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  • CSA General Leonidas Polk

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    CSA General 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 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 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.

    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 (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.




    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 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.

    Leonidas Polk

    Residence was not listed; a 53 year-old Episcopal Bishop.

    Enlisted on 6/25/1861 as a Major General.

    On 6/25/1861 he was commissioned into CS Gen & Staff

    He was Killed on 6/14/1864 at Pine Mountain, GA


    * Lt General 10/10/1862

    Other Information:

    Born 4/10/1808 in Raleigh, NC

    Buried: Christ Cathedral, New Orleans, LA


    Lieutenant-General Leonidas Polk was born at Raleigh, N. C., April 10, 1806, the son of Colonel William Polk, the latest survivor of the field officers of the North Carolina line, and grandson of Thomas Polk, a leader in the Mecklenburg convention.  He received a literary education at the university of North Carolina, and then determining to embrace a military career, was appointed to the United States military academy, where he was graduated with a lieutenancy in the artillery in 1827.

    Through the influence of a new chaplain at West Point, afterward known as Bishop McIlvaine, of Ohio, he became impressed with a sense of religious duty which led him to resign his commission in the same year, and enter the Theological seminary at Alexandria.  In December, 1827, he became a deacon in the Protestant Episcopal church and in 1831 he was ordained priest.

    On account of his delicate health his labors in this field were relieved by foreign travel and partial occupation as a farmer, until 1838, when he received the degree of S. T. D. and was appointed missionary bishop in Arkansas and Indian territory, with provisional charge of the dioceses of Alabama, Mississippi and Louisiana, and missions in Texas.

    The incessant travel required soon restored his physical condition to health, and he subsequently resigned the charge of this boundless field except the diocese of Louisiana, which he retained throughout life.  He was an earnest participant in the secession movement, and when war became imminent, removed his family from New Orleans to Sewanee, Tenn., where he had projected the University of the South in 1856.

    He then offered his military services to the Confederacy, and was commissioned major-general June 25, 1862, with command of Department No. 2, comprising a vast territory and the defenses of the Mississippi river from the Red river to Paducah, Ky.  He established his headquarters at Memphis and directed the fortification of the river.

    He was practically the creator of the army of the Mississippi. In September, when Albert Sidney Johnston took command of Department No. 2, he removed his headquarters to Columbus, Ky., which he fortified and held with about 10,000 men.  At Belmont, in November, he and General Grant shared the honors of what was the first battle of each as commanding officer.

    Early in 1862 he was required to evacuate Columbus, and join the army at Corinth, where he was put in command of the First corps of the army of the Mississippi.  In the council which preceded the battle of Shiloh he sustained Johnston in his determination to attack, and in the action he crushed the right center of the Federal line, and in person received the surrender of many troops.

    He was in command of his corps at Corinth, and after the succession of Bragg to the control of the department, he became second in command.  During the invasion of Kentucky he commanded the right wing of Bragg's army, was in charge of the Confederate forces at the successful battle of Perryville, and was entrusted with the conduct of the retreat.

    October 10, 1862, he was promoted to lieutenant-general.  He was distinguished in command of the center at Murfreesboro.  At the battle of Chickamauga he was in charge of the right wing of Bragg's army.  On December 23rd he succeeded Hardee in command of the army of Tennessee, but was soon relieved by J. E. Johnston and was given charge of the department of Alabama, Mississippi and east Louisiana, where he frustrated Sherman's Mississippi expedition.

    With his troops, the army of Mississippi, he united with the army of Tennessee at Resaca in the spring of 1864, and on May 12 assumed command in the field, and co-operated with Johnston in the campaign against Sherman, until he was killed on Pine Mountain, near Marietta, Ga., June 14, 1864.

    "General Polk," writes his son, "walked to the crest of the hill, and, entirely exposed, turned himself around, as if to take a farewell view.  Folding his arms across his breast, he stood intently gazing on the scene below.  While he thus stood a cannon shot crashed through his breast, and opening a wide door, let free that indomitable spirit."

    Major general, P. A. C. S., June 25, 1861.

    Lieutenant general, P. A. C. S., October 10, 1862.

    Killed on Pine Mountain, near Marietta, GA, June 14, 1864.


    Assigned, June 25, 1861, to the command of Department No. 2, comprising the defenses of the Mississippi River.March 29, 1862, commanding First Corps, Army of the Mississippi, composed, first, of the divisions of Cheatham and, Clark and the detached brigade of Maxey; subsequently, of the divisions of Cheatham and Withers. 

    Commanding Army of the Mississippi, September and October, 1862.

    Commanding, October and November, 1862, the Armies of Kentucky and Mississippi.

    Commanding, in - 1863, corps in the Army of Tennessee composed of the divisions of Cheatham, Withers and McCown.

    Commanding, August 31, 1863, the Army of Tennessee (temporarily).

    In Chickamauga campaign, commanding the right wing of the Army of Tennessee.

    January 28, 1864, commanding the Department of Alabama, Mississippi and East Louisiana.

    In May and June, 1864, commanding army in Mississippi cooperating with the army of General Joseph E. Johnston in Northern Georgia.

    Polk, Leonidas, born in North Carolina, appointed from North Carolina cadet United States Military Academy, July 1, 1823; graduated eighth in a class of thirty-eight.

    Brevet second lieutenant, First Artillery, July 1, 1827.

    Resigned December 1, 1827.

    Inventory Number: CDV 216