Murray: Gen. Patrick Ronayne Cleburne: The unknown Confederate hero

Murray: Gen. Patrick Ronayne Cleburne: The unknown Confederate hero

March 30th, 2014 by By Smith Murray in Opinion Columns

Despite turning back Gen. William T. Sherman's army on the north end of Missionary Ridge and two days later stopping Gen. "Fighting Joe" Hooker's army in Ringgold, Ga., Confederate Gen. Patrick Ronayne Cleburne is still largely unknown to most Chattanoogans.

Where did the South acquire such a man? Certainly not in an expected way.

Cleburne was born in County Cork, Ireland. His family was protestant in a mostly Catholic Ireland. They were modest income gentry. Cleburne's father was a doctor who died when Cleburne was 15.

Cleburne wished to follow in his father's footsteps. However, when he applied to Trinity College in Dublin, he was rejected.

Feeling disgraced, he joined the British army. His family knew nothing of his whereabouts for one and one half years.

At age 21, he came into a small inheritance and bought his way out of the British army. The army tried to get him to stay, but he saw no future rank higher than captain, where he would be resented by his subordinates and looked down upon by his superiors.

Instead, he immigrated to America in 1849.

He first went to Cincinnati to work in a drug store. Shortly thereafter, he moved to Helena, Ark., to manage a drug store in which he soon bought half-interest.

By 1854, he had sold his interest and pursued a career in law. In 1856, he was admitted to the bar.

Cleburne, despite his reticence and self-contained nature, was popular. Thought of as a foreigner, he wasn't always alert to local customs. In throwing a party for his friends, he asked, "What do Southerners like to eat?"

"Watermelon," he was told. "Boiled watermelon."

In politics, he came to support the Democrats and oppose the Know-Nothing Party. Cleburne was ardent but cool-headed. His fellow Democrat, attorney Thomas Hindman, was more hot-headed.

A political quarrel resulted in Hindman becoming fearful that he would be ambushed on his way to dinner. He asked Cleburne to walk with him. He told Cleburne that he didn't expect Cleburne to fight. He just wanted Cleburne to see that he got a fair fight.

Cleburne never got the chance to arbitrate. They were indeed ambushed. Hindman was downed by a superficial shot, and Cleburne was shot in the chest. Before going down, Cleburne shot and killed one of the assailants. The other ambushers fled. Cleburne convalesced for more than a month.

At the war's onset, Cleburne joined the Yell Rifles as a private. He was quickly elected its captain. They became part of the 15th Arkansas Regiment, and Cleburne was elected its colonel.

By the time of the Kentucky campaign, he was a one-star general. Before the battle of Murfreesboro, he was promoted to a two-star general. He was the highest-ranking foreigner in the Confederate army, but he would never rise higher.

The reasons are debatable, but many people believe one reason was his advocacy for employing blacks in the Confederate army and granting them their freedom. Seeing a shortage of manpower as a critical need for the South, he felt that independence was more important than slavery. When told his proposal could cause him trouble, Cleburne said two things. One, he would be willing to resign his current command to train and fight with these black troops. Two, if they did fire him for his proposal, he would reenlist in his old regiment as a private.

Another reason was that he had twice criticized Gen. Braxton Bragg to his face. After Murfreesboro, Cleburne told Bragg that he had lost the confidence of the Army. And before the Battle of Missionary Ridge, he had signed the petition asking Confederate President Jefferson Davis to relieve Bragg.

Following Missionary Ridge, Bragg was relieved but was soon appointed as Davis' military advisor. Cleburne couldn't expect to get any help from that quarter.

Also, the request for employing black troops didn't sit well with Jefferson Davis. He ordered Cleburne to never mention it again. Cleburne obeyed, and his request didn't become public until 25 years later.

During the winter of 1864 Cleburne became engaged to Sue Tarleton of Mobile, Ala. After the Atlanta campaign, Cleburne asked for a two week leave so that they could marry. Hood denied the leave. Cleburne marched with Gen. John B. Hood to Franklin, Tenn., where he met his death.

Had Cleburne been promoted to corps command, his end could have been quite different.

Dr. R. Smith Murray is a retired urologist.

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