The Confederacy was blessed with many great generals during the War for Southern Independence. The names Lee, Jackson, Forrest, Stuart, Cleburne and so many more come quickly to mind. One of my favorite Confederate generals, though, is not as well known as many of his cohorts and his ascendancy to the position of one of the highest-ranking of Confederate military leaders was, at best, unexpected.
Not that Leonidas Polk did not come from a family of which one would not expect greatness. Quite the opposite! Leonidas Polk's grandfather, Thomas Polk, was a soldier of the American Revolutionary War and also the founder of the University of North Carolina; his father, Colonel William Polk, was a wealthy planter who had also fought in the Revolution and his cousin, James Knox Polk, was merely the eleventh President of the United States.
What made the military success of this scion of an illustrious Southern family so remarkable was that Leonidas Polk had chosen to spend his life as a man of the cloth - even attaining the position of bishop in the Episcopal Church. Throughout his tenure as general, though, Bishop Polk never forgot his role as a Christian leader. He was one of that score of Confederate men of faith most responsible for the great spiritual revival that swept through the Confederate Army.
Leonidas (emphasis on the second syllable, "on") was born in Raleigh, North Carolina in 1806. As he reached college age he first enrolled at the University of North Carolina. His father soon convinced him, however, to accept an appointment to the United States Military Academy at West Point where Polk did well finishing 8th in the Class of 1827 which also included two cadets named Jefferson Davis and Albert Sidney Johnston.
While at West Point, Leonidas was strongly influenced by the academy chaplain, Charles McIlvaine, who baptized the young cadet and strongly influenced his decision to enter the ministry. Leonidas resigned from the military to enter seminary in Virginia and was ordained in 1831.
Polk had married Frances Devereaux in 1830 and in 1832 moved his family to Maury County, Tennessee to join several brothers who had already settled there. He settled on a portion of the extensive holdings of the Polk family and built a fine mansion called "Ashwood Hall". It is recorded that he eventually became the largest slaveholder in Maury County. He and his brothers also built a beautiful church near Mt. Pleasant very near to the plantations.
In 1838 Leonidas was appointed Missionary Bishop of the Southwest and in 1841 became the first Episcopal Bishop of Louisiana. During his tenure in the diocese of Louisiana, the number of Episcopalian churches in the state grew from 3 to 35.
Bishop Polk had a dream to establish an institution which would become a national university for the South, patterned after Oxford and Cambridge, which would educate young Southern gentlemen who would uphold Southern values. He described this university as " a home for all arts and sciences and of literary culture in the Southern states". He led the effort to establish the University of the South and in 1860 personally laid the cornerstone for this institution at Sewanee, Tennessee.
When Louisiana seceded in 1861, the Bishop offered his services to the Southern Cause. He was appointed major general by his friend and former West Point classmate, Confederate President Jefferson Davis, and soon became a corps commander in the Army of Tennessee, one of the three major components of the Confederate Army. (Note: At this time the AOT was referred to as the Army of Mississippi.)
General Polk fought in many battles including Shiloh, Corinth, Perryville, Stones River, Chickamauga and the Atlanta Campaign. He was even involved in the defeat of forces led by Gen. Ulysses Grant at Belmont, Missouri early in the War.
One of the endearing legends of the War involved Gen. Polk at the Battle of Perryville in Kentucky. While observing Major General Ben Cheatham advancing his forces, Gen. Polk overheard Gen. Cheatham encourage his troops with the shout, " Give 'em Hell, boys!". Gen. Polk gave his blessing to Cheatham's exhortation but in a manner befitting a man of the cloth. His shout of encouragement was, " Give it to 'em, boys, give 'em what General Cheatham says".
In October 1862, Leonidas Polk was promoted to lieutenant general. Of the 425 generals of the Confederacy only 17 reached the rank of lieutenant general and only 8 others reached the highest rank of full general. As a lieutenent general he commanded the First Corps of the Army of Tennessee from November 1862 until September 1863.
One of the subplots of the War during this period involved the enmity between Gen. Polk and General Braxton Bragg. Gen. Bragg was a full general and commanded the Army of Tennessee, but Gen. Polk thought him to be incompetent and carried on a year-long campaign to have Bragg removed from command. Bragg, in turn, despised Polk and thought him to be ineffective and incompetent. President Jefferson Davis thought highly of each man and was reluctant to relieve either of his command. This was but one of many feuds involving Confederate generals during the War.
Finally, in December 1863, President Davis transferred Gen. Polk to command of the Department of Mississippi and East Louisiana and later the Department of Alabama and East Mississippi. During this time he was unable to stop the advance of Sherman's horde upon Meridian, Mississippi and, consequently, that city was totally destroyed by Union forces in February 1864.
During the Spring of 1864, Polk moved his forces to Georgia to help in the defense of Atlanta against Sherman's advance. On June 14, 1864, Gen. Polk was with a group of Confederate officers (Including Gen. Joe Johnston and Gen. William Hardee) atop Pine Mountain near Marietta when they were spotted by the reprobate Sherman who ordered an artillery attack upon the group. During the shelling a round sliced through Gen. Polk's body and exploded nearby. Gen. Johnston, who had been baptized by Gen. Polk earlier in the War, stood over the torn-apart body of his comrade and cried.
The death of the popular general was mourned throughout the Army of Tennessee. Thomas Connelly, in AUTUMN OF GLORY, wrote: "The army had sufferred a severe loss...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."
Perhaps the feelings toward Leonidas Polk were best described by Private Sam Watkins in his classic book, COMPANY AYTCH, when he wrote: " 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 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."
It was later reported that the Illinois soldier who fired the cannon shot that killed General Polk was so distraught about killing such a fine man that he committed suicide. I feel certain Sherman, by contrast, rejoiced at the death of Leonidas Polk since he despised both Southerners and the clergy.
There is a monument on private property near the Kennesaw Mountain National Battlefield Park which marks the spot where General Polk died. It was erected by a private citizen many years after the War ended. He had been a Confederate soldier. Even though the monument is on private property it is still accessible to visitors. He wanted to make sure that people did not forget General Polk.
Gen. Polk's legacy and memory live on still in a rather spectacular way. Fort Polk, the largest United States Military installation in Louisiana and the home of the Joint Readiness Training Center, bears the name of "The Fighting Bishop". How appropriate!
Incidentally, the Polk Corps flag is one of the most beautiful and beloved of Confederate flags. It's appearance is somewhat different than most Confederate flags having a blue background with red bars rather than a red background with blue bars and the bars on the Polk flag are not diagonal (Greek Cross design) but, rather, horizontal and vertical (Christian Cross design) with the bars crossing at the midpoint of the flag. Each flag has thirteen white stars.
In closing I'd like to quote from one of my favorite books, SONS OF THE SOUTH, published in 1961 by that wonderful Southerner, orator and journalist, Clayton Rand. Mr. Rand had this to say about General/Bishop Leonidas Polk:
"With the Holy Bible in one hand and his sword in the
other, he was a good influence on the rank and file
throughout the conflict. While other generals waged
war to preserve the Constitution, the "Fighting Bishop"
was engaged in a holy crusade."
"Polk was a product of that peculiar and sometimes
inconsistent aristocracy of the South, which will
probably fight until the end of time for its beliefs. In
the pulpit and on the battlefield, he lived up to the
tradition of a family that offered itself again and again
for the cause of freesom."
And finally, I want to thank all of you who stopped by to chat after the Veterans Day Parade in Crawfordville on November 6. I always appreciate hearing your comments about CONFEDERATE JOURNAL articles and enjoy meeting you. You were all so very kind with your comments and, no, I have no plans to stop writing the articles anytime soon. That is," Lord willin' and the creek don't rise".
DEO VINDICEBob Hurst is a Southern Patriot with a special interest in the Confederacy and the antebellum architecture of the Old South. He is Commander of Col. David Lang Camp, Sons of Confederate Veterans, in Tallahassee and is 2nd Lieutenent Commander of the Florida Division, SCV. He can be contacted at email@example.com or 850-878-7010.