An intriguing postscript to the story of Major General Leonidas Polk’s death is the somewhat unseemly debate that has raged through the years over which Federal battery, and even which individual, was responsible for the bombardment that killed him. There is no shortage of competing claims of responsibility. “At least a dozen batteries, and more than a hundred gunners, claim the distinction of firing the fatal shot,” Edmund R. Brown of the 27th Indiana wrote. “Infantry regiments innumerable claim it was fired by the battery they were supporting, and probably half the soldiers in Sherman’s army claim that they saw it fired.”
Yet as Civil War mysteries go, this one seems relatively unimportant—a postwar squabble for whatever measure of military glory can be obtained from killing an unarmed priest with a lucky cannon shot from several hundred yards away.
Certain claims of credit for the feat have been discounted or disproved outright by distinguished historians of the Atlanta campaign, including Stephen Davis and Albert Castel. One famous but inaccurate story, described in the 1932 biography Sherman: Fighting Prophet and repeated without question by other historians, reported that the projectile was fired from a XIV Corps battery of Ohioans commanded by former Prussian artillerist Captain Hubert Dilger, known in the Union ranks as “Leatherbreeches.” It is a compelling account—the buckskin-clad officer clapping his hands and ordering his men to “Shust teeckle them fellers”— but it is not true. No firsthand testimony supports this claim, and Dilger’s battery was in fact positioned far to the northeast of Pine Mountain and could not have fired the shot.
Other blue-clad braggarts were even further from the truth. Brigadier Generals Walter Gresham and John W. Geary each argued that a battery in their respective commands sent the bishop heavenward, but both claims melt away under scrutiny—especially Gresham’s, whose division was posted some four miles from the site of Polk’s death. Although Geary did not precisely claim that his guns had killed Polk, he maintained that he had spotted the group of Rebel officers and directed Battery E of the Pennsylvania Light Artillery to fire on them. “The shells struck in the midst of and around the group, causing evident consternation among them and their immediate retreat,” Geary reported. “Prisoners afterward taken pointed out that as the spot where Lieutenant-General Polk was killed.” It is true that Geary’s guns did fire on the hill, but only after Sherman rode over and directed Geary to join in the bombardment. Sherman indicates in his memoirs that he heard the three volleys that killed Polk before he gave those orders to Geary.
As it turns out, despite the numerous competing claims, contemporaneous accounts and official records of the event are remarkably consistent as to the source of the deadly cannonade. The battery responsible was not from the XIV, XVII or XX corps, but from O.O. Howard’s IV Corps, posted immediately north of and closest to Pine Mountain. Howard records in his memoirs that Sherman personally told him to make the Rebel officers on the hill take cover while in full view of their position, and that “one of my batteries was immediately ordered to fire three volleys on the group.” Division commander Maj. Gen. David S. Stanley and Brig. Gen. Walter C. Whitaker give credit in their official reports of the campaign to the 5th Battery, Indiana Light Artillery, commanded by Captain Peter Simonson.
Sherman also believed that the shot that killed Polk came from the second volley fired by Howard’s guns—that is, from the same Hoosier battery. And there is cartographic evidence as well: A contemporaneous map of the environs of Pine Mountain and Kennesaw Mountain drawn by Union topographical engineer G.H. Blakeslee marks with a cross the “Spot where Polk was killed” and records the position of the “5th Ind. Bat. Kill Gen. Polk June 14.”
Nevertheless, legends persist. Most notably—as if the people of Georgia needed another reason to despise the man—the story arose that Sherman himself had pulled the lanyard on the cannon that killed the beloved bishop. This tale, according to Howard, was “circulated for a time with much persistency.” But Sherman rejected it outright in his memoirs. “It has been asserted that I fired the gun which killed General Polk, and that I knew it was directed against that general,” he wrote. “The fact is, at that distance we could not even tell that the group were officers at all; I was on horseback, a couple of hundred yards off, before my orders to fire were executed, [and] had no idea that our shot had taken effect….” Still, ultimate responsibility could be said to rest with the fiery blue commander: Sherman had, indeed, ordered the cannonade, and he was unquestionably satisfied with the results.
As for the 5th Indiana Artillery, it would suffer its own grievous loss two days later. On June 16, its commander, Captain Simonson, was killed by a Confederate sharpshooter.
Originally published in the May 2006 issue of Civil War Times. To subscribe, click here.