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Cleburne: A Graphic Novel

by Justin S. Murphy, Rampart Press, 2008, $24.95

Contrary to what you have been told not to do all your life, I implore you: Yes, please do judge this book by its cover.

Justin Murphy’s Cleburne: A Graphic Novel delivers on everything you’d expect from the graphic novel genre, and then some. Murphy, who doubles as author and penciler (artists Al Milgrom did the inking, J. Brown added the colors and Steve Chorney created the cover), cleverly weaves his tale around Confederate General Patrick Ronayne Cleburne’s revolutionary plan, late in the war, to enlist African Americans to fight for the South in exchange for freedom.

An Irish immigrant with previous military experience in the British Army, the hard-fighting Cleburne rapidly rose from private to lead a division in the Army of Tennessee. Murphy begins his account in the wake of Confederate defeats around Chattanooga, Tenn., in late 1863, when Cleburne read his proposal at a meeting of senior commanders on January 2, 1864.

Word of Cleburne’s controversial document quickly spread and many Southern military and civilian leaders were shocked by Cleburne’s proposal. Some branded him a traitor.

Murphy effectively mixes an artist’s eye for detail with an historian’s sensibility for fidelity in presenting this imaginative story. The full-color artwork is crisp and vibrant. Several especially eye-catching illustrations spread across two pages.

Murphy peppers his graphic novel with other historic characters such as Jefferson Davis and Generals Joseph E. Johnston and John Bell Hood. Readers may take exception to how some of them are depicted. Murphy’s characterizations of General W.H.T. Walker and Hood, for example, are extreme, though their behavior remains within the realm of possibility.

The author and his team have done a fine job of accurately portraying the clothing, equipment, architecture and other trappings of the mid– 19th century South. The military details—everything from the battlefield litter of paper cartridges and cartridge box tins to Hood’s artificial leg— are impressive, too.

Perhaps the most powerful images in the book are the scenes of combat. The lengthy sequence of panels used to depict Cleburne’s fatal assault during the Battle of Franklin are particularly evocative. The reader is thrust into the vortex of Cleburne’s ill-fated charge with grim, gory and realistic detail.

Murphy incorporates several sidebars to propel his narrative. Notable among these are Cleburne’s friendship with Ned, a freedman who strives to be reunited with his wife and child who have been sold away from him. And there is Susan Tarleton, with whom Cleburne shared a real-life romance and eventually made his fiancée.

“The author,” writes historian Thomas Y. Cartwright in his foreword, “freely acknowledges that some of the characters, such as Ned, and some of the conversations involving the historical figures, are fictional. As long as the reader realizes this, the possibilities for this graphic novel are unlimited.”

The sturdy, glossy stock and high-end production make this colorful, 208-page book well worth its cover price. It is a model by which any future graphic novels in this category may be judged.


Originally published in the May 2009 issue of America’s Civil War. To subscribe, click here