Patrick Ronayne Cleburne

John Francis Maguire
CHAPTER XXIX (18) start of chapter

As I cannot attempt an enumeration of the various Irish organisations that won distinction in the war, neither can I venture on a list of the gallant Irish officers, even of the highest rank, who signalised themselves by their achievements in that memorable struggle. I have before me a long list of men who commanded regiments, brigades, divisions, and corps; but fearing that, from my imperfect knowledge, I should necessarily fall into error, and be guilty perhaps of very serious injustice if I relied upon it, I must adopt the only course left open to me, and deal in generalities. Then, leaving the praises of men like Shiel or Sheridan, the Murat of the Union—Irish by blood, American through birth—to other pens, I shall simply say that the gallantry and skill of the Irish officer, of whatever rank, was quite as conspicuous as the dash and endurance of the rank and file.

But there is a grave amidst the countless graves that mark the scene of one of the deadliest conflicts of the war, on which I would drop a kindly tribute—that is the grave of Patrick Ronayne Cleburne, one of the noblest of the soldiers of the Confederacy.

Patrick Ronayne Cleburne was born within a few miles of the city of Cork. His father—the son of a country gentleman in Tipperary—was for many years physician of the dispensary districts of Ovens and Ballincollig; his mother, Miss Ronayne, was a lady from Queenstown. Patrick, the youngest of three sons, was partly educated for the medical profession; but his tastes, from his earliest youth, tending to a military career, and, owing to his father's second marriage, which resulted in a second and numerous family, not being able to purchase a commission as an officer in the British Army, he in his eighteenth year enlisted in the 41st regiment as a private soldier. He remained in the service until he was twenty-one, when he was purchased out by his friends. But these three years of military training in one of the most thoroughly disciplined armies of Europe was of incalculable advantage to him in after life. He emigrated to America when the war broke out; and it found the young Cork man practising with success as a lawyer in Helena, Arkansas.

I have been favoured with an admirable biographical sketch of General Cleburne by his attached friend and distinguished commander, General W. T. Hardee, one of the most thoroughly accomplished soldiers of either army; and referring the reader to that sketch, which will be found in the Appendix, I shall here simply indicate what manner of man was this Patrick Ronayne Cleburne, who learned his knowledge of military drill and discipline in the ranks of the 41st British regiment of infantry. To begin, then; this heroic Irishman, who was as strong as a wall of granite to the foe, was as simple as a child, and as modest as a girl; and that voice that rang like a trumpet when cannon roared, and balls whistled about his head, was low and gentle and hesitating when he was exposed to the most formidable of all batteries to him, a pair of eyes in the head of any woman of moderate youth or ordinary attractions. His personnel is thus sketched by a worthy countryman of his, whom he visited in Mobile, on the occasion of the marriage of his friend General Hardee, whose 'best man' he was on that interesting occasion: 'In person he was about five feet nine or ten inches high, slender in form, with a wiry active look. His forehead was high and broad, with high cheek bones, cheeks rather hollow, and face diminishing in width towards the chin, the upper features being more massive than the lower. The general expression of his countenance in repose was serious and thoughtful; but in conversation he was animated and impressive, while his whole air and manner were remarkably unpretending.'

General Cleburne dining one day with the good Irishman whose words I have quoted, informed him that he had made up his mind during the war to be a total abstainer, because he found that in his pistol practice and in playing chess, of which game he was remarkably fond, even one glass of wine affected his aim, or interfered with his calculation. He determined, therefore, while the war lasted, and he was responsible for the lives of others, and the results consequent on the manner in which he should discharge his duties, that he would abstain altogether from the use of all kinds of liquor.

Cleburne was in favour of arming the negroes as soldiers, conferring upon them and their families freedom as a bounty. He, with several distinguished generals, signed a petition to President Davis to that effect, and he personally offered to take command of a division of such troops, when raised. But the movement failed on account of the opposition which it met with. In private conversation he said that the general sentiment of the world was against the Confederacy on the question of slavery, and that Southerners could look nowhere for active sympathy unless they made some such arrangement as he mentioned: and he unhesitatingly expressed his belief, that the success of the cause depended upon its adoption. He did not pronounce a decided opinion against slavery in the abstract, but he regarded the system in the South as having glaring defects and evils, especially the utter disregard of the married rights of the slaves, which, he said, was enough to deprive the States in which this evil existed of the aid of Providence in the war. The opinions held by General Cleburne were those emphatically expressed in writing and from the pulpit by the Catholic Bishops of Richmond and Savannah.(59)

The opinions of a man of Cleburne's stamp, as to the character of the Irish as soldiers, I give in the words of the friend who heard them expressed by that great General: 'In reference to the relative merits, as soldiers, of the different kind of men in the service, he said he preferred the Irish, not on the ground of their courage, for of that there was no lack in the Confederate service, but for other qualities, highly useful in war. After a long day's march they generally had their tents up first; they were more cleanly in their persons; under the fatigue of hard work, or a heavy march, they showed more endurance, and recovered sooner; they were more cheerful under privation; and above all, they were more amenable to discipline. These, he said, were highly useful qualities in war; and from actual observation he was persuaded the Irish soldiers possessed them in a higher degree than any other people that came under his eye.'

Cleburne was one of those Irishmen who never could understand how it was that his countrymen of the North could join with the 'Yankee' to oppress and crush the South; but had he been a lawyer in a Northern or Northwestern State, he might have been equally surprised if anyone had accused him of turning his military knowledge to the same purpose. His countrymen throughout the Northern States were proud of his splendid reputation; while in the South it was not considered second to that of the very greatest of its commanders. And when he died—struck by a storm of bullets, as the fore feet of his horse were planted on the Federal ramparts—a wail of sorrow and a shudder of despair passed through the land. A tower of strength had fallen. The dauntless soldier sleeps in peace in the cemetery whose solemn beauty elicited the strange remark, as he gazed on it a few days before he gloriously fell, 'It is almost worth dying to rest in so sweet a spot.'

I heard the heroic Irishman thus spoken of by two brave men—General Buckner and General Hood—who had been with him in many a memorable fight, and many a brilliant victory. Referring to his name, the first-named general said:—

And particularly did I recall the virtues of the Irish character, when a few short months ago, I stood, in the twilight hour, over the grave of one of the noblest sons of Ireland. As I looked upon the plain board inscribed with his name in pencil lines, and upon the withered flowers which the fair hands of some of our countrywomen had strewn upon his grave, I wept silent tears to the glorious memory of General Patrick Cleburne. He commanded a brigade in my division, and afterwards succeeded me in the command of troops whom I cannot more highly praise than to say he was one of the few who was worthy to command such men. And conspicuous amongst such gallant men, and worthy soldiers of such a glorious leader, were Irishmen, who illustrated their high military virtues on so many fields, and displayed on so many occasions their fidelity to the cause they had espoused.

And thus spoke General Hood, who bears in many a scar and wound eloquent testimonies to his desperate but unavailing gallantry:—

During the late war it was my fortune to have in my command organisations composed of your countrymen, and it gives me pleasure to assert that they were always at their post. And among these brave men was to be found the gallant Cleburne. His name carries me to the heights near Franklin. And his last remarks, just before moving forward, I shall ever remember. He said: 'General, I have my division in two lines, and am ready. General, I am more hopeful of the success of our cause than I have ever been since the war commenced.' Within twenty-five minutes this brave soldier was no more. Within an hour an army was in mourning over the great loss. Thus ended the career of this distinguished man—hopeful even at the last hour, but doomed to disappointment as all other men.

The Irish in America, first published in 1868, provides an invaluable account of the extreme difficulties that 19th Century Irish immigrants faced in their new homeland and the progress which they had nonetheless made in the years since arriving on a foreign shore. A new edition, including additional notes and an index, has been published by Books Ulster/LibraryIreland:

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