Major General Patrick Ronayne Cleburne was one of the Confederacy's leading general officers in the Western Theater of the American Civil War.
Patrick Ronayne Cleburne was born in Ovens, County Cork, Ireland on March 16 or March 17, 1828. He was the third child and second son of Dr. Joseph Cleburne and Mary Anne Ronayne Cleburne. Cleburne’s mother died when he was eighteen months old. His father later married Isabella Stewart. When Cleburne was fifteen years old, his father died from typhus, leaving Cleburne to live with his stepmother. Cleburne apprenticed for two years to become a pharmacist, but he did not pass his college entrance exam. Feeling disgraced, Cleburne enlisted in the British Army in 1846, hoping to escape to India. Instead, officials assigned him to the 41st Regiment of Foot in his native Ireland. By 1849, Cleburne became disenchanted with military life. Using an inheritance from his mother’s family, he purchased an early discharge from the army.
Emigration to the United States
After leaving the army, Cleburne emigrated from Ireland to the United States of America with his older sister, Anne, and his brothers, William and Joseph, in November 1849. The Cleburnes arrived in New Orleans on Christmas day and traveled to Cincinnati, Ohio, where Cleburne gained employment in a pharmacy for a short time. In 1850, Cleburne moved to Helena, Arkansas, where he worked as a prescription clerk at Nash and Grant’s Drugstore while studying law in the office of T. B. Hanley. Cleburne became a U.S. citizen in 1855, and he passed the Arkansas bar exam the next year.
Upon passing the bar, Cleburne formed a law partnership with his friend Thomas C. Hindman. He also became involved in Democratic Party politics, supporting Hindman’s candidacy for the Senate. In 1856, Hindman’s Know-Nothing Party opponent, W. D. Rice, and some associates ambushed Cleburne and Hindman on the streets of Helena. Although severely wounded, Cleburne killed Rice.
By the time the American Civil War began, Cleburne had become a successful lawyer and land agent. He had also become a leading citizen in Helena. Although he neither owned slaves nor supported slavery, he endorsed Arkansas’s secession because he believed
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 principles of the government. They no longer acknowledge that all government derives its validity from the consent of the governed.
As the war approached, Cleburne joined the Yell Rifles, a local militia company named for Arkansas Governor Archibald Yell. Cleburne joined as a private, but the men soon elected him as captain. When the war began, the Yell Rifles became part of the First Arkansas Volunteer Infantry Regiment, attached to the Army of Tennessee. Soldiers elected Cleburne as a colonel and he spent the winter of 1861-1862 at Bowling Green, Kentucky, training his regiment. When army officials promoted Cleburne’s superior, Brigadier General William J. Hardee to divisional command, they placed Cleburne in charge of the 2nd Brigade, Hardee’s Division, in the Army of Central Kentucky. On March 4, 1862, Confederate officials commissioned Cleburne as a brigadier general.
Battle of Shiloh
Cleburne’s first major combat assignment was at the Battle of Shiloh (April 6-7, 1862), where his brigade routed Brigadier General William T. Sherman’s Division near Shiloh Church, contributed to the Rebel victory at the Hornet’s Nest, and advanced to within four hundred yards of the Union headquarters at Pittsburg Landing by the evening of April 6. The next day, Cleburne’s command suffered heavy losses during a federal counterattack. Afterward, Cleburne’s men protected retreating Confederate troops during Major General Henry Halleck’s Corinth Campaign.
Wounded at the Battle of Richmond
In July 1862, the focus of the Confederate war effort in the West shifted to Kentucky and Tennessee. Cleburne received temporary command of a division in the Army of Kentucky and was shot through the mouth as he led an assault during the Confederate victory at the Battle of Richmond (Kentucky) on August 29 and 30, 1862. After a month of recuperation, Cleburne rejoined his command on September 21, but he returned to a brigade commander after officials dissolved his division.
Battle of Perryville
During the Battle of Perryville (October 8, 1862), Cleburne again proved his valor, when Rebels shot his horse from beneath him and wounded him twice. After General Braxton Bragg ordered the Confederate withdrawal from Kentucky into Tennessee, Cleburne had to ride part of the way in an ambulance as his wounds healed.
On December 13, 1862, Confederate President Jefferson Davis promoted Cleburne to major general, making him the highest-ranking Irish-born officer in American military history. Commanding his new division, Cleburne performed well during the Confederate loss at the Battle of Stones River (Battle of Murfreesboro) on December 31, 1862-January 2, 1863.
Chickamauga and Chattanooga
During the summer campaigns of 1863, Cleburne took part in the Confederate evacuation of Tennessee and the Rebel victory at the Battle of Chickamauga (September 19 and 20, 1863). That fall, he confronted William T. Sherman again, as his division withstood an assault by a much larger force at Missionary Ridge on November 25. Two days later, Cleburne’s division held back 15,000 Federals commanded by Major General Joseph Hooker at the Battle of Ringgold Gap, allowing the Army of Tennessee to escape into Georgia. The Confederate Congress awarded an official citation to Cleburne and his men for their actions at Ringgold Gap.
Proposal to Enlist Slaves
After the Union breakout from Chattanooga, Cleburne discerned what his superiors had yet to comprehend or were loath to admit—the Confederate situation in the West was bleak. Sherman’s vastly superior army was preparing to begin its drive toward Atlanta in the spring. On January 2, 1864, during a summit with the leaders of the Army of Tennessee, Cleburne proposed a plan to enlist slaves in the Confederate Army in return for a promise of emancipation if the South won the war. Cleburne argued that enrolling slaves would help minimize the South’s manpower disadvantage and that emancipation would increase the chances of securing much-needed foreign aid from European nations. Cleburne’s fellow officers, and Confederate leaders, including President Jefferson Davis, coldly rejected his proposal. Some historians have speculated Cleburne’s proposal prompted Davis to pass over Cleburne when he selected General John Bell Hood to replace General Joseph Johnston as commander of the Army of Tennessee in 1864. Not as farsighted as Cleburne or, perhaps, not as desperate, Southern leaders did not embrace Cleburne’s proposal until 1865, when it was too late to affect the outcome of the war.
Death at the Battle of Franklin
Before the 1864 campaign season began, Cleburne and Susan Tarleton of Mobile, Alabama became engaged and planned a fall wedding. Cleburne returned to action in Georgia, taking a leading role in the Atlanta Campaign. After Atlanta fell, Cleburne accompanied the Army of Tennessee during General John Bell Hood’s Franklin-Nashville Campaign in the fall of 1864. On November 30, 1864, a gunshot wound to the torso killed Cleburne while he was leading an assault during the Battle of Franklin, near Franklin, Tennessee.
Cleburne was temporarily laid to rest at St. John’s Episcopal Church near Mount Pleasant, Tennessee. In 1870, his remains were disinterred and reburied in Maple Hill Cemetery at his hometown of Helena, Arkansas.
Cleburne’s valor and leadership abilities earned him the nickname “Stonewall of the West.” The Confederacy’s most famous general, Robert E. Lee, referred to Cleburne as “a meteor shining from a clouded sky.” After Cleburne’s death, two counties in Alabama and Arkansas, a city in Texas, a park in Tennessee marking the site of his death, and a memorial cemetery in Georgia were named in his honor.