On Dec. 6, 1866, a new county was carved out of Alabama’s Calhoun, Randolph and Talladega counties and named Cleburne County in honor of a Civil War hero.
“The story of his life should be a movie,” said Janet Baber, the artist who painted Confederate Army Maj. Gen. Patrick R. Cleburne’s portrait, which hangs in the Cleburne County Courthouse. “He was such a role model.”
Cleburne was an Irish immigrant who fought for his adopted country — the Confederacy — in the Civil War. He was so well-loved by his men, they requested their home states honor him. Although he settled in Arkansas, Cleburne commanded three Alabama regiments, the 16th, 33rd and 45th. He was engaged to Mobile resident Susan Tarleton when he died in battle. Alabamians who knew of him through those connections were instrumental in getting the county named after him, said Baber, whose ancestors were among them.
Baber, whose parents were born in Cleburne County, was born in Florida. She later came to live here and began researching her family history and saw the connection to Cleburne. She started researching him and, having worked as an artist in the past, decided to paint his portrait.
Cleburne was born in Ireland in 1828 on the 16th or 17th of March, depending on which historical text you read. He was the son of a doctor who’d died when Cleburne was young. He was always expected to follow in his father’s footsteps and become a doctor, Baber said. When he was 17, Cleburne took the exams to go to medical school and failed them, Baber said. He was so ashamed, she said, that he ran away and joined the British army.
His post put him in direct conflict with his fellow Irish. For instance, she said, he guarded prisoners during the Great Irish Potato Famine, some who were being held for stealing food to feed their families.
“It’s said he let prisoners escape,” Baber said.
Cleburne eventually resigned his post and moved with his brothers and a sister to the United States. In 1850, he settled in Helena, Ark., said Billy Bearden, camp commander of the Sons of Confederate Veterans Haralson Invincibles Camp 673. Cleburne became a naturalized citizen in 1855, he said. He worked in a pharmacy and as a lawyer, but those careers were interrupted when the Civil War broke out. He joined the Yell Rifles, a militia in Helena, in 1861 and when the war began the Yell Rifles joined the First Arkansas Volunteer Infantry.
Cleburne was appointed a colonel and by the end of 1862 rose through the ranks to become a major general, Bearden said. He was killed during the Battle of Franklin just two years later on Nov. 30, 1864.
After Cleburne’s death “General (Robert E.) Lee called him ‘a meteor shining brightly in a cloudy sky,’” Bearden said.
He was well respected for his courage and his military prowess, earning him the nickname “Stonewall of the West,” Bearden said.
Indeed, Bearden said, the more he’s learned about Cleburne, the more impressed he is with the man.
Bearden became interested in the general after coming to Heflin in 2002 for Cleburne Day, a now-defunct celebration of Cleburne including Civil War re-enactments.
In 2005, Bearden presented a proposed design for a Cleburne County flag based on a flag used by Cleburne’s troops. That banner, a white circle centered in a navy background, was adopted and hangs at the County Courthouse, Bearden said.
Both Baber and Bearden mentioned that Cleburne was a man ahead of his time. Several months before his death, Cleburne presented a proposal to his superiors to arm slaves and let them fight for their freedom.
“It is our most vulnerable point, a continued embarrassment, and in some respects an insidious weakness,” Cleburne wrote of slavery in his proposal.
Cleburne didn’t fight the war to protect slavery, Baber said. He fought in the war because as an Irish citizen he understood what it was to be oppressed by government, she said.
Baber’s portrait of Cleburne hung in the County Courthouse for a few years, but in about 2004, it was stolen, said Cleburne County Probate Judge Ryan Robertson. The rumor was that someone upset with the outcome of their trial took the painting and burned it, Robertson said. No one was ever charged with the crime and the painting was never recovered, he said.
But Baber had made prints of the painting and gave one to the county to replace it, she said.
Cleburne County is one of three places in Confederate states named for the military leader, Bearden said. There’s a city in Texas and a county in Arkansas that also bear his name.