Story and pencils by Justin Murphy, inks by Al Milgrom, colors by J. Brown, Rampart Press, 208 pp., $24.95
Justin Murphy’s new graphic novel about a Confederate general who wanted to free the slaves in order to win the war is like an old-fashioned Hollywood epic. It has a dramatic war hero, some pulse-pounding action, a star-crossed romance, an inspiring moral center and some bad history.
Patrick Ronayne Cleburne, an Arkansan from County Cork, Ireland, was dubbed “the Stonewall of the West” by Jefferson Davis and “a meteor shining from a clouded sky” by Robert E. Lee. Cleburne covers the last year of his life, 1864, from Missionary Ridge to the second battle of Franklin. He made his name—and earned the stars on his collar—as an aggressive and imaginative field commander in the Army of Tennessee, providing a few glorious triumphs as the western Confederate forces took a pounding from larger and better-equipped Federals.
Frustrated by dwindling manpower, Cleburne promoted a radical idea: Move blacks from noncombat supporting roles to frontline warriors and give them freedom in exchange. The historical record indicates that he acted out of sheer practicality, not morality. But the Confederate high command rejected the plan outright—President Davis ordered that it be kept secret—and it seems to have precluded further promotion for Cleburne.
Murphy vividly portrays the conflicts over this scheme, a version of which was actually implemented in the Confederacy’s last days. But he also gives Cleburne some ahistorical all-men-are-created-equal motivation: An entirely fictional black teamster named Ned brings out the Rebel general’s caring, unbiased, almost saintly side. This subplot romanticizes the notion of Southern blacks who supported Southern troops, sometimes in battle, and the story of the general’s love life (engaged but never married to a plucky Alabama woman) adds Gone With the Wind corniness.
But there is nothing gooey about the battlefield action. Manly figures dash across the page, combining heroic images with dynamic layouts that actually offer a sense of specific battle tactics, amid some Saving Private Ryan gore, particularly in the climactic fight about 20 miles south of Nashville that took the lives of Cleburne and five other Confederate generals.
Originally published in the April 2009 issue of American History. To subscribe, click here.