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.
Confederate General Patrick Cleburne died at the Battle of Franklin, “pierced with forty-nine bullets, through and through.” Cleburne was the highest ranking Irish General during the Civil war and is recognized as one of the finest officers to serve on either side of that terrible campaign. Robert E. Lee referred to him as a “a meteor shining from a clouded sky.” He became known as the “Stonewall of the West” Cleburne’s campaigns included the Battles of Shiloh, Richmond and Chickamauga.
The Patrick R. Cleburne Confederate Memorial Cemetery in Georgia is the final resting place of Confederate soldiers who fell during the Battle of Jonesboro. Cleburne County in Alabama is named after the Corkman. The town of Cleburne Texas was named in honor of Gen. Patrick R. Cleburne, under whom many of the men had fought during the Civil War.
Some of the best recollections of Cleburne’s abilities are referenced in Co Aytch, a truly interesting memoir by Confederate soldier Sam Watkins. Of the Battle of Ringold Gap where Cleburne’s 4,000 men fought 12,000 of Hooker’s Northern forces, he writes:
“Cleburne had had the doggondest fight of the war. The ground was piled with dead Yankees; they were piled in heaps. The scene looked unlike any battlefield I ever saw. From the foot to the top of the hill was covered with their slain, all lying on their faces. It had the appearance of the roof of a house shingled with dead Yankees. They were flushed with victory and success, and had determined to push forward and capture the whole of the Rebel army, and set up their triumphant standard at Atlanta—then exit Southern Confederacy. But their dead were so piled in their path at Ringgold Gap that they could not pass them. The Spartans gained a name at Thermopylae, in which Leonidas and the whole Spartan army were slain while defending the pass. Cleburne’s division gained a name at Ringgold Gap, in which they not only slew the victorious army, but captured five thousand prisoners besides. That brilliant victory of Cleburne’s made him not only the best general of the army of Tennessee, and covered his men with glory and honor of heroes, but checked the advance of Grant’s whole army.”
“The plan of battle, as conceived and put into action by General Cleburne, was one of the boldest conceptions, and, at the same time, one of the most hazardous that ever occurred in our army during the war, but it only required nerve and pluck to carry it out, and General Cleburne was equal to the occasion. The Yankees had fortified on two ranges of hills, leaving a gap in their breastworks in the valley entirely unfortified and unprotected. They felt that they could enfilade the valley between the two lines so that no troop would or could attack at this weak point. This valley was covered with a dense undergrowth of trees and bushes. General Walker, of Georgia, was ordered to attack on the extreme right, which he did nobly and gallantly, giving his life for his country while leading his men, charging their breastworks. He was killed on the very top of their works. In the meantime General Cleburne’s division was marching by the right flank in solid column, the same as if they were marching along the road, right up this valley, and thus passing between the Yankee lines and cutting them in two, when the command by the left flank was given, which would throw them into line of battle. By this maneuver, Cleburne’s men were right upon their flank, and enfilading their lines, while they were expecting an attack in their front. It was the finest piece of generalship and the most successful of the war.”