Ringgold Finds a Civil War General

This past weekend the city of Ringgold, Georgia unveiled a Civil War statue dedicated to General Patrick Cleburne.  The connection to Ringgold seems tenuous at best as he was there only once in his life and only for a few hours at that. Cleburne took charge of an effective rear guard action at Ringgold Gap against elements of Joe Hooker’s Corps in the wake of the Confederate defeat at Missionary Ridge outside of Chattanooga in November 1864.  Let’s face it, Cleburne has always been an appealing Confederate military figure.  A number of biographies have recently been published, including Craig Symonds’s The Stonewall of the West: Patrick Cleburne & the Civil War (University of Kentucky Press, 1997).  In addition, a graphic novel was recently published.  Cleburne has also bee painted by a host of Civil War artists.  He’s got the cool sobriquet, “Stonewall” which conjures up images of Jackson and he’s also got the whole Irish immigrant thing in his favor.  Clearly, he was a charismatic and talented division commander.  Better yet, he died in a blaze of glory in a forlorn assault at Franklin, Tennessee on November 30, 1864.  But still, one could ask, why Cleburne?

No doubt, part of the appeal of Cleburne is his controversial, but widely misunderstood, proposal to arm slaves in exchange for their freedom.  At first glance, such a proposal singles out Cleburne as something of a progressive minded white Southerner who seems to be on the right side of history fighting for a government pledged to the maintenance of slavery and a society built on white supremacy.  The problem that most fail to understand about Cleburne and others who supported some version of the plan is that they were not, in any way, pushing for the abolition of slavery.  In fact, one way to understand Cleburne’s proposal is as a means of preserving the institution of slavery.  [Once again, I highly recommend Bruce Levine’s treatment of this debate in Confederate Emancipation (Oxford University Press, 2006).  The debate that raged throughout much of 1864 (and even earlier in the war) challenged some of the most basic assumptions of a slave holding society.  While Cleburne – and eventually Robert E. Lee himself – called for enlistment of slaves in exchange for freedom others believed that it was possible to compel slaves to fight for the Confederacy.  Cleburne and Lee understood, however, that slaves would make poor soldiers, but that observation no doubt was reinforced by their experience maintaining a cohesive fighting force.  They also had to deal with the growing evidence of large numbers of runaway slaves, some of whom were returning with the Union army by 1864.  How many white Southerners had difficulty coming to terms with the very idea that slaves desired to be free?  Didn’t part of the justification for slavery itself assume that slaves had achieved a kind of freedom through the paternalistic embrace of the master?

When I reflect on Cleburne’s proposal I can’t help but be impressed with the desperation of a division commander who clearly perceives the military challenges standing in the way of Confederate victory.  The recruitment of former slaves into the Union army reinforced the need for drastic action.  But that is how this plan must be undestood.  It was not a step toward emancipation, but as a means to achieve military victory.  That the Confederacy did not begin recruiting slaves into the army until it was too late suggests not only the controversial nature of the plan, but perhaps also how little Cleburne understood of his adopted “country”.

15 comments… add one

  • davidwoodbury Oct 7, 2009

    At the very least, Cleburne's proposal suggests he believed independence to be the over-arching goal of secession, and war. I imagine he was surprised to learn — when push came to shove — that to the architects of secession, emancipation would render independence pointless.

    • toby Oct 8, 2009

      davidwoodbury, I think you have a point. Here I think Cleburne's Irishness was important. Though Anglo-Irish, he grew up in an Ireland where many of his class were turning to nationalism, mainly seeking repeal of the Act of Union between Britain and Ireland. In order words he was ready to strongly buy into the “1776″ version of secession, too much for his own good.

      • Art Bagley Nov 8, 2009

        While I realize Ringgold was a rear-guard action to protect the Rebels' AoT, it was executed brilliantly with the minimum of manpower, and allowed {sadly} the war to go on.

        To my way of thinking, The Patrick Cleburne Society chose the wrong place for this impressive {yet rather passive} statue of PRC; the memorial should have been in Franklin, Tennessee.

        A preservation group in that town successfully purchased and razed a pizza shop near the site of the Carter cotton gin, very near Cleburne's death site. A small green space public park is now there, complete with a 6'-high pyramid of black cannon balls.

        Mr. Tunison's Ringgold statue of Cleburne would not “fit” at Franklin. The general stands at Ringgold, bent forward and slightly downward, binoculars in a hand rested on a knee; he's intently following the progress of his men resisting the Union advance at Ringgold {The Confederates held a few high points on a north-south ridge that was a natural barrier to the Union advance.} Were the statue slated for Franklin, Cleburne could have been portrayed on his horse {which was eventually shot from under him}, or he could have been on foot, rallying his men and leading them toward the Carter garden fence and to bloody, martial glory.

        Anyhow, Ringgold now has a nice stop for ACW travelers heading to or from the Chickamauga/Chattanooga battle sites. Another “hit” for anyone on their own “Civil Wargasm,” a la Robert Lee Hodge in “Confederates in the Attic” by Tony Horwitz. The small municipal park is less than 5 miles off I-75.

        • Kevin Levin Nov 9, 2009

          Thanks for the comment. Perhaps it does belong at Franklin, but then it wouldn't benefit the city of Ringgold, which is one of the primary reasons the statue was commissioned.

        • msimons Nov 10, 2009

          Art when did they do this ??? I was in Franklin for a day trip this Summer in July and saw no such park or stack of cannonballs.

          • Art Bagley Nov 11, 2009

            Hello, MSimons…here are two links that show a picture of the cannonball pyramid. I believe it's south of the Carter House a couple of blocks where the Pizza Hut was. Sorry, looks like you'll need to cut-n-paste the urls.

            http://www.tripadvisor.com/ReviewPhotos-g55055-

            http://civilwarcavalry.com/?p=440

            I had not realized it's already been two years since this was accomplished. I have not been to Franklin since 2000. I understand another pizza shop and a small store, nearby, are being looked at by Franklin's Charge or some local battlefield preservation group so as to extend the pyramid park a few hundred yards {eventually?} to make a cohesive, attached, extended battlefield visit feasible.

            Art Bagley
            Tampa, Florida

            • msimons Nov 11, 2009

              Thanks for the pictures Art we were at the Carter house and we were not told about that area in Franklin. Well that means another trip to Franklin.

  • msimons Oct 7, 2009

    Ringgold Gap might have been Cleburnes Greatest Tactial Action. But I degress, I found that Cleburne paided dearly for his ideas on using Black Troops. Who would you have Ringgold Ga memorialize instead Kevin?

  • msimons Oct 8, 2009

    Brushing historical significance aside, I see this as a political/economic move to cash in on what is expected to be a big celebration of the 150 Anniversary of the War of Northern Aggression. ;>)

    • Kevin Levin Oct 8, 2009

      One of the organizers stated that this was going to put Ringgold “on the map” so I think your point is well taken. Still, do you see many people stopping in Ringgold to see a statue of Patrick Cleburne? How many people do you think can identify him? If that is really the goal I would have put up a statue to Lee or Jackson and make some kind of connection, however tenuous it may be.

  • toby Oct 8, 2009

    Cleburne's birthplace still stands – a humble enough cottage down in Cork. It has a plaque since the 1970s or 1980s, possibly erected by the SCV. It has been some time since I stopped by.

    It seems the film makers are already looking at Cleburne for the next Lost Cause film. If Stonewall Jackson got a film, why not the “Stonewall of the West”?

    http://www.cleburnethemovie.com/film_cast_clebu

  • msimons Oct 8, 2009

    It depends on the GA dept of tourism and in light of the current economic situation how big will the Civil War's 150 years be celebrated. Kevin this is not the first or the last attempt you will see to cash in on this historical event between 2010 and 2015.

  • Lee White Oct 8, 2009

    In regards to the proposal, Cleburne's old Helena friend, Thomas Hindman had been writing in to southern newspapers under the name Culloden advocating the idea since the summer of 1863, it may have been Hindman, also a division commander in the AOT, but one with a less than stellar reputation who got Cleburne to advocate the idea or at least influenced him.

  • Art Bagley Nov 11, 2009

    Hello, MSimons…here are two links that show a picture of the cannonball pyramid. I believe it's south of the Carter House a couple of blocks where the Pizza Hut was. Sorry, looks like you'll need to cut-n-paste the urls.

    http://www.tripadvisor.com/ReviewPhotos-g55055-

    http://civilwarcavalry.com/?p=440

    I had not realized it's already been two years since this was accomplished. I have not been to Franklin since 2000. I understand another pizza shop and a small store, nearby, are being looked at by Franklin's Charge or some local battlefield preservation group so as to extend the pyramid park a few hundred yards {eventually?} to make a cohesive, attached, extended battlefield visit feasible.

    Art Bagley
    Tampa, Florida

  • msimons Nov 11, 2009

    Thanks for the pictures Art we were at the Carter house and we were not told about that area in Franklin. Well that means another trip to Franklin.

Leave a Comment