The Irish in the Civil War

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Maj. General Patrick R. Cleburne, head-and-shoulders portrait Maj. General Patrick R. Cleburne of the 1st Arkansas Volunteer Infantry Item Link

Patrick Cleburne was called the “Stonewall of the West” by Confederate President Jefferson Davis. Robert E. Lee called Cleburne like “a meteor shining from a clouded sky”. Like Meagher and so many other Civil War soldiers, Cleburne was Irish-born. Unlike many other Irish-Americans, however, Cleburne was neither poor nor Catholic. He was born in 1828 and grew up near Cork as a member of the Protestant gentry. His father was a doctor. Unfortunately, his mother died at 37 when he was only 1, leaving his father a widower with 4 children. Then, his father died at 51 when Patrick was only 15, leaving him an orphan. Six years later, without notifying his stepmother, Cleburne enlisted in the British army but served only 3 years before departing Ireland for America. Having failed to pass exams to become a pharmacist in Ireland, he made his way to Cincinnati, where he clerked in a drugstore. He quickly moved on to Helena, Arkansas to work in a drugstore, of which he later became an owner. After selling it, he became a lawyer. He worked with fellow lawyer and future Civil War comrade Thomas Hindman to combat the Know-Nothing party’s campaign against Irish immigrants. As the 1860 election loomed, Cleburne helped to organize a militia company (the “Yell Rifles”) in Helena.

After Arkansas voted to secede from the Union, the Yell Rifles became part of the 1st Arkansas Volunteer Infantry. Cleburne got off to a rocky start, deposing his state commander for incompetence, leading to a charge of mutiny against Cleburne. However, his scheduled court martial was dismissed by Gideon Pillow, commander of the new Army of Tennessee. Cleburne and his troops then voted to join the Confederate army under General William Hardee, who became Cleburne’s friend and patron. Cleburne would serve as best man at Hardee’s wedding and Hardee would offer the eulogy at Cleburne’s burial.

Cleburne and his Arkansas troops were first bloodied at Shiloh in April, 1862. Cleburne had become a brigade commander in Hardee’s division of Albert Sidney Johnston’s Army of Tennessee. Cleburne’s brigade attacked Ohio regiments in Sherman’s division, driving them back on the first day of the battle. Cleburne and Sherman would meet again in Tennessee and Georgia. The second day Cleburne’s command was devastated as U.S. Grant’s reinforced army drove the Confederates under Beauregard from the field. Cleburne’s 2,700 man brigade suffered over 1,000 killed, wounded and missing. The commander of his former regiment and the captain of the Yell Rifles were both killed in this murderous battle.

Following the Confederate retreat from Corinth, Cleburne and his brigade participated in the invasion of Kentucky by Braxton Bragg and Kirby Smith later in 1862. On August 27, while inquiring about the wounding of his friend Lucius Polk from the Yell Rifles (and nephew of the bishop-general Leonidas Polk of the Army of Tennessee), Cleburne was wounded himself (although only slightly) at the defeat of Don Carlos Buell’s forces at Richmond. Then on October 8 at Perryville Cleburne was again wounded, hit by an artillery shell. Nevertheless, his troops distinguished themselves against a much larger Federal force, which included Phil Sheridan.

After Bragg’s retreat to Murfreesboro, Tennessee, Cleburne was promoted to major general and command of a division under Hardee. Cleburne played a prominent role in the battle of Stones River. His division spearheaded the surprise attack by Hardee against Alexander McCook’s corps of William Rosecran’s Army of the Cumberland on the morning of December 31. Initially successful, they eventually ran up against the diehard resistance of troops which included Sheridan’s. In the wake of Bragg’s retreat after his repulse on January 2, 1863, Cleburne was caught up in the conflict among the officers of the army who were asked by Bragg for a vote of confidence. Along with Hardee and others, Cleburne responded that a new commander of the Army of Tennessee was needed. However, Jefferson Davis, supported by Joseph Johnston, refused to remove Bragg. Thereafter, Bragg held this against Hardee and Cleburne. Nevertheless, the fighting quality of Cleburne and his division were recognized.

This proved true in September at Chickamauga. Cleburne fought hard on the Confederate right under Polk, going up against George Thomas. Of his 5,000 man division, one-third were killed or wounded in the fierce fighting. After the battle, Bragg accused Polk, his worst critic in the army, and D.H. Hill for failures to attack effectively. A visit from Davis again failed to solve this continuing conflict. As the Army of Tennessee conducted a siege of Rosecran’s army in Chattanooga, Bragg remained in command.

With Rosecran’s removal by Lincoln, the appointment of Thomas, and the arrival of Grant and Sherman to lift the siege, the situation was about to change. Bragg rid himself of Longstreet, sending him off at his request to attack Burnside in Knoxville. Beginning with Hooker’s successful attack on Lookout Mountain on November 24, the Army of the Cumberland was about to redeem itself for its defeat in September. On November 25, Sheridan would lead the unordered charge up Missionary Ridge that would result in the rout of Bragg’s army. However, Grant’s plan of attack was for Sherman to deliver the main blow. Sherman attacked the north end of Missionary Ridge. Defending against Sherman at the Chattanooga and Cleveland Railroad tunnel was Cleburne’s division. Outnumbered four to one, Cleburne’s force beat back several attacks that day by Sherman’s 30,000 strong army. With the collapse of Bragg’s center and left, Cleburne’s embattled division served as the rear guard of the retreating army. He and his heavily outnumbered troops prevented further disaster and saved the army’s wagon train by holding off the pursuing Federals at Ringgold Gap.

While in winter camp and after Bragg’s replacement finally by Johnston, Cleburne came to the most controversial decision of his military career. On January 2, 1864, before the assembled (fractious) high command of the Army of Tennessee, the naïve Cleburne read his proposal to overcome the North’s numerical military superiority (including its Negro regiments) by arming slaves with a guarantee of freedom for fighting for the South. Cleburne argued that Southern independence was more important than the preservation of slavery. For this, he was denounced by many of his fellow officers, some of whom considered this to be treason. Despite being sworn to secrecy by Johnston, Cleburne’s proposal was leaked by a fellow officer to Davis, who suppressed it for fear that it would destroy his government. This setback was offset by Cleburne’s pursuit and engagement with Sue Tarleton, the maid of honor at Hardee’s wedding in Mobile later that January.

That spring and summer found Cleburne and his troops playing an important role in Johnston (and then Hood)’s attempt to prevent Sherman’s much larger army from capturing Atlanta. At the end of May, Cleburne is credited with saving the army’s right wing from destruction at Pickett’s Mill. On June 27, Cleburne’s entrenched division again stopped an assault by Sherman. Versus 8,000 attackers who lost 800 killed and wounded at the battle of Kennesaw Mountain, Cleburne’s losses were only 2 killed and 9 wounded.

Davis’ choice of Hood over Hardee to replace Johnston as Sherman approached Atlanta after repeatedly flanking Johnston was very disappointing to Cleburne. As was no doubt Hood passing over him in appointing Frank Cheatham instead to command Hood’s corps. Cleburne and his division were in the thick of the fighting triggered by Hood’s offensive attacks on Sherman from July through September in his defense of Atlanta. On July 22 at Bald Hill, Cleburne’s troops killed Ohioan James Birdseye McPherson, the only Union army commander killed in battle. On August 31 and September 1, in his only opportunity to command a corps (Hardee’s), Cleburne failed to defeat the Federals under Thomas and Logan at Jonesboro. Hood blamed Hardee for this defeat. The next day Hood evacuated Atlanta, sealing Lincoln’s victory in the Fall election.

Cleburne and his troops and their comrades were dispirited by these defeats and Sherman’s capture of Atlanta. They blamed Hood, who nevertheless remained in command. He failed to prevent Sherman from mounting his March to the Sea. Hood then began his doomed campaign to invade Tennessee and capture Nashville. Instead, he would largely destroy what remained of the Army of Tennessee, the finale being George Thomas’ victory at Nashville in December.

Cleburne nevertheless did his duty. However, he once again was caught up in one of the many setbacks of the Army of Tennessee. On November 29 at Spring Hill, Tennessee, due to confusing orders, Frank Cheatham’s corps, including Cleburne’s division, allowed John Schofield’s fleeing Federals to retreat that night almost directly through the sleeping Confederates, whom Hood had ordered to block their retreat. The next day, a furious Hood denounced his generals and then ordered a hurried attack on Schofield, now entrenched in Franklin enroute to Nashville. Instead of following Nathan Bedford Forrest’s advice to flank the Federals, Hood ordered an assault by his 20,000 troops even before the artillery arrived to support them. Surpassing the Pickett-Pettigrew assault at Gettysburg in both bravery and futility, the Army of Tennessee lost over 6,000 in this desperate attack. A despondent Cleburne before the attack responded to one of his fellow Arkansan commander’s foreboding that many of them would not get back to Arkansas by saying “If we are to die, let us die like men”. His last words to Hood were reported as: “I will take the enemy’s works or fall in the attempt”. Twice unhorsed leading his men, Cleburne died from a shot through his heart 50 yards from the Federal breastworks. He was one of several Southern generals killed in this disastrous, ill-advised attack. Enroute to Franklin, he had admired the chapel at Lucious Polk’s estate, saying: “It is almost worth dying to rest in so sweet a spot”. Polk had Cleburne buried there, although he was re-interred and buried in Helena in 1870. Hardee said this about his protégé Pat Cleburne:

“[He was] an Irishman by birth, a Southerner by adoption and residence, a lawyer by profession, a soldier in the British army by accident, and a soldier in the Southern armies from patriotism and conviction of duty in his manhood”.