It had all led to this: Major General Patrick Ronayne Cleburne, known as the “Stonewall of the West,” galloped up to his brigade commanders assembled on top of Breezy Hill, just south of the little town of Franklin, Tennessee. “He seemed greatly depressed and fully realized, as did every officer present, the desperate nature of the assault we were about to make,” Brigadier General Daniel Govan noted. “He informed us that by the direction of Gen. Hood he had called us together to impress upon us the importance of carrying the works of the enemy at all hazards; that we were to move forward at the sound of the bugle, moving on the flank until we came under fire, the change front, form into line, fix bayonets and take the works at the point of the bayonet. . . . We were further directed to have our field officers assemble, then our company officers, and issue to them similar orders. . . .”
As the meeting broke up, Govan remarked to Cleburne, “Well General, few of us will ever return to Arkansas to tell the story of this battle.”
“Well, Govan,” Cleburne grimly replied, “if we are to die, let us like men.”
Cleburne’s remark seemed fitting. For some time, he had seemed to be living a prophocy. As the campaign began in October, he noted in a speech, “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 hich I know to be right.”
Just a few days before arriving in Franklin, as the vanguard of the Army of Tennessee approached the little community of Mount Pleasant, Cleburne saw the old English-styled St. John’s Episcopal Church. “It would not be hard to die if one could be buried in such a beautiful spot,” he remarked to one of his staff.
Now looking toward Franklin, he might have realized his path had reached its end.
Before him was a rolling plain of stubble fields ending near Franklin, with three distinct lines of earthworks. The front line was the outpost position of Gen. George Wagner’s Division, emplaced behind a line of hastily dug trenches. There was then a space of several hundred yards to the main line of heavy fortifications that ringed the town. Behind that was the main federal line, with another line of recently made works even farther back.
At about 4 o’clock, the order to advance was heard, and the Army of Tennesse began its last march. Cleburne had deployed his division in a column, with Govan’s Arkansas Brigade and Gen. Hiram Granbury’s Texas Brigade in front and then Gen. Mark Lowrey’s large brigade of Alabamians and Mississippians behind them. Seeing the danger of the situation, all of his brigadiers, their staffs, and regimental officers had dismounted and were advanceing on foot. However, Cleburne remained mounted and rode along his lines, encouraging his men as the first rounds of artillery began to scream toward them from Franklin.
The line continued on toward Wagner’s advanced line. “Immediately we were into the heaviest and deadliest fire I have ever witnessed,” Captain George Williams of Govan’s staff noted. “On we went, driving the yankees from their first line.” A shout went up to follow the fleeing Federals into their works, and the line surged forward hot on the Federal heels.
“General Cleburne’s object seemed to run into the rear line with the fleeing Federals,” Govan said. “About that time General Cleburne’s horse was killed. His courier brought him another, and as he was in the act of mounting, this horse was killed. He then disappeared in the smoke of battle, and that was the last time I ever saw him alive. I spoke to his aide-de-camp, Mangum, and told him I was sure the General would be killed, as I did not see how he could escape with his life under such terrific fire. . . .” This all occured a short distance from the main Federal line and near the Columbia Turnpike.
“[H]e ordered the men to charge the second line, with a yell,” Patrick Ahearn of the 13th Arkansas recalled. “[T]hey did so with bayonets fixed and carried the works. . . . [T]his is where Gen. Claiborne . . . was killed. . . . I fell . . . wounded. . . . I laid within ten feet of the body of Gen. Claiborne. . . .”
Cleburne had fallen as he wished, but only a few seemed to know at the time. His presence was missed, though, and the realization came on then.
The following morning, William “Goose” Gibson of the 6th Arkansas noted: “Early on the following morning after the battle Wm. Minton, a member of my company, and myself started out to hunt for our dead as well as such of our wounded comrades had been unable to leave the field. We soon became separated, however . . . . I looked around for Minton, and failing to see him, procured other help and carried the man back to our field hospital, which was located sometling like a mile south of the battleground.
“Returning to the field, I met Minton with another one of our wounded boys, who, upon my inquirey as to his identity, told me that just after our separation he hand some others, who like ourselves were looking for their comrades, had found Gen. Cleburne’s body. . . . To my further inquiries, he told me the general, when found, was lying on his face just inside the enemy’s works, shot through the body, this his pockets were turned wrong side out, and this his boots and sword and belt were gone. Soon, after this, Minton pointed out to me the precise spot on which the general’s body lay when found. This, as I have said was just inside the works, and as I now remember it , some twenty five or thirty feet east of a line drawn due south from the southeast corner of the old ginhouse. . . . It was the accepted opinion of everyone there at the time, that he was killed on top of the works and had either fallen of been pulled over inside. Whilst standing at this point I well remember being show the position of his head and feet when found and the pool of blood which in its flow, carrield with it the life of our beloved, our brave and matchless general.”
Another who would see Cleburne’s body the following morning, John McQuade, remembered, “He lay flat upon his back as if asleep, his miltary 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 partof 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.”
Cleburne’s body was soon taken from the field to Carnton, the brick mansion of the McGavock family, where it was was lain on their back porch. For a few years, he laid interred in the peaceful cemetery of St. John’s Episcopal Church that he’d seen in Mount Pleasant. Later, he was removed to his prewar hometown, Helena, Arkansas.
The war was finally over for the Stonewall of the West.