Leonidas Polk

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Leonidas Polk
Polk in uniform, c. 1862
Nickname(s)"Sewanee's Fighting Bishop", "Bishop Polk"
Born(1806-04-10)April 10, 1806
Raleigh, North Carolina, US
DiedJune 14, 1864(1864-06-14) (aged 58)
Cobb County, Georgia, US
Place of burial
Allegiance United States
 Confederate States
Service/branch United States Army
 Confederate States Army
Years of service1827 (U.S.)
1861–1864 (C.S.)
Rank Brevet Second Lieutenant (U.S.)
Lieutenant-General (C.S.)
Commands heldFirst Corps, Army of Tennessee
Army of Mississippi
Third Corps, Army of Tennessee
Battles/warsAmerican Civil War
The Right Reverend

Leonidas Polk

Bishop of Louisiana
ChurchEpiscopal Church
ElectedOctober 16, 1841
In office1841–1864
SuccessorJoseph Pere Bell Wilmer
OrdinationMay 22, 1831
by Richard Channing Moore
ConsecrationDecember 8, 1838
by William Meade

Lieutenant-General Leonidas Polk (April 10, 1806 – June 14, 1864) was a bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Louisiana and founder of the Protestant Episcopal Church in the Confederate States of America, which separated from the Episcopal Church of the United States of America. He was a planter in Maury County, Tennessee, and a second cousin of President James K. Polk. He resigned his ecclesiastical position to become a major-general in the Confederate States Army, when he was called "Sewanee's Fighting Bishop". His official portrait at the University of the South depicts him as a bishop with his army uniform hanging nearby. He is often erroneously referred to as "Leonidas K. Polk," but he had no middle name and never signed any documents as such.

Polk was one of the war's more notable, yet controversial, political generals. Recognizing his 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.

Early life and education[edit]

Leonidas Polk was born in Raleigh, North Carolina, to Colonel William and Sarah (née Hawkins) Polk. William was a Revolutionary War veteran and prosperous planter. He was of Scottish And Anglo-Huguenot ancestry. Capitalizing on his position as chief surveyor of the central district of Tennessee, he acquired about 100,000 acres (400 km2) of land.[1]

Polk briefly attended the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill before entering the United States Military Academy at West Point. During his senior year, he left the Scottish Calvinist church and joined the Episcopal Church and was 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.[2]

Polk resigned his commission on December 1, 1827, to 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 as an Episcopalian. 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.[1] 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.[3]

St. John's Church at Ashwood

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 enslaver in the county in 1840, enslaving 111 people. (By 1850, the census recorded that Polk enslaved 400 people, but other estimates are as high as 1000.)[3] He built a family chapel with his four brothers in Maury County, St. John's Church, at Ashwood.[4] 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 first Bishop of Louisiana in October 1841.[2] In 1848, he performed the marriage of his niece, Mary Bayard Devereux, to Major William John Clarke.[5]

Polk was the leading founder of the University of the South in Sewanee, Tennessee, which he envisioned as a national university for the Southern United States 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.[6]) Polk laid and consecrated the cornerstone for the first building on October 9, 1860.[2] Polk's foundational legacy at Sewanee is remembered 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.[7] The title refers to the answer given by Polk "when asked in Richmond if he was putting off the gown of an Episcopal bishop to take up the sword of a Confederate general, to which he replied, 'No, Sir, I am buckling the sword over the gown,'" indicating that he saw it was his duty as a bishop to take up arms.[8]

American Civil War[edit]


At the outbreak of the Civil War, Polk pulled the Louisiana Convention out of the Episcopal Church of the United States to form the Protestant Episcopal Church in the Confederate States of America. Although he hoped that secession would result in a peaceful separation of the slave states from the United States 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,[9] 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).[10] He committed one of the great blunders of the Civil War by dispatching troops to occupy Columbus, Kentucky, in September 1861; the governor of the critical border state of Kentucky had declared its neutrality between the United States and the Confederacy. Still, Polk's action prompted the Kentucky legislature to request U.S. aid to "expel the invaders", ensuring U.S. control of Kentucky for the remainder of the war.[11]

During this period, Polk argued about strategy with his subordinate, Brig. Gen. Gideon Johnson 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 resignation letter to President Davis on November 6, but Davis rejected the request.[12] Polk's command saw its first combat on November 7, 1861: the minor Battle of Belmont between troops under Pillow and U.S. soldiers under Brig. Gen. Ulysses S. Grant. 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 several weeks of recovery.

Army of Mississippi[edit]

Besides being a basically incompetent general, Polk had the added fault of hating to take orders.

Steven E. Woodworth, Jefferson Davis and His Generals[13]

In April 1862, Polk commanded the First Corps of Albert Sidney Johnston's Army of Mississippi at the Battle of Shiloh. He continued in that role for much of the year under Beauregard, who assumed command following the death of Johnston at Shiloh and then under Gen. Braxton Bragg. 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 U.S. army near Frankfort.[14]

Bragg thoroughly despised ... the genial but pompous and often incompetent Bishop Polk. Bragg considered Polk "an old woman, utterly worthless", especially at disciplining men. Unfortunately for Bragg and for the Confederacy as a whole, Polk remained a great favorite of Jefferson Davis despite carefully couched hints from Bragg, which protected the irritatingly self-righteous Polk from the increasingly sycophantic Bragg and made his appointment to wing command a political necessity.

Kenneth W. Noe, Perryville[15]

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 enduring legend of the Civil War is when Polk observed his subordinate, Maj. Gen. Benjamin F. Cheatham, advancing his division, and Cheatham allegedly shouted, "Give 'em hell, boys!" Polk seconded the cheer while retaining the sensibility of a clergyman: "Give it to 'em, boys; give 'em what General Cheatham says!"[16]

Army of Tennessee[edit]

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.[17] 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.[18] In November, the Army of Mississippi was renamed the Army of Tennessee and Polk commanded its First Corps until September 1863.[19]

Polk fought under Bragg at the Battle of Stones River in late 1862. 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 U.S. 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.[20]

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 U.S. Army 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 20). He failed to inform his subordinates of the plan, and his wing was late in attacking, allowing the U.S. 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."[21]

Chickamauga was a great tactical victory for Bragg. Still, instead of pursuing and destroying the U.S. 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. Bragg demanded an explanation from Polk on his 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. Davis once again retained Bragg in army command, despite the protestations of several of his subordinate generals.[22]


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 Tecumseh Sherman's raid against Meridian, Mississippi, in February 1864. In May, he was ordered to take his forces and join 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.[23] His command remained commonly known as the "Army of Mississippi".

Atlanta Campaign and death[edit]

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.[24]

On June 14, 1864, Polk was scouting enemy positions near Marietta, Georgia, with his staff when he was killed in action by a U.S. 3-inch (76 mm) shell at Pine Mountain.[25] The artillery fire was initiated when Sherman spotted a cluster of Confederate generals — Polk, William J. Hardee, and Johnston, with their staffs — in an exposed area. He pointed them out to Maj. Gen. Oliver Otis Howard, commander of the U.S. 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.[26]

The army had suffered a severe loss. It was not that Polk had been a spectacular corps officer. His deficiencies as a commander and his personal traits of stubbornness and childishness had played no small role in several of the army's disasters in earlier times. The loss was one of morale and experience. Polk was the army's most beloved general, a representative of that intangible identification of the army with Tennessee.

Thomas L. Connelly, Autumn of Glory[27]


My pen and ability is inadequate to the task of doing his memory justice. Every private soldier loved him. Second to Stonewall Jackson, his loss was the greatest the South ever sustained. When I saw him there dead, I felt that I had lost a friend whom I had ever loved and respected, and that the South had lost one of her best and greatest Generals.

Private Sam Watkins, Co. Aytch[28]

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 Polk 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.[29] His grave can be found in the front floor sanctuary, to the right of the pulpit. Fort Polk in Louisiana was named for Polk until 2023 when it was renamed Fort Johnson.[30]

Polk's nephew, Lucius E. Polk, was also a Confederate general. Lucius E. Polk's son Rufus King Polk was a Congressman. Polk's son, William Mecklenburg Polk, was a physician and a Confederate captain who later served as a First Lieutenant in the U.S. Army during World War I.[31][32] He later authored his most flattering biography. William M. Polk's son, Frank Polk, served as a counselor to the U.S. Department of State through World War I and later became the first Under Secretary of State.[33] A brother of Polk, Lucius Junius Polk, married a grand-niece of Rachel Jackson, wife of U.S. President Andrew Jackson. U.S. President James K. Polk was Polk's first cousin twice removed.

Polk's portrait, done by Cornelius Hankins, was donated to Christ Church Cathedral in Nashville, Tennessee, by his grandson W. Dudley Gate, in 1963.[34]

Military historian Steven E. Woodworth described the shell that killed Polk as "one of the worst shots fired for the Union cause during the entire course of the war", as Polk's incompetence made him far more valuable alive than dead: "Polk's incompetence and willful disobedience had consistently hamstrung Confederate operations west of the Appalachians, while his special relationship with the president made the bishop-general untouchable."[35][36]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b Robins, p. 1537.
  2. ^ a b c Dupuy, p. 601.
  3. ^ a b Robins, p. 1538.
  4. ^ 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."[citation needed] Two days later, he was killed at the Battle of Franklin and was buried for six years at St. John's.
  5. ^ Rogers, Lou (1949). Tar Heel Women. Raleigh, North Carolina: Warren Publishing Company. pp. 106–113.
  6. ^ Polk, William Mecklenberg (1893). Leonidas Polk, Bishop and General, Volume 1. Longmans, Green, and Company. pp. 209 also available on Google books.
  7. ^ National Society of Colonial Dames of America in Tennessee (December 21, 2007). "Tennessee Portrait Project. Sewanee: The University of the South — Sewanee, Tennessee". Retrieved January 1, 2018.
  8. ^ "Introductory Hermeneutics of Sword Over the Gown". Leonidas Polk Memorial Society. 2014.
  9. ^ McWhiney, p. 205.
  10. ^ Eicher, pp. 432-33.
  11. ^ Woodworth, Jefferson Davis, pp. 34-38; Noe, p. 8; Eicher, p. 432.
  12. ^ Woodworth, Jefferson Davis, pp. 58-60; Eicher, p. 432; Connelly, p. 21.
  13. ^ Woodworth, Jefferson Davis, p. 156.
  14. ^ McWhiney, pp. 230, 300-08.
  15. ^ Noe, p. 57.
  16. ^ McWhiney, pp. 314-16, McDonough, pp. 243-45.
  17. ^ McWhiney, pp. 328-29.
  18. ^ Eicher, p. 808. Edmund Kirby Smith also outranked Polk (behind Longstreet), but he was later promoted to full general.
  19. ^ Eicher, pp. 433, 890.
  20. ^ Woodworth, Six Armies, pp. 38-40; Connelly, pp. 130-32; McWhiney, pp. 377-79; Hallock, pp. 13-20.
  21. ^ Woodworth, Six Armies, pp. 103, 106; Hallock, pp. 54-62, 71-74.
  22. ^ Hallock, pp. 89-92; Woodworth, Jefferson Davis, pp. 239-40; Connelly, pp. 247-48.
  23. ^ Woodworth, Jefferson Davis, pp. 260, 274-75; Connelly, pp. 246-48, 294-95; Eicher, pp. 433, 891.
  24. ^ McMurray, p. 62; Woodworth, Jefferson Davis, p. 281.
  25. ^ Welsh, p. 174.
  26. ^ 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 U.S. artillery responsible.
  27. ^ Connelly, p. 358.
  28. ^ Watkins, p. 139.
  29. ^ Robins, p. 1538; Eicher, p. 433.
  30. ^ Thayer, Rose (June 13, 2023). "Fort Polk renamed Fort Johnson in honor of Black WWI hero". Stars and Stripes. Retrieved February 14, 2024.
  31. ^ "Obituary Dean W. M. Polk" (PDF). Cornell Alumni News. July 1918. p. 448. Retrieved March 4, 2017.
  32. ^ Polk IV, Francis Devereux. "Confederate officer becomes officer in WWI". Confederate Veteran. March/April 2017. Page 53
  33. ^ "Frank Lyon Polk". New York Times. February 7, 1943. Retrieved November 5, 2015.
  34. ^ "Christ Church Cathedral - Nashville, Tennessee: Polk, Bishop Leonidas". Tennessee Portrait Project. National Society of Colonial Dames of America in Tennessee. Retrieved September 22, 2017.
  35. ^ Woodworth, Steven E. (January 6, 2009). Sherman: Lessons in Leadership. pp. 116–117. ISBN 9780230618442.
  36. ^ McDonough, James Lee (June 14, 2016). William Tecumseh Sherman: In the Service of My Country: A Life. p. 459. ISBN 9780393242126.


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