Patrick Ronayne Cleburne, called the “Stonewall of the West” and one of the finest generals produced by either side during the American Civil War is born on March 17, 1828 at Bride Park Cottage in Ovens, County Cork, just outside Cork City.
Born on St. Patrick’s Day, this native Irishman is nevertheless extremely loyal to his adopted country, saying, “if this [Confederacy] that is so dear to my heart is doomed to fail, I pray heaven may let me fall with it, while my face is toward the enemy and my arm battling for that which I know to be right.” Sadly, Cleburne ultimately receives his wish.
Cleburne begins his military career in an unlikely manner. When he fails the entrance exam at Trinity College, Dublin, he cannot face his family. He enlists in the 41st Regiment of Foot in the British Army. In 1849 he purchases his discharge and leaves for the United States, eventually settling in Helena, Arkansas in June 1850 and earning his citizenship in 1855. He loves his new country, taking part in many community projects, and even being one of the few volunteers to care for the sick during a yellow fever outbreak.
In January 1861 Cleburne joins the local militia company, the Yell Rifles. He leads the company in the seizure of the U.S. Arsenal in Little Rock in January 1861. When Arkansas left the Union, the Yell Rifles became part of the 1st Arkansas Infantry Regiment. By fall of 1861 he has risen to command the 2nd Brigade, Hardee’s Division, in the Army of Central Kentucky. His first major battle is at the Battle of Shiloh, April 6-7, 1862. At the Battle of Richmond (Kentucky) in August 1862, he is wounded in the mouth and loses several of his teeth. Still, he earns the thanks of the Confederate States Congress for his actions there. During the October 1862 Battle of Perryville he is wounded again – twice, yet stays in command during the battle. In December 1862 he is promoted to Major General.
At the December 1862 Battle of Stones River, Cleburne and his division earn the praise of General Braxton Bragg for their incredible skill and valor. Cleburne’s actions and character play a large role in his men’s determination during battle.
In 1863 Cleburne faces off against Union General George Henry Thomas at the Battle of Chickamauga. His and General John C. Breckinridge’s assaults force General Thomas to call repeatedly for reinforcements. In November 1863 the Confederate army is forced to retreat after the Chattanooga Campaign. However, Cleburne has defeated every assault against his men eventually charging his attackers. After the battle, he and his men are charged with covering the retreat.
On January 2, 1864, Cleburne makes his most controversial decision ever. He gathers the corps and division commanders in the Army of Tennessee to present his proposal. The Confederacy is unable to fill its ranks due to a lack of manpower. He states that slavery is their “most vulnerable point, a continued embarrassment, and in some respects an insidious weakness.” His proposed solution is for the Confederacy to arm slaves to fight in the army. In time, these soldiers would receive their freedom. The proposal is not well received at all. In fact, Jefferson Davis, President of the Confederate States of America, directs that the proposal be suppressed.
In the spring of 1864 the Army of Tennessee moves towards Atlanta, Georgia. Cleburne and his men fight at Dalton, Tunnel Hill, Resaca, Pickett’s Mill, Ringgold and Kennesaw. The Atlanta Campaign begins in the summer and lasts until September, when General John Bell Hood evacuates Atlanta. Hood had taken command from General Joseph E. Johnston, which Cleburne felt to be a disaster for the Confederacy.
General Hood hopes to stop Union General John Schofield and his men before they can reach Nashville to reinforce General Thomas. Due to poor communications and nightfall, Schofield slips past the Army of Tennessee into Franklin.
The November 30, 1864 Battle of Franklin is a tragic loss for the Confederacy. Hood throws his men into well-fortified Union troops. The results are disastrous. About 6,000 men are killed or wounded including six generals who are killed or mortally wounded. Cleburne is one of these six, killed while attacking Union breastworks. He is last seen advancing on foot toward the Union line with his sword raised, after his horse had been shot out from under him. Accounts later say that he is found just inside the Federal line and his body is carried back to an aid station along the Columbia Turnpike. Confederate war records indicate he died of a shot to the abdomen, or possibly a bullet that went through his heart. When Confederates find his body, he has been picked clean of any valuable items, including his sword, boots and pocket watch.
Cleburne’s remains are first laid to rest at Rose Hill Cemetery in Columbia, Tennessee. At the urging of Army Chaplain Biship Quintard, Judge Mangum, staff officer to Cleburne and his law partner in Helena, his remains are moved to St. John’s Episcopal Church near Mount Pleasant, Tennessee, where they remain for six years. In 1870, he is disinterred and returned to his adopted hometown of Helena, Arkansas, with much fanfare, and buried in the Helena Confederate Cemetery located in the southwest corner of the Maple Hill Cemetery, overlooking the Mississippi River.
Several geographic features are named after Patrick Cleburne, including Cleburne County in Alabama and Arkansas, and the city of Cleburne, Texas. The Patrick R. Cleburne Confederate Cemetery is a memorial cemetery in Jonesboro, Georgia that is named in honor of General Patrick Cleburne.