Some lives are not destined for longevity or happiness. An immigrant who arrived in America to escape famine in Ireland, Patrick Cleburne rose to prominence in his brief time in the United States. During the Civil War, he rose to general. In his short life, Cleburne suffered many tragedies.
Cleburne was born on St. Patrick’s Day, 1828, in Ireland. His father was a respected doctor. His mother died when he was eighteen months old. Cleburne was at a boarding school when his father suddenly died in 1843. He planned to attend medical school to honor his father but failed the entrance exams. Humiliated, he left school in 1845 and joined the British Army at the same time the Potato Famine struck Ireland.
He served in posts around Ireland, maintaining order while millions starved. Crops rotted, and hunger grew. The British government did very little for the people while the death toll passed one million on an island of eight million. In 1849, he returned home to find that hard times had hit his family as well and that their home was about to be lost. As a result, he left the army and joined the mass exodus of refugees heading to America with three of his siblings.
Cleburne arrived in New Orleans seven weeks later and journeyed up to Helena in search of work. He eventually found a job in a pharmacy before taking an apprenticeship to learn law. Cleburne found that his fortunes were changing with his move to Arkansas. He became a citizen in 1855 after he met the five-year residency requirement and was soon admitted to the bar.
He became a popular citizen in Helena, joining many organizations and becoming a partner in a prominent local law firm. Active politically, he fought the anti-immigrant “Know-Nothing” Party across the state. In the late 1850s, a horrible yellow fever epidemic swept through Helena. While others recoiled, Cleburne stepped forward to volunteer to care for the sick, being no stranger to death.
He was never a slave owner and never particularly supported slavery, remembering the brutal treatment of the Irish at the hands of the English. He did not support secession initially because of the defense of slavery tied with it. Nevertheless, when secession came in 1861, he cast his lot with the Confederacy to side with his adopted home state of Arkansas. He came to see the perspective of many secessionists in the state that Arkansas was being pushed around by a larger power, regardless of the provocation. Being an Irish immigrant, Cleburne bristled at memories of British rule. However, many Irish immigrants fought in the Union Army during the Civil War.
As the war approached, many men in the Helena area started forming their own militia, which they called the “Yell Rifles,” after former Gov. Archibald Yell, who had died in the Mexican War over a decade before. During the Civil War era, soldiers elected their own officers as their units formed and trained. Thus, the initial ranks from corporal to sergeant to lieutenant and captain were decided by the troops. Impressed by his experience in the British army and his prestige in Helena, the men elected Cleburne as captain.
The Yell Rifles seized the federal armory in Little Rock in February 1861 as Union troops fled without a fight. The unit was reorganized into the First Arkansas Volunteer Infantry Regiment after Arkansas seceded. The unit was put under control of the Army of Tennessee as Confederate officials saw the fight shaping up in Tennessee as more strategically important than the defense of Arkansas. As part of this reorganization, he was promoted from captain to brigadier general in March 1862.
Cleburne had reached the height of his career. Ahead lay the most difficult fighting of the Civil War. The war challenged him daily, and tragedy would again become a part of his life. Shortly afterward, he wrote in a letter that if the Confederacy was “doomed to fall, I pray heaven may let me fall with it…” His words would ominously find him a little over two years later.