By Damian Shiels
2015 marked the 150th anniversary of the ending of the American Civil War. It was a conflict that rivals World War One for the extent of Irish participation. Somewhere in the region of 200,000 Irish-born men donned either Union blue or Confederate gray during the fighting - tens of thousands of them laid down their lives. Many had left Ireland during the years of the Great Famine, escaping one tragedy only to ultimately become embroiled in another, less than a decade later.
I was fortunate enough in 2014 to visit a number of American Civil War sites on the occasion of the anniversary of the engagements that occurred there. These included the scenes of some of the Western Theatre’s most bloody encounters of 1864 - notably Franklin, Tennessee, where I was privileged to be asked to deliver the keynote address to mark the 150th anniversary of that battle. Although the Western Theatre fighting has historically received less attention than the more famed engagements that took place in the East, it nonetheless witnessed bloodshed on a horrific scale. It was the 1862, Battle of Shiloh in Tennessee that first awoke America to the scale of butchery they could anticipate in the years ahead, when over 23,000 men became casualties in the woods around Shiloh Church that April. Indeed, when taking the war as a whole, only Gettysburg has the dubious honour of exceeding the casualty figures inflicted during the September 1863 Battle of Chickamauga, Georgia, where more than 34,000 casualties were inflicted over the course of two-day’s fighting.
Many Civil War historians believe that the Western Theatre was where the North won the war, as a result of campaigns such as that at Vicksburg in 1863, which placed the Mississippi under complete Union control and split the Confederacy in two, and Atlanta in 1864, which deprived the South of a vital logistical centre and opened the door for Sherman’s advance through the Deep South in his famed ‘March to the Sea’.
Large numbers of Irishmen served in both Northern and Southern ranks in the Western Theatre. The vast majority of them fought with the Union; of the total numbers of Irish who served during the war only around 20,000 did so with the Confederacy. This was partially a consequence of the much smaller Irish population in those states which seceded, but despite their relative numbers, some made a significant impact on the Rebel war effort. One of them was the highest-ranking Irishman to serve on either side during the American Civil War – Major General Patrick Ronayne Cleburne.
Patrick Ronayne Cleburne was born on March 16th, 1828, in Bride Park Cottage, Killumney, Co. Cork, a rural home not far to the west of Cork City. His family were of Church of Ireland stock; his father Joseph was a medical doctor originally from Co. Tipperary and his mother Mary Anne was from a landowning family near Cobh (then Queenstown). Patrick’s mother died when he was just 18 months old, and his father remarried in 1830. When Joseph Cleburne died in 1843, 16-year-old Patrick was sent to Mallow to become an apprentice to surgeon Dr. Thomas Justice. This apprenticeship -
“200,000 Irish-born men donned either Union blue or Confederate gray”
- culminated with Patrick seeking admission to the Apothecaries’ Hall in Dublin, as he
prepared to embark on a medical career. But in 1846, he failed the entrance exam, and, as a result, took a decision that would change the course of his life. Mortified by his shortcomings in the examination, Patrick made the rash decision of enlisting as a private in the 41st Regiment of Foot rather than return home to Cork. More than a year would pass before his loved ones heard from him again, until finally an officer who was a family friend recognised him in the ranks. During the Famine years Patrick moved around the country with his regiment as they provided aid to the civil power, and in so doing witnessed the full horrors of what was taking place. The Famine which killed hundreds of thousands of the country’s poor also had an impact on struggling landowners like the Cleburnes. Eventually Patrick’s step-mother and siblings decided that the best option was emigration. At the age of 21 Patrick Cleburne bought his discharge from the British Army and within weeks was en-route to America - he landed in New Orleans along with three of his siblings on Christmas Day, 1849.
If Patrick’s life in Ireland had been marked with disappointment and failure, his experiences in the United States offered him an opportunity to start over. By early 1850, after a short stay in Cincinnati, Patrick found himself in the frontier town of Helena, Arkansas. Over the course of the next decade he grew from drugstore prescriptionist into a major community leader. By the end of 1851 he was drugstore owner, and he joined the local Masonic Lodge in 1852. By 1854 he decided to study law and seek admission to the bar, and by 1855, he had become involved in local politics. This brought him into contact with fiery Democrat and later Confederate General Thomas C. Hindman, who became a close friend. Cleburne’s political associations almost got him killed in 1856, when a shoot-out targeting Hindman left one man dead and Patrick clinging to life with a bullet in his chest. The Irishman recovered and was soon re-focusing 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 when Arkansas seceded from the Union on May 6th, 1861, the stage was set for the last three and a half years of Patrick’s life, years that would immortalise him. Patrick Cleburne rose quickly from Captain of the Yell Rifles to Colonel of the 1st (later 15th) Arkansas Infantry. His talents were quickly recognised by General William J. Hardee, who took him under his wing and encouraged his advancement. Cleburne was promoted to Brigadier General in the spring of 1862, and led a brigade at the Battle of Shiloh that April. By the end of the year he was a Major General commanding a division. That division quickly became the most famed in the Army of Tennessee, and Cleburne became renowned for his reliability, coolness under pressure and fighting qualities. This was perhaps most dramatically demonstrated at the Battle of Ringgold Gap, Georgia on November 27th, 1863, when the rearguard action of the division saved the army following the debacle of Missionary Ridge - an action for which Cleburne earned the thanks of Confederate Congress.
It was not long after Ringgold, on January 2nd, 1864, that Cleburne made what is now one of the famous proposals of the American Civil War. That we know of it at all is only due to a chance discovery of the only surviving copy in the 1880s, 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 felt 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 of some of the Generals to whom he initially made the proposal, this was not necessarily the case. When brought to the attention of Jefferson Davis, the Confederate President, he ordered that Cleburne’s proposal go no further. Cleburne made his suggestion based purely on the practicalities of the North’s numerical advantages, rather than any deep-seated desire to see emancipation. It has been debated as to whether or not Cleburne’s proposal prevented him from attaining higher rank in the Army of Tennessee - aside from some occasional periods as acting Corps commander, he would never rise beyond divisional rank.
Cleburne and his division fought throughout the arduous Atlanta Campaign of 1864, which ultimately culminated in the fall of that crucial hub to the Union in September. As Sherman’s Yankees pressed on towards their ‘March to the Sea’, Confederate General John Bell Hood led the Army of Tennessee back to the state from which it had taken its name, hoping to take Nashville and draw Union forces away from the Deep South. It was here, on November 30th, 1864, that Major General Patrick Cleburne would meet his end.
The Battle of Franklin, Tennessee is not one of the better-known engagements of the American Civil War. Despite this it witnessed some of the most savage fighting of the conflict. That November John Bell Hood threw his Army of Tennessee against the fortified Federal positions surrounding the town, in a charge that exceeded the famous Pickett-Pettigrew-Trimble charge at Gettysburg both in terms of numbers and distance travelled. Hours of brutal fighting, much of it hand-to-hand, ended that night with the Federal line still intact.
The Yankees pulled out of their positions and headed for Nashville during the night, leaving the field to the Rebels, but the fight had bled the Army of Tennessee dry. The carnage resulted in more than 8,500 casualties - more than 6,000 of them Confederate. Front and centre in the fighting had been Cleburne’s division, and Cleburne himself. The Corkman’s body was found the next morning less than 50 yards from the Union earthworks, pierced by a single bullet to the chest. He was carried to nearby Carnton House where his remains rested on the porch with other officers, including three Generals. One of those Generals was John Adams, the son of an immigrant from Strabane, Co. Tyrone. Cleburne was first interred in Tennessee, but his body was moved back to Helena, Arkansas in 1870, where it remains today.
Patrick Cleburne is one of the most famous Generals of the American Civil War. Jefferson Davis called him the ‘Stonewall of the West’, while Robert E. Lee referred to him as a ‘meteor shining from a clouded sky’. Today a city of nearly 30,000 people bears his name in Texas, as do counties in both Alabama and Arkansas. He has become a regular focus of biographies as his popularity continues today in the United States. This is in no small part due to admiration for his 1864 slave proposal, combined with the respect he garners for his devotion to his cause and martial prowess.
Although many Irishmen in both the Northern and Southern armies served in non-Irish units, some went to war marching side by side with their fellow Irish-Americans. From a Confederate standpoint, the most notable of these was the 10th Tennessee Infantry, known as the ‘Sons of Erin’. They were the only regimental sized ‘green flag’ formation to serve the Confederacy during the war. Organised from among the Irish community around Nashville, they were captured early in the war at Fort Donelson, but upon exchange went on to fight in battles throughout the west, from Mississippi to Georgia. Among the regiment’s commanding officers were Colonel William Grace, mortally wounded at Jonesboro, Georgia in 1864, and John O’Neill, who at one point (unsuccessfully) attempted to bolster the regiment’s ranks by seeking recruits among Union Irish prisoners in the notorious Andersonville -
“Jefferson Davis called him the - Stonewall of the West”
POW Camp. The handful of men left in the regiment at war’s end surrendered with the Army of Tennessee in North Carolina in April 1865.
Although the 10th Tennessee was the largest Confederate Irish formation in the Western Theatre, many other units boasted large Irish contingents. Among these was the 5th Confederate Infantry, formed as a result of the amalgamation of the 2nd (Knox-Walker’s) Tennessee Infantry and the 21st Tennessee Infantry, which contained a large number of Memphis Irishmen. It had been one of their number who in 1864 was credited with shooting Union General James McPherson during the Battle of Atlanta - the only Federal army commander to be killed in action during the conflict. The 5th Confederate served in Cleburne’s division for much of the war, and afterwards claimed that at Franklin the Irish General had ‘sought out the regiment, charged in with it, and died with it’.
Many company level Irish formations also saw action in the Western Theatre, some bearing distinctively Irish titles such as the: ‘Emmet Guards’, ‘Irish Volunteers’, ‘Irish Jasper Greens’, ‘Shamrock Guards’ and ‘Southern Celts’. Most had their origins in urban population centres where Irish communities were located, such as Mobile in Alabama, Savannah and Augusta in Georgia, and New Orleans in Louisiana.
Aside from Cleburne and the commanders of the 10th Tennessee, a number of other Irishmen also reached high rank in the Western Confederacy. These included men like Tyrone’s James Hagan who commanded the 3rd Alabama Cavalry, Fermanagh’s Michael Magevney Jr. who led the 154th (Senior) Tennessee Infantry and Armagh’s Jack Thornington who commanded Alabama’s Hilliard’s Legion, to name but a few. A number of the Irishmen who reached high command in the West were also slaveholders, and some would become strong opponents of reconstruction in the post war period.
We are fortunate that some of the ordinary soldiers, such as Pat Griffin of the 10th Tennessee and John O’Brien of the 30th Arkansas, left behind writings which offer an insight into the Confederate Irish experience of life in the Western Theatre. However, these are unusual; for the majority, we have only glimpses into their wartime lives, or anecdotes told of them long after the guns fell silent. Such stories can be found for almost every battle in the Western Theatre. At Franklin, veterans would recall long after the war their memories of men like Patrick Canniffe and Dick Cahill. Canniffe had died charging towards the Federal works at the head of the 3rd/5th Missouri; a bullet to the shoulder first ripped him from his mount, before a second projectile crashed through the top of his head, exiting through his chin. Cahill, with the 5th Confederate Infantry, had reached the Yankee line and somehow managed to fight his way beyond. He was found ten feet inside the works the next morning, his body punctured by four bayonet wounds.
“The rearguard action of the
division saved the army following
the debacle of Missionary Ridge
- an action for which Cleburne
earned the thanks of Confederate
Other stories relate to men like Sergeant Denny Callahan, a member of the strongly Irish 1st Missouri at Franklin. As the Rebels shook themselves into line-of-battle for the impending assault, one Rebel, awed by the sight, recalled Nelson’s words before Trafalgar: ‘England expects every man to do his duty’. Denny, clearly not a man to miss a trick, quipped back: ‘it’s damned little duty England would get out of this Irish crowd’. Only a short time afterwards Cockrell’s Missouri Brigade would suffer the worst casualties of any brigade at Franklin - among their number was Denny Callaghan, cut down in the act of planting the regimental colours on the Federal works, and taken prisoner. Denny was just one of many thousands of Irishmen, virtually unknown in the country of their birth, for which the Western Theatre of the American Civil War would be a defining experience in their lives.
Damian Shiels runs the www.irishamericancivilwar.com website and is the author of The Irish in the American Civil War (History Press 2013). He has published and lectured widely both nationally and internationally on Irish conflict archaeology and military history.
Re-enactors of Cleburne’s Division at 150th Battle of Franklin Commemorations. Note the Hardee battle flag of Cleburne’s Division. After an order to standardise battle flags Cleburne’s men successfully appealed to keep their flag. Thus, the Hardee/Cleburne flag was flown until the final surrender of the Army of Tennessee in April 1865.
Patrick Cleburne’s birthplace. Bride Park Cottage, Cork, as it is today.
Bullet impact strikes on the buildings around the Carter House, which saw fierce fighting at Franklin.
Carter Cotton Gin near where Cleburne died.
Memorial to Patrick Cleburne, Franklin,