Patrick Ronayne Cleburne is a legendary figure in the annals of the Civil War but remains little known and little celebrated by his adopted State. His star was bright, his record was splendid, and his counsel was wise. He volunteered as a private and in less than two years attained the rank of Major General.
Patrick Cleburne was born in the township of Ovens, County of Cork, Ireland. His family is still remembered there, the church in which he was baptised, and the cottage in which he was born still stand today. After his father died when he was barely fifteen, his family determined that he would become a doctor like his father. In 1846 Patrick took the entrance exam at the Dublin Medical School and failed. Patrick felt that he had disgraced his family name and ran away to join the British army.
By 1849 Patrick had risen to the rank of Corporal, he once said that his promotion to Corporal was more pleasing to him than his later promotion to General. That same year his family decided to move to America. Patrick purchased his discharge from the British Army and joined in the great adventure.
After some travelling Patrick finally settled in the town of Helena, Arkansas a swampy Mississippi River town below Memphis. Cleburne rose rapidly in the local society as a druggist and later an attorney. He became fast friends with Thomas C. Hindman and got active in politics. He was wounded during a shootout with some of Hindman's political enemies and very nearly died. He was a member of the Sons of Temperance, a Mason, and a regular visitor at the Presbyterian Church. His dear friend Dr. Nash said that he had never heard Cleburne swear an oath.
On May 7, 1861, the day after Arkansas seceded from the Union, Pat Cleburne wrote to his brother about his feelings:
I am with the South in life or in death, in victory or defeat. I never owned a negro and care nothing for them, but these people have been my friends and have stood up to me on all occasions. In addition to this, I believe the North is about to wage a brutal and unholy war on a people who have done them no wrong, in violation of the constitution and the fundamental principals of the government. They no longer acknowledge that all government derives its validity from the consent of the governed. They are about to invade our peaceful homes, destroy our property, and inaugurate servile insurrection, murder our men and dishonor our women. We propose no invasion of the North, no attack on them, and only ask to be let alone.
On May 14, 1861 Cleburne was elected Colonel of the 1st Arkansas Regiment. Their first battle came at Shiloh on April 6, 1862 where they led the advance and fought in the front line on both days without relief. The Arkansans routed General Sherman from his camps and in concert with other units forced the surrender of the "Hornet's Nest". By the end of the year Cleburne was a Major General. At Chickamauga Cleburne's Division pushed the enemy line backwards a mile and a half with Cleburne riding back and forth at the front cheering his men and urging them on. It was here that Cleburne earned the nickname "Stonewall of the West".
At the Battle of Missionary Ridge in 1863, Sherman again suffered the sting of defeat at the hands of Pat Cleburne. The Confederate Army was posted along the top of Missionary Ridge in a long thin line. Too thin. During the battle the line ruptured sending the Confederates retreating back towards Dalton, Georgia. Cleburne's Division formed the Confederate right on the north end of the ridge where a railroad tunnel runs through. Sherman attacked straight up the hill but was repulsed by Cleburne's Division. The Confederates couldn't even depress their guns enough to fire due to the extreme slope. They rolled boulder down on the Yankees, threw rocks, and rolled cannonballs with their fuses lit on them. Finally a detachment of Confederates came through the railroad tunnel underneath the Yankees and out behind them taking a large number prisoner.
The entire Confederate Army numbered about 37,000 men. It was facing 80,000 Federals. Bragg ordered the Army to retreat through a break in the Mountains called Ringgold Gap. He assigned General Cleburne and his division of about 4,000 the task of holding back the huge Federal Army which was racing up behind them. Cleburne did just that. He packed the floor of the gap, the middle of his line, with the bulk of his forces. All Arkansans. He placed another line of Arkansans on the slop on his left flank. His Texans took position on the right at the base of the mountain, a regiment of Alabamans at the top of Taylor's Ridge on the left, more Texans and Arkansans on top of White Oak Ridge to his right. Sherman threw his army into the maw seeking to bash his way through to the retreating Confederate Army. The fighting began with terrible volleys and degenerated to brutal and bloody hand to hand fighting on the slopes before it was over, but Cleburne's Division repulsed the massive Federal Army each time and saved Bragg's Army. The Confederate Congress passed a resolution of thanks for Cleburne's actions, realizing that the Army of Tennessee might have been obliterated without him.
During the Atlanta campaign, Cleburne's men serenaded him one night, in response he gave an address. He urged his men to fight on with these words:
If this cause 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."
In December 1864, General Cleburne presented a document to his superiors. That document, known as Cleburne's Memorial, was a proposal to free the slaves in exchange for their service to the Confederacy. Had General Cleburne's wise proposal been accepted, the balance could have once again tilted toward the South. General Cleburne did not care a whit about preserving slavery, General Cleburne wanted an independent South.
At the battle of Franklin, General Hood ordered his foolish frontal assault on entrenched positions within the town. General Cleburne attempted to turn him from this path but Hood would not be moved. General Govan remarked to Cleburne that few of them would ever return to Arkansas to tell of the battle. Cleburne said, "Well Govan, if we are to die, let us die like men."
15,000 men charged the fortifications with General Cleburne in the forefront. Soon his horse was shot from under him, a boy offered his mare to the General but it was shot down as he mounted it. General Govan then recounted that General Cleburne turned toward the enemy, drew his sword, and marched into the smoke waving his cap.
His body was found lying about 40 yards in front of the entrenchments. That historic site is now a Pizza Hut parking lot.
General Cleburne was buried at a small cemetery in Columbia, Tennessee. Remarkably, the General had passed that place on his way to Franklin and remarked that it would not be so bad to die to have such a beautiful resting spot. In 1870 his body was taken home to Helena, Arkansas. As it passed through Memphis, the largest crowd ever assembled in that city gathered to pay him homage. In attendance was President Jefferson Davis.
His body now rests in the Confederate portion of Evergreen Cemetery in Helena. The grave is marked by a marble monument 16 feet tall placed by the Phillips County Memorial Association. Funds for the monument came from the rich and poor of Helena, including $2.50 from an African-American citizen who remembered how kind Pat Cleburne had been to him as a little slave boy peddling apples.
A statue of General Cleburne stands in the basement of the Statue of Liberty at the American Museum of Immigration. The only statue of a General there.
General D.H. Hill said of him:
Patrick R. Cleburne deserved a prominent place among the great heroes, who have illustrated Southern heroism and Southern history. His name brings a thrill of the heart to every true son of the South, just as his presence brought success wherever he moved on the field of battle. "Cleburne is here!" meant that all was well."
Does his home State remember him?
Taken from "Five Tragic Hours: The Battle of Franklin" by McDonough and Connelly; "Southern By the Grace of God" by Grissom; "The Fighting Fifth: Pat Cleburne's Fighting Edge" by Barnhill.