|April 10, 1806– June 14, 1864 (aged 58)|
|Nickname||The Fighting Bishop|
|Place of birth||Raleigh, North Carolina|
|Place of death||Cobb County, Georgia|
|Place of burial||initially Augusta, Georgia
later reinterred at Christ Church Cathedral New Orleans, Louisiana
|Allegiance||United States of
Confederate States of America
|Service/branch||Confederate States Army|
|Years of service||1827 (USA)
|Rank||Brevet Second Lieutenant (USA)
Lieutenant General (CSA)
|Battles/wars||American Civil War|
Leonidas Polk (April 10, 1806 – June 14, 1864) was a Confederate general in 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 The Fighting Bishop.
Polk was one of the more controversial political generals of the war, elevated to a high military position with no prior combat experience because of his friendship with Confederate President Jefferson Davis. He fought as a corps commander in many of the major battles of the Western Theater, but is remembered more for his bitter disagreements with his immediate superior, Gen. Braxton Bragg of the Army of Tennessee, than for his successes in combat. 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. Capitalizing on his position as chief surveyor of the central district of Tennessee, William was able to acquire about 100,000 acres 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 ordained Polk as a deacon in April 1830 and a priest the following year. On May 6, 1830, Polk married Frances Ann Deveraux, daughter of John and Frances Pollock Devereaux; her mother was the granddaughter of Puritan theologian Jonathan Edwards. The Polks had eight children.
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 he called "Ashwood Hall". Polk was the largest slaveholder in Maury County, Tennessee, 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.
Besides being a basically incompetent general, Polk had the added fault of hating to take orders.
—Steven E. Woodworth, Jefferson Davis and His Generals
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 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.
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
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!"
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 (which was nicknamed the "Army of Mississippi") on May 4.
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. Johnston progressively withdrew his army from strong defensive positions whenever his flanks were threatened by Sherman's advance.
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
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 Hotchkiss shell at Pine Mountain. The artillery fire was initiated when Sherman spotted a cluster of Confederate officers—Polk, Hardee, Johnston, and 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 on them. The 5th Indiana Battery, commanded by Capt. Peter Simonson, obeyed the order within minutes. The first round came close and a second even closer, causing the men to disperse. The third shell struck Polk's left arm, went through the chest, and exited hitting his right arm then exploded against a tree; it nearly cut Polk in two.
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
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 was one of the most elaborate during the war, presided over by his friend, Bishop Stephen Elliott of Georgia. He was buried in Augusta, Georgia, and 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.
LEONIDAS POLK (1806-1864), American soldier, was born at Raleigh, North Carolina, on the 10th of April 1806, and was a cousin of James Knox Polk, president of the United States. He was educated at West Point, but afterwards studied theology and took orders in the Protestant Episcopal Church in 1831. In 1838 he became missionary bishop of the South-West, Arkansas, Indian Territory, Louisiana, Alabama and Mississippi, and in 1841 he was consecrated bishop of Louisiana. His work in the Church was largely of an educational kind, and he played a prominent part in movements for the establishment of higher educational institutions in the South. At the outbreak of the Civil War in 1861 he resigned his bishopric and, like many other clergymen and ministers of religion, entered the army which was raised to defend the Confederacy. His rank in the hierarchy and the universal respect in which he was held in the South, rather than his early military education, caused him to be appointed to the important rank of major-general. He fortified the post of Columbus, Kentucky, the foremost line of defence on the Mississippi, against which Brigadier-General U. S. Grant directed the offensive reconnaissance of Belmont in the autumn. In the following spring, the first line of defence having fallen, Polk commanded a corps at Shiloh in the field army commanded by Albert Sidney Johnston and Beauregard. In October 1862 he was promoted lieutenant-general, and thenceforward he commanded one of the three corps of the army of Tennessee under Bragg and afterwards was in charge of the Department of Alabama, Mississippi and East Louisiana. He was killed in the fighting in front of Marietta, while reconnoitring near Pine Mountain, Georgia, on the 14th of June 1864.
See Life, by his son W. M. Polk, (1893).