Irish-born Confederate General Patrick Cleburne earned the high accolade, ‘the Stonewall of the West.’
By John Wilson
From Shiloh to Franklin, on some of the worst battlefields of the Civil War, Irish-born Confederate General Patrick Cleburne could always be counted on to fearlessly rally his troops and stand his ground for his adopted Southland. General Braxton Bragg, who gave praise sparingly and who later crossed swords with Cleburne in an intra-army dispute, said his subordinate was an officer who was “ever alive to a success.” And Confederate President Jefferson Davis regarded Cleburne as no less than “the Stonewall of the West.”
The man who garnered such remarkable praise lived less than 37 years, but his life was filled with adventure, romance and tragedy. In his highly readable new biography, Stonewall of the West: Patrick Cleburne & The Civil War (University Press of Kansas, Lawrence, 1997, $34.95), author Craig L. Symonds gives ample play to all aspects of Cleburne’s career. Patrick Ronayne Cleburne (his middle name, fittingly enough, honored his mother’s family, whose fighting prowess supposedly dated back to 610 ad) was born into a moderately wealthy Irish Protestant family in County Cork on St. Patrick’s Eve, 1834. His physician father wanted Cleburne to follow him into medicine, but after failing his entrance exam to medical school, Cleburne impulsively enlisted in the British army.
As a member of the 41st Regiment of Foot, Cleburne acquired a ramrod-straight military bearing that he would retain throughout his career. His only action during his 43 months in the British army involved helping to keep the peace in an Ireland wracked by the potato famine. Like thousands of his starving fellow countrymen, Cleburne joined the mass exodus to America in 1849, buying his way out of the army and immigrating to the bustling frontier town of Helena, Ark. There, he opened a pharmacy and put himself through law school. During that same pe-riod, Cleburne became an ally of the feisty, diminutive politician Thomas Hindman. When Cleburne and Hindman were drawn into a gunfight with political rivals on the streets of Helena, Cleburne suffered a gunshot wound that nearly proved to be fatal, at the same time shooting and killing one of his assailants.
When the Civil War broke out, Cleburne joined the local Yell Rifles. As company commander, he put his British army training to good use on the drilling grounds. He wanted to see the Union preserved, but only if the South received “the full measure of her constitutional rights.” Cleburne was a tireless, hands-on commander of troops, and it soon became evident that his unit was better trained and disciplined than most other Confederate units. He was quickly promoted to brigadier general.
At the Battle of Shiloh, April 69, 1862, Cleburne’s brigade suffered nearly 50 percent casualties, the largest percentage of any brigade in the army. Cleburne himself was singled out for “conduct[ing] his command with persevering valor.” It would not be the last time he received such distinctive praise.
As a divisional commander in the Army of Tennessee, Cleburne led his hard-fighting troops into battle at Perryville, Stones River, Chickamauga and Missionary Ridge. At Missionary Ridge in November 1863, Cleburne was one of the few Confederate commanders to distinguish himself, holding off Maj. Gen. William Sherman’s daylong assaults on the north end of the ridge before being compelled to retreat with the rest of the army at nightfall. In winter quarters in northern Georgia, Cleburne surprised fellow officers with “a plan which we believe will save our country.” It was a plan to entice black soldiers to fight for the Confederacy in return for a promise of liberation at the end of the war. Cleburne’s revolutionary plan was rapidly squelched by Confederate authorities–only to be revived by Robert E. Lee in the last days of the war, when it was too late to do any good.
In January 1864, Cleburne got a brief respite from war when he went to Mobile, Ala., to attend the wedding of his friend and superior, Lt. Gen. William J. Hardee. There, he became smitten with a member of the wedding party, a local belle named Susan Tarleton. Putting aside his normal reticence, he pursued her until she agreed to an engagement. The wedding would have to wait until later in the war.
But later never came. Cleburne, who had often seemed impervious to the bullets whizzing about him, was killed while leading his men in a suicidal attack on the Union breastworks at Franklin, Tenn., on November 30, 1864. His last words before making the attack were, “I will take the enemy’s works or fall in the attempt.” Susan Tarleton got word of her fiance’s death in a cruel way. Walking in her Mobile garden, she heard a paperboy call out, “Big battle near Franklin, Tennessee! General Cleburne killed! Read all about it!” She wore mourning for a year.