Confederate Maj. Gen. Patrick Cleburne was a lawyer, not a plantation owner. He was born and raised in Ireland, not the South. And he was one of the South’s most successful generals. Maybe that’s why he had the courage to make a proposal that his fellow officers considered scandalous if not outright treasonous.
The Confederate Army of the Tennessee spent the winter of 1863-1864 camped in Dalton, where commanding Gen. Joseph Johnston kept his headquarters in what is now known as the Cook-Huff house on Selvidge Street.
It was there, on Jan. 1, 1864, that Cleburne presented officers with a proposal. The Confederacy, he 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.
Now, the Georgia Historical Society, which is tasked with maintaining the state’s historical markers, plans to commemorate that proposal with a marker that will be erected at 314 N. Selvidge St., in front of the Cook-Huff house. The marker will be installed next week.
“Right now, we don’t have an exact date for the dedication. We are working on that. We are looking at the end of June or the first of July,” said Brandy Mai, director of communications for the historical society.
Robert Jenkins, a Dalton attorney and member of Whitfield County’s Civil War Sesquicentennial Committee, says there’s evidence that several Confederate generals had been thinking about offering slaves their freedom if they fought for the South.
“No one was brave enough to speak out about it outside campfire circles,” Jenkins said. “But Cleburne wrote a proposal and he took it to a meeting of the highest brass.”
The text of the marker makes it clear just how abhorrent many of his fellow generals considered the proposal. The marker 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.
The marker also notes that, over a year later, as the South’s final defeat grew near, the Confederate Congress approved the drafting of slaves. But only a handful were drafted and few saw combat. By contrast, nearly 200,000 free blacks served in the U.S. Army and Navy.
The Georgia Historical Society will host a tourism workshop on Monday from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. at the old freight depot on Morris Street. Individuals from cultural institutions and local affiliates of the historical society are invited as are others interested in history as an economic resource. Admission is free, but the society asks that those attending register in advance.
To RSVP for the workshop, contact Brian Williams at firstname.lastname@example.org or (912) 651-2125, extension 131.