DALTON, Ga. – Badly outnumbered by Union forces and sensing looming defeat in the Civil War, Confederate Maj. Gen. Patrick Cleburne made a shocking proposal about a century and a half ago: the Southern government should free black slaves willing to fight in rebel ranks.
"As between the loss of independence and the loss of slavery, we assume that every patriot will freely give up the latter — give up the negro slave rather than be a slave himself," Cleburne wrote in his Jan. 2, 1864 letter, also signed by other officers.
His proposal — sharply rejected by Confederate leaders committed to slavery — was commemorated Thursday with the dedication of a new historical marker installed near the Confederate Army headquarters in North Georgia where Cleburne publicly floated the idea.
It's one of roughly a dozen new markers being erected across Georgia for the sesquicentennial of the Civil War that focus on the often-ignored history of groups such as blacks, women and Union loyalists.
"Our grandparents would have looked at this in a very different way," said W. Todd Groce, president of the Georgia Historical Society, which is leading the effort to erect new markers. "The Civil War meant something different to them than it does to us."
Contemporary politics have long shaped how Civil War history is interpreted. Discussing racially charged history was unlikely in the Deep South during the war's centennial in 1961, the same year whites rioted at the University of Georgia when two black students arrived on campus. The latest plaques attempt to present a more inclusive view of history as the nation commemorates the 150th anniversary of the war.
"Fifty years ago, a biracial gathering like this on a topic like this would have been impossible and unheard of," Groce told a racially mixed crowd that gathered for the unveiling ceremony in Dalton, a northwest Georgia city.
Other recently installed plaques mark the spot in Columbus, Ga., where women armed with knives and pistols rioted over wartime food shortages and a spot near Savannah where hundreds of freed slaves who were following the Union Army for protection drowned because the commander removed temporary bridges spanning a creek. Another marker near the boundary with Tennessee points out a battlefield where black soldiers fighting for the Union saw combat in Georgia. The fighting occurred near what is now an elementary school.
"A lot of blacks here had gone to that school, they walked through that school on their way downtown never knowing that black troops fought there," said Curtis Rivers Jr., director of The Emery Center, a museum in Dalton showcasing African-American history.
Historians earlier this year marked the spot where Union Maj. Gen. William Sherman's forces lit fires that burned parts of Atlanta, a symbolic beginning-of-the-end for the Confederacy. Sherman then marched his army from Atlanta to the Georgia seacoast on a mission that signaled the Confederacy was nearing collapse.
The marker program has won an award for merit from The American Association for State and Local History. Bethany Hawkins, the group's program associate, was unaware of other similar programs, though some states are just beginning projects timed for the war's sesquicentennial.
A few critics have emerged.
The NAACP in Atlanta initially asked that one marker commemorating the burning of Atlanta be moved away from a road named for the slain civil rights leader, Martin Luther King Jr. Other black leaders said the plaque should stay since Sherman's arrival meant the collapse of the Confederacy and the end of slavery in the city.
Project leaders discussed the wording of plaques with the Georgia chapter of the Sons of Confederate Veterans. State commander Jack Bridwell said he has not raised any objections and hopes the project will spur public interest in the war on the 150th anniversary.
As for Cleburne, his idea for freeing black slaves to fight for the rebels received short shrift from Confederate leaders. Alerted to the proposal, Jefferson Davis wrote that it would be "injurious to the public service" and through his secretary of war ordered that the discussion stop.
"If it be kept out of the public journals its ill effect will be much lessened," Davis wrote.
Confederate lawmakers finally approved enlisting slaves in March 1865, just before the Union won the war. Historians say few slaves enlisted in Confederate forces and none of those fought. Nearly 200,000 free blacks joined the Union army.
Ray Henry can be reached at http://www.twitter.com/rhenryAP.