Patrick Cleburne, the Confederate General who wanted to use slaves to win the Civil War

Patrick R. Cleburne. Image Source: Wikimedia.

Major General Patrick Cleburne was one of the Confederacy’s leading general officers in the Western Theater of the American Civil War. An Irish immigrant, Cleburne entered the Civil War as a Private in the Arkansas militia, but by 1862 he had risen to the rank of Major General in the Confederate Army. He took part in the Battle of Shiloh, the Siege of Corinth, the Battle of Richmond — where he was shot through the mouth — the Battle of Perryville, the Battle of Chickamauga, and the Battle of Chattanooga. On November 30, 1864, he suffered a fatal gunshot wound while leading an assault during the Battle of Franklin, near Franklin, Tennessee. Cleburne is most well-known for his 1864 proposal to enlist slaves in the Confederate Army in return for their freedom.

Patrick Cleburne, Historical Marker
Patrick Cleburne’s Historical Marker. Image Source: Georgia Historical Society.

January 2, 1864 — Cleburne Proposes Arming Slaves

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.

In 2011, a historical marker was erected in Georgia to commemorate the moment. The marker reads:

Here on January 2, 1864, Gen. Patrick Cleburne proposed arming slaves in exchange for their freedom to alleviate the manpower shortage facing the Confederacy. Almost all the other generals present opposed the idea of black Confederate soldiers because it violated the principles upon which the Confederacy was founded. Gen. Patton Anderson said the proposal “would shake our governments, both state and Confederate, to their very foundations,” and Gen. A.P. Stewart said it was “at war with my social, moral and political principles.” Considering the proposal treasonous, Gen. W.H.T. Walker informed President Jefferson Davis, who ordered any mention of it to be suppressed. In March 1865, with defeat looming, the Confederate Congress approved enlisting slaves, but few did and none saw combat. Conversely, nearly 200,000 free African Americans served in the U.S. armed forces.

Erected for the Civil War 150 commemoration by the Georgia Historical Society, the Georgia Battlefields Association and the Georgia Department of Economic Development in 2011.

Cleburne’s Early Life and Family

  • Patrick Cleburne was the third child and second son of Dr. Joseph Cleburne and Mary Anne Ronayne Cleburne.
  • Cleburne’s mother died when he was 18 months old.
  • His father died when he was 15 years old.
  • Cleburne apprenticed for two years to become a pharmacist, but he was unable to pass his college entrance exam.

Early Military Career in the British Army

  • Patrick Cleburne enlisted in the British Army in 1846 and served with the 41st Regiment of Foot in his native Ireland.
  • Using an inheritance from his mother’s family, Cleburne purchased an early discharge from the British Army in 1849.

Life in America

  • After leaving the British Army, he emigrated from Ireland to the United States in November 1849. He was joined by his older sister Anne and his brothers William and Joseph.
  • He arrived in New Orleans on Christmas day 1849 and traveled to Cincinnati, Ohio, where gained employment in a pharmacy for a short time.
  • In 1850, Patrick Cleburne relocated 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.

Legal Career in Arkansas

  • Patrick Cleburne passed the Arkansas bar exam in 1856.
  • Cleburne entered into a law partnership with his friend Thomas C. Hindman.
  • He became involved in Democratic Party politics during the 1850s.
  • In 1856, W. D. Rice and some associates ambushed Cleburne and his friend, Thomas C. Hindman, on the streets of Helena, Arkansas. Although he was severely wounded, Cleburne was able to kill Rice.
  • By the time the American Civil War started, Cleburne was a successful lawyer and land agent in Helena, Arkansas.
  • Although Patrick Cleburne neither owned slaves nor supported slavery, he endorsed Arkansas’s secession.

Cleburne Joins the “Yell Rifles”

  • As the Civil War approached, Patrick Cleburne joined the Yell Rifles, a local militia company named for Arkansas Governor Archibald Yell.
  • When the war started, the Yell Rifles became part of the First Arkansas Volunteer Infantry Regiment, attached to the Army of Tennessee.
  • Cleburne was elected Colonel and spent the winter of 1861-1862 at Bowling Green, Kentucky training his regiment.

Civil War — 1862

Patrick Cleburne was promoted to Brigadier General on March 4, 1862, and then led his brigade in a route of Union forces led by Brigadier General William T. Sherman at the Battle of Shiloh.

Battle of Shiloh, Illustration, Thulstrup
Battle of Shiloh. Image Source: Library of Congress.

Cleburne was shot through the mouth as he led an assault during the Confederate victory at the Battle of Richmond (Kentucky) on August 30, 1862.

During the Battle of Perryville (October 8, 1862), Cleburne demonstrated valor when his horse was shot from beneath him and he was wounded twice. 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.

Civil War — 1863

Civil War — 1864

Death at the Battle of Franklin

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.

Battle of Franklin, Illustration
Battle of Franklin. Image Source: Library of Congress.

After his death on November 30, 1864, he was temporarily laid to rest at St. John’s Episcopal Church near Mount Pleasant, Tennessee for six years. In 1870, his remains were disinterred and reburied in Maple Hill Cemetery in his hometown of Helena, Arkansas.

Legacy of Patrick Cleburne

  • Patrick Cleburne’s valor and leadership abilities earned him the nickname “Stonewall of the West.”
  • Robert E. Lee referred to Patrick Cleburne as “a meteor shining from a clouded sky.”
  • After Patrick 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.