Major general in the Army of Tennessee, Patrick R. Cleburne was born on St. Patrick's Day in County Cork, Ireland, and immigrated to the United States in 1849. Cleburne settled in Helena, Arkansas, where he rose in social position and community esteem through diligent work, uncompromising honesty, and loyalty to his friends.
In the spring of 1861 Cleburne cast his lot with the Confederacy, explaining to his brother that although he owned no slaves, he would fight with the friends who had always supported him. The citizens of Helena elected Cleburne captain of the local militia. Drawing upon his three years of experience in the British army, Cleburne quickly advanced to the rank of colonel in the Fifteenth Arkansas Infantry Regiment. Within a year, he was a brigadier general in command of a brigade of General William J. Hardee's corps in General Albert S. Johnston's Army of Mississippi.
On April 6, 1862, Cleburne and his brigade (comprised mostly of Tennesseans) spearheaded the attack of Hardee's corps against the Union army around Pittsburg Landing, where he faced, in the first of several encounters between the two, the troops of General William T. Sherman. After heavy resistance, Cleburne's untested brigade forced the Union troops into retreat past Shiloh Church to within four hundred yards of the Tennessee River.
After the Army of Tennessee's ill-fated Kentucky campaign in the autumn of 1862, Cleburne's troops retreated to Middle Tennessee. While visiting the Confederate camp at College Grove in December 1862, President Jefferson Davis personally commissioned Cleburne major general.
During the battle of Stones River less than three weeks later, Cleburne's men spearheaded Hardee's attack on the Union right, driving the Federal line back three miles until it doubled on its own left and center. When Confederate commander Braxton Bragg failed to capitalize on this advantage, Cleburne's division acted as the rear guard for the Southern retreat to Chattanooga.
During the battle of Chattanooga Cleburne's division anchored the Confederate line on Missionary Ridge around Tunnel Hill. On November 25, 1863, the Union attack once again pitted Cleburne's troops against those under the command of Sherman. Despite overwhelming odds (Cleburne commanded 5,500 men to Sherman's 15,000), the Southern forces mortally wounded three Union generals, inflicted heavy casualties on Sherman's troops, and captured eight stand of colors. When the center of the Confederate line collapsed, Cleburne's troops, under his distinctive “Blue Flag,” acted as the rear guard for the Southern retreat. The Cleburne division remained in the thick of the fighting throughout the North Georgia Campaign of 1864.
The final chapter in the life of the Irish general was written at the battle of Franklin. As the Confederate army prepared for its assault on the Union earthworks at Franklin, one of Cleburne's brigade commanders predicted that few of his soldiers would return to Arkansas. Cleburne reportedly replied, “[I]f we are to die, let us die like men.” (1)
As Cleburne's troops made their assault up the Columbia Pike, the general had two horses shot from under him. Finally, as he advanced on foot to within fifty yards of the Union works, a single minie ball pierced his chest. Two days before the battle, as the army passed St. John's Episcopal Church, near Columbia, Cleburne had commented that it would be worth dying to be buried in a place so beautiful. His body was laid to rest in the churchyard after the battle of Franklin. Later it was removed to his adopted home of Helena, Arkansas.