It’s an old story among soldiers. The order is given, and the soldier’s duty is to obey. When that soldier is an officer, a general, in fact, he can protest, he can give suggestions, he can object. After that, he has one duty, and that is to obey.
The poet Alfred Lord Tennyson captured the dilemma in his poem “The Charge of the Light Brigade” with these words:
Theirs not to make reply,
Theirs not to reason why,
Theirs but to do and die:
Into the valley of Death
Rode the six hundred.
Dying is routine work for the soldier. Obeying orders is mandatory. For those who lead, obeying suicidal orders is the fine print of a soldier’s oath.
This was the bitter truth the generals in the Army of Tennessee faced at the Battle of Franklin, Tennessee, on November 30, 1864. General John B. Hood, as the commander of the Confederate Army of Tennessee, ordered his generals to drive the Union Army out of Franklin. Cold steel and boldness would give the Confederates the victory, or so Hood believed.
There was warrant for his confidence. Hood was a fighting general. From Gaines Mill to Gettysburg in the east and from Chickamauga to Atlanta in the west, Hood had led men directly into battle. His fighting style had literally cost him an arm and a leg. His right arm had been rendered useless after his attack on the second day of Gettysburg. His left leg was amputated after he was wounded while exploiting a breach in the Union lines at the Battle of Chickamauga.
Hood was now a frustrated general. He had failed to hold Atlanta against Sherman in the fall. In a bold and reckless move, he determined to move the Army of Tennessee away from Sherman’s forces and to re-enter Tennessee and destroy the supply lines in the rear of the Union Army. The plan was simple in one sense. First, the Union supply sources would be disrupted. Second, Tennessee would be re-occupied by the Confederates. Finally, as icing on the cake, Hood would march across the Appalachians to unite his forces with those of his hero, Robert E. Lee.
He had forgotten the poetic lines of Scottish poet Robert Burns about “the best laid plans of mice and men.” He may have wondered whether he was commanding mice or men. The Army of Tennessee was losing its ability to frontally assault and defeat the enemy, Hood thought. In the area around Springhill, Tennessee, the Union Army had slipped right out of the Confederate grasp. They had retreated to Franklin, Tennessee, which was only a stopping point before they retreated even further to Nashville.
By Hood’s reckoning, the Union was vulnerable. When General Frank Cheatham protested that an attack at Franklin would be desperate, Hood responded, “I would prefer to attack them here where they have only eight hours to fortify, than to strike them at Nashville where they have been strengthening themselves for three years or more.”
Hood would win all the “frontal attacks,” meaning objections, of his generals. Pulling rank is the prerogative of the commander, and his generals knew that well. Still, they tried. When General Pat Cleburne surveyed the open ground in front of the Union lines, he said, “They are very formidable.”
This was an understatement, and as he told Hood, the proposed attack would be “a terrible waste of life.”
It would not be the first time that Pat Cleburne would be right in assessing a battle and would be disregarded for his advice. Cleburne was a Southerner by adoption and a soldier of two continents.
A native of County Cork, Ireland, he had served as a corporal in a Welsh regiment of the British Army before he emigrated to the United States. He settled in Helena, Arkansas, where he became an involved citizen in the community. He became a U. S. citizen, worked as a pharmacist, practiced law, and was involved in Arkansas politics.
His love of his adopted Southern home compelled him to join the Yell Rifles, a local militia group, as the war commenced. With his military background, he quickly rose as an officer and was already a brigadier general at the Battle of Shiloh in 1862. A minie ball hit him in the left cheek, smashing several teeth, in a battle in Kentucky. But he was not down for long, and promotions continued. He rose to the rank of Major General in late 1862.
Cleburne’s dogged fighting style and his 15th Arkansas division won him an official thanks from the Confederate Congress. In the Federal army, there was dread at seeing the flag of Cleburne’s division across the lines. Even Robert E. Lee, who never commanded Cleburne, took notice and called him “a meteor from a clouded sky.”
Fighter though he was, he fell into disfavor with many when he broached an unpopular subject. Cleburne saw the obvious by late 1863. The options and possibilities for victory were growing slim for the South. Outnumbered and always short of supplies, the Confederacy needed help, particularly manpower. Hopes of British or French intervention were slight. The one largely untapped source of manpower was the black slave population of the South.
Cleburne’s sole cause was the South, and slavery was a non-vital part of his vision for the South. First, he put his thoughts together in a document, and then he presented it to close staff members. After getting their approval, he asked for a meeting with other generals in the Army of Tennessee and he carefully read through his more-than-two-dozen-page presentation.
Cleburne contended that the black male population could not only provide up to 300,000 extra soldiers, but that a black soldier could be “the bravest soldier in the field.” Obviously, blacks had to have a motivation, and Cleburne, therefore, contended that “when we make soldiers of them we must make free men of them beyond all question.”
The response was mixed, but generally unfavorable. One general labeled Cleburne’s proposition “the serpent of Abolitionism.” Others contended that the idea was treasonous. Cleburne’s idea was kept largely secret, and it was only because of his fighting skills that he maintained his position of leadership and respect.
It was over a year later when Cleburne was assessing both the hopelessness of the South’s war and of the impending Confederate attack at Franklin. After receiving Hood’s unbending order to attack, Cleburne was, according to one of his brigade commanders, “more despondent than I ever saw him.” They could see the enemy fortifications on the distant front. Behind the heavy earthworks were the “bristling bayonets of the enemy, and the flitter of Napoleon guns.”
“Well, General,” said fellow Arkansas general Daniel Govan, “Few of us will ever return to Arkansas to tell the story of this battle.”
Cleburne replied, “Well, Govan, if we are to die, let us die like men.”
It was after 3:30 in the afternoon on that Wednesday, November 30, when the Army of Tennessee began its offensive. Soldiers were lined up shoulder to shoulder, flags were flying, and bands were playing such favorites as “Bonnie Blue Flag” and “Dixie.” Despite the bravura of impending victory, the Confederate army was facing its death.
Those close to Cleburne on the battlefield recalled that first one horse was shot out from under him and then another was hit by a cannonball as he attempted to mount it. Govan said that Cleburne then led his soldiers on foot, but then he added, “I lost sight of him in the smoke and din of battle.” When he located Cleburne again, he was dead on the battlefield, with a bullet shot just below his heart.
The aftermath of Franklin found much of the area covered with the dead and wounded. On the back porch of the McGavock Plantation house, which had been transformed into a Confederate hospital, Cleburne lay alongside three other Confederate generals who were all awaiting, not further deployment, but interment.
Cleburne’s Irish pluck gave him a sense of independence and tenacity. As a soldier, he knew he could make proposals for both the future of the South and for the battles at hand. But he also knew that a soldier’s job, even when he is a general, is to obey. And he knew that if and when the time came to die on the battlefield, that he and those under his command would die like men.
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