Cleburne had made the South his home but in many ways he was still an outsider. This would be clearly seen in the winter of 1863-64. That December as the army retreated from Chattanooga Cleburne was putting the finishing touches on a proposal he had been thinking about for some time. Cleburne saw that the Confederacy was losing the numbers game. In many battles the numbers of lost on each side were pretty even but the percentages were not. At some point the Union's manpower advantage would win the war. Seeing this Cleburne proposed the radical idea of enlisting slaves into the Confederate armies.
As early as April 1863 he had asked Liddell if he'd willingly give up slavery if it meant the Confederacy would win its independence and Liddell answered "willingly." That December he sought the advice of three members of his military family. The first was Captain Buck who brought up military objections, such as would they fight, who would lead them. Cleburne thought they would fight for their freedom and the freedom of their families, it was already clear that they could fight as some black regiments had performed well for the Union. As for a leader Cleburne was willing to lead them if no one else would. Cleburne next asked his chief of staff Major Calhoun Benham. Benham was appalled at the thought of black regiments and asked Cleburne for a copy of the proposal so he could prepare a rebuttal. Cleburne wanted an open discussion of the proposal and gladly accepted Benham's request. A few days after Christmas Cleburne asked Captain Thomas Key for his opinion. Key commanded a battery in Cleburne's division and also had been a newspaper editor in Helena before the war. Key thought it was a pipe dream but was not able to persuade Cleburne against it.
Cleburne then decided to gather his regimental and brigade commanders together to discuss it. They supported it pretty enthusiastically (whether some of their support was because of hero worship is nearly impossible to tell) and a clean copy of the proposal was generated for signatures. Govan, Lowrey and John H. Kelly signed as well as many regimental commanders. Polk and Granbury were not present to sign the new copy but expressed their support of the proposal, in all 14 signed the document. Cleburne now decided to take the proposal to the upper army command. He asked Hardee to gather the division and corps commanders together at Johnston's HQ on January 2.
On the night of January 2 most of the Army of Tennessee's generals met at army headquarters in Dalton, Georgia. Most of them did not know at the time that the purpose of the meeting was to hear Cleburne's proposal for using slaves in the Confederate army. Those in attendance at this meeting, besides Cleburne, were Joseph E. Johnston, who had replaced Bragg as commander of the army one week earlier, Hardee, William H.T. Walker, Alexander Stewart, Thomas Hindman, Carter Stevenson, Patton Anderson and William Bate.
After everyone had arrived Johnston asked Hardee to explain why the meeting had been called, even Johnston didn't know. Hardee then simply said that Cleburne had prepared a paper "on an important subject." Cleburne then preceded to read his proposal, about 20 pages. When he finished Hindman was the first to speak, this had been prearranged, and he expressed support for the proposal. Benham was the next and he read his rebuttal. No notes were taken so it is impossible to know what was said but from later writings we know that Bate, Anderson and Walker were strongly against it. Bate called it "hideous and objectionable" and predicted that the army would mutiny at the mere suggestion of enlisting slaves. Anderson said it was "revolting to Southern sentiment, Southern pride and Southern honor." Walker labeled the proposal treason and said that any officer advocating it should be held fully accountable.
Johnston decided that forwarding the proposal to Richmond would cause more trouble than good so he swore everyone to secrecy. Walker though decided that he needed to be the protector of Southern values and was determined that Richmond hear about this. Days later he asked Cleburne for a copy and told him his intent. Cleburne by now knew that the proposal might cause severe trouble for him as there might be others in the government who would deem this treason. A fresh copy was made for Walker, but Cleburne removed the 14 signatures and instead was the only one to sign it. Cleburne was willing to stand by his position no matter the consequences but he decided to protect his subordinates. Walker also tried to get written statements from the proposal's supporters but no one was willing to go on the record with Cleburne. They were however upset that Walker had made himself the defender of Southern values and Hindman wrote him, "I do not choose to admit any inquisitorial rights in you."
Walker at first tried to send the copy to Davis through Johnston but Johnston refused to forward it. Walker was then able to give it to a congressman who would deliver it personally to Davis. When Davis finally got the proposal he wrote to Walker and Johnston that the matter was over and that everyone was sworn to secrecy. Only Benham's copy of the proposal survived the war and it wasn't until 1888 that it saw the light of day again when it was published in a magazine.
For most part secrecy was maintained but there were rumors. Colonel James Nisbet was particularly curious and after pledging to BG Clement H Stevens that he wouldn't tell anyone else Stevens told Nisbet of the proposal. Nisbet thought it was a good idea (it seems that supporters of the proposal tended to be lower in rank, coincidence?). Stevens exploded, calling slavery the reason for the war and said, "If slavery is to be abolished then I take no more interest in our fight." To many Southerners independence without slavery was not worth the fight. That is the point Cleburne missed as an outsider as he thought that independence was worth giving up other things.
Bragg soon became Davis' official military advisor. He was still upset over the various command squabbles he had been involved in. He loved Cleburne's proposal because he thought it discredited Cleburne and his allies, many of whom had been anti-Bragg men. Bragg wrote of them, "they are agitators and should be watched." He also said "we must mark the men."