American Civil War: Major General Patrick Cleburne

Patrick Cleburne

PhotoQuest / Getty Images

Patrick Cleburne - Early Life & Career:

Born March 17, 1828 in Ovens, Ireland, Patrick Cleburne was the son of Dr. Joseph Cleburne. Raised by his father after his mother's death in 1829, he largely enjoyed a middle-class upbringing. At age 15, Cleburne's father passed leaving him an orphan. Seeking to pursue a medical career, he sought admission to Trinity College in 1846, but proved unable to pass the entrance exam. Possessing few prospects, Cleburne enlisted in the 41st Regiment of Foot. Learning basic military skills, he attained the rank of corporal before purchasing his discharge after three years in the ranks. Seeing opportunity in Ireland, Cleburne elected to immigrate to the United States along with two of his brothers and his sister. Initially settling in Ohio, he later moved to Helena, AR.

Employed as a pharmacist, Cleburne quickly became a respected member of the community. Befriending Thomas C. Hindman, the two men bought the Democratic Star newspaper with William Weatherly in 1855. Expanding his horizons, Cleburne trained as a lawyer and by 1860 was actively practicing. As sectional tensions worsened and the secession crisis began following the election of 1860, Cleburne decided to support the Confederacy. Though he claimed not to care one way or the other about slavery, he made this decision based on his positive experience in the South as an immigrant. With the political situation worsening, Cleburne enlisted in the Yell Rifles, a local militia, and was soon elected captain. Aiding in the capture of the U.S. Arsenal at Little Rock, AR in January 1861, his men were ultimately folded into the 15th Arkansas Infantry of which he became colonel.

Patrick Cleburne - The Civil War Begins:

Recognized as a skilled leader, Cleburne received a promotion to brigadier general on March 4, 1862. Assuming command of a brigade in Major General William J. Hardee's corps of the Army of Tennessee, he took part in General Albert S. Johnston's offensive against Major General Ulysses S. Grant in Tennessee. On April 6-7, Cleburne's brigade was engaged in the Battle of Shiloh. Though the first day's fight proved successful, Confederate forces were driven from the field on April 7. Later the following month, Cleburne saw action under General P.G.T. Beauregard during the Siege of Corinth. With the loss of this town to Union forces, his men later shifted east to prepare for General Braxton Bragg's invasion of Kentucky.

Marching north with Lieutenant General Edmund Kirby Smith, Cleburne's brigade played a key role in the Confederate victory at the Battle of Richmond (KY) on August 29-30. Rejoining Bragg, Cleburne attacked Union forces under Major General Don Carlos Buell at the Battle of Perryville on October 8. In the course of the fighting, he sustained two wounds but remained with his men. Though Bragg won a tactical victory at Perryville, he elected to retreat back to Tennessee as Union forces threatened his rear. In recognition of his performance during the campaign, Cleburne received a promotion to major general on December 12 and assumed command of a division in Bragg's Army of Tennessee.

Patrick Cleburne - Fighting with Bragg:

Later in December, Cleburne's division played a key role in driving back the right wing of Major General William S. Rosecrans' Army of the Cumberland at the Battle of Stones River. As at Shiloh, the initial success could not be sustained and Confederate forces withdrew on January 3. That summer, Cleburne and the rest of the Army of Tennessee retreated through central Tennessee as Rosecrans repeatedly outmaneuvered Bragg during the Tullahoma Campaign. Ultimately halting in northern Georgia, Bragg turned on Rosecrans at the Battle of Chickamauga on September 19-20. In the fighting, Cleburne mounted several assaults on Major General George H. Thomas' XIV Corps. Winning a victory at Chickamauga, Bragg pursued Rosecrans back to Chattanooga, TN and commenced a siege of the city.

Responding to this situation, Union general-in-chief Major General Henry W. Halleck directed Major General Ulysses S. Grant to bring his forces from Mississippi to reopen the Army of the Cumberland's supply lines. Successful in this, Grant made preparations for assaulting Bragg's army which held the heights south and east of the city. Positioned at Tunnel Hill, Cleburne's division manned the extreme right of the Confederate line on Missionary Ridge. On November 25, his men turned back several frontal assaults by Major General William T. Sherman's troops during the Battle of Chattanooga. This success soon was negated when the Confederate line further down the ridge collapsed and forced Cleburne to retreat. Two days later, he halted the Union pursuit at the Battle of Ringgold Gap.

Patrick Cleburne - Atlanta Campaign:

Reorganizing in northern Georgia, command of the Army of Tennessee was passed to General Joseph E. Johnston in December. Recognizing that the Confederacy was short on manpower, Cleburne proposed arming enslaved people the following month. Those that fought would receive their emancipation at the end of the war. Receiving a cool reception, President Jefferson Davis directed that Cleburne's plan be suppressed. In May 1864, Sherman began moving into Georgia with the goal of capturing Atlanta. With Sherman maneuvering through northern Georgia, Cleburne saw action at Dalton, Tunnel Hill, Resaca, and Pickett's Mill. On June 27, his division held the center of the Confederate line at the Battle of Kennesaw Mountain. Turning back Union assaults, Cleburne's men defended their part of the line and Johnston achieved a victory. Despite this, Johnston was later compelled to retreat south when Sherman flanked him out of the Kennesaw Mountain position. Having been forced back to Atlanta, Johnston was relieved by Davis and replaced with General John Bell Hood on July 17.

On July 20, Hood attacked Union forces under Thomas at the Battle of Peachtree Creek. Initially held in reserve by his corps commander, Lieutenant General William J. Hardee, Cleburne's men were later directed to restart an offensive on the Confederate right. Before the attack could commence, new orders arrived instructing his men to move east to aid Major General Benjamin Cheatham's hard-pressed men. Two days later, Cleburne's division played a key role in attempting to turn Sherman's left flank at the Battle of Atlanta. Attacking behind Major General Grenville M. Dodge's XVI Corps, his men killed Major General James B. McPherson, commander of the Army of Tennessee, and gained ground before being halted by a determined Union defense. As the summer progressed, Hood's situation continued to deteriorate as Sherman tightened the noose around the city. In late August, Cleburne and the rest of Hardee's Corps saw heavy fighting at the Battle of Jonesboro. Beaten, the defeat led to the fall of Atlanta and Hood withdrew to regroup.

Patrick Cleburne - Franklin-Nashville Campaign:

With the loss of Atlanta, Davis instructed Hood to attack north with the goal of disrupting Sherman's supply lines to Chattanooga. Anticipating this, Sherman, who was planning his March to the Sea, dispatched forces under Thomas and Major General John Schofield to Tennessee. Moving north, Hood attempted to trap Schofield's force at Spring Hill, TN before it could unite with Thomas. Attacking at the Battle of Spring Hill, Cleburne engaged Union forces before being halted by enemy artillery. Escaping during the night, Schofield retreated to Franklin where his men built a strong set of earthworks. Arriving the next day, Hood resolved to frontally attack the Union position.

Recognizing the folly of such a move, many of Hood's commanders attempted to dissuade him of this plan. Though he opposed the attack, Cleburne commented that the enemy works were strong but that he would carry them or fall trying. Forming his division on the right of the attacking force, Cleburne advanced around 4:00 PM. Pushing ahead, Cleburne was last seen attempting to lead his men forward on foot after having his horse killed. A bloody defeat for Hood, the Battle of Franklin saw fourteen Confederate generals become casualties including Cleburne. Found on the field after the battle, Cleburne's body initially was buried at St. John's Episcopal Church near Mount Pleasant, TN. Six years later, it was moved to Maple Hill Cemetery in his adopted hometown of Helena.

Selected Sources

mla apa chicago
Your Citation
Hickman, Kennedy. "American Civil War: Major General Patrick Cleburne." ThoughtCo, Apr. 5, 2023, Hickman, Kennedy. (2023, April 5). American Civil War: Major General Patrick Cleburne. Retrieved from Hickman, Kennedy. "American Civil War: Major General Patrick Cleburne." ThoughtCo. (accessed June 1, 2023).