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 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 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.
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.
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 similar programs, though some states are just beginning projects timed for the war's sesquicentennial.
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 because Sherman's arrival meant the collapse of the Confederacy and the end of slavery in the city.