by Christopher Powers
Patrick Cleburne was born in Ovens, County Cork, Ireland. He was the second son of Dr. Joseph Cleburne, a middle-class physician of Anglo-Irish ancestry. Patrick’s mother died when he was 18 months old, and he was an orphan at 15 years old. He followed his father into the study of medicine, but failed his entrance exam for Trinity College of Medicine in 1846. In response to this failure, he enlisted in the 41st Regiment of Foot of the British Army, subsequently rising to the rank of corporal.
Three years later, Cleburne bought his discharge and emigrated to the United States with two brothers and a sister. After spending a short time in Ohio, he settled in Helena, Arkansas, where he obtained employment as a pharmacist . During this time, Cleburne became close friends with Thomas C. Hindman. The two men would form a business partnership with William Weatherly to buy a newspaper, the Democratic Star, in December 1855.
When the issue of secession reached a crisis, Cleburne sided with the Southern states. His choice was not due to any love of slavery, which he claimed not to care about, but out of affection for the Southern people who had adopted him as one of their own. As the crisis mounted, Cleburne joined the local militia (the Yell Rifles). He was soon elected captain. He led the company in the seizure of the U.S. Arsenal in Little Rock in January 1861. When Arkansas left the Union, the Yell Rifles became part of the 1st Arkansas Infantry, later designated the 15th Arkansas, of which he was elected Colonel. He was promoted to brigadier general on March 4, 1862.
Cleburne was wounded in the face during the Battle of Richmond (Kentucky) when a minie ball pierced his left cheek, smashed several teeth, and exited through his right cheek. He recovered just in time to participate in the Battle of Perryville. In late 1862, Cleburne was promoted to division commander and served at the Battle of Stones River, where his division advanced three miles as it routed the Union right wing and drove it back to the Nashville Pike. He was promoted to major general on December 13.
Cleburne’s strategic use of terrain, his ability to hold ground where others failed, and his talent in foiling the movements of the enemy earned him fame, and 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.
By late 1863, it had become obvious to Cleburne that the Confederacy was losing the war because of the growing limitations of its manpower and resources. In 1864, he dramatically called together the leadership of the Army of Tennessee and put forth the proposal to emancipate slaves and enlist them in the Confederate Army to secure Southern independence. This proposal was met with polite silence at the meeting and went unremarked, much less officially recognized. From his letter outlining the 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.
Cleburne was killed during an ill-conceived assault (which he opposed) on Union fortifications at the Battle of Franklin, just south of Nashville, Tennessee, on November 30, 1864. He was last seen advancing on foot toward the Union line with his sword raised, after his horse was shot out from under him. Accounts later said that he was found just inside the Federal line and his body carried back to an aid station along the Columbia Turnpike.