Patrick Cleburne began his life on the night before Saint Patrick’s Day 1828, in Country Cork, Ireland.  His family was part of the ruling, Protestant minority, and he spent his early years as a member of the high society.  When Cleburne was fifteen, his father died, leaving his family without the needed income from his medical practice.  Young Patrick attempted to enter medical school himself, but failed the entrance exam two years later. [1]  Upon feeling that he had disgraced his family, Cleburne joined the British Army’s 41st Regiment of Foot.  He even lied at enlistment, claiming he was a laborer, so that his family would have difficulty finding him.  Although Cleburne’s regiment was supposed to go to Madras, India, they remained in Ireland to quell any violence stemming from outbreak of the potato famine.  After several years in the army, and being promoted to and demoted from corporal, he purchased his early discharge so that he could join his stepmother in taking the Cleburne family to the United States.  On Christmas Day, 1849, he landed in New Orleans.[2]  “Quietly confident and fiercely ambitious”, he began his new life in America.

            Upon first arriving in their new home, the Cleburne family went their different directions.  His brothers found jobs in different parts of the country, and Patrick found a lead to a job in Helena, Arkansas.  With a letter of introduction, and no money, he went to Helena, obtained the job, and immediately put all his energy in his new career as a druggist.  He became friends with the owners, and, soon, bought an interest in the store as part of his campaign to become successful.  Four years later, he and his partners sold the thriving business, so Cleburne could focus on studying law.[3]  As he became a member of the affluent society, several instances illustrate the character of this young lawyer.       At his first large-scale social gathering in Helena, he danced rather awkwardly and was the subject of much laughter.  This so embarrassed him, that he took dancing lessons so that every lady in the town wanted to dance with him because of his skill.  A similar incident occurred later, in the war, with riding horses.  “He had a driving zest for success in life, and a flair for achievement.”[4]

            After making a public effort to discredit the Know-Nothings in the late 1850s, Cleburne found himself to be well respected amongst the community.  In 1860, he helped organize and was elected captain of the Yell Rifles, the local company of militia in Helena.  When Arkansas seceded, he took his company to Little Rock to join the amalgamated regiment for all the local militias.  “Without opposition,” Cleburne became the 1st Arkansas Infantry Regiment’s first colonel.[5]  He began his time in command as an out-front leader, and remained one until the moment he died.

Leading from the Front

            From the very beginnings of Cleburne’s time leading troops, he was always a “hands-on commander”.  He expressed an interest in every facet of soldiering and the welfare of his men.  Regularly, Cleburne led drill and personally inspected his troops.  When General William J. Hardee brought the Arkansas regiments to central Kentucky to join General Albert Sidney Johnston, Colonel Patrick Cleburne became a brigade commander over three regiments.  Before the Battle of Shiloh in April 1862, President Jefferson Davis personally promoted Cleburne to brigadier general.  Cleburne’s first large-scale battle was the Battle of Shiloh.  In it, the entire Confederate Army performed poorly as a whole, but his brigade certainly did well.  His newly reorganized brigade, consisting of six regiments, fought well and was always in the thickest parts of the battle.  When the Union troops counterattacked on the second morning of battle, Cleburne fought them with so much fervor, at one point, he personally led sixty men against an entire battalion of Federals.  Cleburne “led his command almost to its annihilation”, but not from a distant, safe place.  His constant reorganization of his unit and repeated counterattacks only ceased when Cleburne received orders to halt, after the death of the commanding general, Albert Sidney Johnston.[6]

              By the end of the year, the Army of Tennessee fought a failed campaign in Kentucky, but because of his continued success, Cleburne received the rank of major general and command of a division.  Cleburne also received a bullet to the jaw in Kentucky; from that point onward, he wore a goatee.  At the end of the year, the Army of Tennessee fought the Battle of Murfreesboro, in Middle Tennessee, in which Cleburne, again, excelled.  Although his division continuously drove the Federal lines back, the overall outcome was a stalemate because of the lack of reinforcements to his successes.  His friend and corps commander, Hardee, remarked, “Cleburne’s was the only division in the army that ‘could be depended upon.’”[7]

            September 1863, Cleburne’s division found themselves embroiled in heavy fighting at the Battle of Chickamauga.  His men broke through the Federal lines, causing a corps of infantry to hasten the retreat that had already begun.  It was vicious fighting, in woods, and much of it took place after dark.  General Braxton Bragg, now in command of the Army of Tennessee, did not order a quick pursuit of the Union forces, but instead let them retreat to Chattanooga, Tennessee.  Nearly a week after the battle, Cleburne’s men did pursue the Federals to Chattanooga, and took up positions on Missionary Ridge, just outside the city.  Bragg’s siege of Chattanooga became a “disaster”, but Cleburne earned his nickname, “Stonewall of the West”, in two battles that spilled from this botched action.  As Lookout Mountain fell, Cleburne’s command made a strong stand at Missionary Ridge and repeatedly drove off General William T. Sherman’s attacking corps of Federals.  It was a bitter fight that lasted two entire days.  Outnumbered by over four to one, his division “held off the main Federal attack.”  By the third day, the Confederate center had broken, and the army began its retreat.  Cleburne’s force acted as the rearguard for the army, and fought its next bitter action at Ringgold Gap, Georgia.

            Bragg ordered Cleburne to hold the gap “at all costs” to cover the retreat of the Confederate forces.[8]  In the Battle of Ringgold Gap, Cleburne’s reinforced division “checked the advance of Grant’s whole army”.  He took over five thousand prisoners and killed over 1400, while only losing twenty killed in action.  Sam Watkins, a member of the 1st Tennessee Volunteer Infantry remarked, “Cleburne had had the doggondest fight of the war”, as he likened him to Leonidas at Thermopylae.[9]  President Davis coined Cleburne’s nickname after the heroic stand in which he personally led the troops from the frontline.  General Robert E. Lee called Cleburne “a meteor shining from the clouds”.[10]

            When hostilities recommenced in the spring 1864, the Army of Tennessee began its retreat to Atlanta at the front of Sherman’s March to the Sea.  Cleburne repeatedly distinguished himself during Atlanta Campaign.  At the Battle of Pickett’s Mill, Cleburne’s six thousand men inflicted over 1,500 casualties, while only receiving four hundred.  Later, he referred to this battle fought in heavy woods in his official report as “the great execution done here upon the enemy”.[11]  He held his ground in every battle until ordered to retreat by his superiors.  On July 22, “Cleburne himself was leading us in person” wrote Watkins of the Battle of Atlanta; “I heard him say, ‘Follow me, boys.’”  Then, Watkins saw him on the top of the Federal works, well ahead of his troops.  In the attempt to seize the second line of entrenchments, Cleburne was in front of the leading brigade.  Even in overall defeat, Cleburne’s “star” shone brightly.[12]

            At the end of the year, the Confederate Army was back in Middle Tennessee, attempting to push through the Federals and into Kentucky.  On November 30, 1864, Cleburne began his day forming his division at the foot of Winstead Hill, two miles from the Union lines at Franklin, Tennessee.  On that morning, many remarked that Cleburne felt his death was at hand, but he still rode at the front of his men during their long trek under fire.  As he bid farewell before the charge began, he remarked to his friend, Brigadier General Daniel Govan, “Well, Govan, if we are to die today, let us die like men”, after Govan tried to make conversation with him.  He last saw Cleburne as they neared the Union works, and then Cleburne disappeared into a cloud of smoke.  His division did take the first line of entrenchments by the evening, and then “clung” to them during the night.  One veteran later remarked that he knew Cleburne must have been killed, because they never received the order to further the attack.  “The fate of Cleburne’s three brigades at Franklin was nothing short of a slaughter.”  Along with Cleburne’s death, the Army of Tennessee died on that day.  Some of his troops found Cleburne’s body the next day, with a single bullet wound to the chest.[13]  Many stories surrounding his death arose, because of the soldiers’ great love of him; the most common was that he received forty-nine bullets before falling.[14]


            Along with his old-fashioned, genteel manners, General Cleburne was a firm believer in innovation if it helped fight the war.  Part of his efforts to build an efficient fighting machine was the implementation of sharpshooter teams that resembled modern snipers.  Cleburne believed that a company-sized element of sharpshooters spread along the entire front of the enemy, armed with the best possible weapons, would have a “disproportionate effect on the outcome” of a battle.  He did not implement this program alone; he discussed the notion with his subordinate commanders before building the sharpshooter teams.  They concluded that these new riflemen should attempt to outflank the enemy to shoot officers and artillery crews.[15]

            To create these new units, the Army of Tennessee held shooting competitions within all of its regiments.  Soldiers competed in events such as range estimation and shooting at targets out to eight hundred yards; most did not know why they competed.  Cleburne’s first group of sharpshooters consisted of the sixteen best shots in the Army of Tennessee and one officer.  Mostly, they carried the standard Enfield rifle, like other Confederate infantrymen.  Five Whitworth rifles equipped some men in this unit.  This new rifle had a hexagonal bore, instead of the standard round bore, and was capable of hitting a man at over 1,700 yards.  Several of the men carried Kerr rifles as an intermediate between the Enfield and the Whitworth.  They practiced range estimation every day, along with long-range target practice.  They also acted as scouts for the general.  Cleburne even had his sharpshooter’s camp next to his tent. [16]  He personally oversaw their training.  Cleburne “continued to take a personal interest in the performance of his sharpshooting teams and was often at the front observing the results of their activity.”

            The Cleburne’s Sharpshooters had their baptism by fire at the Battle of Liberty Gap in the Tullahoma, Tennessee Campaign, on June 26, 1863.  There, Cleburne saw them killing officers at over a mile. [17]  One of the members of Cleburne’s staff was so impressed that he said the sharpshooters were “equal to a light battery” of artillery.  At the Battle of Chickamauga, Major General John M. Palmer, a Union commander, complained, in writing, of the targeting of officers.  Many gentlemen officers believed that they should not be afforded an extra danger.[18]  His snipers covered the retreat of the Army of Tennessee during the battles in the Atlanta Campaign.[19]  At the Battle of Franklin, he even used one of the scopes from a Whitworth to view the Union lines from Winstead Hill before he met with Govan.[20]


          Because of his love for his new home, General Cleburne began discussing ways to keep the Confederacy alive during the winter of 1863-1864.  His most innovative and controversial idea was to arm slaves in return for their freedom after the war.  Cleburne discussed this idea with his fellow commanders in the Army of Tennessee.  He believed that if the South armed their slaves, it would counteract the push in the North to bring slavery to the front of the issues that caused the war.  In addition, if the South did this, Europe would support them more, because of their stance against slavery.  Cleburne “ran afoul of army politics.”[21] 

            Overall, this idea was not well received in the army leadership.  Twelve brigade and regimental commanders endorsed the idea in January 1864, but General Bragg and President Davis became outraged by it.  After Cleburne sent Davis a copy of the written proposal, the Confederate president ordered him to stop discussing it.  The South buried the idea so quickly that it was relatively unknown until after the Civil War.  Cleburne went for some time believing that he would be court-martialed.  He was not, but it denied promotion “to the ablest of the army’s division commanders”.[22]  During this time, Cleburne remarked to an aid that if he was removed from command, he would simply enlist as a private in his old regiment, the 15th Arkansas Infantry.  As a part of the play to quiet his “insane” idea, the army granted Cleburne’s request to keep his old battle flag when the Army of Tennessee standardized to the Saint Andrews Cross battle flag.  A small appeasement when he would have been a corps or even the Army of Tennessee commander before the end of the war if he had not proposed his notion.  This event illustrated how Cleburne was willing to do anything for his new country.[23]


            Patrick Cleburne was not only an amazing general, but also an amazing man.  He cared about his troops and never shied from the fight.  It amazes me that a division commander would enter the fray of combat with such enthusiasm, whereas today, they rarely see the outside of a secure location.  He never sat on his horse to watch the battle from some remote hilltop, away from danger.  I admire Cleburne because he was never afraid of what others might think about him, and because of his love for his new home.  When he proposed the arming of slaves, he knew that it would meet with much criticism, even thinking that he may be court-martialed over the issue.  Cleburne did not necessarily agree or disagree with slavery, but he started this debate because he wanted to save his home.  He was not formally reprimanded, but it certainly did keep him from being promoted further, but he never complained or quit.  Still, he continued his work as a division commander.  Even when he knew that death awaited him, he still had the presence to want to be remembered as dying like a man.  So many Americans today never even think of fighting for what they call home.  Here was an Irish immigrant fighting for his new home because he believed that it was threatened. Cleburne was modest, quiet, possessed a voracious intellectual appetite, and he never backed-down from what he believed was right.  I hope that people remember me as having many of the same qualities as a leader, and a man.  Even the North recognized Cleburne’s ability.  The New York Herald stated, “Cleburne was ‘perhaps the best man in Hood’s army at this time… possessed of more of the sterling qualities of a man and experience as a soldier.”[24]


            Major General Patrick R. Cleburne was far different from his peers, subordinates, and superiors.  Most generals during the Civil War did not lead from the front, as Cleburne did until the very end.  They also tended to stick to tried tactics, unlike him embracing the sniper concept.  He cared more for his men than many others did.  With the love for his troops and his own desires to be successful, his boys became the “hardest-hitting” division in the army, but this quest for success on the battlefield did not cause him to be a glory-seeker.[25]  Always filled with determination, no matter what hardships may be in front of him, he led his troops to more victories than any other general did in the Army of Tennessee.  He never let fear slow him, even when discussing something as controversial as arming slaves did.  Cleburne had such love for his new home that he gladly gave his life for it.  A former Confederate, General George Gordon, summed-up why Cleburne should be remembered at the 1891 dedication of the Cleburne monument in Helena, Arkansas: “a truer patriot or knightlier soldier never fought and never died.”[26]


[1] Symonds, Craig L. Stonewall of the West: Patrick Cleburne & the Civil War. (Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 1997), 9-21.
[2] Sword, Wiley. Embrace an Angry Wind: The Confederacy's Last Hurrah: Spring Hill, Franklin, and Nashville. (New York: HarperCollins Publishers, Inc., 1992), 15.

[3] Symonds, 25-34.
[4] Sword, 15.
[5] Symonds, 35-49.
[6] ibid., 55-79.
[7] ibid., 102-119.
[8] ibid., 141-171.
[9] Watkins, Sam R. Co. "Aytch": First Tennessee Regiment. Edited by Ruth Hill Fulton McAllister. (Franklin: Providence House Publishers, 2007), 134-135.
[10] Symonds, 158.
[11] Luvaas, Jay, and Harold W. Nelson. Guide to the Atlanta Campaign. (Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 2008), 204-211.
[12] Watkins, 201-202.
[13] McDonough, 136-160.
[14] Watkins, 263.
[15] Symonds, 81-82.
[16] Hess, Earl J. The Rifle Musket in Civil War Combat: Reality and Myth. (Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 2008), 185-186.
[17] Symonds, 127-130.
[18] Hess, 186.
[19] Luvaas, 140.
[20] McDonough, 136.
[21] Sword, 14-18.
[22] McPherson, James M. Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era. New York: (Oxford University Press, 1988), 832-834.
[23] Sword, 21-22.
[24] Sword, 40.
[25] McDonough, 45-46.
[26] Symonds, 96.

Cleburne Monument in Franklin, TN

A Whitworth Rifle

Major General Patrick R. Cleburne

Co. B, 15th Infantry Regiment

Cleburne's Sharpshooters

Cleburne Monument in Ringgold Gap