Historical Art Prints
The final, tragic, moments of Patrick Cleburne, as painted by artist Don Troiani.

Cleburne: A Confederate 'Meteor'

by Joseph E. Gannon

Patrick Cleburne became one of the South's greatest commanders during America's Civil War. The Confederate major general was perhaps without a peer among fellow Irish exiles in military prowess, proving himself fearless, charismatic, outspoken and very farseeing. The latter proved his undoing.

 

Folded now is Cleburne's banner,
But one day it gleamed along
When the war-drum's stern hosanna
Echoed in a nation's song!
Shiloh saw it sweep from under
Like a tempest in its wrath;
Chickamauga heard its thunder
Felt the lightning of its path.

"Cleburne's Banner" by John Trotwood Moore

Courtesy of Library of Congress
Major General Patrick Ronayne Cleburne

No Irish-born soldier rose higher in the ranks of the army of the Confederacy during the American Civil War than did Major General Patrick Ronayne Cleburne. But this stature only hints at the high esteem in which he was held by nearly all of his subordinates, his fellow officers, historians up until today, and even those who fought against him. Only Federal General Phil Sheridan — if he was actually born in Ireland, which is not certain — could be compared to him.

Cleburne was born March 16, 1828, at Bride Park Cottage, County Cork. His father was a physician. His early life was one of privilege and personal tragedy, for he never knew his mother, who died when he was 18 months old. His father died when he was just 15.

Patrick — called Ronayne by his family — was expected to follow in the footsteps of his father and become a physician. However, after failing in two attempts to enter Trinity College, Dublin, to study medicine, Cleburne, confused and dispirited, enlisted in the British army in 1846. His experiences serving in the army in Ireland, coming as they did during "The Great Hunger," could not have been pleasant.

Who was Pat Cleburne? How good a commander was he? Why didn't he rise higher in the army? These and other questions are answered in well-written and meticulously researched chapters. This book belongs on the shelves of everyone interested in the Western Theater and Civil War leadership. Buy it here: A Meteor Shining Brightly : Essays on Maj. Gen Patrick R. Cleburne or buy: Stonewall of the West: Patrick Cleburne and the Civil War

In 1849, the fourth year of the famine, his family, suffering from financial difficulties, proposed that four of the Cleburne siblings go to America. Patrick agreed, and bought his way out of the army. With brothers William and Joseph and sister Anne, he made his way to the United States, trading a life in the enlisted ranks of the army for the wide-open freedom of the American frontier.

Cleburne would soon make his home in Helena, Arkansas, where he worked his way up from a drugstore clerk to become a lawyer. He involved himself in politics deeply enough to be seriously wounded by a member of the anti-immigrant "Know-Nothing " party in 1856. Fully recovered by the summer of 1860, he enlisted in a militia group that gave itself the unlikely name of the "Yell Rifles," in honor of Archibald Yell, an Arkansas hero of the Mexican-American War , not for any prowess in the soon-to-became renowned "rebel yell."

He enlisted as a private, but his former British military training, and no doubt the strength of his personality, inspired the men of the company to elect him captain. With Abraham Lincoln's election galvanizing the South, Cleburne, like many other Irish immigrants, faced a daunting choice. On April 9, 1861, civil war began when South Carolinians fired on Fort Sumter in Charleston Harbor. The day after, Cleburne wrote his brother Robert, "I am with the South in life or in death, in victory or in defeat."

The Yell Rifles joined with other militia companies from Arkansas to form the 1st Arkansas Infantry (which later became the 15th Arkansas). On May 14, Patrick Cleburne's qualifications for military command were recognized again, and he was elected colonel. In the ensuing months, he drilled them into a unit that many said was the finest Confederate regiment beyond the Eastern states.

In October, Cleburne's regiment moved up to join Confederate forces gathering in Bowling Green, Kentucky, and Cleburne's hard work in training his regiment paid off with his promotion to command a brigade in Hardee's division. In March 1862, he received his promotion to brigadier general to go with the command.

The Battle of Shiloh, from a contemporary drawing

Cleburne proved to be an outstanding brigade commander. He was praised by Hardee for his conduct at Shiloh , where his brigade came within 400 yards of Pittsburg Landing, held desperately by the beleaguered Federals. There his brigade sustained more than 40 percent casualties over the two days of battle, which finally ended in a Northern victory. And we should take note also that, though he had British army experience, the first time that Cleburne experienced actual combat was at Shiloh as the commander of a brigade.

At the Battle of Richmond in August, Cleburne commanded a division, a sure sign that his ability was recognized by others. His performance in his first battle as a division commander proved conspicuous once again, but nearly deadly, too. He took a musket ball through his open mouth and out his cheek, performing a multiple tooth extraction — without novocaine — along the way. But the orders he had given before this wound forced him from the field played a major part in the Confederate victory.


To Jefferson Davis, he was the "Stonewall of the West"; to Robert E. Lee he was "a meteor shining from a clouded sky"; and to Braxton Bragg, he was an officer "ever alive to a success". He was Patrick Ronayne Cleburne, one of the greatest of all Confederate field commanders. Now WGT offers a line of merchandise featuring the graphic seen above, commemorating this Irish Confederate hero. Check them out HERE.

When he returned to duty two months later, just in time for the Battle of Perryville, army commander Braxton Bragg returned him to brigade command, an early indication of Bragg's famous shortcomings as a commander. At Perryville, Cleburne's brigade captured a strongly held Federal position, and he was also instrumental in saving a large amount of supplies during the army's retreat to Tennessee. In December, his stellar performance in 1862 was rewarded with promotion to major general and command of a division.

The year 1863 would be very eventful for Cleburne. At Stones River as the year began, his division drove the opposing Federals several miles back. At Chickamauga in September, Gen. D.H. Hill said, "I have never seen troops behave more gallantly than did his [Cleburne's] division." And it was his division that thwarted the Federal's victorious pursuit of Bragg's army after the debacle at Missionary Ridge in November. During the aftermath of this rear guard action, his brigade gave Joe Hooker a thrashing, fighting in independent command at Ringgold Gap, Ga. He would be voted a resolution of thanks from the Confederate Congress for that action.

Library of Congress
Major General William Henry Talbot Walker. He died in battle near Atlanta, July 1864.

As 1863 was fading into 1864, with the cause he loved and served valiantly being inexorably ground to defeat, Cleburne proposed what for many Southerners was the unthinkable to the Confederate government. Cleburne drafted a well-considered, written proposal that would arguably become the nearly invincible Cleburne's ironic legacy, his only failure. In the January 2 proposal, presented to General Joe Johnston and the rest of the command structure of the exhausted Western army, Cleburne suggested that Southern slaves be offered freedom in return for service in the Confederate army.

Though Gen. Johnston declined to send it on to Richmond, Gen. William Walker, who considered the idea close to treason, forwarded a copy to Confederate President Jefferson Davis. Davis ordered Johnston to suppress any mention of the idea, saying it was "injurious to the public service." Bragg, failed as a field commander, yet now a military advisor to Davis, said, "We must mark the men (who backed the idea) ... and feel they will bear watching." Cleburne's advancement into the army's top echelons ground to a halt.

Through 1864, Cleburne continued his stellar performance as a division commander in Johnston's army during the battles around Atlanta, but no promotion to corps command would be forthcoming for the best division commander the Confederate army ever had. This professional disappointment was tempered by personal joy, however, as Patrick met, and became betrothed to Susan Tarleton of Mobile, Alabama. But this relationship, like so many in the war, was star-crossed.

On Nov. 30, the army, now under the command of the irascible, one-legged John Bell Hood , stood before a nearly impregnable Federal fortification at Franklin, Tennessee. Hood ordered a frontal assault. The men of the Army of Tennessee knew they were headed to destruction. "Few of us will ever return to Arkansas," Gen. Daniel Govan told Cleburne. "Well, Govan," Cleburne replied, "if we are to die, let us die like men." Cleburne mounted his horse, and before the day was over he was shot dead.

Gen. William Hardee later said, "Where his division defended, no odds broke its lines; where it attacked, no numbers resisted its onslaught, save only once - and there is the grave of Cleburne and his heroic division."

Cleburne was buried in Columbia, near St. John's Episcopal Church. In 1870, his remains were moved to his native Helena, Arkansan, and buried in the Evergreen Confederate Cemetery, on Crowley's Ridge, where he lies today.

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Copyright © 2003, GAR Media.
All rights reserved.

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