Bishop Leonidas Polk photograph by Matthew Brady
|Nickname(s)||Sewanee's Fighting Bishop|
April 10, 1806|
Raleigh, North Carolina
|Died||June 14, 1864
Cobb County, Georgia
|Place of burial||Christ Church Cathedral New Orleans, Louisiana|
|Allegiance|| United States of America
Confederate States of America
|Service/branch|| United States Army
Confederate States Army
|Years of service||1827 (USA)
|Rank|| Brevet Second Lieutenant (USA)
Lieutenant General (CSA)
|Commands held||First Corps, Army of Tennessee
Army of Mississippi
Third Corps, Army of Tennessee
Leonidas Polk (April 10, 1806 – June 14, 1864) was a Confederate general in Western Theater the American Civil War who was once a planter in Maury County, Tennessee, and a second cousin of President James K. Polk. He also served as bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Louisiana and was for that reason known as Sewanee's Fighting Bishop.
He is often erroneously named "Leonidas K. Polk." He had no middle name and never signed any documents as such. The errant "K" was derived from his listing in the post-bellum New Orleans press as "Polk, Leon. (k)" for killed in action.
Polk was one of the more notable, yet controversial, political generals of the war. Recognizing his indispensable familiarity with the Mississippi Valley, Confederate President Jefferson Davis commissioned his elevation to a high military position regardless of his lack of prior combat experience. He commanded troops in the Battle of Shiloh, the Battle of Perryville, the Battle of Stones River, the Tullahoma Campaign, the Battle of Chickamauga, the Chattanooga Campaign, and the Atlanta Campaign. He is remembered for his bitter disagreements with his immediate superior, the likewise-controversial General Braxton Bragg of the Army of Tennessee, and for his general lack of success in combat. While serving under the command of General Joseph E. Johnston, he was killed in action in 1864 during the Atlanta Campaign.
Polk was born in Raleigh, North Carolina, to Sarah (Hawkins) Polk and Colonel William Polk, a Revolutionary War veteran and prosperous planter. He was of Scottish and Scotch-Irish ancestry. Capitalizing on his position as chief surveyor of the central district of Tennessee, William was able to acquire about 100,000 acres (400 km2) of land. Polk attended the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill briefly before entering the United States Military Academy at West Point. During his senior year, he joined the Episcopal Church, baptized in the Academy Chapel by Chaplain Charles P. McIlvaine, who later became the Episcopal Bishop of Ohio. Polk had an impressive academic record, excelling in rhetoric and moral philosophy. He graduated eighth of 38 cadets on July 1, 1827, and was appointed a brevet second lieutenant in the artillery.
Polk resigned his commission on December 1, 1827, so that he could enter the Virginia Theological Seminary. He became an assistant to Bishop Richard Channing Moore at Monumental Church in Richmond, Virginia. Moore agreed to ordain Polk as a deacon in April 1830 however on a visit to Raleigh in March it was discovered that he had never been confirmed. To remedy the fact before his ordination he was hastily confirmed at St. John's Episcopal Church in Fayetteville, NC. He was then ordained a deacon as planned and a priest the following year. On May 6, 1830, Polk married Frances Ann Devereux, daughter of John Devereux and Frances Pollock; her mother was the granddaughter of Puritan theologian Jonathan Edwards. The Polks had eight children who survived to adulthood.
In 1832, Polk moved his family to the vast Polk Rattle and Snap tract in Maury County, Tennessee, and constructed a massive Greek Revival home called Ashwood Hall. Polk was the largest slaveholder in the county in 1840, with 111 slaves. (By 1850, census records state that Polk owned 215 slaves, but other estimates are as high as 400.) With his four brothers in Maury County, he built a family chapel, St. John's Church, at Ashwood. He also served as priest of St. Peter's Church in Columbia, Tennessee. He was appointed Missionary Bishop of the Southwest in September 1838 and was elected Bishop of Louisiana in October 1841.
Bishop Polk was the leading founder of the University of the South in Sewanee, Tennessee, which he envisioned as a national university for the South and a New World equivalent to Oxford and Cambridge, both in England. (In his August 1856 letter to Bishop Elliott, he expounded on the secessionist motives for his university.) Polk laid and consecrated the cornerstone for the first building on October 9, 1860. Polk's foundational legacy at Sewanee is remembered always through his portrait Sword Over the Gown, painted by Eliphalet F. Andrews in 1900. After the original was vandalized in 1998, a copy by Connie Erickson was unveiled on June 1, 2003.
At the outbreak of the Civil War, Polk pulled the Louisiana Convention out of the Episcopal Church of the United States. Although he hoped that secession would result in a peaceful separation of the North and South and suggested that he was reluctant to take up arms personally, he did not hesitate to write to his friend and former classmate at West Point, Jefferson Davis, offering his services in the Confederate States Army. Polk was commissioned a major general on June 25, 1861, and ordered to command Department No. 2 (roughly, the area between the Mississippi River and the Tennessee River). He committed one of the great blunders of the Civil War by dispatching troops to occupy Columbus, Kentucky, in September 1861; the critical border state of Kentucky had declared its neutrality between the Union and the Confederacy, but Polk's action was instrumental in prompting the Kentucky legislature to request Federal aid to resist his advance, ending the state's brief attempt at neutrality and effectively ceding it to Union control for the remainder of the war.
Polk's command saw its first combat on November 7, 1861, in the minor, inconclusive Battle of Belmont between Polk's subordinate, Brig. Gen. Gideon J. Pillow and Union Brig. Gen. Ulysses S. Grant. Although not present on the battlefield himself, Polk was wounded nearby on November 11 when the largest cannon in his army, nicknamed "Lady Polk" in honor of his wife, exploded during demonstration firing. The explosion stunned Polk and blew his clothes off, requiring a convalescence of several weeks. During this period Polk argued about strategy with his subordinate, Pillow, and his superior, Gen. Albert Sidney Johnston, commander of Confederate forces in the Western Theater. Resentful that his former West Point roommate was giving him orders, he submitted a letter of resignation to President Davis on November 6, but Davis rejected the request.
Army of Mississippi
In April 1862, Polk commanded the First Corps of Albert Sidney Johnston's Army of Mississippi at the Battle of Shiloh and continued in that role for much of the rest of the year under Gen. Braxton Bragg, who replaced Beauregard, who had assumed command following the death of A. S. Johnston, killed on the first day at Shiloh. At various times his command was considered a corps and at other times the "Right Wing" of the army. In the fall, during the invasion of Kentucky by Bragg and Maj. Gen. Edmund Kirby Smith, Polk was in temporary command of the Army of Mississippi while Bragg visited Frankfort to preside over the inauguration of a Confederate governor for the state. Polk disregarded an order from Bragg to attack the flank of the pursuing Union Army near Frankfort.
At the Battle of Perryville, Polk's right wing constituted the main attacking force against Maj. Gen. Don Carlos Buell's Army of the Ohio, but Polk was reluctant to attack the small portion of Buell's army that faced him until Bragg arrived at the battlefield. One of the enduring legends of the Civil War is that Polk witnessed his subordinate, Maj. Gen. Benjamin F. Cheatham, advancing his division. Cheatham allegedly shouted, "Give 'em hell, boys!" and Polk, retaining the sensibility of his role as an Episcopal bishop, seconded the cheer: "Give it to 'em boys; give 'em what General Cheatham says!"
Army of Tennessee
After Perryville, Polk began a year-long campaign to get Bragg relieved of command, hoping to use his close relationship with President Davis to accomplish his goal. Despite the failure of his Kentucky campaign, Bragg was retained in command, but this did nothing to reduce the enmity between Polk and Bragg. Polk was promoted to lieutenant general on October 11, 1862, with date of rank of October 10. He became the second most senior Confederate of that rank during the war, behind James Longstreet. In November, the Army of Mississippi was renamed the Army of Tennessee and Polk commanded its First Corps until September 1863.
Polk fought under Bragg at the Battle of Stones River in late 1862 and once again Bragg's subordinates politicked to remove their army commander after an unsuccessful battle (the battle was tactically inconclusive, but Bragg was unable to stop the advance of the Union Army of the Cumberland under Maj. Gen. William S. Rosecrans and Bragg withdrew his army to Tullahoma, Tennessee). Bragg was also unsuccessful in resisting Rosecrans's advance in the Tullahoma Campaign, which began to threaten the important city of Chattanooga. In the face of Rosecrans's expert maneuvering of his army, Polk counseled Bragg to retreat rather than stand and fight in their Tullahoma fortifications.
Rosecrans eventually maneuvered Bragg out of Chattanooga and the Army of Tennessee withdrew into the mountains of northwestern Georgia with the Army of the Cumberland in hot pursuit. Bragg planned to attack and destroy at least one of Rosecrans's corps, advancing separately over mountainous roads. He was infuriated when Polk's division under Maj. Gen. Thomas C. Hindman failed to attack an isolated Union corps at Davis's Cross Roads as ordered on September 11. Two days later, Polk disregarded orders from Bragg to attack another isolated corps, the second failed opportunity. At the Battle of Chickamauga, Polk was given command of the Right Wing and the responsibility for initiating the attack on the second day of battle (September 19). He failed to inform his subordinates of the plan and his wing was late in attacking, allowing the Union defenders time to complete their field fortifications. Bragg wrote after the war that if it were not for the loss of these hours, "our independence might have been won."
Chickamauga was a great tactical victory for Bragg, but instead of pursuing and destroying the Union Army as it retreated, he laid siege to it in Chattanooga, concentrating his effort against the enemies inside his army instead of his enemies from the North. He demanded an explanation from Polk on the bishop's failure to attack in time on September 20 and Polk placed the blame entirely on one of his subordinates, Maj. Gen. D. H. Hill. Bragg wrote to President Davis, "Gen'l Polk by education and habit is unfit for executing the plans of others. He will convince himself his own are better and follow them without reflecting on the consequences." Bragg relieved Polk of his command and ordered him to Atlanta to await further orders. Although Polk protested the "arbitrary and unlawful order" to the Secretary of War and demanded a court of inquiry, he was not restored to his position and Davis once again retained Bragg in army command, despite the protestations of a number of his subordinate generals.
President Davis transferred his friend Polk to command the Department of Mississippi and East Louisiana (December 23, 1863 – January 28, 1864) and then the Department of Alabama and East Mississippi (January 28 – May 4, 1864), giving him effective command of the state of Mississippi following the departure of Gen. Joseph E. Johnston to replace Bragg in command of the Army of Tennessee. Polk unsuccessfully attempted to oppose Maj. Gen. William T. Sherman's raid against Meridian, Mississippi, in February 1864. In May, he was ordered to take his forces and join with Johnston in resisting Sherman's advance in the Atlanta Campaign. He assumed command of the Third Corps of the Army of Tennessee on May 4. His command remained commonly known as the "Army of Mississippi".
Atlanta Campaign and death
Polk brought more than 20,000 men with him to Georgia. Because of his elevated rank, he became the army's second in command under Johnston. By using successive flanking maneuvers, Sherman forced Johnston to withdraw his army from strong defensive positions to protect the Confederate line of communication. This forced Johnston ever closer to the critically important city of Atlanta.
On June 14, 1864, Polk was scouting enemy positions near Marietta, Georgia, with his staff when he was killed in action by a Federal 3-inch (76 mm) shell at Pine Mountain. The artillery fire was initiated when Sherman spotted a cluster of Confederate generals — Polk, Hardee, and Johnston, with their staffs — in an exposed area. He pointed them out to Maj. Gen. Oliver O. Howard, commander of the IV Corps, and ordered him to fire upon them. Battery I of the 1st Ohio Light Artillery, commanded by Capt. Hubert Dilger, obeyed the order within minutes. The first round from the battery came close and a second came even closer, causing the men to disperse. The third shell struck Polk's left arm, went through his chest, and exited hitting his right arm, then exploded against a tree; it nearly cut Polk in two.
Although his record as a field commander was poor, Polk was immensely popular with his troops, and his death was deeply mourned in the Army of Tennessee. Polk's funeral service at Saint Paul's Church in Augusta, Georgia, was one of the most elaborate during the war. His friend Bishop Stephen Elliott of Georgia presided at the service, delivering a stirring funeral oration. He was buried in a location under the present-day altar. The church has a monument to the bishop near the altar, and the original grave site can be visited. In 1945, his remains and those of his wife were reinterred at Christ Church Cathedral in New Orleans. His grave can be found in the front floor sanctuary, to the right of the pulpit. Fort Polk in Louisiana is named in Bishop Polk's memory.
Polk's nephew, Lucius E. Polk, was also a Confederate general. Lucius E. Polk's son Rufus King Polk was a Congressman. Bishop Polk's son, William Mecklenburg Polk, was a physician and a Confederate captain, who later authored his most flattering biography. William M. Polk's son, Frank Polk, served as counselor to the U.S. Department of State through World War I and later became the first Under Secretary of State. A brother of Bishop Polk, Lucius Junius Polk, married a grand-niece of Mrs. Rachel Jackson, wife of US President Andrew Jackson. US President James K. Polk was Bishop Polk's first cousin twice removed.
In popular media
Leonidas Polk appears as a character in three novels about the Battle of Shiloh. In Jeff Sharaa's A Blaze of Glory, Polk is an important supporting character, as he is also in Daniel F. Korn's Dawn's Gray Steel. Polk is a minor figure in Shelby Foote's Shiloh. Polk also appears in Alden Carter's Bright Starry Banner, a novel about the Battle of Stone's River.
In MacKinlay Kantor's 1961 alternate history book If the South Had Won the Civil War, Leonidas Polk appears as one of several prominent people who would have campaigned for the abolition of slavery in an independent Confederacy and eventually achieved it by 1885.
- Robins, p. 1537.
- Dupuy, p. 601.
- Robins, p. 1538.
- Mrs. Polk's memorial on Find a Grave
- St. John's later became famous for its connection to Confederate general Patrick Cleburne, who remarked that it would be "worth dying to be buried in a place so beautiful." Two days later he was killed at the Battle of Franklin and was buried for six years at St. John's.
- McWhiney, p. 205.
- Eicher, pp. 432-33.
- Woodworth, Jefferson Davis, pp. 34-38; Noe, p. 8; Eicher, p. 432.
- Woodworth, Jefferson Davis, pp. 58-60; Eicher, p. 432; Connelly, p. 21.
- Woodworth, Jefferson Davis, p. 156.
- McWhiney, pp. 230, 300-08.
- Noe, p. 57.
- McWhiney, pp. 314-16, McDonough, pp. 243-45.
- McWhiney, pp. 328-29.
- Eicher, p. 808. Edmund Kirby Smith also outranked Polk (behind Longstreet), but he was later promoted to full general.
- Eicher, pp. 433, 890.
- Woodworth, Six Armies, pp. 38-40; Connelly, pp. 130-32; McWhiney, pp. 377-79; Hallock, pp. 13-20.
- Woodworth, Six Armies, pp. 103, 106; Hallock, pp. 54-62, 71-74.
- Hallock, pp. 89-92; Woodworth, Jefferson Davis, pp. 239-40; Connelly, pp. 247-48.
- Woodworth, Jefferson Davis, pp. 260, 274-75; Connelly, pp. 246-48, 294-95; Eicher, pp. 433, 891.
- McMurray, p. 62; Woodworth, Jefferson Davis, p. 281.
- Connelly, p. 358.
- Welsh, p. 174.
- Smith, pp. 253-54. Foote, p. 356, credits Battery I, 1st Ohio Light Battery, commanded by Capt. Hubert Dilger. Polk's biographer, Joseph Parks, describes his death (pp. 382-83) without identifying the Union artillery responsible.
- Watkins, p. 139.
- Robins, p. 1538; Eicher, p. 433.
- "Frank Lyon Polk". New York Times. February 7, 1943. Retrieved 2015-11-05.
- Connelly, Thomas L. Autumn of Glory: The Army of Tennessee 1862–1865. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1971. ISBN 0-8071-2738-8.
- Dupuy, Trevor N., Curt Johnson, and David L. Bongard. The Harper Encyclopedia of Military Biography. New York: HarperCollins, 1992. ISBN 978-0-06-270015-5.
- Eicher, John H., and David J. Eicher. Civil War High Commands. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2001. ISBN 978-0-8047-3641-1.
- Foote, Shelby. The Civil War: A Narrative. Vol. 3, Red River to Appomattox. New York: Random House, 1974. ISBN 0-394-74913-8.
- Hallock, Judith Lee. Braxton Bragg and Confederate Defeat. Vol. 2. Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 1991. ISBN 0-8173-0543-2.
- McDonough, James Lee. Chattanooga—A Death Grip on the Confederacy. Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 1984. ISBN 0-87049-425-2.
- McMurry, Richard M. Atlanta 1864: Last Chance for the Confederacy. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2000. ISBN 0-8032-8278-8.
- McWhiney, Grady. Braxton Bragg and Confederate Defeat. Vol. 1. New York: Columbia University Press, 1969 (additional material, Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 1991). ISBN 0-8173-0545-9.
- Noe, Kenneth W. Perryville: This Grand Havoc of Battle. Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 2001. ISBN 978-0-8131-2209-0.
- Parks, Joseph H. General Leonidas Polk, C.S.A.: The Fighting Bishop (Southern Biography Series). Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1992. ISBN 978-0-8071-1801-6.
- Robins, Glenn. "Leonidas Polk." In Encyclopedia of the American Civil War: A Political, Social, and Military History, edited by David S. Heidler and Jeanne T. Heidler. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2000. ISBN 978-0-393-04758-5.
- Robins, Glenn. The Bishop of the Old South: The Ministry And Civil War Legacy of Leonidas Polk. Mercer Univ Pr, 2006. ISBN 0881460389 ISBN 978-0881460384
- Sifakis, Stewart. Who Was Who in the Civil War. New York: Facts On File, 1988. ISBN 978-0-8160-1055-4.
- Smith, Derek. The Gallant Dead: Union & Confederate Generals Killed in the Civil War. Mechanicsburg, PA: Stackpole Books, 2005. ISBN 0-8117-0132-8.
- Warner, Ezra J. Generals in Gray: Lives of the Confederate Commanders. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1959. ISBN 978-0-8071-0823-9.
- Watkins, Sam. Co. Aytch Maury Grays, First Tennessee Regiment or, A Side Show of the Big Show. Cumberland Presbyterian Publishing House, 1882. OCLC 43511251.
- Welsh, Jack D. Medical Histories of Confederate Generals. Kent, OH: Kent State University Press, 1999. ISBN 978-0-87338-853-5.
- Woodworth, Steven E.. Jefferson Davis and His Generals: The Failure of Confederate Command in the West. Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 1990. ISBN 0-7006-0461-8.
- Woodworth, Steven E.. Six Armies in Tennessee: The Chickamauga and Chattanooga Campaigns. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1998. ISBN 0-8032-9813-7.
|Wikisource has the text of a 1911 Encyclopædia Britannica article about Leonidas Polk.|
- Leonidas Polk at Find a Grave
- Bush, Bryan S. "Confederate General Leonidas Polk and the collapse of the Confederate command structure in the Western Theater". NU XI Student Historical Journal, Phi Alpha Theta History Honor Society, University of Louisville chapter, Fall 2004.
- The Leonidas Polk Registry Research Project
- Biography at Encyclopedia of Arkansas History and Culture
- Biography at Louisiana Historical Association's Dictionary of Louisiana Biography (Scroll down.)
- Biography at Know Southern Histor
- Biography at About North Georgia
- CivilWarAlbum.com — Historical marker, monument and article
- DeMar, Gary, Article on University of the South and Bishop Polk
- The Funeral Services for Bishop Polk, led by the Right Reverend Stephen Elliott
- A detailed description of the burial service, with photos of the original burial site.
- "Polk, Leonidas". Encyclopedia Americana. 1920.
- "Polk, Leonidas". Collier's New Encyclopedia. 1921.