Some might ask why I am reviewing a book that was first published over 20 years ago. The answer is simple: it has withstood the test of time. Stonewall of the West is a fine biography of Patrick Cleburne, who was arguably the best division commander in the Army of Tennessee. Craig L. Symonds brings us a balanced story of Cleburne’s life, from his youth in Ireland to his untimely death at the Battle of Franklin in November, 1864 at the age of 36.
Throughout his life, as Symonds demonstrates, Cleburne was a firm believer in any cause he joined. Cleburne gave his full support to those causes, whether they were in politics or Confederate service. The same was true of his professional endeavors, first as a druggist and later as an attorney. However, despite his involvement in social organizations and in a profession which required interaction with people, Cleburne was also socially awkward and painfully shy, especially around women. Symonds weaves both of these character traits into the narrative.
Symonds devotes most of this book to Cleburne’s military service, which began with the organization of a militia company in Helena in 1860. After a quick recital of his early career and brigade command at Shiloh, Symonds shifts to an analysis of Cleburne as a division commander. Here is where we see some of the book’s greatest strengths, and perhaps also its weaknesses. One cannot help but admire Cleburne for his courage, and for the loyalty that he inspired in the men under his command. On the other hand, readers may well cringe at the seemingly naïve manner with which he delved into military politics. Specifically, Cleburne became embroiled in the movement to oust Braxton Bragg from command of the Army of Tennessee. Although he was just as dissatisfied as other senior officers, he was the only one among them who signed two separate anti-Bragg documents. From that point on, he was a marked man.
Cleburne never was given the corps command which many felt he deserved. His friend and mentor, William J. Hardee did not recommend Cleburne for corps command, even when it was clear to many that he was deserving of the position. Symonds speculates at this point – something that some readers might characterize as a weakness of the book – that Hardee did not want to lose a trusted subordinate, or perhaps that “Hardee had come to believe that for all his virtues, Cleburne had reached his proper rank as a major general.” (p.223)
Symonds also gives a good account of Cleburne’s oft-reviled and perhaps misunderstood proposal to arm slaves to fight for the Confederacy in exchange for their immediate freedom. In Symonds’s view, Cleburne saw the issue in a purely logical and pragmatic light. The South was critically short of manpower, and providing enslaved African-Americans with sufficient incentive to enlist in the Confederate military was the most practical solution to the problem. Symonds also suggests that, given his foreign birth, Cleburne did not fully understand or appreciate the deep attachment to slavery of many of his fellow officers.
There emerges from this work a portrait of Patrick Cleburne as more than just a tragic hero. Symonds adds depth and dimension to the image, and lets us see Cleburne as someone who was willing to risk everything for the causes in which he believed. Anyone who studies the Civil War in the West should read this book.
This book is available in paperback in the Shop.