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Patrick Ronayne Cleburne became the highest-ranking Irish-born officer in American military history, attaining the rank of major general. He entered the Civil War as commander of the Yell Rifles, which became part of the First Arkansas Volunteer Infantry Regiment. He became a drugstore owner and lawyer in his new Arkansas hometown of Helena (Phillips County) and was a delegate to the Democratic Convention in 1858.
Pat Cleburne was born in Ovens, County Cork, Ireland, on March 16, 1828, at Bride Park Cottage to Joseph Cleburne, a doctor, and Mary Anne Ronayne Cleburne. He was the third child and second son of a Protestant, middle-class family that included children Anne, William, and Joseph. His mother died when Cleburne was eighteen months old, and his father married Isabella Stewart. There were three half-siblings born to this union: Isabella, Robert, and Christopher. When Cleburne was eight, the family moved to Grange Farm, near Ballincollig. Cleburne attended Church of Ireland Reverend William Spedding’s boarding school nearby. His father died suddenly of typhus in November 1843, having contracted it from a patient, and “Ronayne,” as his family called him, was expected to carry on the family profession of medicine. He apprenticed for two years, with plans to enroll in Apothecary Hall in Dublin. However, Cleburne failed the entrance exam in February 1843. Too humiliated to return home, he enlisted in the Forty-first Regiment of Foot of the British army, expecting to be sent to India. Instead, the regiment was posted to Mullingar for civil duties in Ireland stemming from the crisis of the Great Famine.
For three and a half years, Cleburne was posted at barracks around famine-stricken Ireland. He served during the turbulent months of the 1848 Young Ireland Rebellion and received a promotion to corporal on July 1, 1849. He returned home to find the family farm in arrears for six months rent. His stepmother suggested the oldest four children emigrate.
On November 5, 1849, Cleburne, his older sister Anne, and brothers William and Joseph boarded the Bridgetown for America and landed in New Orleans, Louisiana, on Christmas Day. Employment was a priority, and the siblings headed up the Mississippi River looking for work. Patrick found a job as a druggist at Nash and Grant’s Drugstore in Helena after arriving in April 1850. Immediately following his five-year wait for naturalization, he passed the Arkansas bar examination in 1856. He supported law partner Thomas Hindman in his bid for the Senate against Know-Nothing candidate W. D. Rice. Cleburne was wounded when Rice ambushed him and Hindman in a Helena street in 1856.
Cleburne adopted his new country thoroughly. He joined many social clubs and affiliations, which brought him close to the citizenry of Helena. Cleburne’s politics mirrored Arkansas’s Southern stance, and he joined the Democratic Party in 1855 during their fight against the Know-Nothing party in the 1856 elections. Cleburne never owned slaves and voiced his opposition to the institution, yet he valued the right and desire of a section of the country to govern itself. Much of his philosophy was based on witnessing the Irish fight for independence. This acceptance endeared him to the Arkansans whom he would command in battle.
Local plantation owners and well-respected citizens formed a militia company called the Yell Rifles, named for Arkansas governor Archibald Yell. They elected Cleburne captain, and the company was thoroughly drilled in the skills he learned in the British army. The Yell Rifles, along with similar groups from around the state, traveled to Little Rock (Pulaski County) hoping to seize the Federal Arsenal in February, 1861. Federal troops abandoned the arsenal without a fight on February 8. Arkansas seceded on May 6 and joined the Confederate States of America.
The Yell Rifles became part of the First Arkansas Volunteer Infantry Regiment. Cleburne was elected colonel. The First Arkansas was attached to the Army of Tennessee, the main Confederate army in the western theater. Cleburne was promoted to brigadier general in March 1862, and his brigade participated in the Battle of Shiloh in April and the 1862 Kentucky Campaign that summer. At the Battle of Richmond, Kentucky, on August 30, Cleburne was struck in the face by shrapnel and forced to leave the field. He remained away from the army until his recovery six weeks later, when he returned to duty for the Battle of Perryville in October. On December 14, 1862, Cleburne was promoted to major general. He commanded a division at the Battle of Murfreesboro in east Tennessee. During 1863, Cleburne participated in battles at Chickamauga and Missionary Ridge. On November 27, 1863, his division made a stand at Ringgold Gap, Georgia, as the rearguard protecting the retreating Confederate army. His 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. He used this show of support from the Confederate government to discuss his proposal to enlist slaves before the Confederate commanders. Cleburne believed that if slaves in the South were offered military service in exchange for their freedom, the foreign support and manpower issues would be resolved, as well as the slavery dilemma. His superiors did not see his vision, and his idea was suppressed, despite a similar suggestion from General Robert E. Lee. Eventually Lee’s request was put into writing, and the Confederate Congress passed the act to enlist slaves in 1865. However, it came too late to avert losing the war.
In 1864, Cleburne became engaged to Susan Tarleton of Mobile, Alabama, and a fall wedding seems to have been planned. Cleburne returned to the front at Dalton, Georgia, and faced Union General William T. Sherman’s troops during the Atlanta Campaign from May through August. In September 1864, Cleburne, under the command of Confederate General John Bell Hood, proceeded north to Nashville to attack the Union army under General George H. Thomas.
Cleburne died while leading a charge on the Union breastworks on November 30, 1864, in Franklin, Tennessee. He was buried at St. John’s Church cemetery in Columbia, Tennessee. In 1870, his body was re-interred in Helena in the Helena Confederate Cemetery within Maple Hill Cemetery. His memorial there shows an incorrect birth date of March 17 rather than March 16, 1828.
For additional information:
Buck, Irving S. Cleburne and His Command. Jackson, TN: McCowat-Mercer Press, 1957.
Fessler, Paul R. “The Case of the Missing Promotion: Historians and the Military Career of Major General Patrick Ronayne Cleburne, C.S.A.” Arkansas Historical Quarterly 53 (Summer 1994): 211–231.
Purdue, Howell, and Elizabeth Purdue. Pat Cleburne, Confederate General. Hillsboro, TX: Hill Junior College Press, 1973.
Ruby, Barbara C. “General Patrick Cleburne’s Proposal to Arm Southern Slaves.” Arkansas Historical Quarterly 30 (Autumn 1971): 193–212.
Stewart, Bruce H., Jr. Invisible Hero: Patrick R. Cleburne. Macon, GA: Mercer University Press, 2009.
Symonds, Craig L. Stonewall of the West: Patrick Cleburne and the Civil War. Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 1997.
Van Der Linden, Frank. “Black Soldiers, Southern Victory?” Civil War Times 46 (October 2007): 28–35.
White, William Lee, ed. “The Long Lost Diary of Major General Patrick R. Cleburne.” In The Tennessee Campaign of 1864, edited by Steven E. Woodworth and Charles D. Grear. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 2016.
Last Updated 4/18/2017
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