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Confederate Emancipation: Southern Plans to Free and Arm Slaves during the Civil War

Confederate Emancipation: Southern Plans to Free and Arm Slaves during the Civil War

by Bruce Levine

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In early 1864, as the Confederate Army of Tennessee licked its wounds after being routed at the Battle of Chattanooga, Major-General Patrick Cleburne (the "Stonewall of the West") proposed that "the most courageous of our slaves" be trained as soldiers and that "every slave in the South who shall remain true to the Confederacy in this


In early 1864, as the Confederate Army of Tennessee licked its wounds after being routed at the Battle of Chattanooga, Major-General Patrick Cleburne (the "Stonewall of the West") proposed that "the most courageous of our slaves" be trained as soldiers and that "every slave in the South who shall remain true to the Confederacy in this war" be freed.
In Confederate Emancipation, Bruce Levine looks closely at such Confederate plans to arm and free slaves. He shows that within a year of Cleburne's proposal, which was initially rejected out of hand, Jefferson Davis, Judah P. Benjamin, and Robert E. Lee had all reached the same conclusions. At that point, the idea was debated widely in newspapers and drawing rooms across the South, as more and more slaves fled to Union lines and fought in the ranks of the Union army. Eventually, the soldiers of Lee's army voted on the proposal, and the Confederate government actually enacted a version of it in March. The Army issued the necessary orders just two weeks before Appomattox, too late to affect the course of the war. Throughout the book, Levine captures the voices of blacks and whites, wealthy planters and poor farmers, soldiers and officers, and newspaper editors and politicians from all across the South. In the process, he sheds light on such hot-button topics as what the Confederacy was fighting for, whether black southerners were willing to fight in large numbers in defense of the South, and what this episode foretold about life and politics in the post-war South.
Confederate Emancipation offers an engaging and illuminating account of a fascinating and politically charged idea, setting it firmly and vividly in the context of the Civil War and the part played in it by the issue of slavery and the actions of the slaves themselves.

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
"Brilliantly researched and persuasively argued.... Levine delivers what ought to be a death blow to the still-popular refrain in Lost Cause rhetoric that the war had never been fought for slavery."—David W. Blight, Washington Post Book World

"Thoughtful, authoriitative, and convincing.... No one since Robert F. Durden has examined this broader issue with the kind of systematic and detailed attention that Bruce Levine provides in this slim but elegant book."—Civil War Times

"Having fought for nearly four years to keep their bondsmen in slavery, many Southern whites experienced what amounted to a deathbed conversion to the idea of freeing and arming them to fight for the Confederacy. As Bruce Levine shows in this important book, the idea was unlikely to become reality even if Appomattox had not intervened to end the experiment before it fairly started. Disentangling myth from history, Confederate Emancipation deepens our understanding of the Civil War."—James M. McPherson, author of Battle Cry of Freedom

"This is the little known, but vastly significant story of race at the crisis-point of the Confederacy. In clear and compelling tones, Levine sets out a history of the Civil War era through the words and actions of southerners pushed to the point of desperation, and hoping that slave soldiers might save the slavery-based southern way of life. This is historical detective work and analysis at its very best. The image of the Civil War South is transformed forever." —James O. Horton, co-author of Slavery and the Making of America

"The Civil War produced few more ironic episodes than the Confederacy's debate about whether to arm and liberate enslaved African Americans. Bruce Levine's welcome study illuminates the conditions that gave rise to the debate, the forces arrayed in favor and against the idea, and the ultimate failure of those who saw black men as the key to establishing a white slaveholding republic. This book, which reminds us again of the war's immense complexity, deserves to attract the widest possible audience." —Gary W. Gallagher, author of The Confederate War

"Throughout history, slaves have been armed in defense of their masters, often exchanging freedom for military service. The inability of the Southern Confederacy to do so until its doom was sealed reveals, perhaps as nothing else, the essence of Southern nationalism. In telling the full story of the Confederacy's failure to mobilize slaves in its defense, Bruce Levine brilliantly reveals the essence of Confederate nationality." —Ira Berlin, author of Generations of Captivity: A History of African-American Slaves

David W. Blight
Levine breathes some welcome truths into this dispute over public memory. "The Confederacy had come into the world to protect slavery," he writes, and those leaders who urged arming slaves by freeing them did so "not despite their antebellum values but because of them. In pushing to enact this measure, they were trying to preserve as much of the Old South as they could." Confederates almost achieved the goals of Confederate emancipation, despite losing on the battlefield. This book reminds us, however, of the profound importance of Union victory.
— The Washington Post
KLIATT - Raymond Puffer
The problems and ramifications of slavery were to bedevil the Confederate government all through the Civil War. To begin with, the very existence of the South's "peculiar institution" was bedrock to the entire secession movement. For all the argument about State's Rights, economics, and geographical differences, no one south of the Mason-Dixon Line ever imagined that the Confederacy could survive if slavery were ended. At first, both North and South considered it to be a huge advantage to the rebels—cheap forced labor would keep the economy going and release huge numbers of farmers and workers to become soldiers. As the war dragged on, however, and more and more slaves fled to the Northern lines, this halcyon idea began to change. Southern politicians noted that neither farming nor manufacturing were going especially well, and the appearance of black freedmen in the Federal armies brought flickers of panic. For the rest of the war, a huge argument engulfed the southern states as to whether the Confederacy should arm its male slaves and put them into the front lines. Levine uses the ensuing debates to show that the South had never really come to grips with its black population, nor how to deal with their servitude. Might arming some slaves ignite a dreaded slave revolt, or would they prove a Godsend on the battlefield? On the other hand, were they even capable of fighting as well as whites? Should freedom be offered to them as a reward? If so, what of their families back in the slave quarters? Why would the southern oligarchy support such a move if it beggared them? As Southern defeat loomed ever nearer, some even began to argue desperately that black soldiers would indeed fightfor the Confederacy and then willingly return to their servitude. Levine, an historian at the University of Illinois, brilliantly demonstrates the turmoil and cross-purposes that hindered the Confederate government all through the war. Although he writes better than many academics, this book is by no means "popular history." Advanced YA readers will handle it, though, and it is recommended for AP classes as well as general university collections.

Product Details

Oxford University Press
Publication date:
Product dimensions:
9.40(w) x 6.70(h) x 1.00(d)

Meet the Author

Bruce Levine is the James G. Randall Professor of History at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. He is the author of Half Slave and Half Free: The Roots of Civil War and The Spirit of 1848: German Immigrants, Labor Conflict, and the Coming of Civil War, and is co-author of Who Built America? Working People and the Nation's Economy, Politics, Culture, and Society.

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