Graphic Novel explores the life of controversial Civil War general

Wednesday, October 15, 2008
Cleburne tells the story of the famous Arkansas general whose plans to enlist slaves to fight for the Confederacy proved controversial. The 200 page graphic novel will be available Nov. 26 from Rampart Press and was written and illustrated by Jacksonville artists Justin Murphy.

Justin Murphy is surprised that more people don't know who Patrick Cleburne is.

The Civil War battles in which the Arkansan general fought in generally don't get the attention from historians that they deserve.

And there is almost no mention in the history books of his controversial plan to free the slaves to fight for the Confederacy.

"Unless you are a Civil War buff, the average person doesn't know much about him," Murphy said.

Murphy hopes to change all of that, and possibly even get his life told on the big screen.

Cleburne is the subject of a new 200 page graphic novel written and illustrated by Murphy.

Murphy, a Jacksonville, Fla. artist and playwright, said Cleburne's life reads like something straight out of a Hollywood movie.

There's action, drama, war, conspiracy, history and yes, even romance.

Cleburne was born in Ireland but emigrated to the United States with two brothers and a sister. Cleburne eventually settled in Helena where he worked as a pharmacist and later practiced law.

When the war between the states broke out, Cleburne sided with the South, not out of a love for slavery, but out of the affection he felt toward the region who had welcomed him as one of their own.

Cleburne took part in the battles of Shiloh, Richmond, Ky., where he was shot in the face, Perryville and Chickamauga. His successes on the battlefield earned him rapid promotion and the nickname "Stonewall of the West."

His holding action against a much larger Union force at Missionary Ridge during the Battle of Chattanooga and his heroics in guarding the rear at Ringgold Gap in northern Georgia likely saved the Army of Tennessee from destruction.

Cleburne and his troops received an official thank your from the Confederate Congress for their actions.

But in less than a year, he found his career virtually ruined after he put forth a controversial proposal to free the slaves and enlist them in the Confederate ranks.

"He is the perfect vehicle to tell a story from the Confederate point of view," Murphy said. The thing I find interesting about him is number one, he is an immigrant. He comes here and he doesn't fully understand, I think, the society he has embraced. But at the same time, he is willing to defend that society and yet, he wanted to basically free the slaves and enlist them to fight for the Confederacy. So in may ways there is a paradox there because he is fighting for a society, yet standing up to those very institutions the society stands for."

The proposal was met with hostility from his superiors and officially suppressed by Confederate President Jefferson Davis.

In fact, Murphy said Cleburne was thought of so highly that General Joseph Johnston, who was in command at that time of the Army of Tennessee, refused to forward Cleburne's proposal to Richmond because he didn't want it to hurt Cleburne's career.

It was General H.T. Walker, who abhorred Cleburne's proposal and thought it tantamount to treason, who sent the proposal on to Richmond with Cleburne's blessing.

"Walker went around Johnston," Murphy said. "But he had to go to Cleburne to get it and Cleburne basically said good. I want Richmond to see it. That's the irony of it. Cleburne was willing to send it to Richmond. But it absolutely ended his career."

Cleburne was never promoted again or given a corps command. Even the northern press recognized that he should have been given command, Murphy said.

"Here was a guy who never lost a battle, a guy who saved the Army of Tennessee at Missionary Ridge, and a guy who was officially thanked by the Confederate Congress for covering the Army's retreat at Ringgolds Gap. Had he not done what he did, the Army of Tennessee would have been destroyed. And yet less than a year later he is never promoted again. There was a conspiracy against him in the Confederate government because of his beliefs."

Murphy said he first got interested in the Civil War when he was about 15 years old. He watched Ken Burns Civil War which was a huge hit on PBS at the time and began reading books about the war. A plethora of movies about the Civil War such as Glory and The North and the South miniseries which came out in the late 1980s also fired his imagination on the subject.

"I also got in to re-enacting and did that for about six years," Murphy said. "So between the films and the re-enacting and reading anything I could get my hands on, I sort of just got swept up in it. And of course, as you delve in to any subject, the more you start learning about all of the different personalities. I was interested in the Confederate point of view because I have Confederate ancestors and always like the underdogs.

"My interest in Cleburne just sort of started over the last 10 years. I started focusing on him because there wasn't much about him. I think there are three decent books on his life and that's it."

Murphy also was an avid comic book reader growing up and was influenced by a comic called The Nam which was published by Marvel in the mid 1980s. That's when he realized that comic books could be used to tell a historical story. He also drew his own black and white comic of his own for several years called Southern Blood about a family from South Carolina set during the Civil War.

"When The Nam came out I was blown away because it was a historic comic," Murphy said. "All the details were correct. And I was blown away by the artist Michael Golden. That's when I realized the importance of the art. The artist is just as much a part of the story as the story is. And I thought, what other war comics could you do? The Civil War would make an amazing comic book.

"I learned over those five years of publishing my comic what works and what doesn't work and how much dedication it takes to do comic books. But I thought one day I am going to do a Civil War comic but do it right with color and higher production values and glossy paper. But I knew it was going to cost a lot of money, It's not something you do in your spare time."

Cleburne is not a biography of Cleburne's life. It starts in 1863 and ends with his death in 1864. However, the story is historically accurate.

Murphy did extensive research on Cleburne's life and even visited as many of the sites where the action took place.

"I went on a road trip from Jacksonville all the way up to Franklin and down to Mobile in six days with a camera and documented everything I possibly could," Murphy said.

Murphy said he has taken some dramatic license though to tell the story.

"It is not a biography of his life," Murphy said. "I didn't want to tell just a military story. I wanted to tell a story about a man. When someone reads this they have to understand they can't approach this as a historian. It's not an illustrated history book. It's a piece of dramatic literature first. What I have done, is I have done the research and tried to keep the facts straight. But at the same time, I have also when the time comes taken dramatic license with a scene or two. But I take it as long as it is in the character of who the man was."

For example, Murphy recounts the story of Cleburne's courtship of Susan Tarleton, a belle from Mobile who he was supposed to marry. Cleburne went with Gen. William Hardee to Demopolis, Ala. to serve as his best man and was smitten by Tarleton, who was the maid of honor.

Tarleton initially turned Cleburne's marriage proposal down but the history books don't record why. So he created a situation which may explain her initial reluctance.

"She was clearly interested in him," Murphy said. "He was sort of a celebrity. So I thought, how interesting. Cleburne was shot in the jaw. He concealed it under a beard. How great would it be to have them walking and he takes her hand and she sees the scar and asks him how he got it. So there is the motivation. She is afraid to love him because she knows how dangerous his job is and that he could die at any moment."

Tarleton eventually accepted his marriage proposal but the two lovers never got to see each other again. General John Bell Hood turned Cleburne's request for a one week furlough to get married down.

Murphy also invented a scene at the end of the story which intercuts between scenes of Cleburne advancing to his death at the Battle of Franklin and Tarleton at the piano playing an lyrical Irish folk song that Cleburne had wanted to hear her play.

"While he is charging to his death she closes the sheet music and places her fingers across his photograph and walks away," Murphy said. "I thought, wow! What a scene to link those two characters together. So that's what I mean when I say I am not just trying to illustrate reported facts. I'm trying to put some humanity to it."

Murphy also uses a fictional black slave called Ned to explain how Cleburne may have arrived at his idea to enlist the slaves to fight for the Confederacy.

While historians and Civil War purists may take exception to the inclusion of this fictional soldier, Murphy said the character is based on real accounts of black teamsters who traveled with the armies and foraged for supplies and dug ditches and in some cases, were armed.

"What people don't realize is that these armies had thousands of these teamsters," Murphy said. "Some were slaves hired out by their masters. Some were free blacks who were employed by the Confederate army to do these kinds of menial tasks. So even though there weren't official black Confederate troops, there are accounts of black Confederates fighting."

Cleburne and his staff take Ned under their wing and unofficially train him to be a soldier but in the end come to recognize his humanity.

"It starts off as something strategic to win the war," Murphy said. "But by the end of the story Cleburne grows in that he doesn't jut see him as something to win the war. He's actually seeing Ned as a man."

And who is to say something like that didn't happen? Murphy said Cleburne would almost certainly have had contact with black teamsters. In fact, a black man from the South contributed a substantial amount of money to erect Cleburne's monument.

"Nobody knows what Cleburne did for the man," Murphy said. "All he said was Cleburne did something nice for him and he never forgot. And that's my point. How many more things in history are not in the history books? How do we know he never engaged in a conversation with a teamster? How many more things could have taken place that we don't know about. In fact, we would never have known of Cleburne's proposal had not his adjutant, Irving Buck, saved a copy of it. It's not in the official papers of the Confederacy. It never would have come out. So I am trying to approach it from the spirit of who he is. And if that means throwing in some things here and there to get the story across, I will do that and hold it up against any historical-based movie that has come out in the last 15 year."

The novel ends with the Cleburne's death at the Battle of Franklin. Cleburne was killed on November 30, 1864 during an ill-advised assault against Union fortifications just south of Nashville.

He had two horses shot from under him and was last seen advancing on foot with his sword drawn toward the Union entrenchment. Franklin was one of the worst defeats for the Confederacy and destroyed the one mighty Army of Tennessee. The Confederates suffered 6,252 casualties in the five hour battle, including the loss of six generals, Cleburne among them.

Cleburne was buried at St. John's Church near Mount Pleasant, Tenn. where he remained for six years. He was disinterred and returned to Helena and buried in Maple Hill cemetery overlooking the Mississippi River. Steamboat captains used to blow their whistle as they passed his grave in honor of his memory.

The project took Murphy about 10 months to complete. He initially wrote Cleburne as a Hollywood screenplay but quickly found out that screenplays are a dime a dozen in Hollywood.

He still wanted to tell the story though, so he went back to the drawing board, put his words to pictures, and raised the $250,000 to hire professional colorists and get the book in to print.

The book was inked by Al Milgrom, a Marvel Comics veteran who has worked on books like The Incredible Hulk and X Factor, and colored by J. Brown who has worked on Marvel Comic's Civil War and Captain America.

"Neither of them has thought that anything they have ever worked on before has been this demanding because of the accuracy and historical elements," Murphy said. "Super hero stuff you get a little bit of leeway in how you want to color something. You don't get that with a historical piece because it has got to be right. The details were ridiculous. I kept sending him notes about the color of the strap on the gun or the color of the grass in Tennessee. By the time they got to the end of the book they were pros. They probably know enough about Civil War uniforms as I do now after 200 pages of it."

Murphy said audiences shouldn't be put off by the fact that Cleburne is in graphic novel form because it is so much more than a comic book. Several graphic novels have been made recently in to movies.

Readers will learn a lot about the life of Cleburne and Civil War and history enthusiasts should appreciate the accuracy and care he took in telling Cleburne's story.

"The problem with American culture is we tend to pigeonhole the medium of comic books as strictly for children," Murphy said. "Graphic novel sounds more adult I guess. But it's an illustrated novel really is what it is. You would sit down and read it as you would a novel. If you want to call it a comic book, it's that too because it is in comic book form. It does have speech balloons. It has all those comic conventions. But is an illustrated novel. To me, the medium isn't what's important. It's the story."

Cleburne goes on sale Nov. 26 and is available from Rampart Press

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