On Friday 14th November last it was my great privilege to deliver the Keynote Address at the 2014 Tennessee Civil War Sesquicentennial Signature Event in The Factory, Franklin. The title of the paper was ‘Patrick Cleburne & The Battle of Franklin’ and it dealt with the life, death and legacy of the Cork native, together with other Irishmen and their families who were impacted by that devastating engagement. As 30th November 2014 marks the 150th anniversary of that bloody struggle, I have decided to reproduce the talk here in full, together with the slide presentation that accompanied it.
When we look at history we have an almost overwhelming temptation to simplify it. We try to place order on the past, often looking at it as a series of defining moments, each one causing an alteration in history’s course, each making one future possible and another less likely. We can sometimes look at people’s lives- even our own lives- in a similar way. Of course history, as with life, is seldom as straightforward as this. The reality tends to be more opaque, more complex, more convoluted. Despite this, it can be a fascinating exercise to consider what might have been the key moments in one persons life, particularly the life of a historical figure– moments which set them on the path to their ultimate destiny.
I have spent a considerable time studying Irish emigrants impacted by the American Civil War. Many thousands of them breathed their last on American battlefields. This year, 150 years on, I have been fortunate enough to stand on some of the fields where many of these Irishmen fought. Notorious places like the Bloody Angle at Spotsylvania and the Dead Angle at Kennesaw. On each occasion that I’ve travelled from Ireland to these battlegrounds, I find my thoughts turning to those Irish who fought there, and particularly to those who died there. What were their personal stories? What became of their loved ones? What were their life experiences, which culminated in a premature death on an American battlefield? We are here today to discuss one of those men, and to wonder; What were the defining moments in Patrick Cleburne’s life? What were the events that led him from a childhood in rural Co. Cork to the city of Franklin where we are meeting here today?
All of the c. 200,000 Irish-born men who fought in the American Civil War, be it in Confederate gray or Union blue, shared one common experience- which for each was a defining moment in their lives. That experience was emigration from the country of their birth. In looking at what led Patrick Cleburne to Franklin, we must first ask, what led him to emigrate?
The vast majority of Irish emigrants to 1840s and 1850s America came from poor backgrounds and were of the Catholic faith. Such was not the case with Patrick Ronayne Cleburne.
The future Major-General was born on 16th March 1828, just a little over 6,000 km from here, in the upstairs room of this house- Bride Park Cottage in Killumney, a rural home not far to the west of Cork City. His father Joseph was a medical doctor, originally from Co. Tipperary, and his mother was Mary Anne Ronayne, from a well to do landowning family near what is now Cobh in Co. Cork. Patrick was the third of four children born to the couple and was baptized in the nearby Protestant Church of St. Mary’s.
The Cleburne’s lived the relatively comfortable life of a middle-class professional family in 19th century Ireland. In addition to his medical practice at Bride Park, Joseph was also the contract surgeon for the nearby British Barracks and Military Gunpowder Mill at Ballincollig.
We often forget that Patrick Cleburne grew to adulthood in Ireland and spent the majority of his 36 years of life there. His experiences in the country of his birth formed his character, and it is impossible to understand his achievements in America without first understanding his disappointments in Ireland. The first of what we might term the ‘defining moments’ in Patrick Cleburne’s life came just 18 months into it, when his mother Mary Anne died. His father remarried quickly, wedding Isabella Stuart in 1830. This was the woman who Patrick would refer to as ‘Mamma’ for the rest of his life and who would follow him to America. But for now that was all in the future.
After Joseph Cleburne’s remarriage things looked bright for the family, and four more siblings joined the growing brood. Dr. Cleburne was clearly an ambitious and upwardly mobile man, and in 1836 he decided to try his hand as a landowner and farmer. He moved his family to the nearby local manor house at Grange, which he rented along with 206 acres. Initially things went well, and there seemed a real chance that the Cleburne’s were set on the road to prosperity. What occurred next was one of the major factors in ultimately determining the Cleburne family’s emigration.
On 27th November 1843 Dr. Joseph Cleburne died- he was buried in St. Mary’s Churchyard, where he still rests. He had continued to combine the practice of medicine with farming, and the loss of that revenue now placed the Cleburnes under economic strain. Patrick’s older brother returned from college to try and manage the estate, and soon 16-year-old Patrick was en-route to the town of Mallow in north Cork.
It had been decided that he would follow in his father’s footsteps by becoming a medical doctor, and with that in mind he started as an apprentice to Mallow surgeon Dr. Thomas Justice.
The ledger entry behind me records events relating to what I believe were the key formative experience in Patrick Cleburne’s early life. These are from the Apothecaries’ Hall in Dublin, where in 1845 Patrick first applied to sit the exams he needed in order to begin medical studies. He was rejected, but told to try again the following year. He did try; in early 1846 he sat the exam, no doubt hoping- perhaps expecting- to set out on a path that would lead to security and comfort in the years ahead. But Cleburne failed the exam, and that failure altered the course of his life. If the 17-year-old Patrick Cleburne had entered the Apothecaries’ Hall as he had hoped in 1846, it is most unlikely that his subsequent life would have led him here to Franklin.
As it was, the young man was mortified by his failure and was unwilling to return home to Cork. Too ashamed to face his family, Patrick instead made the rash decision of enlisting as a Private in the 41st Regiment of Foot, a decision he ultimately regretted. More than a year passed in the army without anyone hearing from him, until finally an officer and family friend recognized him in the ranks, and informed his loved ones of his whereabouts.
By now the year was 1847, and the Great Irish Famine was at its height. Private Patrick Cleburne witnessed many dreadful sights as he moved around the country with his regiment, helping to keep the peace in his native land. During those years, hunger and poverty forced many Irish families onto the emigrant boat. Although unaware of it at the time, Patrick would see some of them again, many wearing Union and Confederate uniforms on the other side of the Atlantic more than a decade later. The catastrophic Famine killed hundreds of thousands of the country’s poor, but it also had a telling impact on already struggling landowners like the Cleburnes. Ever increasing rents and poor returns for produce had forced Patrick’s ‘Mamma’ to consider emigrating the family to America.
Patrick, eager to escape a life which had thus far offered him only disappointment, volunteered to lead the way. He succeeded in buying his discharge from the army for £20 in September 1849 and thereafter wasted little time. By November he was en-route to New Orleans, where the 21-year-old landed along with three of his siblings on Christmas Day.
It is little exaggeration to say that for Patrick Cleburne, America proved the land of opportunity. His education, religion and finances placed him a better position to exploit it than many of his poorer Catholic Irish counterparts, but nonetheless much hard work lay ahead. America gave Cleburne a chance to reset his life. Had he remained in Ireland his future may have forever been defined by his failed Apothecaries Hall exam- but in the United States, a more flexible society offered the chance to undo past failings. He took that opportunity with both hands. After a brief period in Cincinnati, he arrived in the frontier town of Helena, Arkansas, in early 1850.
Over the course of the next decade he grew from a drugstore prescriptionist into a major community leader. By the end of 1851 he had graduated into drugstore owner, and began his social rise with membership of the Masonic Lodge in 1852. By 1854 he had decided to study law with a view to seeking admission to the bar, and by 1855 he had become heavily involved in local politics. He was particularly active in efforts to prevent the American Party- an anti-immigrant party often referred to as the ‘Know Nothings’- from gaining a foothold in Helena. During this period he became firm friends with fiery Democrat politician Thomas C. Hindman, also later a Confederate General.
The two ran a paper together called the States Rights Democrat, which illustrates how closely Cleburne’s views were aligning with those of his friends and neighbours. His association with Hindman also nearly got Cleburne killed in May 1856, when a politically motivated shoot-out in Helena, aimed at Hindman, left one man dead (shot by the Irishman) and Cleburne clinging to life with a bullet in his chest. He recovered, and as Hindman went on to Congress, Cleburne re-focused his energy on the law and other business ventures. In 1860 his military experience and social position saw him elected Captain of the recently formed Yell Rifles, and with Arkansas secession from the Union on 6th May 1861, the stage was set for the last three and a half years of Patrick Cleburne’s life- years which would immortalize him.
The Irish who fought for North and South during the American Civil War did so for myriad reasons. Some enlisted on ideological grounds, such as preserving the Union or on the basis of States rights. Many did so for economic reasons, to take advantage of consistent pay and potential bounties. Some were persuaded that by fighting for North or South they could support Ireland, or strike at Britain. Others felt service may help them gain acceptance in America. A large number, which included Cleburne, fought for the preservation of their society and that of their friends. Arkansas had provided Cleburne with something he had never had in Ireland- a community of which he felt a part, a place filled with friends, somewhere he could call home. When Patrick Cleburne went to war, he went to war for Arkansas, and he was more than willing to die for Arkansas.
By the time Patrick Cleburne surveyed the scene that awaited him and his men at Franklin on 30th November 1864, he was a Major-General, commanding what was perhaps the most famed division in the Western Theater. He had risen from the Captain of the Yell Rifles to the Colonelcy of the 1st (later 15th) Arkansas, commanded a brigade at Shiloh, and ultimately led a division by the time of Stones River.
Famed for his reliability, coolness under pressure and fighting qualities, Cleburne and his men had become the ‘go-to’ division of the Army of Tennessee, as demonstrated by their actions at Ringgold Gap, Georgia on 27th November 1863, when they had saved the army following the debacle of Missionary Ridge; an action for which Cleburne earned the thanks of Confederate Congress. But it was now a year on from Ringgold, a year that had seen the army lose more men and resources as a result of the attritional Atlanta Campaign, and a year that had seen the prospects of ultimate Confederate success dwindle to a flicker. Franklin presented Cleburne and his men with perhaps their greatest challenge. When he topped Winstead Hill ahead of his division that November afternoon, Cleburne dismounted, and resting his field glasses on a nearby tree stump, he surveyed the Union positions. He took in the impressive enemy works that had been thrown up by the waiting Yankees. After a time he replaced his glasses and said aloud, to no-one in particular, ‘They are very formidable.’
The events at Franklin 150 years ago are inextricably linked with those that occurred off to the south on the previous day.
On the 29th November General John Bell Hood, commander of the Army of Tennessee, created a seemingly golden opportunity to trap a significant portion of General John Schofield’s Union force. Having left Stephen D. Lee to occupy Federal attention in Columbia, Hood sent Cheatham’s and Stewart’s Corps across the Duck River, from where they converged on Spring Hill in Schofield’s rear, and threatened the Federal line of retreat towards Nashville. The very real possibility of destroying or mauling a sizable Yankee force had presented itself; all it appeared necessary for the Confederates to do was to take Spring Hill and cut the Franklin-Columbia Turnpike. Cheatham’s Corps, of which Cleburne’s Division formed a part, played a prominent role in the fight for Spring Hill. In what remains one of the most inexplicable failures of the war, when the fighting petered out that evening, the vital Franklin-Columbia Turnpike remained untaken- despite the fact that thousands of Rebels went into camp only yards from it. Through the night, Union troops that should have been trapped south of Spring Hill marched north, past the sleeping Confederates and on towards Franklin. In later years Union soldiers would remember passing within plain view of the Rebels, one recalling ‘thousands of fires burning brightly, and we could see the soldiers standing or moving around.’ Nobody was more aware of what had slipped away than John Bell Hood. In his words: ‘Thus was lost a great opportunity of striking the enemy for which we had labored so long- the greatest this campaign had offered, and one of the greatest of the war’
The Confederates awoke on the morning of 30th November to find their enemy gone. Just who was to blame for this failure is a topic that continues to generate debate, but there is little doubt that the previous days events were on the minds of many Confederate Generals as they pursued the Federals towards Franklin.
In the 150 years since the Battle of Franklin, many have speculated as to Patrick Cleburne’s state of mind that day. His fellow division commander General John C. Brown recalled that on the 30th November march northwards, Cleburne asked to see him. Riding into the fields alongside the marching columns to talk, Brown described Cleburne as being ‘angry’ and ‘deeply hurt.’ The Irishman had apparently been told that General Hood blamed him for the failure at Spring Hill the previous day. Cleburne said he could not afford to rest under such an imputation, and that he intended to have the matter fully investigated. Brown remembered asking Cleburne who he thought responsible for the failure with Cleburne placing ultimate culpability at the feet of the Commander-in-Chief.
A counterpoint to this view of Cleburne’s mindset has been put forward, primarily based on a letter found in Hood’s recently discovered personal papers. Written by former Army of Tennessee Corps Commander Stephen D. Lee, it recounts a conversation he had with General A.P. Stewart, also a former Corps Commander. Stewart had reportedly heard that on the 30th November Cleburne felt personal remorse for the failure at Spring Hill, due to his decision not to launch a night attack on the 29th. Stewart believed that ‘Cleburne regretted it immediately afterwards, and said no such weight should be on his mind for similar cause again and in that feeling lost his life at Franklin soon afterward.’
Brown’s and Lee’s accounts have to be treated with a degree of caution, as both were written after the war, in the context of an acrimonious dispute as to who was responsible for what had occurred at Spring Hill. Suffice is to say that whatever Cleburne actually felt, he must undoubtedly have been disappointed and angry at the chance missed. As he surveyed those fortified Union positions from Winstead Hill on 30th November, that disappointment must have been magnified.
As Cleburne waited for the troops to arrive at Franklin, he whiled away the time in a game of impromptu checkers with one of his staff. Drawing the outline of the board in the sand, the General gathered different coloured leaves to use for the gaming pieces. It was not long before he was ordered to Hood’s headquarters at the Harrison House, where along with a number of others in the high command, he expressed reservations about the proposed attack, telling Hood it would be a ‘terrible and useless waste of life.’ However, Hood determined the assault should go ahead. The commander instructed Cleburne to form his division to the right of the Columbia Turnpike and charge the works. The Irishman replied ‘General, I will take the works or fall in the effort’, before riding off towards his men.
The position assigned to Cleburne’s division on the right or east side of the Columbia Turnpike saw them aimed at a portion of the Federal works dominated by a Cotton Gin owned by the Carter family. The General requested that his Division be allowed to advance in column of brigades to reduce their exposure across the open ground, before deploying into line of battle for the final assault. Cleburne held a final meeting with his brigade commanders atop Breezy Hill to outline what was expected of them. One of them, Daniel C. Govan, who had known Cleburne in Helena, recalled this meeting many years later: ‘General Cleburne seemed to be more despondent than I ever saw him. I was the last one to receive any instructions from him, and as I saluted and bade him good-bye I remarked, “Well General, there will not be many of us that will get back to Arkansas,” and he replied “Well, Govan, if we are to die, let us die like men.’
Cleburne left the meeting and rode forward to some of his advanced sharpshooters on a rise called the Privet Knob. Taking one of their scopes, he again surveyed the Union works. He took a long look across the field before remarking ‘They have three lines of works.’ As his eye swept back across the Federal position, he added ‘And they are all completed.’ He was soon thundering back down the pike to his forming division.
At around 4pm, with bands playing and flags fluttering, almost 20,000 men of the Confederate Army of Tennessee swung forward into the attack at Franklin. They made for an awesome sight. Among them was the talismanic figure of Patrick Cleburne, wearing a new uniform jacket, white linen shirt and kepi. He was mounted on a borrowed horse, as his regular animal, ‘Red Pepper’ had been wounded at Spring Hill. Riding forward into action, it seems that, as promised, he was determined to lead by example and personally take his men over the Federal works.
Although the prospects of success for the advancing Rebels should have been slight, a grievous error committed by Union General George D. Wagner handed them an opportunity. Wagner had left two of his brigades exposed a half mile beyond the main Federal line. They were far too small a force to stem the Confederate assault, and when the Army of Tennessee hit them their position crumbled. As Wagner’s men turned and ran for Franklin, Cleburne’s soldiers sought to chase after them and follow them into the main works. Captain Sam Foster of Cleburne’s division described how the Union men would:
“…Fire a few shots and break to a run, and as soon as they break to run our men break after them. They have nearly ½ mile to run to get back to their next line- so here we go right after them and yelling like fury and shooting at them at the same time. Kill some of them before they reach their works, and those that are in the second line of works are not able to shoot us because of their own men are in front of us- and between us and them.”
Although Cleburne and his men were initially shielded by Wagner’s fleeing troops, eventually the Federal main line simply had to open fire. For those caught in it- be they Union or Confederate- the result was the same. Patrick Cleburne had crossed Wagner’s advance position and was heading for the main line when he was catapulted from his horse, which was killed under him. With the fire intensifying, one of Cleburne’s couriers leapt from his own mount and offered it to the General. As Cleburne put his foot in the stirrup, a cannon ball fired from near the Cotton Gin ploughed into the animal, eviscerating it. The courier also went down, his thigh shattered by a bullet. Cleburne decided to press on. General Govan last caught sight of him plunging forward on foot, waving his cap in encouragement to the men, before he disappeared into the smoke of battle. It was the last time he ever saw him. Many of Cleburne’s men reached the main line, where they became intermingled with those from other units as the deadly struggle for possession of the works reached a crescendo. But Patrick Cleburne was no longer with them.
When the fighting finally ceased in the darkness, rumours began to circulate in the Army of Tennessee that Cleburne had not survived. The Federal withdrawal during the night left the battlefield in Confederate hands, and the next morning the full scale of the previous days horrors was revealed. John McQuade was out early looking for the General, and describes what he found, not too far from the Carter Cotton Gin:
“He was about 40 or 50 yards from the works. He lay flat upon his back as if asleep, his military cap partly over his eyes. He had on a new gray uniform, the coat of the sack or blouse pattern. It was unbuttoned and open; the lower part of his vest was unbuttoned and open. He wore a white linen shirt, which was stained with blood on the front part of the left side, or just left of the abdomen. This was the only sign of a wound I saw on him, and I believe it is the only one he had received. I have always been inclined to think that feeling his end was near, he had thus laid himself down to die, or that his body had been carried there during the night. He was in his sock feet, his boots having been stolen. His watch, sword belt and other valuables all gone, his body having been robbed during the night.”
Cleburne’s body was placed in an ambulance alongside that of General John Adams, who had also fallen. The two were taken to Carnton House, where they were gently placed on the back porch. There they were joined by the bodies of four more officers, including two more Generals. The Battle of Franklin was over. It was an engagement that had effectively destroyed the Army of Tennessee, and, after just 36 years, ended Patrick Ronayne Cleburne’s life.
Across the 150 years since the Battle of Franklin, people have speculated as to the reasons behind Patrick Cleburne’s actions that day. Why did he choose to place himself so far forward when he could have directed operations from a safer distance? Was it anger at a perceived slight towards his conduct at Spring Hill, and a determination to show John Bell Hood his worth? Or was it an effort to redeem himself due to remorse he felt for personal failings? It is probable we will never know. But perhaps such speculations are of secondary importance. It is worth considering that Patrick Cleburne had consistently placed himself in dangerous positions on the battlefield. His devotion to the cause of Arkansas and the Confederacy was absolute, but it was a cause which he had accepted had been at serious risk since at least the winter of 1863. In October 1864, Cleburne had remarked that ‘If this cause that is so dear to my heart is doomed to fail, I pray heaven may let me fall with it, while my face is toward the enemy and my arm battling for that which I know to be right.’ As his Adjutant Irving Buck later stated, by November 1864, ‘any one above the degree of idiocy must have known that chances for final success of the Confederacy were desperate.’ Patrick Cleburne was no idiot, and at Spring Hill he had just witnessed perhaps the Army of Tennessee’s last best hope evaporate. Once the orders were given to attack at Franklin, he decided to roll the dice one more time, perhaps hoping that courage and devotion might be enough to win the day. Given these circumstances, and Cleburne’s character, perhaps what would have been truly remarkable is if Patrick Cleburne had survived.
Patrick Cleburne was far from the only man with links to Ireland on the field at Franklin that day. Indeed one of the men who lay beside him on the back porch of Carnton House -Brigadier-General John Adams- was himself the son of an emigrant from Strabane, Co. Tyrone. Irish and Irish-Americans were to be found spread throughout both armies, and like Cleburne, for many, the 30th November 1864 would be their last day. But before the death-dealing had begun, some of the Confederate Irishmen had even found time for humour.
The breathtaking sight of the Confederate forces forming up for the attack that afternoon led one Rebel to recall Nelson’s words before Trafalgar: ‘England expects every man to do his duty.’ Sergeant Denny Callahan of the strongly Irish 1st Missouri quipped back: ‘it’s damned little duty England would get out of this Irish crowd.’ Denny and his comrades were part of Cockrell’s Missouri Brigade, French’s Division, which initially advanced to the right of Cleburne. By days end they would have the dubious honour of having sustained the highest casualties of any brigade in the army. One of those casualties was Denny Callahan, who was cut down in the act of planting the regimental colours on the Federal works and taken prisoner.
Another was his countryman Patrick Canniffe, who was leading the 3rd/5th Missouri into the maelstrom on horseback. As he neared the works he took a bullet to the right shoulder, knocking him from his mount. Before he could get up, a second projectile ripped through the top of his head, exiting through his chin. His body was found the next morning lying near his horse. Today Patrick Canniffe is one of those who rests in the McGavock Cemetery.
He shares that cemetery with a number of other Irish and Irish-Americans, men like Thomas Lindsey Murrell of the 6th Tennessee, who had attacked the Union works on the other side of the Colombia turnpike, part of Carter’s Brigade, Brown’s Division. Thomas was the Tennessee born son of Irish emigrant James Murrell from Limavady, Co. Derry. In some respects men like Patrick Canniffe and Thomas Murrell were the lucky ones- for many fallen Confederate Irishmen- like Martin Fleming of the 10th Tennessee ‘Irish’ Regiment, who advanced on the Confederate left, there would be no known grave.
One of the regiment’s that charged in with Cleburne’s division that day felt a particular affinity to the General, as many of its number shared his country of birth.
The Fifth Confederate Infantry consisted largely of Memphis Irishmen, having been formed by the amalgamation of the 2nd (Knox-Walker’s) Tennessee and the 21st Tennessee. Their particular claim to fame was that it was Corporal Robert Coleman of the regiment who was credited with shooting General James McPherson outside Atlanta on 22nd July 1864- the same day their colour, now to be found in the Tennessee State Museum, was captured. One of their number recalled how the men of the regiment hero-worshipped Cleburne, a devotion that amounted ‘almost to idolatry.’ Unsurprisingly they were eager to claim his final moments- recording that at Franklin, Cleburne ‘sought out the regiment, charged in with it, and died with it.’ Another who died with it was Dick Cahill, who’s body was found on the morning of 1st December ten feet inside the Union works, near the Cotton Gin, punctured by four bayonet wounds.
Just as it was a bad day for Irish Confederates, Franklin also severely impacted many Irish who fought for Union. The records that survive for those in Federal service often allow us to paint a picture of the impact of battle on those left behind. Take for example some of the men of the 72nd Illinois, part of Strickland’s Brigade, Ruger’s Division, who faced James Murrell and other Confederates of Brown’s division to the west of the Columbia Turnpike. The 72nd initially manned the main line of works near the Carter House, before being forced back to the retrenched line.
One of their number was Irish-born John Flannery of Company C. Like so many he others, he was simply never heard from again after Franklin. His messmate William De Haven would later recall how he saw his friend in the works just a few minutes before they withdrew in the face of the Confederate attack, but it proved to be the last time he would ever see him. Flannery was never reported as a prisoner, and De Haven had no doubt that ‘he was killed or disposed of in some way by the enemy.’ John Flannery’s supposed death at Franklin must have been hard to bear for his mother Ellen back in Beardstown, Illinois. Her loss is brought into sharp focus when we consider that Ellen’s husband had died just before the war, and she had been reliant on John and his other brother Michael to support her and her four younger children. Michael, a member of the 28th Illinois, had been killed the previous year in Jackson, Mississippi. Now Franklin had robbed her of not only a second son, but also her economic security.
Some other 72nd Illinois soldiers who endured the violent trauma of the fighting at Franklin had also almost certainly borne witness to another great trauma in their lives- that of Famine.
Many of the Irishmen who fought in the American Civil War had emigrated during the years of the Great Famine in Ireland, which occurred between 1845 and 1852. We know that Michael Nugent of Company H witnessed it, as he was living in Dublin in 1848, the year he married Isabella Murphy in St. Nicholas Parish in the inner city. He emigrated to Chicago, presumably in the hope of a better life. Little could he have imagined then that life would end near the Carter House in November 1864.
John Curry served in Company K of the 72nd Illinois, and like many other Irish emigrants in the 1840s had landed in North America via Canada. It was in Canada in 1848 that he married Ellen Driscoll, and it was also there that their first child was born. They eventually moved to Illinois, before John enlisted in the 72nd and was ultimately killed in action at Franklin. By 1864, Ellen, now widowed, had five minor children to support- unsurprisingly it was not long before she sought the financial security of another marriage.
We often forget that battles like Franklin were responsible for men’s deaths long after the guns stopped firing. Many unfortunates lingered on for weeks, months and even years with the wounds they had sustained. For others it was their capture that signed their death warrant. One of these men was Michael O’Brien of the 183rd Ohio Infantry, an Irishman who had enlisted from his new American home of Lebanon, Ohio. Franklin was his first fight. Michael was a member of Company G, who were deployed as skirmishers in front of the main works. Taken prisoner along with six others, he would later contract diarrhea, eventually dying during the night beside a friend in Tupelo, Mississippi, in January 1865. He left behind a widow and four children.
As with the Confederate side, there were also many American born sons of Irish emigrants fighting for the Union at Franklin. One of the most notable was Lieutenant James Coughlan, an officer in the 24th Kentucky and a favoured aide-de-camp of General Jacob Cox. He was killed while encouraging the troops to repulse the Rebels, not far from the Cotton Gin. James’s Irish-born parents back in Paris, Kentucky, must have been devastated by the news of the 21-year-olds death. His father John had been disabled for many years, and he and his wife Joanna had relied on James for everything. James’s sister later remembered that he had made sure his parents always had ‘tea, coffee, sugar, flour and meat, clothing, fuel and other necessaries of life.’ Now they had lost both his companionship and his support.
How the families of those men killed at Franklin reacted to news of their loved ones death is often lost to history. One reaction that is recorded is that of Susan Tarleton, of Mobile, Alabama- Patrick Cleburne’s fiancée. She was reputedly walking in her garden when she overheard a newspaper boy cry out the news of the Battle, and report Cleburne’s death. Overcome with grief, she wore mourning clothes for a year. Cleburne’s body was initially briefly interred in Rose Hill Cemetery, Columbia on 2nd December before being moved to Ashwood Cemetery- a burial ground that Cleburne had passed a few days earlier, remarking that it was ‘almost worth dying for, to be buried in such a beautiful spot.’
The Irish General was moved for the last time in 1870, when his body was brought back to Helena, where it still rests in Maple Hill Cemetery.
Jefferson Davis called Patrick Cleburne the ‘Stonewall of the West,’ while Robert E. Lee said that he was a ‘meteor shining from a clouded sky.’ As with many similar historical figures, his premature death in battle, fighting for a cause he fervently believed in, helped to cement his image in the popular imagination. Some of those who knew him, like his former business partner Charles Nash and former adjutant Irving Buck, wrote books about him.
Veterans of his division in Texas would name a town in his honour, where now almost 30,000 people live. In 1866 a county in Alabama was named for him, as was one in Arkansas in 1883. The Confederate cemetery in Jonesboro, Georgia, also bears his name. His level of popularity waned somewhat in the middle of the 20th century, though Ed Bearss made him the focus of his masters studies in 1955, and in 1973 Howell and Elizabeth Purdue published ‘Pat Cleburne: Confederate General’, the first major published study of him in almost 70 years.
Today, Patrick Cleburne is just as famous for a proposal he made on 2nd January 1864 as he is for his fighting prowess, a situation that is perhaps reflective of changing attitudes to the conflict.
That this proposal was made at all is known only because of a chance 1880s discovery of the only surviving copy, as at the time it was ordered suppressed. In it Cleburne suggested arming slaves to fight for the Confederacy in return for their freedom. He posited that ‘As between the loss of independence and the loss of slavery, we assume that every patriot will freely give up the latter- give up the negro slaves rather than be a slave himself.’ Given the outraged reaction to the proposal by some Generals like William B. Bate, William H.T. Walker and Patton Anderson, this was not necessarily the case. Cleburne made his proposal based purely on the practicalities of the North’s numerical advantages, rather than any deep-seated desire to see emancipation. Perhaps more than anything else, the proposal is a reminder that Cleburne had spent the first 21 years of his life in Ireland, and by 1864 he still had a ways to go before he fully understood the South.
It has been debated whether or not Cleburne’s proposal prevented him from achieving higher command in the Army of Tennessee, but if it did have a negative impact on him in his own lifetime, that is certainly not the case in ours. Last February saw the Museum of the Confederacy’s ‘Person of the Year 1864’ symposium, which was decided by audience vote following talks on each of the nominated figures by noted scholars. Unsurprisingly Sherman came out on top, but he was followed by Cleburne, who garnered more votes than Lincoln, Lee or Grant. It is inconceivable that the Irishman would have finished in this position were it not for his proposal to arm slaves. There is no denying that in recent times Cleburne has often found himself centre stage.
He has been the subject of a number of recent biographies, has had a statue erected in his honour at Ringgold Gap, and of course has been recognized in the continuing efforts to reclaim the Franklin battlefield.
But what of Patrick Cleburne’s memory in Ireland? Shortly after the General’s death, while he lay in a coffin awaiting interment, a woman called Naomi Hays placed a poem she had written for him on his casket. She described how ‘Erin’s land sends forth a wail’ on hearing news of the Corkman’s death. Unfortunately, the reality is that, far from sending forth a wail, Patrick Cleburne remains relatively little known in Ireland. A plaque was placed on the house of his birth in 1994 by visiting Americans, while in more recent years a housing development in nearby Ballincollig was named ‘Cleburne Mews.’ Some artefacts relating to the General also featured in a major National Museum of Ireland military exhibition. But beyond this, Cleburne, along with the other c. 200,000 Irishmen who fought in the American Civil War, remain largely forgotten in Ireland. This is despite the fact that, along with World War One, the American Civil War represents Ireland’s largest conflict in history when it comes to the numbers of men who served. Ireland has no national memorial to those of her emigrants who died in the American Civil War. In Ireland there has been no major exploration of the role of Irish people in the conflict, and during the course of the sesquicentennial not a single conference was held to discuss them.
My country’s failure to remember her Famine-era emigrants is hopefully something that is set to change. During an address in New Orleans last week, the Irish Minister for Arts, Heritage & the Gaeltacht specifically referenced the experiences of the Irish in the American Civil War, for the first time officially highlighting those people that I have come to refer to as the Forgotten Irish. Thankfully, they are most certainly not Forgotten Americans. They continue to be appropriately remembered by those in the nation that they had come to be a part of all those years ago. As an Irish person, I would like to extend my gratitude to you for that, and for the privilege of speaking to you about one of their number here today.
Patricia GrayNovember 30, 2014 8:51 pm
Loved your presentation. Thank you for participating in Tennessee’s Civil War Sesquicentennial Signature Event.