BY MICHAEL K. SHAFFER ( Kennesaw State University’s Civil War Center for the Washington County News 

Extreme cold temperatures greeted the arrival of the New Year, as many sections throughout the country fell under a deep freeze. With most of the large armies remaining in winter camp, news on the political front, and a novel idea from an officer in Georgia comprised the bulk of the week’s activity. Former Major General William “Extra Billy” Smith took office as governor of Virginia on January 1. Prior to leading troops in the field during the war, Smith served one term as the Old Dominion’s chief executive from 1846 – 1849; he would occupy the governor’s quarters in Richmond for the balance of the war.

The Army of Tennessee continued to winter in Dalton, Georgia. Perhaps the lull in military action gave Major General Patrick Cleburne an opportunity to think back on the previous thirty-three months of combat, and with the martial prowess he possessed, Cleburne surely knew the future held an additional challenge for Southern forces faced with turning the tide of defeats suffered in the middle and late stages of 1863. Whatever the specific stimulus, a January 2 letter to General Joe Johnston outlined Cleburne’s radical proposal, one he had contemplated for several months, for strengthening Confederate troop strength in preparation for the 1864 campaign season.

After recounting the war effort thus far, Cleburne offered up the need for “…some extraordinary change,” before turning the focus of his tender to the institution of slavery. In his view, what initially served as a source of strength for the Confederate States, slavery, had degenerated into “…one of our chief sources of weakness.” The general described how conditions changed as the Federal armies advanced into Southern territory. Each mile the blue tide gained left slavery “…comparatively valueless to us for labor, but of great and increasing worth to the enemy for information.” To rectify this situation, Cleburne advocated an immediate training of “…a large reserve of the most courageous of our slaves, and further that we guarantee freedom within a reasonable time to every slave in the South who shall remain true to the Confederacy in this war.” Cleburne also believed the chances of foreign intervention, from Great Britain and France, would improve dramatically, and the subsequent, changing conditions would eventually weaken support for President Abraham Lincoln’s war effort. He further suggested arming the slaves would produce an end to a “…delusion of fanaticism,” and “…thousands of northern people will have leisure to look at home and to see the gulf of despotism into which they themselves are rushing.” Cleburne’s document, which 13 other officers also signed, closed with the plea, “No objection ought to outweigh [this petition] which is not weightier than independence.”

This radical proposal found disfavor among several of Johnston’s subordinate officers, and despite the general’s wishes for the matter to remain private, Major General W.H.T. Walker forwarded a copy, which Cleburne provided, to President Jefferson Davis. In the letter accompanying the petition, Walker indicated “The gravity of the subject, the magnitude of the issues involved, my strong convictions that the further agitation of such sentiments…would ruin the efficacy of our Army…constitute my reasons for bringing the document before the Executive.” Davis acknowledged receipt of Walker’s dispatch and promised communication with Johnston to convey “…my desire that it should be kept private…out of the public journals.” Secretary of War James Seddon delivered upon the president’s assurance, writing Johnston and directing the commander to ensure his subordinates kept the matter quiet, urging “…on them the suppression…of all discussion and controversy respecting or growing out of it.” Johnston complied, and via a “P.S.,” instructed Cleburne to, “…communicate the views of the President…to the officers of your division who signed the memorial.” Cleburne’s plan to arm the slaves froze on a frigid January day in Dalton.

While the contentious debate over methods of increasing troop strength continued in the Army of Tennessee, Brigadier General William E. “Grumble” Jones struck the Federal force of Major Charles Beers near Jonesville, Virginia. Despite the extreme cold, as evidenced in Jones’s post-action report, which noted roads impassable due to ice, and one soldier “…frozen to death and many were badly frost-bitten,” the Confederate force emerged victorious. The Federals suffered 12 dead, 48 wounded, and 300 taken prisoner, including Beers, who ended up in Abingdon’s jail. Jones counted minimal losses – four killed and 12 wounded. Several blankets, among the bounty captured during the attack, eventually found a home in “Grumble’s” headquarters. In recounting the affair at Jonesville, the Abingdon Virginian reported, “With his two blankets, his boys say he looks as happy as a pig in a peach orchard, altho’ they know he would shed them with the mercury 40 below zero, should an enemy come within striking distance.” The thermometer did not plunge to this extreme during the week, although Cleburne in northwest Georgia, and Beers in his new Washington County home, probably felt much colder given their reversals.