Sunday, November 30, 2014

A Meteor Shining from a Clouded Sky

On this sesquicentennial of a forgotten battle from an increasingly forgotten war, I remember a forgotten soldier.

Patrick Ronayne Cleburne

Like so many who have gone before him and have followed since, this Irishman symbolically represents the manly attributes of every great warrior.

Born in the cold winds of County Cork Ireland, March 1828, he would emigrate to America as a young twenty-one year old in search of a future. Settling in Arkansas, he would come to love his adopted home state. Working hard, he obtained employment as a pharmacist and a lawyer. When the Civil War broke out in 1861, he unhesitatingly served with the people he had grown to love and in just over a year would be promoted to command of a division. He would see action from Shiloh to Chickamauga and beyond through the end of 1863. His personal success led many to recognize his valor with Robert E Lee calling him  "a meteor shining from a clouded sky".

Sitting in his winter quarters 1863-1864, Cleburne began to spend an inordinate amount of time alone in his tent.

He recognized the state of affairs with his cause and knew it was inevitable that defeat would come. They simply had too few men, too few resources and time was not their friend. So this brave man assembled a remarkable proposal he felt was absolutely necessary if victory was to be had. He proposed arming the slaves, and subsequently giving them their freedom in exchange. Listen to some of his words,

"Our soldiers can see no end to this state of affairs except in our own exhaustion; hence, instead of rising to the occasion, they are sinking into a fatal apathy, growing weary of hardships and slaughters which promise no results. In this state of things it is easy to understand why there is a growing belief that some black catastrophe is not far ahead of us, and that unless some extraordinary change is soon made in our condition we must overtake it...
Like past years, 1864 will diminish our ranks by the casualties of war, and what source of repair is there left us?...As between the loss of independence and the loss of slavery, we assume that every patriot will freely give up the latter... It is said slavery is all we are fighting for, and if we give it up we give up all.  Even if this were true, which we deny, slavery is not all our enemies are fighting for.  It is merely the pretense to establish sectional superiority and a more centralized form of government, and to deprive us of our rights and liberties.  We have now briefly proposed a plan which we believe will save our country.  It may be imperfect, but in all human probability it would give us our independence.  No objection ought to outweigh it which is not weightier than independence."

Though a dozen officers signed on in support, his proposal was tabled. Too many in the South could not bear the thought of such dramatic change. The political consequences fell on him as he would never be promoted above division commander though he was often the clear choice for it.

For Cleburne, the rejection did not dissuade him from the call of duty. As he increasingly saw his prediction coming true the more determined he became.

In the fall of 1864, the Army of the Tennessee approached Franklin, Tennessee. In a desperate effort, its commander John Bell Hood made what would be a fatal decision for his army and so many of its soldiers. Assembling his commanders on November 30th, angry over what he believed to be cowardice on the part of Cleburne the day before (falsely so), he ordered a massive assault on the heavily fortified Union position. He placed Cleburne directly in the center of what would be a 20,000 man charge--a charge nearly twice the size of Pickett's charge instructing him "go over the main works at all hazards." Not a man to take an accusation of cowardice lightly, Cleburne's last words to Hood before leaving the house were"I will take the enemy's works or fall in the attempt."

Dismounting his horse to share the sober news to his brigade commanders Cleburne recognized the reality that he was going to die that day. Death for him as for all brave soldiers was of less concern than failing in your duty. He told a brigade commander, "If we are to die, Govan, let's die like men."

As the enormous assault was in full swing, Cleburne had his horse shot from under him and asked for another. An officer immediately gave up his steed which itself was promptly shot. Starting out on foot, waving his cap with sword drawn, Cleburne attacked. Fifty yards from the Union lines a single bullet pierced the noble heart of this brave man and he fell with his face to the enemy.

Later in eulogy it was said,

"Where his division defended, no odds broke its line; where it attacked, no numbers resisted its onslaught, save only once; and there is the grave of Cleburne"

A century later when General Douglas McArthur was giving his famous speech on "Duty, honor, and country" he described the good soldier,

"The soldier, above all other men, is required to practice the greatest act of religious training -- sacrifice. In battle and in the face of danger and death, he discloses those divine attributes which his Maker gave when he created man in his own image. However horrible the incidents of war may be, the soldier who is called upon to offer and to give his life for his country is the noblest development of mankind."

#patrickcleburne #battleoffranklin

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