In the field of battle, he shone like a
meteor on a clouded sky. As a dashing
military man, he was all virtue; a single
voice does not stain him as a warrior.
Robert E. Lee
The six-foot tall Cleburne knew he was hit, for his back hurt terribly. If he was going to die, he hoped he had brought that Know-Nothing supporter who shot him along. Looking to his side, he saw that his friend, Tom Hindman, was down as well. Should he survive, Cleburne intended to ask W. D. Rice, Hindman’s opponent in the Senate race, if that’s the way all Know-Nothings react when they lose a heated debate.
His failure to pass the Irish Pharmacy test resulting in those miserable years spent serving in the British Army’s 41st of Foot left an imprint on his soul and a marked change in his political outlook. The anger he derived from Britain’s treatment of the Irish was transferred to America’s domineering central government for its contempt for the Southern way of life. He had no slaves, but respected the rights of those who did. Cleburne knew the day might come when Southerners may be called upon to take up arms against their Northern brethren, but it’s was unlikely with him being wounded that he’d participate. Looking toward his friend, he wondered whether either he or Tom would survive their wounds.
During the recent Yellow Fever outbreak, he had Tom at his back while they were two of only three who risked contacting the contagious disease to aid Helena’s only physician, Doctor Nash. Before telling the stretcher bearers to cart him away, Nash said, “I’ve often heard you can scratch an Irishman but you couldn’t kill one. Maybe there’s some truth to it.”
The Civil War comes to Arkansas:
Captain of the Yell Rifles militia, Cleburne, speaking as clearly as his Irish accent would allow, tried to make himself understood, while at the same time trying to understand the Arkansas drawl of his unruly listeners. With the support of his friend and business associate, Tom Hindman, Cleburne was trying to bring order to the agitated gathering, most of whom wanted to go out and kill some Yankees.
“Gentlemen, please take your seats, the sooner we can agree on our strategy … the sooner we can achieve it. Even though we all have guns, we are going to need a lot more. Our State has already withdrawn from the Union. If we do not occupy the US arsenal in Little Rock, the Federal Army will retrieve or destroy all that’s stored there.”
Shotgun in hand, a red-necked farmer rose and headed for the door.
Hindman put his hand on the farmer’s shoulder as he passed. “Clay, please come back. The captain isn’t finished. You’ll get your turn at rescuing those arms.”
Clay returned to his seat, but his shifting, back and forth, indicated he wouldn’t stay long.
Cleburne nodded in appreciation.
“We’ll assemble in two groups. I’ll lead one.”
Pointing to Hindman. “Tom, the other.” Our militia’s going to become part of the First Arkansas Infantry. Save your shootin’ till then. This means you, Clay.”
Shiloh, TN – April 5, 1862
Tom Hindman poured coffee for he and Cleburne before joining the Irishman at the table, where maps of Tennessee were spread about. “So this is where it’s going to be?”
Cleburne took a sip before pointing to a spot 10 miles north of Corinth. “That’s what I hear. Johnson’s upset that Grant so easily took the Henry and Donelson Forts and wants to clip his wings.”
“Well, we best get it done before Buell hooks up with Grant, they’ll have neigh onto a hundred-thousand between them. We’ll have less than half that number.”
While Hindman poured over the scattered papers, Cleburne pondered a thought he had been considering for some time. He walked to the tent opening, looked out to make certain he couldn’t be overheard by any but Tom.
“If we were wise enough to let the darkies fight, we’d have an army more than twice our present size, and dispel the main reason why the North’s determined to continue this struggle. Furthermore, it’ll take away the excuse of used by England and France from recognizing the Confederacy.”
Hindman put down his coffee, pretending to peer over the maps, while reeling from Cleburne’s last remark.
Cleburne breathed a sigh of relief as the last of his three scouts had finally returned. “Sir, the Yankees are camped about two miles directly ahead on the other side of a ring of deep woods. With their campfires glowing and a band playing, I don’t believe they realize we’re in the vicinity. I’d recommend we attack immediately.”
“Thank you for the information and suggestion.”
The Irishman remarked with a laugh before continuing. “Unfortunately, neither you nor I decide our army’s strategy. Tell me about the terrain.”
“Their encampment’s surrounded by water, Snake Creek’s to their right, and Lick Creek on the left with the Tennessee River at their back and marsh land in front. It was so muddy, I had to leave my horse and crawl through the woods to get a clear look. The Western Corinth Road, the road we’re on, forms their right flank. They’re not fortified. We should attack now before they realize we’re nearby.”
“I agree. They’re likely making a stop before moving on to attack Corinth … probably didn’t get orders to build fortifications … so they didn’t. That’s to our advantage, but it’s not my call to decide when to attack.”
Sleep came slowly and then only in bits and snatches, for twice during the night, he had to move his brigade because General Bragg insisted on fitting his corps between Hardee and Polk. Each interruption forced Cleburne’s men to move ever closer to the enemy’s position. Leaving Cleburne to remark, “Bragg is either stark raving mad or utterly incompentent.”
Cleburne, a student of fellow-Irishman Wellington’s strategies, couldn’t believe that Old Beauregard had split the reserve, putting Beckinridge on the right and Polk on the left, instead of placing both on the right where fresh troops would be needed after the initial breakthrough.
Had the Yankees continued their assault, the Confederate Army of the West would have been annihilated. As Cleburne formulated his official report, he wondered how he could possibly describe the bravery of so many who fought without food or rest, while at the same time describe the cowardice of the deserters and those who pilfered enemy supplies, returning to their nearby homes with their forage in tow.
Richmond, Kentucky – August 29, 1862
Pursuant to your orders, being the vanguard of your army, I camped on Richmond Road, when sounds of artillery came from my front. Unaware of what lie ahead, I promptly formed a line of battle. Before long, Colonel Scott arrived with news he had encountered an enemy force, costing him the loss of a mountain howitzer. Previous to that, he had assured me that adequate pickets would prevent a surprise attack.
I immediately instructed my subordinates as to their positions and warned them to bring their regiments forward double quick at the first alarm. No sooner had these instructions been relayed, than stragglers from Scott’s cavalry, some wounded, and fleeing wagon trains began to storm passed. My brigade raced to its designated positions and met the charge of the enemy cavalry head on, driving them into rapid retreat.
Our sleep was constantly interrupted as their gunners took aim over our battle line at our blazing campfires 300 yards in the rear. A short-lived skirmish, in the dark, cost them numerous wounded, enabling us to capture horses, arms, and 30 men.
Daylight brought the enemy’s advance guard to a ½ mile north of Kingston with their line 500-yards in the rear. Early-on, it became evident they intended to flank our right.
I countered with a battery on a hill to the right of my brigade, firing slowly to preserve ammunition, while we awaited reinforcements from General Churchill. To support my skirmishers on the right, I sent forward the 104th Tennessee along with the 13th and 15th Arkansas. A heavy musket fight ensued. To counter this, I ordered Preston Smith with his three regiments into the fray. With the enemy so heavily gathered on their left, I placed Hill’s brigade in the center.
While stopping to offer a word of encouragement to wounded Colonel Polk, a stray shot hit me in the mouth, rendering me speechless and unable to continue in command. I turned the brigade over to General Preston Smith.
Smith carried out my strategy to the letter. The enemy, under attack by Hill in the middle, broke and fled down Richmond Road.
P. R. Cleburne
Brig. Gen. 4th Division, Army of Kentucky
Stones River (Murfreesboro), Tennessee –December 27, 1862
After watching his division march 20-miles over a wretched road through cold saturating rain on the preceding day, Cleburne received orders from General Hardee to form a line north of Murfreesboro and east of Stones River. That would put him adjacent to the Lebannon turnpike behind Beckinridge’s division
Cleburne wondered if he could come up with some trick like the one he used at Perryville by sending all the regimental flags ahead with the vanguard, which was instantly hit by artillery fire, then charging while the Union gunners reloaded. Today’s distance was too great and nothing came to his vivid imagination. Perhaps it was too early in the morning.
As Cleburne’s wheeling advance continued, the 2nd Arkansas overran the 22nd Indiana, the same regiment it had badly mauled at Perryville. His losses, on the left, were severe and portions of his line were checked and driven back. They recovered, however, and regained the lost ground while capturing a hospital and killing General Sill.
Cleburne, after driving the enemy from a cedar break, was exposed to enfilading fire from his right, compelling him to move his line further left. Here, the enemy gave way, leaving a large number of dead behind. That night, his men bivouacked on their line.
After dispelling rumors that the enemy was retreating, Cleburne discovered they were flanking him. Under orders from Hardee not to bring on a general battle, Cleburne stubbornly retained his position in the unrelenting rain.
Afterward he marched him men away with a heavy heart, disturbed that with the exception of the wheel he had executed, there were no other strategic movements—just a determined charge sometimes successful, sometimes repulsed. Today, there were no winners, only the army remaining on the field could claim a victory. Cleburne’s men marching off in disgust weren’t part of that army.
Chickamauga , September – November 1863
Looking like death warmed over, Tom Hindman approached. Cleburne poured him a cup of coffee. Hindman took another sip. “I suppose you’ve heard.”
“It’s all over camp. What happened at Liberty Gap?”
“We didn’t have enough men. Rosecrans surprised Bragg by attacking in force. The Bluecoats were coming on, and I didn’t think Bragg was ready.”
“Tom, this is your old partner Patrick. Why didn’t you attack?”
“Because, you were to be alongside me. But Hill ignored Bragg’s direct order. Claimed: you were sick in bed, when I was the sick one. The orders came too late, and the road was barricaded. But that’s not why I was suspended. I got the ax for supporting Hardee who resigned because he thought Bragg was incompetent, which he was. I still can’t believe Bragg sent troops to aid Joe Johnson at Tullahoma when we needed them so desperately here.”
“I agree. I supported Hill. It’s too bad only half of Longstreets’s Corps made it. Think of what we could have done with a few more men.”
“I’ll survive. My being relieved of my command has only a short life. I’ll be back when my destroying of Sheridan’s brigades becomes common knowledge.”
“Tell me about it?”
Hindman offered his cup for more coffee, delighted he was in the company of his one true friend. “Initially, we were God awful lucky. Longstreet arrived, during the night, with three brigades, almost 15,000 fresh troops, forced marched from the train. Because they came by rail, they had no supply wagons, lacked sufficient ammunition.
“Word came back to Longstreet that a large gap existed in the Union line. He immediately ordered five divisions in heavy columns, Stewart, Hood, Kershaw, Johnson, and me forward with Preston still held in reserve. Kershaw was placed under my command. We slammed into Davis first, overran him, and then hit Sheridan on the move, utterly destroyed several of his brigades. We’d split the union line. Unfortunately, fresh troops under Steedman arrived for Thomas, our attack was stopped, and we were driven back. The Union occupied a ridge, I wheeled from attacking the remnants of Sheridan and concentrated on Thomas’s right flank.”
Hindman threw the now cold coffee on the ground. “It was a victory but a hollow one” Cleburne discarded his remaining coffee, and tossed the tin cup aside. “Our early attempts to take them in detail proved to be utter failure, often the result of bickering and poor communications.”
“The infighting between Hill and Bragg was the worse yet, far worse than at Stones River. Bragg divided the force between Polk and Longstreet, something he hadn’t told Hill. Who, acting like a schoolboy, refused to follow Polk’s orders until informed of the command change directly by Bragg.
“On the 19th, we crossed the Chickamauga, freezing water up to my men’s waist. Then in the dark over unknown terrain, we were ordered to attack. It was called off at about nine … a disaster. Smoke from burning bushes added to the problem. We ended up shooting at our own men. As though he couldn’t continue without fresh coffee, Cleburne ordered more brought forward. “I understand a courier couldn’t locate Hill at night, and returned without giving orders to anyone.
“The Yanks had spent the morning hours fortifying Kelly Field with log breastworks. Four divisions awaited mine. Our charge was furious and the fighting bitter but unsuccessful. After an hour and a half, I called off the engagement. Deshler covered the retreat, lost half his men, and he died in the attempt.”
As if to contain his anger, Cleburne stood and walked in ever increasing circles. Finally, under control once again, he returned and sat beside Hindman. “Later that afternoon, I was ordered to move to the right and attack again. This time, we caught Thomas on the move and had greater success. But the will to succeed was gone. ”
Missionary Ridge, November 25, 1863
“We were trying to starve the enemy out by investing him on the only side from which he could not have gathered supplies.”
Cleburne gathered his three remaining brigades and marched them double quick to the railroad tunnel passing under Missionary Ridge. His orders were emphatic, protect the railroad bridge at all hazards.
The few prisoners taken from early skirmishes proudly claimed they served under General William Tecumseh Sherman. This news brought deep concern to Cleburne not because their leader was Sherman, who he had faced at Shiloh, but they were fresh troops, not the starving and defeated ones under Rosecrans.
Instead of attacking as Cleburne had anticipated or repositioning on the far side of the Chickamauga, Bragg’s strategy consisted of waiting behind the stout defenses of Missionary Ridge. Things looked dim. Cleburne’s line was thin with only two regiments covering the mile separating his force from that of the arriving Walker. Cleburne’s only option was to place artillery directly over the tunnel, move Polk’s brigade to the East Tennessee Railroad Bridge, and wait for the inevitable. It looked to be a day reminiscent of the counter punching at Kelly’s Field against Thomas, a battle that cost Cleburne dearly in both men and arms. Neither of which could be replaced.
“Why?” He asked himself, “Had Bragg sent Longstreet north to engage Burnside at Knoxville, who wasn’t causing the least bit of trouble. Didn’t Bragg ever consider that Grant had available an entire army fresh from their victory at Vicksburg?”
Then a miracle occurred that might, just might, save Cleburne’s command from being annihilated. Sherman, whose left extended far beyond Cleburne’s flank, perhaps due to lack of knowledge regarding the terrain had chosen to entrench on a smaller elevation, separated from and a mile north of Tunnel Hill. This mistake bought Cleburne time to build fortifications; he so desperately needed.
The fighting that ensued was as savage as any in the war. But to Cleburne’s eternal pride, his men stood tall. Even when the enemy secured a lodgment on Tunnel Hill, they counterattacked and drove them off. Heavy stones and bayonet charges, instead of artillery, proved to be more effective on the steep slopes. Enemy dead soon covered the hillside and valley below.
Fending off Sherman wasn’t all that was required of Cleburne, Orders came to send those he could spare to the center, which had been pierced. Two brigades left Cleburne’s command, leaving him with command of Walker’s and Stevenson’s divisions to hold the Confederate right flank until nightfall. By 9 PM, knowing that Missionary Ridge had been lost, Cleburne destroyed the bridge over the Chickamauga after his men were safely across.
Ringgold Gap – November 1863
Upon his initial inspection of Ringgold’s narrow Gap, 20 miles southeast of Chattanooga, Cleburne had an immediate aversion for the potential danger should the enemy turn either flank while his troops were within this break in Taylor’s Ridge. But what choice did he have? His job was to prevent Hooker’s men from overtaking Bragg’s cumbersome wagon train which had barely cleared the gap. The train still could be seen crossing the three fords over the winding Chickamauga Creek before reaching safety on the road to Dalton.
Time to place his troops was scant, he had less than a half-hour to make his dispositions. The enemy’s skirmishers were in sight and advancing. The confident Yanks came within canister range and Cleburne’s artillery greeted them.
Polk aided in the defense by sending the 1st Arkansas to the crest, once there supported by the 7th Texas, they drove the enemy’s battle line from the crown of the ridge. Sherman, continually sending reinforcements, tried once again. However, Lowery arrived in the nick of time to aid Polk with the 32nd and 45th Mississippi. Later he brought up the remaining regiments of his brigade, fighting with pistols and rocks, they sent the confused enemy running away, leaving behind the colors of the 76th Ohio.
By noon, the front had grown quiet when a dispatch from Hardee arrived, informing Cleburne that the train was well advanced. In the next two hours, Cleburne withdrew his force, burned the bridges over the Chickamauga and formed a battle line at a distance from the mouth of the gap.
Within months, the Confederate Congress tendered thanks to Cleburne and his men for saving Bragg’s wagon train and artillery.
Mobile, Alabama- 1864
Following his first ever venture into a love match, he reread the proposal to the Commanding General of the Army of Tennessee. Not being a slave owner himself but because of his experience with the Brits’ Penal Laws in Ireland, he sympathized with the plight of the black man. But even then, he didn’t kid himself regarding his motive. His intent was not to free the slave. It was to make the Confederate Army numerically superior to that of the North. He hoped his superiors would agree that freedom was the only moral incentive that could be offered. Freedom for himself and that of his wife and child would encourage slaves to submit to discipline and fight bravely. His proposal brought up historical examples of slaves, even black ones, fighting successfully whenever freedom was offered. He was well aware that this would remove the major impediment preventing England and France from recognizing the Confederacy. Hopefully the signatures of 13-other officers of rank would encourage his superiors to realize the army is “sinking into a fatal apathy, growing weary of hardships and slaughters.” Finally he brought up the increase in desertions. He folded his copy of the document and returned it to his case, hoping that common sense would prevail. The answer was one Cleburne expected:
While recognizing the patriotic motives
Of its distinguished author, I deem it inexpedient at this time to give publicity
to this paper, and request that it be suppressed.
C.S. President Jefferson Davis
Picket’s Settlement – May 27th, 1864
Behind the proud words, “We have caught you without your logs.” The Blue Coats charged in a steady stream to within a few yards of Cranbury before Cleburne’s hidden troops opened fire. With assistance from Govan, the enemy, leaving piles of dead, was driven from the ridge, across a field into the woods. Two pieces of artillery with a right-oblique fire had enfiladed their masses.
Unable to send skirmishers forward, due to the enemy lying near his lines, Cranbury’s men with fixed bayonets charged in the darkness, intending to terrify with their stirring Rebel Yell, but they met no resistance. The panic-stricken enemy had fled.
Kennesaw Mountain – June 27th
Cleburne remembered learning from his friend, Tom Hindman that the level terrain to the rear of the mountainous one they now occupied would greatly benefit the superior manpower of the Bluecoats. If Sherman made it that far, Atlanta would be his for the picking. Hindman and Cleburne chatted about Sherman’s strategy to continually come at their left flank, forcing them to head right, and questioned Johnson’s retreating every time that occurred.
Hindman led off, “This is the best position we’ve had … and likely the best we’ll ever have. The question is, ‘How do we entice Sherman to attack?’”
“You’re telling me you’re convinced the Battle of Peter Kolb’s Farm was just a feint.”
“It started as a feint and turned into a slaughter, with us getting the worst of it. And it’s all Hood’s fault. If he weren’t so damn impetuous and had spent even the minimal time at reconnaissance, we wouldn’t have lost seventeen hundred. I’ve heard that your division will report to Hood.”
“I pray that’d never happen. His brashness has cost us men … men we’ll sorely need if Sherman ever changes from trying to outflank us to meeting us head on.”
“How much longer a respite do we have before Sherman decides?”
“Can’t even guess. He has a major supply issue, two-hundred-and fifty miles to Nashville. Even Chattanooga’s ninety miles away, and this rain doesn’t help. It’s now we should hit him in the rear. Destroy his communications, rather than sit here on our behinds and allow him to do all the deciding.”
“In the meantime, if Sherman heads for our left flank and Johnson reacts and pulls out once again, our part in this war is over, Atlanta is doomed.”
“How many times has it been now? Five?”
“I’ve given up counting. Johnson had been hoping Sherman would have attacked someplace where we have the advantage. It almost happened north of Cassville, but Hood, fearful that McCook’s cavalry had gotten behind him, didn’t participate’“Another opportunity lost. How many more do we have?”
As he watched his friend mount, Cleburne wondered how many opportunities he personallyhad left, particularly if the rumor about his being attached to the rash Hood was true
Although uncomfortable, he knew the unceasing rain continued to be a defenders best friend. Muddy roads were another and perhaps it was the main reason Sherman delayed. Cleburne also realized the Union needed an all-weather railroad to supply their vast army. They specifically needed the Western and Atlanta. Once Sherman had that, he’d come in force.
Shaking his head, Cleburne thought, the war of attrition has begun. Kept informed by flagged signals from the spotters on the peaks, he knew the Yankees were going to hit him directly. Prepared as best he could, he waited. A ferocious artillery shelling indicated the Bluecoats were coming. The infantry charge hit Cheatham on his left when the closed packed regiments charged from the protection of the trees. Waves of enemy came storming toward him forcing his Tennessee rifles to open up. But as ordered, the artillery waited. On and on came the surge of blue until they got within 40-yards, there they were hit and halted by cannon fire. Those still pouring from the woods, crashed into the backs of those who stopped. The massive force surged, were stopped again, and surged again. Finally the continuous volume of fire from Cleburne’s men brought the entire advance to a dead stop. Destructive flanking fire added to the woe of the Yankee. Leaving the dead and wounded behind, their assault ended.
Then Cleburne watched the most astounding act of kindness ever seen on a battlefield. As smoke from the woods clouded his vision, a Colonel from Arkansas, waving a white flag, climbed on a rock and shouted, “Come and get your wounded, they’re burning to death.”
Unarmed Yankees made their way forward, and unarmed Confederates aided them in collecting the unfortunates who had been left behind. For 15-minutes, the animosity of three years of fighting came to an end. The next day under a white flag, Union officers handed the Colonel a matching pair of ivory-handled pistols. Later that morning, a tunnel dug by Federal soldiers under the fortifications and filled with explosives did some damage but it came far too late in the struggle.
Franklin TN– November 30th
After leaving General Hood, Cleburne feared his division would suffer the same fate that Hood’s men did at Kennesaw Mountain, a blind charge into entrenched Bluecoats. He could understand Hood’s frustration playing cat and mouse with Thomas, the Rock of Chickamauga, from Atlanta all through Alabama and now into Tennessee. He knew that Hood wanted to carry the fight into Kentucky where he hoped to recruit men to his cause.
In trying to delay Sherman from heading for Savannah, Hood’s strategy of destroying railroad tracks proved to be useless, since the efficient Federal engineers repaired them in less time than it took to destroy them. Hood is now attempting to draw Thomas into battle at Spring Hill before he has an opportunity to linkup with Sherman. Turning to Govan, Cleburne shared his thoughts. “We messed up at Spring Hill, big time.”
Govan nodded, remembering that Stewart bivouacked rather than come to Cheatham’s support, and Cheatham only made a weak attempt to block the Columbia Pike; thereby enabling Schofield to escape the planned entrapment. Govan could still recall Hood’s fury for he was a party to the superior general’s wrath.
Cleburne continued. “Hood now intends to attack an entrenched Schofield before taking on Thomas in Nashville.”
Cleburne agreed with their doing battle with Schofield, whose back was to the Harpeth River, he disagreed, however, with Hood’s determination to conduct a frontal assault.
Talking with General Govan of his staff, Cleburne described his last sessions with Hood.
“He believes that earthworks take the fight out of the men … that they dull an army’s offensive spirit. That’s why he wants Brown and us to lead the charge. Nowhere has he learned that the Bluecoats he defeated in sixty-three are now hardened veterans. Furthermore, each entrenched defender’s worth three attackers. We no longer have the necessary manpower. Without Forrest’s cavalry, Schofield’s forces is the equal of ours.”
“Are you the only one who opposed a frontal attack?”
“Hell no! They were all opposed. Even Forrest urged a turning movement, that’s when Hood nearly took his head off. The only opportunity we have is to rapidly crush the two brigades that’re currently a covering force south of Franklin. If we can only intermingle with them as they retreat, it’d make those on the main battle line hesitate.”
Govan nodded. “I’ve my orders, and I’ll do my best. If you don’t mind sir, I’ve often wondered what’s on the paper you take out and read on occasion.”
Cleburne broke into a smile. “It’s a note from a fellow Irishman who also hailed from County Cork. This fellow, Union Brigadier General Thomas Sweeny, wants me to help him after the war to raise an Irish Army from among the war’s survivors to free Ireland.”
“What’d you tell him?”
“That after this war ends, both of us should have had enough fighting to satisfy us for the rest of our lives.”
“A good reply.”
Then Cleburne rose and started for his mount. “Well Govan, if we are to die, let us die like men.”
The two shook hands before departing.
The battle went as Cleburne had hoped … to a point. His troops hit Wagner’s brigades just as they were withdrawing, which prevented an inexperienced brigade under Cox from firing for fear of killing their own. As the Rebels pierced the Union line, it initially gave way and would have collapsed if it were not for the plugging action of Opdycke, whose brigade had been held in reserve.
In leading the charge, Cleburne had two horses shot from under him. Finally, he drew his sword and waving his hat urged his men forward. When the bullets struck, he knew his time had come to an end.