Patrick Cleburne had emerged from the ruins of a childhood that saw the death of both parents and the misery of the Irish Potato Famine to a new life of hope and relative prosperity in Helena, Arkansas, by the 1850s. He had established himself as an attorney and as a pillar of the community. The Civil War, however, would take it all from him.
In a reorganization of Confederate forces in Arkansas, Cleburne was promoted to brigadier general in early 1862. Like many Arkansas volunteers, Cleburne spent most of the war east of the Mississippi River. He found himself in the midst of some of the bloodiest fights in the western theater in 1862. He was wounded in August 1862 at Richmond, Kentucky, when shrapnel hit him in the mouth, knocking out several teeth. Two months later at the Battle of Perryville in central Kentucky, he was twice wounded in battle but kept trying to rally his troops through the entire ordeal. With the Confederate loss, Confederates were unable to help Kentucky secessionists wrest the state away from the Union. Nevertheless, Cleburne impressed his superiors with his tenacity in the battlefield and was promoted to major general two months later.
At the Battle of Chattanooga in November 1863, Cleburne managed to deflect every Union attack thrown at his division, but the remaining Confederate troops were forced to fall back, allowing the Union a clear shot to take Atlanta. By January 1864, Cleburne somberly assessed the state of the Confederate army. With battlefield losses and desertions mounting, numbers for Confederate forces were dropping to critically low levels, and the South was running out of fighting-age men to replace them. Cleburne openly proposed that the South should start arming slaves in exchange for their freedom to solve their immediate manpower shortages.
Confederate officials and senior officers howled their disapproval at the idea of arming slaves. They were aghast as Cleburne’s depiction of slavery as “a continued embarrassment.” However, Gen. Robert E. Lee approved of the idea, but even he was unable to gain any support for the proposal until the very end of the war. Only in early 1865 as defeat was inevitable did a desperate Virginia legislature agree to the plan while most of the remaining Confederate states attempted to negotiate a surrender, Arkansas included.
Cleburne’s reputation fell in the eyes of the Confederate government in the aftermath, yet he fought in several battles in 1864 trying to prevent the capture of Atlanta by the U. S. Army. After the fall of Atlanta, Confederate generals decided on a last-ditch, desperate offensive into central Tennessee to draw Union forces out of Georgia.
On November 30, Confederate forces met Union defenders at the Battle of Franklin, just west of Nashville. A bitter firefight broke out as Confederates rushed toward Union lines. Noting the situation, he was reported to have said, “If we are to die, let us die like men.” Cleburne led his troops against the wall of Union defenders and had a horse shot out from under him. A second horse was shot just as he started to mount it. Instead, he charged forward, running toward Union troops, sword in hand, when he was cut down by bullet fire. He collapsed, dead at age 36. Nearly 10,000 troops were killed or wounded in the Confederate loss.
He was engaged to be married to a young woman in Alabama. The wedding was supposedly planned as soon as Cleburne to take leave from the front lines. The wedding, and the life of happiness he had dreamed of, was not to be.
In death, he received many honors that escaped him in life. In 1883, Cleburne County was named in northern Arkansas in his memory, the last of the state’s counties to be formed. After the war, Texas settlers founded the city of Cleburne, with Cleburne State Park opening in 1938. In Franklin, the battlefield had been neglected for decades afterward, with large parts eventually paved over or destroyed. In fact, a Pizza Hut had been placed at one part of the battlefield before the site was restored and christened Cleburne Park in 2005.