What if Patrick Cleburne had been promoted instead of Hood?

I’m sure I’m not the first to think of this question, but, what if Jefferson Davis had promoted Patrick Cleburne to corps command as head of the Army of Tennessee instead of John Bell Hood in July 1864, or even earlier, perhaps even preceding Johnston?

Playing mental ping-pong with what-if-scenarios are highly conjectural, have the advantage of hindsight vision, and can be very unfair to some participants, especially of ones who made big blunders. Well . . . so. It’s still fun.

I postulate this. Had Davis promoted Cleburne instead of Hood to lead the Army of Tennessee, I think the Western theater results might have been very different. Imagine how Cleburne might have approached the Atlanta campaign differently, or especially the Franklin-Nashville campaign.

Though a certain sense of inevitability sets in at some point, meaning, one wonders if anyone on the Confederate side – at the level of Corps commander – would have made any difference having to report to Jefferson Davis, one still wonders what might-have been had someone like Cleburne been able to lead a Corps during the most desperate need for abled-body leadership on behalf of the Confederacy.

If Hood and Cleburne were in the ring together for ten rounds, I score it a knock-out by Cleburne in four!


How do you call it?

[Scroll to the very bottom to see comments]

9 thoughts on “What if Patrick Cleburne had been promoted instead of Hood?

  1. Steve Woodworth

    Here’s my take: There was no way that Davis would have catapulted Cleburne from division command all the way to army command, skipping the level of corps commander. And Davis was right not to do so. Cleburne needed to prove himself at the corps level first, THEN move up to army command. The problem is that he was not given the opportunity to prove himself at corps level. This was probably because he was not a West-Point-trained professional. Davis’s preference for professionals was generally a good thing, but he should have made an exception in this case.

    For the Confederacy, the ideal course of command developments during the Atlanta campaign would have had Cleburne taking over a corps early in 1864, then taking over command of the Army of Tennessee after Johnston retreated across the Etowah River after failing to fight at Cassville. Then Cleburne would have had the mountainous belt between the Etowah and the Chattahoochee in which to make his defense. And then maybe–just maybe–Cleburne could have foiled Sherman in the mountains the way he did at Tunnel Hill.

    Still, this is scenario is an EXTREME long-shot. It would have been difficult for Davis to have tapped the non-professional Cleburne for corps command in early 1864. It would have been even more difficult for him to have sacked Johnston in mid- to late May. Finally, there’s no guarantee that Cleburne would have been able to stop Sherman. We don’t know for sure how Cleburne would have performed two levels above the highest for which we have any historical record. And Sherman was a master both of logistics and of maneuver warfare. We know Sherman could play effectively on the big stage. We’ll never have the chance of finding out about Cleburne.

  2. tellinghistory Post author

    Dr. Woodworth. I think your analysis is ‘spot on’ from a realistic military point of view. Cleburne was not even a candidate for army command. I find it interesting that Davis chose Hood over Hardee though. That is a real mystery unless one factors in that Davis and Hood were close friends and we all know how Davis played favorites with his friends.

    But just imagining, it makes me wonder from a purely skills and strategic point of view, IF Cleburne had been commander of the Aot, how would late fall 1864 had played out differently? I don’ t think Cleburne would have massacred the AoT; but I do feel it was still inevitable it would have been defeated. Maybe the war would have gone on another 6-12 months. Who knows? That what the “what-if” scenario-izing is all about. We each get to be armchair generals for 5 minutes.

  3. Eric A. Jacobson

    One of the primary reasons why Hardee did not get command in mid-1864 was because he had passed on permanent command after Bragg’s removal. He was the temporary commander until Johnston arrived, but apparently did not want the permanent post. In Davis’ mind Hardee passed on it once and he (Davis) was not going to ask a second time. Thus enter Hood. Still I have come to believe A. P. Stewart, in particular, might have been a better choice in July 1864. Limited corps command experience, but at least some. None one in the army, aside from Hardee, Hood, and Stewart, really had the resume for the job. From outside the army, maybe Dick Taylor.

  4. Sam Hood

    I agree with Dr. Woodworth completely. Cleburne should have been elevated to corps command early in 1864. Even if he was never further elevated to army command, how different would the results have been at the Atlanta battles–specifically Ezra Church–had Cleburne commanded SD Lee’s corps? And later at Spring Hill, what if Cleburne rather than Cheatham had commanded Cheatham’s corps?

    One thing to keep in mind is the impending Northern elections in the summer and fall of 1864. With the war going poorly for Lincoln everywhere but Georgia (Banks, Butler and Siegel’s failed campaigns and Grant running up the butcher’s bill with Lee in VA), Sherman’s steady advance against Joe Johnston was the only thing supporting Lincoln’s public approval. Sherman needed to be repeled, or at least bloodied, to influence the elections. This is why, in my opinion, Davis chose Hood over the few other candidates.

    I do agree with everyone that the war was going to be won by the North regardless of what Hood might have accomplished in Tennessee and beyond. After Lincoln was reelected, it was just a matter of time. With the exception of this hypothetical…if John Wilks Booth had done his evil deed and Andrew Johnson been elevated to the presidency in April ’65, what would Johnson have done if Hood’s army was raising Hell in Kentucky and/or Ohio, and Sherman was scrambling back to the Ohio Valley rather than marching through Georgia and South Carolina?

  5. The Historian man

    We will never know of coarse, but if Cleburne would have been in command at Franklin things would have had diffinately been very very different. Hood had so many scars inside and out. The man lost the use of his left arm in 1863 at the Battle of Gettysburg, when he was severely wounded shattering the bone in it. Then at the Battle of Chickamauga, he is seriously wounded, resulting in the amputation of his right leg. He was a very upset man, but with all of that who probably wouldn’t be. In Spring Hill on the morning of November 30, 1864, the day of Franklin. Hood was furious with his men, for letting the Federal Army get past them the night before. Some how if the story is correct the Federal Army slipped passed them through a mile wide gap, literly lighting their cigars and pipes from the Confederate Army’s campfires. Wow right. So Hood was furious with this. So furious that he was not going to stop at any cost, to have this battle, which we all know as Franklin. Hood and all of his commanders gathered that morning for a meeting, where Hood expressed his ourtage of what had happend that night before. Cleburne, Forrest and the rest of the commanders protested against the charge knowing it would be a worthless and dangerous battle, but Hood didn’t care. You also have to remember Hood had the same thing happen to him at Gettysburg, where he protested against the charge at Devils Den, which he knew to be worthless and dangerous, which also was where he lost the use of his arm. Back to the subject of Cleburne, I think things would have turned out differently, a lot better that is. Cleburne was a very smart and a very aggressive commander when it came to the enemy. When they saw that Silver Moon battle flag coming, they knew there was a hard fight coming and they where scared when they saw it. He was always loved and very respected by his own men. It is said that right before the charge he saw a soldier without shoes on, took his boots off and told that soldiers to put them on. He pretty much knew that this was his day to die He got on his horse looked at his friend and said, well Govan if we are to die, let us die like men. During the charge he had a horse shot out from under him. As he started to get onto another horse he barely had his foot in the stirrup, when it was shot. So then he proceeded on foot, and as he walked into the smoke that was the last time he was seen alive. As far as him not being a West Point graduate, doesn’t matter. Look at Nathan Bedford Forrest. He wasn’t a West Point graduate either and look at how good of a tactician he was. General Cleburne was a very brilliant commander and tactician. If he would have been in Hoods command, things would have had been most different for the Confederacy. He knew how to get the job done and his men followed him where ever he went. Not because he was there commander, but because he actually cared for them, and wouldn’t send them anywhere that he wouldn’t go. He respected them , and they respected him. He got looked down on by Jefferson Davis after his Proposal to free the slaves to fight for the cause. Thats why he didn’t proceed further than what he did in ranks, which is said to be. How he didn’t really doesn’t make sense because To Jefferson Davis, he was the “Stonewall of the West”; to Robert E. Lee, he was “a meteor shining from a clouded sky”; and to Braxton Bragg, he was an officer “ever alive to a success.” thats right, he was Patrick Ronayne Cleburne, one of the greatest of all Confederate field commanders. Spectacular! I get a little carried away, when talking about General Cleburne and the Battle of Franklin. If you don’t know much about him read about him, and if you have never been to Franklin it is an awsome and very emotional experience. I can’t wait till the graphic novel of him, called Cleburne, comes out in november. We all need to get the idea of a movie made about him out there. That would be great.

  6. alabama19th

    If you are strictly going by a “what if” scenario and put Cleburne at the head of the AOT, he would have fought smarter and not sacrificed his army in some suicidal mission like the battle at Franklin.

    One of the reasons Cleburne’s career stalled was his “memorandum”, presented in December 1863, advocating the freeing and arming of the slaves. Like a lot of innovative ideas we see today, the memo was suppressed and never really had a chance. It is ironic and not a little heartbreaking that Cleburne was vindicated a little over a year later when his idea found a host of supporters in the spring of 1865, just as the war was winding down.

    1. tobeimean

      I think Cleburne was held back because he was Irish, not a West Pointer, and was a reasonable general. On the latter two points I think Nathan Bedford’s career suffered as well. In terms of the arming of slaves who would be offered a chance to fight for freeman’s status, Gen. R. E. Lee was in concordance with the idea, and it was implemented to some small extent in the East.

      Cheatham’s troops allowing Schofield to escape after Spring Hill was bad, very bad. I think Cleburne’s cooler mind might have recognized this, whilst Hood lost his head to temper and sacrificed the AoT.

  7. clifford

    I agree that; if officers like Patrick Cleburne had been given command and had surfaced in the Army of Tennessee and if Richmond had given them recognition that the Army of Virginia had received, history books would tell a different story than the ones we teach to our children in the public schools. Winners of wars are the ones who tell their stories first and loudest.


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