Patrick Ronayne Cleburne

Major General Patrick Cleburne was a brilliant military tactician and one of the Confederacy’s most able combat officers. Less than two years after enlisting, he held the rank of major general. Cleburne fought in the Battle of Shiloh and was wounded twice during the Kentucky campaign. He saved the Army of Tennessee at Ringgold Gap, and fought with distinction at Pickett’s Mill and Atlanta. Quiet and soft spoken but with an undeniable air of authority and competence, Cleburne was beloved by the men he commanded.

Patrick Ronayne Cleburne, the son of Dr. Joseph and Mary Anne Ronayne Cleburne, was born March 17, 1828, into a prosperous Irish Protestant family of high social standing in Ovens, County Cork, Ireland. He was the couple’s third child and second son; his brother, William, was born in 1824 and his sister, Anne, in 1826. In October 1829, when Patrick was eighteen months old, his mother died. A year later, Joseph Cleburne married Isabella Stewart, who had been his children’s tutor and of whom they were very fond.

Described by a cousin as, “. . . full of mischief and fun, somewhat shy and dreamy with strangers,” Patrick preferred solitary pursuits and enjoyed fishing and hunting. He, like his siblings, was educated by a private tutor until age twelve when he was sent to a local boarding school. He enjoyed drafting, drill, history, geography and literature but found Latin, Greek, French, and mathematics difficult.

When Patrick was fifteen, his father died of typhus he had contracted from a patient. While there was enough money to keep the family, there was not enough for luxuries. His brother had to abandon his studies at Trinity College to return home to manage the farm. Patrick left boarding school to prepare for a career. Expected to pursue medicine like his father, Ronayne, as the family called him, was apprenticed to Dr. Thomas H. Justice to fulfill the requirements he needed to take the entrance exam for studies at Apothecaries’ Hall in Dublin. Cleburne cared little for medicine and in 1846 he failed the exam for admittance to Apothecaries’ Hall, undone by his old difficulties with Latin and Greek.

Humiliated, Cleburne then a few months shy of his eighteenth birthday, joined the British army, enlisting for life rather than return home as the failure he felt himself to be. Determined that his family would not find him, he gave a false name, place of residence and lied about his age. Cleburne had little to look forward to as a new recruit―crowded barracks, bad food, sickness, poor pay and abuse. Cleburne found army life brutal, violent, and obsessed with discipline and appearance, but he also found solace in friendships with the men in his regiment. He kept quiet, did as he was told and mastered attention to detail in his equipment. His regiment was to be sent to India, where Cleburne hoped he could disappear into the British army. Instead, he was dismayed to discover that the regiment was ordered to County Westmeath, just sixty miles from his family home.

The 1840s were years of political and social unrest in Ireland. The situation worsened after the Irish potato crop failed in 1846. Relations between landlords and their tenant laborers decayed. Laborers, usually paid in potatoes, could not pay their rents, and demanded cash, but with no crop to sell landlords had no cash. It was a vicious cycle that erupted in violence. Hungry, desperate laborers revolted and some landlords were murdered. Cleburne’s regiment was assigned to assist local police in evicting tenants that could not pay. He found himself in the position of guarding food from his fellow countrymen to protect his own social class and the oppressive English government. The famine continued to worsen. Thousands died in their homes, workplaces, by the roadside and in the city streets. As many as 500 people died in Cork City each week, and food riots and stealing increased.

Cleburne had not contacted his home since his enlistment but did so after being recognized by a friend of his family. Finally, in the spring of 1849 he received a pass and returned to his family’s home where he learned that the family had decided that leaving Ireland was their only option. Patrick’s brother, William, wrote to a cousin in July 1849, “It is the wish of all my brothers and sister, to quit this country for America.” It was decided that the four oldest would go. On September 22, 1849, he paid ₤20 for his discharge from the army and received his papers.In the space left for a statement of character was written, “A good soldier.” Cleburne kept the paper for the rest of his life.

On November 2, 1849, Patrick Cleburne and his siblings William, Joseph and Anne, left Ireland. They arrived in New Orleans on Christmas Day, where they remained until early February. Cleburne and his siblings then traveled to Cincinnati, Ohio, where Patrick’s medical training enabled him to secure a job in a drugstore. A few months later he learned that two young physicians in Helena,
Arkansas―Hector Grant and Charles Nash―needed a druggist to manage a drugstore they had purchased.

Helena was then a town of a little more than 600. It was still a frontier town, though it had come a long way from its early years when its reputation was as a “sink of crime and infamy.” Now there were schools, churches, and private libraries, educational opportunities and the chance for advancement.

Patrick Cleburne, then twenty-two, moved to Helena that April. The Grant and Nash Drugstore, like other mid-19th-century drugstores, was a combination pharmacy and dry goods store. It sold medicinal chemicals including quinine, iodine, citric acid and morphine and its advertisements listed cream of tartar, ipecac, rhubarb and cayenne powder under “drugs and medicines.” Patrons could purchase spices, essential oils, dyes, paint, surgical instruments, and “perfumeries.”

Nash told Cleburne that they needed a competent prescriptionist who could take charge of the entire shop. In a month, Cleburne had brought order to and become the manager of the Grant and Nash Drugstore, for which he received $50 a month, a room at the rear of the shop, and his meals, which he took with Dr. Grant.

Cleburne entered wholeheartedly into Helena’s social life. He joined a debating society formed by Helena’s young men, where he met Mark W. Alexander who later became his law partner. He formed a chess club and later became an active member of St. John’s Episcopal Church. Modest and friendly, Cleburne was well liked and made friends easily. During his time in Helena he counted John J. Hornor, Millinder Hanks, Thomas C. Hindman and James C. Tappan, among his friends. The young Irish immigrant had found a home in Helena.

In late 1851, Grant decided to sell his interest in the drugstore and Patrick Cleburne was able to make a cash down payment of $350, with a deed of trust on his half interest in the store as security for payment of the $1,150 balance within twelve months. On January 1, 1852, the store became Nash and Cleburne. That year, Cleburne became a member of the Lafayette Lodge 16, Ancient York Masons. He attended every meeting and applied himself to the study of Masonry. A year later, he was elected Worshipful Master of the lodge. In June, 1853 Cleburne made his first appearance in a Helena newspaper, The Southern Shield, receiving praise for a speech he made during a Masonic celebration of the festival of St. John the Baptist.

Cleburne decided that he was ready for a new challenge. In April 1854, he and his partner Charles Nash sold the drugstore and Cleburne used his profits to enter into the study of law. He studied under attorneys Mark W. Alexander and Thomas B. Hanley, spending two years at their firm. He severely curtailed his social life, applying himself wholeheartedly to his studies and his work at the firm. Becoming a lawyer offered Cleburne what he most wanted, an “avenue to distinction and civil importance.”

In February 1855, weeks before his twenty-seventh birthday, Cleburne became a naturalized citizen of the United States. Cleburne was admitted to the bar in January 1856 and joined his mentor, Mark Alexander, in the firm of Alexander and Cleburne. That year he helped his stepmother, half-sister Isabella, and half-brothers, Robert and Christopher, immigrate to the United States. They settled in Cincinnati, where Cleburne’s sister, Anne, and her family lived.

Cleburne’s life in Helena was not without it sorrows and troubles. In April 1856, a sailboat he was piloting on the Mississippi was struck by a steamboat and his good friend James T. Crary and two others were drowned. A month later, he was nearly killed on Front Street when Thomas Hindman’s ongoing feud with Know-Nothing candidate, W.D. Rice, erupted in violence. Hearing that he might be attacked, Hindman asked Cleburne, who was an excellent shot, to accompany him to dinner at the Commercial Hotel. As they walked down the street, Rice’s brother and brother-in-law fired on them. Hindman was struck in the chest and Cleburne was hit in the back. Hindman’s wound healed quickly but Cleburne’s injury required a long period of recuperation, much of which he spent at Hindman’s parent’s home in Mississippi.

After his law partner was elected Circuit Court Judge, Cleburne went into partnership with two young attorneys, M.G. Berry Scaife and Leonard H. Mangum. As a circuit lawyer he traveled to eight counties on various cases. He had little time for his personal life, and his time away from Helena denied him the company of his friends.

During the summer of 1860, as the presidential election drew near, many Southern communities formed militia companies dedicated to defending the South and her institutions. Among those formed in Helena was the Yell Rifles, named after former Arkansas governor and Mexican War hero Archibald Yell. The men soon elected Patrick Cleburne their captain. In February, 1861, the Yell Rifles with other Phillips County militia units traveled to Little Rock with plans to seize the Federal Arsenal. Federal troops abandoned the Arsenal without a fight on February 8.

When the Civil War began in April 1861, he wrote to his brother, Richard, “I am with Arkansas in weal and woe.” That spring, Patrick Cleburne and the 115 men of the Yell Rifles marched off to war. Before boarding the steamboat for Camp Rector about sixty miles upriver, Cleburne addressed his men and hundreds of the citizens of Helena at the Methodist Church, a frame building located on Porter Street at Walnut. After learning that Arkansas had seceded on May 6 and joined the Confederate States of America, Cleburne wrote his brother, Robert, from Camp Rector, “I am with the South in life or death, in victory or defeat.”

The Yell Rifles became part of the 1st Arkansas Volunteer Infantry, the men electing Cleburne colonel. While in the British army, Cleburne had learned patience, discipline, self-control, and how to live a life of self-denial. He also came to appreciate the position of those at the mercy of authority. Those lessons served him well now as the men drilled and prepared to go into war.

That summer the regiment joined Brigadier General William J. Hardee’s force near Pocahontas in northeastern Arkansas where Cleburne and his command transferred from Arkansas to Confederate Service. Hardee and Cleburne developed a strong friendship, and Cleburne’s Confederate service became tied inextricably to Hardee’s.

Hardee’s command joined General Albert Sidney Johnston’s army at Bowling Green Kentucky, that fall. Hardee was given command of a division and Cleburne became commander of one of Hardee’s brigades. After Johnston was forced to evacuate Bowling Green in February, he retreated to Corinth, Mississippi, where he organized troops drawn from the Old Southwest. Cleburne was promoted to brigadier general in March 1862, commanding his brigade in Hardee’s Third Corps of what became the Army of Tennessee.

Cleburne’s brigade participated in the Battle of Shiloh in April 1862, losing 1,013 of its 2,700 men in the battle. Cleburne himself won praise for his conduct. That summer Cleburne led his brigade in the Kentucky Campaign. In August, General Braxton Bragg, with Major General Edmund Kirby Smith, marched into Kentucky from Tennessee. At the Battle of Richmond, Kentucky, on August 30, Cleburne was struck in the face by shrapnel and forced to leave the field. He was back with his brigade on October 8 for the Battle of Perryville, Kentucky, where he was twice wounded. Cleburne was promoted to major general in December, with the date of rank set to November 23, becoming the highest-ranking military officer of foreign birth in the Confederate army.

Cleburne commanded a division in Hardee’s corps at the Battle of Murfreesboro, Tennessee, and was with the army on the retreat to Georgia in late summer 1863. He participated in the Confederate victory at Chickamauga in September and distinguished himself at Missionary Ridge and at Ringgold Gap, where on November 27, 1863, his division of 4,000 men held back 15,000 of General Joseph Hooker’s Union troops. Cleburne received a Congressional citation from the Confederate capital for his victory over Hooker’s army at Ringgold.

In January 1864, Cleburne discussed his proposal to enlist slaves with the Confederate commanders. Cleburne believed that if slaves in the South were offered military service in exchange for their freedom that foreign support and manpower issues, as well as the slavery dilemma, would be resolved. His superiors rejected the idea. Historians believe that this proposal, and the fact that he followed Hardee in opposing Bragg, damaged his chances for higher command.

On January 13, 1864, Cleburne acted as best man at the wedding of his close friend William Hardee to Mary Lewis Forman near Demopolis, Alabama. There he met twenty-four year old Susan Tarleton, who was maid of honor to her best friend, “Mollie” Lewis. The wedding guests left the next morning on a steamboat for Mobile, where Cleburne spent the rest of his furlough, his first since the war began.

He proposed to Miss Tarleton only days after meeting her. She hesitated in giving him an answer but did not discourage him. In February, he received another furlough and returned to Mobile. He later wrote to a friend, “After keeping me in cruel suspense for six weeks she has at length consented to be mine and we are engaged. I need not say how miserable this has made me.” A fall wedding seems to have been planned.

Cleburne led his division during the Atlanta Campaign. He particularly distinguished himself at Pickett’s Mill and the Battle of Atlanta. At Jonesboro, where Hardee commanded a two-corps force, Cleburne commanded Hardee’s old corps. In September 1864, Confederate General John Bell Hood turned his army north and marched into Tennessee hoping to entice General William T. Sherman to follow him. Sherman ignored Hood and marched into Georgia. General George H. Thomas, the Union commander at Nashville, received orders to stop Hood.

Hood’s campaign began well. He bypassed General John M. Schofield’s two corps at Columbia and moved north. Schofield, desperately trying to get his soldiers back to Nashville, made a stand a Spring Hill, where Cleburne fought an engagement with a portion of Schofield’s command. Hoods orders were confusing. His corps commanders, including Cleburne, thought that Hood’s objective was to take the town of Springhill and hold it. What Hood intended was for his army to block the Franklin-Columbia turnpike, trapping Schofield. In the confusion, the Confederate army left the Franklin-Columbia turnpike open. During the night of November 29, 1864, Schofield marched his men out of Spring Hill and on to Franklin while the Confederates slept.

The next morning, November 30, 1864, a furious John Bell Hood raged because his plans to destroy Schofield at Spring Hill had been dashed. He blamed his subordinates, including Cleburne. Hood believed that the Army of Tennessee had become too used to fighting behind breastworks. He decided to test this hypothesis at Franklin and, some believe, to punish the Army of Tennessee for its failure at Spring Hill.

Before the Battle of Franklin on November 30, a somber Patrick Cleburne met with his officers. As he parted from his old friend Daniel Govan, he said, “Govan, if we are to die let us die like men.” Cleburne and his division made a desperate assault on the Federal works. His two horses having been shot one after the other, Cleburne strode into a hail of shot and shell on foot, his sword aloft, encouraging his men. Moments later, a Minié ball struck him just below his heart. Three of his men found his body the next morning.

Patrick Cleburne was laid to rest at St. John’s Episcopal Church on the Leonidas Polk plantation near Columbia, Tennessee, many miles from his home and friends. His fiancée, Sue Tarleton, learned of his death on December 6, when she overheard a newsboy crying out the evening headlines, “Reports from Tennessee! Victory near Franklin! Cleburne and other Generals Killed!”

After the war, his friends began to speak of bringing Cleburne’s remains home to Helena. On April 27, 1870, Leonard Mangum, Cleburne’s former law partner, and his good friend Dr. Hector Grant journeyed to Tennessee to do so. In Memphis, black-plumed horses pulled the hearse, draped in black crepe and decorated with green ribbons, from the railroad station to the wharf. Jefferson Davis and a host of other former Confederates marched in the procession. People lined the streets to say farewell to the fallen hero.

In Helena, the body lay in state at St. John’s Church. The city, awash in black crepe, closed for the day. A quarter-mile-long procession snaked from the church to Confederate Hill where Cleburne’s remains were reinterred. For twenty-one years, the small headstone brought from Tennessee marked Cleburne’s grave. The Ladies’ Memorial Association championed the effort to erect a fitting memorial, which was dedicated on May 10, 1891.