Our Best Men: Patrick Ronayne Cleburne


General Patrick CleburneMany soldiers of foreign origin fought on both sides of the American Civil War. Franz Sigel, Thomas Francis Meagher, Michael Corcoran and Prussian officer Heros von Borcke were just a few of the 2.2 million men who fought on both sides. In fact about 25% of the white people who served in the Union Army were foreign-born.

On the Southern side perhaps the best know was Patrick Ronayne Cleburne, an Irish-born officer in the Confederate States Army. Cleburne was born in County Cork, Ireland in 1828 and emigrated to the United States in 1849. Settling at first in Ohio, he shortly moved to Helena, Arkansas where he was employed as a pharmacist. 

When the Secession Crisis began Cleburne joined the local militia company as a private soldier. He had some military experience as a soldier in the 41st Regiment of Foot of the British Army and was soon elected its captain. He led the company in the seizure of the U.S. Arsenal in Little Rock in January 1861. When Arkansas seceded his unit became part of the 1st Arkansas Infantry, later designated the 15th Arkansas. Cleburne was elected as colonel of the regiment.

By March 1862, Cleburne was promoted to brigadier general. He led his brigade at the Battles of Shiloh, Richmond (Kentucky) and Perryville. He was wounded in the face at Richmond. After Perryville, he was promoted to division command. He was elevated to major general on December 13, 1862. He led his division in his now-aggressive style at the Battle of Stones River where they pushed the enemy back three miles and routed their right wing.

During 1863, Cleburne and his division fought bravely and with determination at the battles of Chickamauga, Wauhatchie, Missionary Ridge and Ringgold Gap. At Wauhatchie they conducted a rare night assault. At Ringgold Gap they protected the Confederate rear as the Army of Tennessee withdrew from battle. For that action they received the thanks of Confederate Congress.

Cleburne’s fame had spread throughout the South and into the North. General Robert E. Lee referred to him as “a meteor shining from a clouded sky” Cleburne’s use of terrain, his ability to hold ground, and his talent in foiling the movements of the enemy gained him the nickname “Stonewall of the West.” Federal troops were quoted as dreading to see the blue flag of Cleburne’s Division across the battlefield.

Cleburne had joined the Confederate Army because of his love for the people of Arkansas who welcomed him into their community. By late 1863, he could see that the Confederacy had a serious issue with manpower limitations. In early 1864 he made a proposal to emancipate slaves and enlist them in the Confederate Army to secure Southern independence to his fellow officers of the Army of Tennessee.

His proposal was met with polite silence by his fellow commanders. Eventually, word leaked out to the public at large. However, it was never officially recognized. Here is a portion of his proposal:

Satisfy the negro that if he faithfully adheres to our standard during the war he shall receive his freedom and that of his race … and we change the race from a dreaded weakness to a position of strength.

Will the slaves fight? The helots of Sparta stood their masters good stead in battle. In the great sea fight of Lepanto where the Christians checked forever the spread of Mohammedanism over Europe, the galley slaves of portions of the fleet were promised freedom, and called on to fight at a critical moment of the battle. They fought well, and civilization owes much to those brave galley slaves … the experience of this war has been so far that half-trained negroes have fought as bravely as many other half-trained Yankees.

It is said that slavery is all we are fighting for, and if we give it up we give up all. Even if this were true, which we deny, slavery is not all our enemies are fighting for. It is merely the pretense to establish sectional superiority and a more centralized form of government, and to deprive us of our rights and liberties.

Patrick Ronayne Cleburne met his end at the Battle of Franklin on November, 1864. The Union Army of the Ohio commanded by Maj. Gen. John Cleburne at Franklin by DGallonM. Schofield had built up a formidable defensive line in a semi-circle around the town, from northwest to southeast.

Attacking infantry would be confronted by a ditch about four feet wide and two–three feet deep, then a wall of earth and wooden fence rails four feet above the normal ground level, and finally a trench three–four feet deep in which the defenders stood, aiming their weapons through narrow “head gaps” formed by logs.

The armies were evenly matched with each having about 27,000 men. Lt. Gen. John Bell Hood, the Confederate commander, ordered a series of frontal assaults against the Union works. Cleburne observed the enemy fortifications as being formidable, but he told the commanding general that he would either take the enemy’s works or fall in the attempt. He later remarked to Brig. Gen. Daniel C. Govan, “Well, Govan, if we are to die, let us die like men.”

Cleburne’s division was positioned almost in the center of the Confederate line. They were able to cause a breach in the Union line with two other divisions. Collectively, they were able to penetrate the enemy’s line 50 yards deep in the center.

Led by Colonel Emerson Opdycke‘s brigade, the Union soldiers counterattacked and they were able to seal the breach. The fighting was hand-to-hand with bayonets, rifle butts, entrenching tools, axes, and picks used as weapons. The fighting continued for several hours around the Carter House and gardens. In one of the Confederate attacks, Cleburne was killed. Fourteen of his brigade and regimental commanders were also casualties.

Later accounts said that he was found just inside the Union lines. His men carried him back to an aid station where he died of a gun shot wound to the abdomen. When his body was found, his boots were gone, as were his sword, watch, and anything else of value.

Patrick Cleburne was buried at St. John’s Episcopal Church near Mount Pleasant, Tennessee, where they remained for six years. In 1870, he was disinterred and returned to his adopted hometown of Helena, Arkansas, with much fanfare, and buried in Maple Hill Cemetery, overlooking the Mississippi River.

Patrick Cleburne may have been the finest division commander on either side during the Civil War. His loss at Franklin was a serious blow to the Army of Tennessee. He was simply irreplaceable as an aggressive leader and field commander.


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