DALTON, Ga.—It was a moment that could have changed the course of the Civil War.
The Confederate Army lost bruising battles in Chattanooga in the fall of 1863, before slinking south to Dalton to regroup and winter in a safe area. After years of war, the South was losing, running out of men.
Maj. Gen. Patrick Cleburne came up with a plan he believed might save the Confederacy — the army would offer freedom to any slave who would fight for the South. On Jan. 2, 1864, Cleburne presented his proposal to Commanding Gen. Joseph E. Johnston and other army leaders at Johnston’s headquarters in Dalton.
The idea horrified many of the generals; some considered it treasonous. When the idea was whispered to Confederate President Jefferson Davis, he forbid further mention of the proposal.
Nearly 150 years later, that moment in history still serves as a lesson to future generations, Michael Thurmond told a group gathered to dedicate a historical marker at the house that was Johnston’s headquarters.
“What it really showed us is that when we don’t work together, we can’t win. We can all lose separately or we can all win together,” Thurmond told dozens of state leaders, historians, local officials and community members who braved the humidity and heat of a Georgia summer morning on Thursday.
Thurmond added, “Cleburne was a visionary leader who recognized that independence was more important than maintaining slavery. He knew what the Civil War was really about was liberty and freedom.”
Thurmond, former Labor commissioner in Georgia and the author of two books about black history in Georgia, delivered the keynote address to dedicate the newly erected marker at the Cook-Huff House on Selvidge Street in downtown Dalton. The house, although renovated, is the same one that Johnston lived in that winter.
The marker was placed by the Georgia Historical Society as part of its Civil War 150 Historical Marker Project, in commemoration of the 150th anniversary of the war.
During the 100th anniversary, the state placed markers focusing on battles and military leaders. This time, the focus has been on telling lesser-known stories of how people lived and what they experienced during the war. Some markers tell about the women who remained at home, while others talk about the experiences of the slaves.
Robert Jenkins, a Dalton lawyer and a member of the Dalton-Whitfield Civil War 150th Commemoration Committee, talked about the events surrounding Cleburne’s proposal.
Jenkins noted that even as the South dismissed Cleburne’s plan, Georgia slaves were sneaking into Chattanooga to fight for the Union Army and for their freedom. And in the days after Cleburne’s proposal, hundreds of black Union soldiers fought in battles around Dalton.
“Here, at Dalton then, where the seeds of an idea, to be allowed to fight for one’s freedom, were sown, it is indeed ironic that the African-American blood stained the soil of this land to the north, the east and the west of Dalton while fighting for the liberation of all of their people.”
Dionna Reynolds, who attended Thursday’s event, said it is important that Dalton and Georgia learn about the history and all aspects of the Civil War. Reynolds works at the Emery Center in Dalton.
“It brings communities together,” she said. “It is not just about race relations, but the whole community coming together to learn about our history.”
Mariann Martin covers healthcare in Chattanooga and the surrounding region. She joined the Times Free Press in February 2011, after covering crime and courts for the Jackson (Tenn.) Sun for two years. Mariann was born in Indiana, but grew up in Pennsylvania, Tennessee and Belize. She graduated from Union University in 2005 with degrees in English and history and has master’s degrees in international relations and history from the University of Toronto. While attending Union, ...