History chiefly remembers Patrick Ronayne Cleburne for his generalship—the Stonewall of the West—and his call to free enslaved people and arm them to fight for the Confederacy. Few recall the charismatic son of Ireland for his engagement to the woman pictured here.
In January 1864, Susan “Sue” Tarleton attended a major social event in war-torn Alabama—the marriage of the wealthy Mary Foreman Lewis to Lt. Gen. William J. Hardee. Lewis, 26, selected Tarleton, the 24-year-old daughter of a slaveholding cotton farmer in Mobile, as her maid of honor. Hardee arrived with Maj. Gen. Cleburne, 35, as his best man.
One account described the meeting of Cleburne and Tarleton as “a case of desperate love at first sight.” Another noted, “This was the first leave General Cleburne had taken since the beginning of the war, and as he stood with Miss Tarleton during the ceremony, he fell in love with her immediately.”
Events that followed bore out the veracity of these statements. The smitten Cleburne stayed close to Tarleton for the next couple weeks before being called back to the army. Though separated, the romance blossomed into a courtship by letter. Six weeks after they parted, Cleburne took a short leave to visit her, and left with a promise of marriage.
The betrothal never happened. Before the end of the year, a Union bullet found Cleburne at the Battle of Franklin. One writer reported that a blood-soaked handkerchief had been placed over Cleburne’s face, “but one of his staff took from his pocket an embroidered one, and said: ‘Cover his face with this; it was sent him from Mobile, and I think that he was engaged to the young lady.’”
Tarleton received word of her general’s death days later when she overheard a newsboy shouting the headlines. An official letter followed, and a period of mourning. She eventually recovered and married in 1867. Eleven months later, she died in childbirth. Tarleton was 28. The leading couple of the 1864 wedding party, Lt. Gen. Hardee and Mary Lewis, soon joined them in death—Hardee in 1873 and Lewis in 1875.
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