Cleburne: A Graphic Novel

Cleburne: A Graphic Novel brings to comics the true story of Confederate General Patrick Cleburne and his 1864 plan to enlist slaves in his army in return for their freedom. Cleburne was an Irish immigrant and a talented leader. Although loyal to his adopted country, he wasn’t raised with the preconceptions many of his fellow officers held, which allowed him to formulate and support the fantastic idea of allowing slaves to fight. Cleburne was a pragmatist, and their forces were badly outnumbered by the Union soldiers. He needed manpower, more soldiers to send into battle, and he knew how capable some slaves or former slaves were.

Cleburne: A Graphic Novel cover
Cleburne: A Graphic Novel
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The other commanders were shocked by the idea of any kind of emancipation, and they branded him a traitor for even considering the idea. Regardless of how valiantly he fought or how well he led his men, once his proposal was known, he was sidelined. The others were weighed down by history, by the idea that they were fighting for the way things always had been, so they couldn’t see that Cleburne wanted to preserve his home because he valued it so highly. He became another outsider, and the army’s choice to value loyalty over intelligence was one of the many factors that doomed their efforts.

This biography covers more than just that particular skirmish, though, weaving in a doomed romance and numerous other battles that took place during the last year of the subject’s life. Artist Justin Murphy (also a playwright) is ably inked by former Marvel artist Al Milgrom, giving the story a professional presentation and a straightforward look suited to a work of history. Murphy seems fascinated by the paradox of Cleburne’s plan, that he was fighting to save his society’s traditions but willing to propose (and put his career on the line) for a plan of action that overturned them.

The themes of the book — the condemnation of putting loyalty first, the idiocy of following honor above all to one’s knowing death, the problems with leaders chosen for the wrong reasons — are timely today. It’s a sad reminder that skill and talent don’t always win out. Readers will also see disturbing confirmation of the wasteful destruction of war.

Find out more at the publisher’s website. (A complimentary copy for this review was provided by the publisher.)

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