William Polk (colonel)

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William Polk
Member of North Carolina Council of State[1]
In office
Serving with Robert Burton, Nathaniel Jones, William Boylan, Bryan Whitfield, Reuben Wood, Lawrence Smith
Appointed byNorth Carolina House of Commons
GovernorNathaniel Alexander
Supervisor of Internal Revenue for the District of North Carolina
In office
Appointed byGeorge Washington
Member of the North Carolina House of Commons
In office
Serving with Elijah Robertson
GovernorAlexander Martin then Richard Caswell
Preceded byEphraim McLean
Succeeded byRobert Ewing/Robert Hayes
ConstituencyDavidson County (now part of Tennessee)
Member of the North Carolina House of Commons
In office
Serving with Caleb Phifer
GovernorSamuel Johnston
Preceded byGeorge Alexander
Succeeded byJoseph Douglass
ConstituencyMecklenburg County, North Carolina
Fifth Grand Master of Masons of North Carolina[2]
In office
Preceded byWilliam Richardson Davie
Succeeded byJohn Louis Taylor
Personal details
Born9 July 1758
Mecklenburg County, North Carolina
Died14 Jan 1834
Raleigh, North Carolina
Resting placeCity Cemetery, Raleigh, North Carolina Section E-3
35°46′41″N 78°37′57″W / 35.77802°N 78.63237°W / 35.77802; -78.63237
Political partyFederalist
Spouse(s)Griselda Glichrist(1789-1799), Sarah Hawkins (1801-1843)
RelationsJames K. Polk (first cousin, once removed), Ezekiel Polk (nephew of), Leonidas Polk (father of)
Alma materQueen's College(not Queens University of Charlotte)
OccupationSoldier, Surveyor, Land Speculator, Banker, Politician, Educator
Military service
AllegianceUnited States of AmericaFlag of the United States (1777-1795).svg
Years of service1775-1781
RankMajor, later Lieutenant-Colonel
Battles/warsCanebrake, Brandywine, Germantown, Camden, Cowan's Ford, Guilford Court House, and Eutaw Springs
Survivor ofThe 1777/1788 Encampment at Valley Forge

Colonel William Polk (9 July 1758 – 14 January 1834) was a North Carolina banker, educational administrator, political leader, renowned Continental officer in the War for American Independence, and survivor of the 1777/1778 encampment at Valley Forge.

Early life and background[edit]

William Polk was born in Mecklenburg County, North Carolina, on July 9, 1758, the eldest child of Thomas Polk and his wife Sussana Spratt. From the earliest days of rebellion against British authority, Mecklenburg had been a hotbed of revolutionary fervor, and the Polk family was very active in this cause. William's father was commander of the local militia, a rumored key player in adoption of the Mecklenburg Resolves of May 31, 1775, and later colonel of the 4th North Carolina Regiment, Continental Line.

Following their father's example, three of Thomas Polk's sons served as officers in the war against the British. The younger Thomas was killed in action serving alongside his brother William at the Battle of Eutaw Springs.[11][12]

American Revolutionary War[edit]

  • At the onset of military action between the American colonies and Great Britain, William Polk left Queens College (an unrelated precursor of the modern Queens University) to accept a commission as second lieutenant in his uncle Ezekiel Polk's company of the Third South Carolina Regiment, commanded by Col. William Thomson. In a campaign to subdue Tory forces in South Carolina, he was severely wounded in the left shoulder at Great Cane Brake on 23 December 1775. Borne on a litter 120 miles to his father's home in North Carolina, he spent the following nine months recuperating from the dangerously infected wound. His reportedly was the first American blood shed south of Lexington and Concord, Massachusetts.[13]
  • 1776, November 26: The Provincial Congress of North Carolina at Halifax elected young Polk major of the Ninth Regiment, North Carolina Continental Line.[6] When the North Carolina regiments were ordered north, the Ninth had only about half its complement of men, and its colonel and lieutenant colonel remained in North Carolina to superintend further recruiting. Polk, a combat veteran of imposing stature—he stood six feet, four [14]—was given command and marched the regiment to Maryland for inoculation against smallpox, then to Trenton, N.J., where it joined the main body of General Washington's army.[15]
  • 1777, September 11: Polk and his regiment saw action at the Battle of Brandywine.[16]
  • 1777, October 4: At the Battle of Germantown Polk was shot in the mouth while in the act of giving a command. The musket ball ranged along the upper jaw, knocking out four teeth and shattering the jawbone.[15]
  • 1777/1778, winter: Recuperating from this wound, Polk remained with his regiment during the difficult encampment at Valley Forge.
  • 1778, March: Their ranks severely depleted by death and the expiration of enlistments, North Carolina's ten regiments were reduced to four. Superfluous officers, including Polk, were removed by lot from active service. Polk returned to North Carolina, where he engaged in recruiting duty.[3]
  • 1778, fall – 1780, April: Polk continued in his recruiting duties and participated in skirmishes against the Tories.
  • 1780, May: After the fall of Charleston, the Southern Department of the army was reorganized under General Horatio Gates. Polk was assigned to the staff of General Richard Caswell,[6] the former governor of North Carolina.
  • 1780: Polk saw action at the disastrous Battle of Camden.[17] When the Continentals began to give ground, Polk joined with the North Carolina militia and fought with them. Once De Kalb fell and the rout of Continentals was complete, Polk was able to lead a large number of troops in a successful retreat to North Carolina. That fall he acquired a position under General William Davidson.[18]
  • 1781, January: General Davidson’s militia, including Polk, marched to the aid of Daniel Morgan, who after his success at Cowpens was on the run from the main body of Cornwallis’s army.
  • 1781, February - April: When Cornwallis attempted to cross the Catawba at Cowan's Ford, he was attacked by Davidson's militia. Polk was riding alongside Davidson when the general was shot from his horse and killed instantly.[19] Word of Davidson's death spread quickly, and the demoralized militia broke in the face of an enemy bayonet charge. Polk rallied the few men he could and led them to Salem, reporting for service to General Andrew Pickens, with whom he remained until, following the Battle of Guilford Court House, Pickens left the army of General Nathanael Greene. Soon thereafter Polk was commissioned lieutenant colonel by Governor John Rutledge of South Carolina and took command of the 4th and then the 3rd regiments of that state, mustering his regiment under the command of General Thomas Sumter. Less than a month after being commissioned, Polk, together with troops under Colonel Wade Hampton, grandfather of the Confederate general of that name, led his regiment on a forced march of sixty miles in seventeen hours, surprising the British at Friday’s Ferry on the Congaree and burning the blockhouse near Fort Granby.[20]
  • 1781, May 11–15: Polk joined General Greene at Fort Motte, which capitulated on the second day of a siege, and then marched under General Sumter's command to Orangeburg, where the British garrison quickly surrendered.[20]
  • 1781, July. Polk's regiment invested the British garrison around Watboo Church, burning bridges and causeways, then retired to await the arrival of Sumter's artillery. In the morning the British cavalry made "a furious charge," but were thrown back. That night the British abandoned their position, burned the church and other buildings and retreated to Quinby Bridge, where they were saved from certain defeat by Sumter's failure to employ his artillery.[21]
  • 1781, September 8: Polk's regiment covered the left wing of the American army under General Nathanael Greene at the Battle of Eutaw Springs. While charging the enemy, Polk's horse was shot dead and fell on top of him, pinning him to the ground. A British soldier was in the act of plunging a bayonet into Polk when he was cut down by a sergeant in Polk's regiment.[22] (Polk's brother Lieutenant Thomas Polk was killed during the battle.) With regard to Colonel Polk’s performance that day, Greene wrote in his official report:

Lieutenant-Colonels Polk and Middleton were no less conspicuous for their good conduct than their intrepidity, and the troops under their command gave a specimen of what may be expected from men naturally brave when improved by proper discipline.[23]

  • Eutaw Springs was the last major battle in the South prior to Yorktown and was Polk's final military engagement.[24] With the end of hostilities, Polk returned to North Carolina, a veteran of some of the Revolution’s fiercest battles and a survivor of the harshest winter encampment in the history of the United States military. He was twenty-two years old.

Post-war years[edit]

Politician and public servant[edit]

In 1783 the North Carolina General Assembly appointed Polk as Surveyor General of the Middle District, now a part of Tennessee. In this capacity Polk also acquired large tracts of land in the area. Twice he was elected to the House of Commons before returning in 1786 to his native Mecklenburg County.[3][6][8][25] He was re-elected to the House of Commons in 1787, served a one-year term and was re-elected in 1790.[9] He was a candidate for Speaker of the House in 1791, but was defeated by Stephen Cabarrus.[26] That March President George Washington appointed him as Supervisor of Internal Revenue for the District of North Carolina, a position he held for seventeen years, or until the Internal Revenue Laws were repealed.[26][27]

Polk was among the Continental Army officers who founded the North Carolina Society of the Cincinnati on October 23, 1783.[28]

After the death of his first wife in 1799, Polk moved to property on Blount Street in Raleigh.[3][29] In December of that year he was elected Grand Master of Masons of North Carolina and served in that office until December 1802.[2][3]

Federalists in the state legislature nominated him for governor in 1802, but by a two-to-one margin he lost to John Baptista Ashe, a fellow officer in the Revolution.[3] Ashe died before taking office.[30]

Polk was appointed as the first president of the State Bank of North Carolina in 1811 and held that office for eight years.[3][6]

In March 1812, as war with Britain seemed imminent, President Madison offered Polk a commission as brigadier in the U.S. Army. A Federalist and opponent of the war, he declined the offer.[3][6][27] Not until August 1814, when the British sacked Washington, did he change his opposition to the war. Writing his brother-in-law William Hawkins, governor of North Carolina, he offered his services to the state in whatever capacity the governor saw fit. Inasmuch as North Carolina was not seriously threatened, he was not called upon.[31]

In June 1818 Polk became one of the first vice presidents of Raleigh Auxiliary of the American Colonization Society,[32] which sought to resettle free American blacks in a colony in West Africa. This colony developed as Liberia. Polk remained active in the group for many years.[3]

The Federalists nominated him as candidate for governor in 1814, and again he was defeated.[3]

Canova's Washington[edit]

Reproduction of Canova's Washington at the old State Capitol building.

After the War of 1812, the North Carolina legislature commissioned the celebrated sculptor Antonio Canova of Venice, Italy, to produce a statue of George Washington for the Statehouse. On Christmas Eve 1821 it arrived in Raleigh and was met with great fanfare, including a 24-gun salute, marching bands, and a parade of both houses of the legislature and the governor. In last position, just ahead of the statue, were veterans of the Revolution, with Polk bearing the Stars and Stripes. Polk also gave a speech that day.[33] The Capitol building burned in June 1831 and the statue was destroyed.[34] An accurate copy of the statue was produced in Italy from preserved molds in the 21st century and installed in the rotunda of the old Capitol building.

Lafayette's visit to Raleigh[edit]

Lafayette visited Raleigh in March 1825 as part of his Grand Tour of the United States.[35] Colonel Polk was appointed to give an address on the occasion.[27] After his speech, Polk and Lafayette embraced and wept in memory of what they had shared during the Revolution.[36] Lafayette attended various balls, dinners, and other events, including breakfast at Colonel Polk's home on the morning of March 3.[36]

Service to education[edit]

Polk was appointed as a trustee of the University of North Carolina in 1790 and served until his death, including a term as president of the trustees from 1802-1805.[3] Among other educational efforts, he founded a school for sixteen pupils in Raleigh in 1827 and assisted his wife Sarah in founding a school for poor children in 1822.[38]

Marriages and family[edit]

In October 1789 Polk married Grizelda Gilchrist,[27] a granddaughter of a former colonial attorney general of North Carolina.[3] She was born in Suffolk, Virginia, on October 24, 1768.[28] The couple had two children, Thomas Gilchrist Polk, born February 22, 1791, and William Julius Polk, born March 21, 1793.[39] Grizelda Polk died in 1799.[3]

On New Year's Day 1801, Polk married Sarah Hawkins.[3] Her brother William later was elected governor of North Carolina.[27] Sarah bore thirteen children, two of whom died in infancy.[39]

Notable relations[edit]


Polk died on January 14, 1834, at his home in Raleigh.[44][45]

His obituary in the January 21, 1834, issue of the Raleigh Register contained the following:

Colonel Polk was at his death the sole surviving field officer of the North Carolina Line; and it will be no disparagement to the illustrious dead to say that no one of his compatriots manifested deeper or more ardent devotion to the cause of his country; that in her service no officer more gallantly exposed his life or more cheerfully endured privation and suffering, and that no one of his rank in the army contributed more by his personal services to bring that glorious contest to a successful end.

—The Raleigh Register, January 21, 1834, quoted by Marshall DeLancey Haywood[31]


  • The town of Polkville, North Carolina is named for him.[31]
  • Polk County was named for him as he had property there.[31]
  • Camp Polk, a World War I U.S. Army tank base in Raleigh, was named for him.[46]
  • The original Polk Prison was built in 1920 on the grounds of Camp Polk. The prison facility is named for Colonel William Polk.[46]
  • Polk Correctional Institution (originally Polk Youth Institution), opened in 1997 near Butner, North Carolina, is a North Carolina maximum-security prison for men aged 19–25.[46]

David Swain, the governor of North Carolina at the time of Polk’s death, said:

He was a contemporary and personal friend of Andrew Jackson, not less heroic in war, and quite as sagacious, and more successful in private life. It is known that Colonel Polk greatly advanced the interests and enhanced the wealth of the hero of New Orleans by information furnished him from his field notes as a surveyor, and in directing Jackson in his selection of valuable tracts of land in the State of Tennessee; that to Samuel Polk, the father of the President (James K. Polk), he gave the agency of renting and selling his (William’s) immense and valuable estate in lands in the most fertile section of that state; that as President of the Bank of North Carolina, he made Jacob Johnson, the father of President Andrew Johnson, its first porter; so that of the three native North Carolinians who entered the White House through the gates of Tennessee, all were indebted alike for the benefactions, and for promotion to a more favorable position in life, to the same individual, Colonel William Polk.

--David Swain, quoted by William H. Polk.[47]


  1. ^ The Council of State at this time was an official advisory panel for the Governor, the members of which were appointed by the legislature. The name, and some of the authority, of the Council was later transferred to the body of the state's elected executive officials.
  2. ^ a b grandlodge 1998, p. 1
  3. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l m n McFarland 1979, p. 114
  4. ^ Angellotti 1923, p. 4
  5. ^ Angellotti 1923, p. 14
  6. ^ a b c d e f Wilson 1888, p. 56
  7. ^ Connor 1913, p. 428
  8. ^ a b Connor 1913, p. 586
  9. ^ a b Connor 1913, p. 697
  10. ^ Connor 1913, p. 776
  11. ^ William S. Powell, North Carolina Through Four Centuries, University of North Carolina Press, 1989, pp. 176, 177.
  12. ^ William M. Polk, Leonidas Polk, Bishop and General, Longmans, Green & Co., 1915, p. 14.
  13. ^ "Autobiography of Colonel William Polk" in The Papers of Archibald D. Murphy, William Henry Hoyt, editor, North Carolina Historical Commission, Raleigh, 1914.
  14. ^ Mary Jones Polk Branch, "Memoirs of a Southern Woman," Branch Publishing, Chicago, 1912, p. 83.
  15. ^ a b "Autobiography".
  16. ^ Murray 1983, p. 223
  17. ^ "Autobiography", p. 404-405.
  18. ^ Pension application of William Polk, S3706 fn51NC, Wake County, N.C., Superior Court of Law, spring term 1833.
  19. ^ John Buchanan, The Road to Guilford Courthouse, John Wiley & Sons, 1997, p. 347.
  20. ^ a b "Autobiography", p. 407.
  21. ^ "Autobiography", p. 408.
  22. ^ "Autobiography"
  23. ^ William M. Polk, Leonidas Polk, Bishop and General, Longmans Green & Co., New York, 1915.
  24. ^ Mark M. Boatner, III, Encyclopedia of the American Revolution, Stackpole Books, 1994.
  25. ^ Polk 1912, p. 140
  26. ^ a b Haywood 1905, p. 366
  27. ^ a b c d e f Polk 1912, p. 141
  28. ^ a b Haywood 1905, p. 365
  29. ^ Murray 1983, p. 122
  30. ^ Congressional Biography of John Baptista Ashe 2000, p. 1
  31. ^ a b c d Haywood 1905, p. 367
  32. ^ Murray 1983, p. 165
  33. ^ a b 1902, p. 281
  34. ^ Haywood, South Atlantic Quarterly 1902, p. 285
  35. ^ Murray 1983, p. 222
  36. ^ a b Murray 1983, p. 225
  37. ^ Raleigh Register & 8 March 1825, p. 1
  38. ^ Murray 1983, p. 188
  39. ^ a b Angellotti 1923, p. 16
  40. ^ Angellotti 1923, p. 8
  41. ^ Angellotti 1923, p. 22
  42. ^ Fort Polk Public Affairs Office 2010, p. 1
  43. ^ Angellotti 1923, p. 30
  44. ^ Polk 1912, p. 144
  45. ^ Wilson 1888, p. 57
  46. ^ a b c Department of Correction 2011, p. 1
  47. ^ Polk 1912, p. 143


  • "About Fort Polk". Vernon Parish, Louisiana: US Army, Fort Polk Public Affairs Office. 2010. Retrieved 3/2/2011. Check date values in: |accessdate= (help)
  • "About Polk Correctional Institution". North Carolina Department of Correction. 2011. Retrieved 3/4/2011. Check date values in: |accessdate= (help)
  • Angellotti, Frank M. (1923). The Polks of North Carolina and Tennessee. Greenville, South Carolina: Southern Historical Press.
  • "ASHE, John Baptista - Biographical Information". Biographical Directory of the United States Congress. Washington, DC: United States Congress. 2000. Retrieved 2011-02-28.
  • Charlotte-Mecklenburg Library (2004). "Celebrating the Mecklenburg Declaration of Independence: All About the Declaration, Signers Biographies: Thomas Polk". The Charlotte - Mecklenburg Story. Charlotte, North Carolina: Public Library of Charlotte & Mecklenburg County. Retrieved 2011-02-15.
  • Connor, Robert, ed. (1913). A Manual of North Carolina [Issued by the North Carolina Historical Commission for the Use of Members of the General Assembly Session 1913] (html). University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill digitization project, Documenting the American South (1 ed.). Raleigh, North Carolina: E. M. Uzzell & Co. State Printers.
  • Findagrave.com (2006). "Colonel William Polk (1758-1834)". Find a Grave. Retrieved 2011-02-22.
  • Grand Lodge AF&AM of North Carolina (1998). "Officers of the Grand Lodge, A.F. & A.M. of North Carolina, the first 100 years". Raleigh, North Carolina, USA: Grand Lodge of North Carolina. Retrieved 2011-01-18.
  • Haywood, Marshall DeLancey (1905). "William Polk". In Ashe, Samuel A. Biographical History of North Carolina [From Colonial Times to the Present]. Vol.2. Greensboro, North Carolina: Charles L. Van Noppen.
  • Haywood, Marshall DeLancey (July 1902). "Canova's Statue of Washington". In Bassett, John Spencer. The South Atlantic Quarterly (Google eBook). Volume 1, Number 3. Durham, North Carolina: Duke University.
  • McFarland, Daniel M. (1979). Powell, William S., ed. Dictionary of North Carolina Biography (Google eBook). Volume 5 (P-S) (1 ed.). Chapel Hill, North Carolina: University of North Carolina Press. ISBN 0-8078-2100-4. Retrieved 2011-02-17.
  • Murray, Elizabeth Reid (1983). Wake [Capital County of North Carolina]. Vol 1: Prehistory through Centennial. Raleigh, North Carolina: Capital County Publishing Company. ASIN B000M0ZYF4.
  • Polk, William H. (1912). Polk Family and Kinsmen. Louisville, Kentucky: Bradley and Gilbert. Retrieved 2011-02-19.
  • The Raleigh Register. Raleigh, North Carolina. 8 March 1825. Missing or empty |title= (help) (Microfilm of original newspaper provided by The Olivia Raney Local History Library, Wake County Public Libraries, Raleigh North Carolina.)
  • Wilson, James Grant, ed. (1888). Appleton's Cyclopædia of American biography (Google eBook). Vol. 5: Pickering-Sumter. John Fiske. New York, New York: D. Appleton and Company. Retrieved 2011-02-13.

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