In honor of Pvt. Nathan R. Oakes, CSA

150 years ago, my great grandfather, Nathan Richardson Oakes, served as a private in Company D of the distinguished 32nd Mississippi Infantry Regiment in the Army of Tennessee. He participated in the great Civil War campaigns, including the battles of Perryville, Murfreesboro, Chickamauga, Atlanta, Franklin, Nashville, and Bentonville. I am writing about his engagements as well as some details about fighting for the Lost Cause. I hope to honor him and commemorate the events and individuals that contributed to making this a renowned unit in the Confederate Army of Tennessee.

Thursday, January 2, 2014

Proposal to enlist Southern salves

Maj. Gen. Patrick Cleburne
(Library of Congress)
On today's date in 1864, Confederate Gen. Patrick R. Cleburne made a startling proposal to his fellow officers. In a formal letter he recommended arming slaves in exchange for their freedom. By now it was obvious to Cleburne that the Confederacy was losing the war due to the growing limitations of its manpower and resources. Recruiting slaves into the ranks seemed an obvious way to increase the size of the Confederate army.

For Cleburne, Southern independence was more important than preserving slavery. Besides, as he saw the issue, slavery was the South's “most vulnerable point, a continued embarrassment, and in some respects an insidious weakness.” In other words, he argued, slavery had become the South's liability. Slaves were a military hazard for the Confederacy because they were being recruited into the Union army as it took control of Southern territory. And European governments would not likely ever recognize the Confederacy unless slavery were abolished.

Cleburne's argument had a certain moral appeal regarding abolishing slavery:
… we can give the negro not only his own freedom, but that of his wife and child, and can secure it to him in his old home. To do this, we must immediately make his marriage and parental relations sacred in the eyes of the law and forbid their sale. The past legislation of the South concedes that a large free middle class of negro blood, between the master and slave, must sooner or later destroy the institution. If, then, we touch the institution at all, we would do best to make the most of it, and by emancipating the whole race upon reasonable terms, and within such reasonable time as will prepare both races for the change, secure to ourselves all the advantages, and to our enemies all the disadvantages that can arise, both at home and abroad, from such a sacrifice.
And then there's the political logic of his argument: "It is said slavery is all we are fighting for, and if we give it up we give up all. Even if this were true, which we deny, slavery is not all our enemies are fighting for. It is merely the pretense to establish sectional superiority and a more centralized form of government, and to deprive us of our rights and liberties."

Cleburne had the support of many of his subordinates. His letter was signed by 14 of the division's officers, including Gen. Mark Lowrey, Great Grandfather Nathan Oakes's brigade commander, as well as the colonel of his 32nd/45th Mississippi Infantry Regiment, Aaron B. Hardcastle.

Almost all the other generals present at the meeting were politely, but strongly opposed. At least one, W.H.T. Walker, was downright horrified. He considered Cleburne's proposal so dangerous that he forwarded it around the chain of command to the President. Davis then ordered it to be suppressed, "Deeming it to be injurious to the public service that such a subject should be mooted, or even known to be entertained by persons possessed of the confidence and respect of the people…" So effective was the suppression that Cleburne's controversial proposal wouldn't resurface for another 30 years.

Photo by David Seibert, July 14, 2011, Dalton, Georgia
Ironically though, in March 1865, with defeat looming, the Confederate Congress approved recruiting slaves. A small number actually were enlisted, but none saw combat. In the North, however, nearly 200,000 free African Americans and escaped Southern slaves served as soldiers and sailors in the U.S. military.

In 2011, Gen. Cleburne finally received recognition at Dalton for his radical idea. A marker commemorating his proposal was placed by the Georgia Historical Society on the site where he first delivered it.

Sources: Autumn of Glory, Thomas Lawrence Connelly; "Biographical Sketch of Major-General Patrick R. Cleburne," Gen. William J. Hardee, Southern Historical Society Papers, Vol. 31; "Patrick Cleburne's Proposal to Arm Slaves," Civil War Trust

No comments:

Post a Comment