat roles as laborers and servants,” said Robert Jenkins, a Dalton attorney and member of Whitfield County’s Civil War Sesquicentennial Society.
Jenkins said it was ironic that the only Georgia battles involving black troops, the 14th and 44th U.S. Colored Troops, took place later in 1864 in Whitfield County, and that many of those troops were former slaves from Northwest Georgia.
Curtis Rivers, director of Dalton’s Emery Center, which preserves the history of the local black community, said he hopes the marker will help make people more aware of Dalton’s history and especially the role black people have played in it.
“Things like this will really make a difference,” Rivers said.
The Cook-Huff House is owned by businessman Kenneth Boring, who said he was delighted to have the marker placed there.
“It’s the ideal location for the marker, and I was happy to help them out however I could,” he said.
The Georgia Historical Society is responsible for the state’s historical markers. W. Todd Groce, the society’s president, said most of the markers erected in the 1950s before the centennial of the Civil War focused on battles and military leaders. He said the society is now trying to focus on some of the non-military stories from the Civil War and to call attention to the roles played by blacks, women and Southerners who remained loyal to the Union.
To read the text of Gen. Patrick Cleburne’s proposal to free slaves who volunteered to fight for the Confederacy, go to www.civilwar.org/education/history/primarysources/patrick-r-cleburne-et-al.html.