Last Chance Lost


The Confederacy’s last chance for victory in the American Civil War was not lost on the battlefield. The mistake that ensured the South would lose occurred in a meeting room in Richmond, the Confederate capital. The Confederates were being ground down by the sheer number of Union soldiers arrayed against them. For years, Robert E. Lee had won almost every battle, and still the Union pressed on every front. The entire Mississippi River was in Union hands. The problem was manpower. The Union could replace its losses and still have enough manpower to work in its factories. The South was desperately short of both soldiers and skilled workers. Even Lee’s victories had cost them heavily, and there were simply no more replacements to be found.

In January 1864, two of the most important men in the Confederacy proposed a solution to the manpower problem. These were Secretary of State Judah Benjamin and General Patrick Cleburne. The two men proposed a plan in which slaves who volunteered to fight for the Confederacy would be given freedom for themselves and their families when the war was won. There were already perhaps 30,000 men of color serving with the Confederate Army, often as servants, but many were of mixed blood. What the two men proposed was also an answer to Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation.

This letter, from the highly respected veteran General Patrick Cleburne, was sent first to the general commanding the Army of Tennessee, General Thomas, in March 1864. It was then forwarded to the Confederate Congress. It eloquently argued for the enlistment and freeing of black soldiers:

Moved by the exigency in which our country is now placed, we take the liberty of laying before you, unofficially, our views on the present state of affairs . . . We have now been fighting for nearly three years, have spilled much of our best blood, and lost, consumed, or thrown to the flames an amount of property equal in value to the specie currency of the world. Through some lack in our system the fruits of our struggles and sacrifices have invariably slipped away from us and left us nothing but long lists of dead and mangled. Instead of standing defiantly on the borders of our territory or harassing those of the enemy, we are hemmed in today into less than two-thirds of it, and still the enemy menacingly confronts us at every point with superior forces. Our soldiers can see no end to this state of affairs except in our own exhaustion; hence, instead of rising to the occasion, they are sinking into a fatal apathy, growing weary of hardships and slaughters which promise no results . . .

The President of the United States announces that “he has already in training an army of 100,000 negroes as good as any troops,” and every fresh raid he makes and new slice of territory he wrests from us will add to this force. Every soldier in our army already knows and feels our numerical inferiority to the enemy . . . Our single source of supply is that portion of our white men fit for duty and not now in the ranks. The enemy has three sources of supply: First, his own motley population; secondly, our slaves; and thirdly, Europeans whose hearts are fired into a crusade against us by fictitious pictures of the atrocities of slavery . . . Like past years, 1864 will diminish our ranks by the casualties of war, and what source of repair is there left us? . . .

The Constitution of the Southern States has reserved to their respective governments the power to free slaves for meritorious services to the State. It is politic besides. For many years, ever since the agitation of the subject of slavery commenced, the negro has been dreaming of freedom, and his vivid imagination has surrounded that condition with so many gratifications that it has become the paradise of his hopes. To attain it he will tempt dangers and difficulties not exceeded by the bravest soldier in the field . . . The slaves are dangerous now, 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, and thus enlist their sympathies also . . .

Many of the officers who were fighting supported such a plan. General Robert E. Lee supported the enlistment of black men into the ranks. This solution solved many problems. It would have provided tens of thousands of new Confederate soldiers when they were desperately needed. By giving a way out to those slaves willing to fight for it, the Confederacy would have taken away from the Union Army a major source of recruits. The people of the Union were tired of the war and the high casualties. Draft riots were common, and after three years of conflict, recruiting was difficult. More than 100,000 black volunteer soldiers were serving with the Union Army by the end of the Civil War. Many of them were runaway slaves, and they relieved the pressure that conscription caused. Had these men seen a way to freedom that did not require a dangerous flight and risk to their families, many might well have fought for the Confederacy instead. That would have meant as many as 50,000 more Confederate soldiers and 50,000 fewer Union soldiers as well.

Beginning to free the slaves would also have gone a long way toward getting recognition from Britain and France. It had always been to the economic advantage of both European nations for the Confederacy to win since the South was their main supplier of tobacco and cotton, while the Union was their chief competitor for manufactured goods. But the question of slavery, which had been long banned by both countries, forced them to maintain a distance.

The mistake was simply to not even consider offering freedom to the slaves in exchange for fighting for the Confederacy. The reaction of the Southern press and politicians was loud and emotional. The idea was universally condemned by the Confederate Congress and the Davis administration. Racism and the desire to not let the war force what the Union Army was now striving to achieve overcame even desperation. By June 1864, Richmond was under siege, and by November, Union general W. Tecumseh Sherman’s independent army was cutting a swath through the heart of what remained of the Confederacy. There simply were not enough men to stop Sherman, but it did not have to turn out that way.

On the bright side, had the South implemented the policy suggested by two highly respected leaders in the Confederacy, we would possibly have had two separate and weakened nations, rather than one fifty-state unified superpower.

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