Was There a Confederate Emancipation Proclamation?

Posted on Categories Legacies of Lincoln, Legal History, Public, Race & Law

EmancipationProclamationThis is another in a series of posts on slavery, the Constitution and the Civil War written for the Marquette University celebration of the sesquicentennial of the Emancipation Proclamation.

Although the Civil War was, at its core, fought to preserve slavery, during the war concern for the preservation of the Confederate nation led some of the breakaway country’s leaders to contemplate the unthinkable—the emancipation of African-American slaves in exchange for their service in the Confederate military.

Although Confederate diplomats, in their search for support in England and France, somewhat disingenuously implied that the South planned to eventually abandon slavery during the early years of the Civil War, Southern efforts to abolish the “peculiar institution” really began in late 1863 with Confederate general Patrick Cleburne of the Army of the Tennessee. Fearing the worst for his adopted country, the Irish-born Cleburne circulated a written document to his fellow officers that proposed that the Confederacy replenish its ranks with armed black soldiers who would be brought into the Rebel Army with a promise of freedom for themselves and their families. As Cleburne must have realized, the widespread emancipation of black soldiers and their families would make it impossible to keep other African-Americans as slaves once the war was over.

Cleburne’s memo eventually came to the attention of Confederate President Jefferson Davis and his cabinet. Although it initially attracted little support, continued military setbacks prompted a number of Confederate leaders to reconsider the proposal. Included on the list of those intrigued by Cleburne’s suggestion included Confederate Secretary of the Treasury Judah Benjamin, five separate Confederate state governors who endorsed the black soldier proposal, General Robert E. Lee, and Jefferson Davis, himself. In spite of evidence of growing support for the idea, the majority of white Confederates who spoke on the issue continued to oppose emancipation, even for military purposes.

However, by March 13, 1865, the situation was extremely dire as the relentless press of the armies under the command of Ulysses S. Grant drove into the heart of Virginia, threatening Richmond, the Confederate capital. After a plea from Robert E. Lee for black troops, the Confederate Congress, under siege in Richmond, that day authorized the recruitment of black slaves into the Southern Army.

Although this particular statute technically freed no slaves—under its terms only slaves who were voluntarily freed by their owners could enlist in the Confederate Army—opposition to the end of slavery was still so strong that the bill only passed by narrow 40-37 and 9-8 margins in the Confederate House and Senate. At the same time, it was apparent that if this program was successful, a more aggressive emancipation program would have followed.

As it turned out, the Confederacy did not last long enough to see if the policy begun in March 1865 would have led to widespread emancipation in the South. About 200 newly freed slaves were mustered into the Confederate military in Virginia but Lee’s surrender to Grant at Appomattox on April 9, 1865, eliminated the possibility of the further use of black Confederate troops.

Obviously, the Confederate turn to the use of manumitted African-American troops in the last days of the Civil War was first and foremost an act of desperation and not likely the result of a newly found commitment to the cause of anti-slavery. However, the episode does further accentuate the fact that the Civil War doomed slavery. Even if the Confederacy in some alternate timeline figured out how to avoid the inevitable and managed to survive the war intact, it is almost certain that slavery would not have survived in that postwar C.S.A.

Did the Confederacy adopt a policy of emancipation? Not really, but it was moving toward a decision to do so as it became apparent that only radical measures could save the Confederate nation. However, time ran out on the Stars and Bars before the Confederate government could act on a more broad-based emancipation.

The story of support for emancipation among Confederates during the Civil War is told in great detail in Bruce Levine, Confederate Emancipation: Southern Plans to Free and Arm Slaves During the Civil War. Oxford University Press, 2005.


4 thoughts on “Was There a Confederate Emancipation Proclamation?”

  1. This article is oozing with negative ectoplasm presented as fact that is instead the author’s ghost opinion rather than fact. Slaves were owned by the wealthy, and slavery presented an unfair advantage to smaller farming families. It was not in the interest of the majority of the Confederate Army personnel to leave their families & homes to protect and preserve the institution of slavery for the minority of the wealthy. But if a tyrannical president amassed an army of new immigrants who were indifferent to local politics, and if plundering the landscape in an illegal war was already happening, every eligible man felt compelled to protect his community from the marauding invaders. Even if he was a slave, he would not require to diagnosis of Stockholm Syndrome to protect his family and friends. The obvious common conclusion I believe at the time was that this army is raping and pillaging the entire landscape of the South. Somebody should do something.
    Robert E. Lee was against slavery, and he resigned his post in the Union Army because the acts of aggression initiated by the President were not supported by the Constitution. It’s my recall of the text of the Confederate emancipation legislation (or his military directive), that Lee included the instruction for the troops to welcome the men who formerly were slaves, and to do everything in their power to help the men forget their former station in life. Take a moment and mull over his choice of words, written during a war to ‘preserve slavery.’
    To me, a lot of the new states’ constitutions and their “anti-slavery” text is dog-whistle language that they want to simply keep the black people from their state, consistent with the Darwin genetics theories that were growing in popularity and falsehood. Did the Emancipation Proclamation free slaves in Illinois? Was General Grant so committed to the anti-slavery movement that he freed the slaves owned by his in-laws and by default were his own property? But in the Confederate leadership and actions you can objectively observe commitment and action to principal and honor. These bills passed, although I believe the opposition above is exaggerated (footnote?). The fierce Stonewall Jackson taught Sunday school classes for slaves, and they were also taught to read and the same time learning God’s love and God’s desire and plan for all of us.
    So let’s destroy any honoring of these men, to whom nearly all of us (myself included) pale by every example. Let’s diminish their love of their fellow man and their fine educations, because accepted common doctrine today is more racist than they ever were. They knew nothing of Black Holes, and we have the latest cell phones and women’s Constitutional right to abortion. Read their letters and compare their writing style and vocabulary to the virtue signalling self-righteous explicit swearing texts that are hailed today as “Liked.” The gazillion of articles like this one give the reader comfort. Never question anything, and you’re an awesome scholar just like me if you agree with me; and by going along with the ravenous history-destroying mob, we’ll rid the planet of all racism, inequality, unfairness, unhappiness, itchiness, dizziness, etc.
    And don’t forget to take plenty of water with these.

    1. I am loath the engage in academic debate in a comments section, but please, did you even read the above article? How about the book they referenced?

      Now, some Confederates later in life in word and action repudiated their work for the CSA. And just because a state was a “free state” does not make them anti-racist. And slaves were owned by the wealthy, not the common folk. But that’s not what this article is about. This article is about the Emancipation Proclamation and the milquetoast, last-ditch attempt to arm slaves to perpetuate slavery. Would that have doomed slavery in the CSA? Considering the massive weight of evidence suggesting (and outright declaring) the Civil War was about slavery, I think the authors of the article come to the right conclusion.

      May I suggest reading Chandra Mannings’s book What This Cruel War Was Over? I found it very enlightening on why slavery was the central issue to the Civil War.

      1. Economics, ie tariffs & slavery was the issues of secession.
        The War, as prosecuted by Lincoln was solely to return the Southern States back into the Union. Lincoln was willing to let slavery remain in tact if the Southern States were to return to the Union voluntarily. The Emancipation Proclamation would not go into effect if the Southern States returned to the Union. So the simple fact is mosf in the North could give two hoots about slavery.

    2. Tennessee was the first to call for the enlistment of slaves and free blacks to fight in the Confederate Armies but others had been unofficially serving just like many white people who were fighting against invading forces but not officially enlisted in the Confederate Armies or state militias

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