Union artillery brought a deadly end to the career of clergyman-turned-soldier Leonidas Polk.
The 3-inch solid shot that killed Episcopal Bishop and Confederate Lieutenant General Leonidas Polk on the morning of June 14, 1864, nearly tore him in half. When his mangled body was carried down from Pine Mountain, Georgia, on a litter, Private Sam Watkins of the 1st Tennessee noted that the bishop-general was “as white as a piece of marble,” and “not a drop of blood was ever seen to come out of the place through which the cannon ball had passed.” But plenty of blood had been spilled—advancing Union soldiers found the Georgia clay soaked with it the next day, along with a note reportedly staked by a ramrod into the ground nearby: “You damned Yankee sons of bitches have killed our old Gen. Polk.”
It was a sudden and gruesome end to a controversial military career. From the outset, Polk was vilified in Northern newspapers and in some religious circles for “buckling the sword over the gown,” as he put it, and leading armed men in rebellion against their government. In contrast, other members of the American clergy either fanned or fought the flames of secession from the safety of their pulpits—or steadfastly avoided the thorny moral issues of war and slavery altogether. William H. De Lancey, bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of New York, wrote a letter to President Abraham Lincoln demanding with all the certainty and condescension of a Sunday school lesson that the church’s bishops and priests be exempted from any draft. “[I]t is contrary to their consciences as officers of Christ’s kingdom to bear arms as soldiers and shed blood,” De Lancey said, reminding Lincoln of Christ’s warning at Gethsemane: “They that take the sword shall perish with the sword.” Leonidas Polk had no such qualms. He led men in battle on fields from Missouri to Georgia, a Christian soldier in a gold-buttoned gray uniform. “The Lord rewards them according to their works,” he said, summing up his view of the matter in an 1863 letter to his brother. But whatever his works and his ultimate reward, Polk would indeed perish with the sword.
‘A man of high social position’
Leonidas Polk was born in Raleigh, N.C., on April 10, 1806, the son and grandson of Tarheel heroes of the Revolutionary War. His father William was a member of the North Carolina General Assembly and a trustee of the University of North Carolina, and young Leonidas would enjoy all the advantages that wealth and family connections could provide. Among these was a commission to the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, where he graduated eighth in the class of 1827. His roommate at the academy was Albert Sidney Johnston, and he became close friends with a cadet from Mississippi two years his junior, Jefferson Davis. Another classmate, Robert E. Lee, would later write that Polk was considered by officers and cadets alike “as a model for all that was soldierly, gentlemanly, and honorable.”
During his last year at West Point, the would-be artillery officer found a new and higher calling. Caught up in a fervent religious revival that swept through the academy, Polk was baptized into the Episcopal Church in the presence of the entire Corps of Cadets. Just six months after graduation he resigned his commission in the artillery in order to enter the Virginia Theological Seminary, dashing his father’s hopes for military glory. Shortly thereafter, when asked where his newly commissioned son had been stationed, William Polk snorted in disgust and exclaimed: “Stationed! Why, he’s over there in Alexandria at the Seminary!”
Polk rose in the ranks of the army of the Lord quickly: He was ordained a deacon at age 24, joined the priesthood at 30 and was named missionary bishop of the Southwest at 32— thanks in large part to his affluence and family name. “The Church needed a man of high social position,” another bishop would later explain, “to commend her to the consideration of men of hereditary wealth, of great refinement, of cultured accomplishments.” For the next two decades, Bishop Polk led a quiet and for the most part comfortable life of service to the church. He spent months at a time traveling the vast reaches of his frontier episcopate, preaching sermons, establishing new parishes and ministering to wayward sinners, of which there were many. At times he tended his flock from the comfort of his Tennessee plantation near Columbia, which was tended by several hundred slaves. In 1844 Polk was named bishop of Louisiana—almost a million square miles and well over a million souls now fell within his territory. Meanwhile, the luster on the Polk family name would shine even brighter in 1845, when the bishop’s first cousin, James K. Polk, was inaugurated the 11th president of the United States.
‘The parson decidedly predominates over the General’
When the Civil War began, Bishop Polk traveled to Richmond to meet with his old friend, newly elected Confederate President Jefferson Davis. Davis not only welcomed him back to the army but also commissioned him a major general, even though Polk had never held a command and had been away from military life for more than 30 years. Harper’s Weekly saw a dark and sinister hand in this. Bishop Polk “sympathized so ardently with the rebel leaders that he was induced in an evil moment to resign his bishopric,” the magazine reported, going so far as to credit an anonymous report that Polk “has doffed the decent manners of the episcopate for the habits of a trooper—that he drinks, swears, etc. etc.”
As for military experience, that would come quickly enough. In early November 1861, Polk faced up-and-coming Union brigadier Ulysses S. Grant at Belmont, Mo., in what would be the bishop-general’s first battle. The fight was in fact little more than a glorified raid on the Confederate camp on the banks of the Mississippi River. Grant succeeded in this mission and destroyed the Rebel encampment, causing the strategically irrelevant battle to be listed as a Union victory by most historians. But the Rebels under Polk did not see it that way. Feeding reinforcements into the battle, Polk drove the blue forces back to their transports on the river, nearly surrounded Grant’s 3,000-man force and held possession of the field. The bishop had had his baptism of fire.
Polk’s résumé from then on encompasses an impressive array of battles in the West, including Shiloh, Perryville, Murfreesboro and Chickamauga, fighting against Federal opponents that included Grant, William T. Sherman and George H. Thomas. Polk’s performance in these battles, however, was the subject of considerable criticism, then and later. Notwithstanding his lack of experience, the intelligent and somewhat arrogant Polk always seemed to think that he knew best. Unaccustomed to answering to anyone but the Almighty, he had trouble taking orders from the likes of General Braxton Bragg. According to historian Albert Castel, as a corps commander, Polk “missed several critical opportunities for victory by attacking when he should have defended and by moving too late, to the wrong place, or not at all.” An apocryphal case in point was the second day at Chickamauga, when an irate Bragg reportedly sent a staff officer to Polk’s headquarters to see why his troops had not attacked as ordered. The aide reported that he had found Polk on a farmhouse porch, reading a newspaper and waiting for his breakfast to be served.
The prevailing view of General Polk’s incompetence as a military commander has been reinforced by contemporaneous descriptions and portraits. “I think the parson decidedly predominates over the General in the Bishop’s appearance and manner,” Lt. Col. Walter A. Roher of the 20th Mississippi wrote in a January 1864 letter. “In person I think the Bishop is at least six feet in height, large, portly, and as straight as an arrow,” Roher added, with “the appearance of a man who had good living before the war and would have no objection to it now if he could get it.” Most historians have ungenerously described Polk as “portly” or even “corpulent” and characterized him as bumbling, arrogant and downright unmilitary. This image—that Polk was more a self-important Friar Tuck than a gallant Southern knight—was corroborated in part by the most famous portrait of him, a photograph from the studio of Mathew Brady showing the bishop in full liturgical regalia, clean-shaven, foppish and fat (see P. 52).
Other witnesses, however, were more flattering. An English observer, Colonel Arthur J.L. Fremantle of Her Majesty’s Coldstream Guards, described Polk as “a good-looking, gentlemanlike man”—affable, tall and upright, looking “much more the soldier than the clergyman.” Other wartime pictures seem to support this impression: A later (though undated) photograph shows the general in full uniform, his arguably weak chin hid den by a full, grizzled beard, his eyes gleaming with martial fervor, and his entire form and visage apparently hardened by more than two years of almost continuous campaigning. Nor was Polk lacking in personal courage. “In battle he was a daring old man, with his heart in the fray, and his best faith on the result; riding through shot and shell from point to point, unconscious of danger,” his aide, Henry Watterson, would recall. “He was proverbial for getting into ‘hot places’; and he seemed to be able to pass along a line of fire like the children through the fiery furnace, untouched.” Thanks in part to these qualities, as well as his overwhelming popularity in the butternut ranks and his close friendship with President Davis, he was promoted to lieutenant general in October 1862.
Polk saw no tension at all between his dual vocations of warrior and clergyman, and in fact did not hesitate to combine the two. At times he literally donned his clerical robes over his gray uniform to perform religious services, including the famous wedding of General John Hunt Morgan in a candlelit, holly-decked ceremony in Murfreesboro, Tenn., on December 14, 1862. It was this faithful, God-serving soldier who inspired loyalty from his troops and devotion from the Southern people. “His soldiers always loved and honored him,” Sam Watkins wrote. “‘Bishop Polk’ was ever a favorite with the army, and when a position was to be held, and it was known that ‘Bishop Polk’ was there, we knew and felt that ‘all was well.’”
Polk himself told a moving story of Confederate resolve to Colonel Fremantle, describing a visit to offer condolences to a Southern widow who had lost three of her sons in battle, leaving just one—a boy of 16—still at home. The grieving mother looked steadily at Polk and replied, “As soon as I can get a few things together, General, you shall have Harry, too.” Relating the tale to Fremantle, Bishop Polk marveled, “How can you subdue such a nation as this?”
‘Under God we shall beat them when the collision shall take place’
Polk arrived on the scene of what would come to be known as the Atlanta campaign on May 11, 1864, having been ordered to bring his Army of Mississippi—a force of 10,000 infantry and 4,000 cavalry—from Alabama to join up with General Joseph E. Johnston’s Army of Tennessee at Resaca, Ga. Almost immediately, Polk would once again be asked to don his robes and conduct religious rites for men in uniform: He baptized Lt. Gen. John Bell Hood at Dalton on May 12 and did the same for Johnston six days later. The next month was spent in a frustrating, sidling retreat to the south as the Rebels were pressed by Sherman and the armies of his Military Division of the Mississippi (Thomas’ Army of the Cumberland, Maj. Gen. James B. McPherson’s Army of the Tennessee and Maj. Gen. John M. Schofield’s Army of the Ohio). The Rebels finally dug in on a strong, curving eastwest line along a broken series of ridges and hills covering Marietta, Kennesaw Mountain and the Chattahoochee River to the east and south. Polk had great confidence, writing to his wife on June 1, “I think I have never seen the troops, one and all, in such fine spirits and condition as they now are, and am of the very common opinion that under God we shall beat them when the collision shall take place.” On June 10, Polk established his headquarters at the home of G.W. Hardage, a modest white farmhouse on the Burnt Hickory Road west of Marietta. During the next three days, the skies opened up with thunderstorms of Old Testament ferocity, drenching the landscape and miring the great armies where they stood, with blue-clad commanders probing for weaknesses in the long Confederate line.
On Sunday, June 12, Polk seemed distant and pensive, spending the early morning reading his Bible as the storms continued to rage outside. He then led his staff and the Hardage family in worship, leading the singing of hymns and conducting the service, according to an aide, with the “dignity and solemnity of a prophet of old.” This emotional religious service would take on added significance given what would follow two days later: In effect, Polk was conducting his own anointment for burial.
He seemed re-energized the next day, receiving and writing dispatches to Johnston, Bragg, Hood and Lt. Gen. William J. Hardee, along with a note to Jefferson Davis, asking that General Nathan Bedford Forrest’s cavalry be reassigned from Alabama to harass the railroads in north Georgia. He also penned a long, heartfelt letter to his newly married daughter Lilly, advising her: “Do always what is right, not calculating what is expedient, but try and find out what is right, and with a pure heart and true devotion go straightforward and do it. Be always kind and considerate of the feelings and rights of others, and you will be very apt to have your feelings and rights respected.” He closed, “May the good Lord bless and keep you and yours, my dear child, in all your coming experiences and trial of life, and afterward receive you to glory, is the prayer of your affectionate father.”
Later that evening, Polk rode over to Johnston’s nearby headquarters for a conference. There, Hardee expressed concern to Johnston that the position at nearby Pine Mountain, occupied by a division of his corps under Maj. Gen. William B. Bate, was too far out in front of the main line, leaving the men posted there considerably exposed. With the heavy rains continuing to postpone any movement, Johnston proposed that he and Hardee climb the heights at Pine Mountain the next morning to take a firsthand look at the position and the Union batteries in the valley below. He invited Polk to join them.
‘General Polk is killed!’
Pine Mountain is hardly a mountain at all. Rising no more than 300 feet above the surrounding countryside, the unimpressive little ridge—which is heavily wooded today but had been cleared of timber in the summer of 1864—is referred to in official reports and diaries as Pine Knob, Pine Hill, Pine Mount or Pine Top. In June 1864, the Confederate line of defense formed a sweeping arc from Lost Mountain and Dallas on the left to Kennesaw Mountain and Marietta on the right. The left center of the curve was situated at Pine Mountain, which protruded from the main line in a salient, like a blister in the gray line waiting to be lanced. But whatever its vulnerabilities, the position did afford an excellent viewing point from which to observe the dispositions of the Union IV Corps, posted to the north under Maj. Gen. Oliver Otis Howard.
June 14 dawned bright, with the tattered remnants of clouds dispersing as the sun fought through. “Weather cleared up, cool winds drying roads fast,” a Union quartermaster reported. Polk departed his headquarters on the Burnt Hickory Road and rode north to join Hardee and Johnston before proceeding to climb Pine Mountain. The scraggly hill had been cleared of trees, and a log and dirt emplacement was situated at its apex, where a battery was posted under Captain René Beauregard, son of General P.G.T. Beauregard. The gray-clad commanders, trailing a conspicuous crowd of aides and subordinates, clustered atop the knoll, viewing their opponents through large field glasses and ignoring warnings that the position was grievously exposed and was no place for a general, let alone three.
The Confederate commanders were under observation. Shortly after their arrival, Sherman rode up to the Union lines to confer with Howard, posted due north of Pine Mountain. Howard, a pious, teetotaling Methodist, had certainly noticed the commotion across the way but had been instructed by Thomas to conserve his ammunition. Sherman was amazed at the audacity of the group of Confederates gathered on the heights some 600 yards distant, in plain view and well within range. “How saucy they are!” he exclaimed, and directed Howard to make them take cover.
Up on the hill, Johnston quickly agreed with Hardee’s assessment that Pine Mountain was a vulnerable salient, and he directed Bate’s Division to fall back. But the party lingered and took in the sweeping view of the Federal guns visible to the north, along with a little white church to the west, ominously called Golgotha. In response to a spatter of Minié balls from Union sharpshooters below, Colonel William S. Dilworth of the 4th Florida began imploring Polk, Hardee and Johnston to retire and take cover, pointing out the numerous Union batteries. As if to emphasize his point, a puff of white smoke erupted from one of the Federal cannons. This first shot came screaming over their heads, but the three generals stood fast. Dilworth begged them to separate and move to the rear. At this, Hardee and Johnston broke off to the left and right, with Polk trailing along behind— either brave, careless or just plain slow. Some witnesses maintain that he lingered and stepped back toward the crest for one last look, while others simply state that Polk was “quite stout and very dignified” and thus lagged behind. Another witness would later suggest that the bishop had paused for a word of prayer.
Two more shots came whining down in quick succession. One of these two—considerable debate would ensue as to which one was the fatal shot—struck Polk in the left arm, ripped through his chest and tore his right arm before exploding against a tree. He was blown back toward the crest of the hill, and lay with his feet toward the enemy. “General Polk is killed!” the men in Beauregard’s gun emplacement cried.
Aides quickly brought his body down from the crest to the colonel’s tent on the rearward slope of the ridge, but it was immediately apparent from the horrific wound that nothing could be done—as one modern bishop would put it, “his soul was in heaven before his head hit the ground.” Johnston and Hardee both wept like children. “We have lost much!” Johnston cried, placing his hand on Polk’s head. “I would rather anything than this!”
In the left pocket of Polk’s gray coat they found his Book of Common Prayer, and in the right were four blood-soaked copies of a small volume, Chaplain C.T. Quintard’s Balm for the Weary and Wounded. Three were inscribed as gifts to Generals Johnston, Hardee and Hood, “with the compliments of Lieutenant-General Polk, June 12, 1864.” Polk had clearly intended to present the little books to his fellow commanders after their reconnaissance that day. Johnston would treasure the crimson-stained souvenir in the years to come as one of his most prized possessions.
The news of Polk’s death spread quickly. Johnston made no effort to hide the bishop’s body, which was transported to nearby Marietta, his riderless roan horse led along behind. The Union command soon found out as well, intercepting wigwag messages at midday from a nearby signal corps station that asked, “Why don’t you send me an ambulance for General Polk’s body?” Sherman, who had for years resisted his wife’s pressure to convert to Catholicism and who had little use for clergymen and ostentatious piety, seemed satisfied with the results of the peremptory bombardment he had ordered. The next day he reported matter-of-factly to Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton, “We killed Bishop Polk yesterday, and have made good progress to-day….”
An ‘irreparable loss’
Military historians largely dismiss the dramatic death of General Polk as no great loss, militarily speaking. Polk had been at best unspectacular and at worst near incompetent in his efforts over the past three years. He was a mediocre commander whose post would be filled by unremarkable replacements, Maj. Gen. W.W. “Old Blizzards” Loring and later Maj. Gen. Alexander P. Stewart. Even Polk’s usually generous biographer Joseph Parks merely evaluates him as “competent,” frankly admitting, “He was not a thorough student of military science.”
But the people of the South and the rank and file of the Army of Tennessee did not see it that way. “My pen and ability is inadequate to the task of doing his memory justice,” Sam Watkins wrote. “Every private soldier loved him. Second to Stonewall Jackson, his loss was the greatest the South ever sustained.” President Davis agreed, calling the death of his friend an “irreparable loss.” For his part, Johnston sent an order to the army that same afternoon:
Head-quarters, Army of Tennessee
In the Field, June 14, 1864
Comrades, you are called upon to mourn your first captain, your oldest companion in arms, Lieutenant General Polk. He fell today at the outpost of this army, the post of duty; the army he raised and commanded, in all of whose trials he shared, to all of whose victories he contributed. In this distinguished leader we have lost the most courteous of gentlemen, the most gallant of soldiers. The Christian, patriot, soldier, has neither lived nor died in vain. His example is before you, his mantle rests upon you.
Joseph E. Johnston, General.
The Army of Tennessee would exact a measure of revenge less than two weeks later, inflicting some 3,000 casualties on their blue-clad adversaries at the Battle of Kennesaw Mountain on June 27, 1864.
In a manner perhaps befitting his station, Polk would have three funerals. A few days after his death, his body lay in state at St. Luke’s Church in Atlanta, where it was reported that “thousands thronged the streets” for the occasion. “The casket was placed in front of the chancels and was then opened showing the flag that draped the remains, and all was covered in flowers from the beautiful magnolia to the smallest one then blooming,” Atlanta diarist Sarah Conley Clayton would recall. “The good old Bishop’s death seemed a personal loss to everyone who looked upon his bloodless face that day,” she said.
Clayton described the day of Polk’s funeral as the saddest Atlanta had ever seen. But more sad days were ahead for the bustling young railroad town. The little church at St. Luke’s would burn to the ground in November in the wake of Sherman’s departing columns.
On June 29, a second lengthy funeral service was held at St. Paul’s Church in Augusta, Ga., where Stephen Elliott, the bishop of Georgia, eulogized, “The battle has been fought, the victory won, and the war-torn veteran is heralded by his vanquished enemy to his crown of righteousness.” Polk was laid to rest in the churchyard there, until such time as his “martyred dust shall be carried in triumphal procession to his own beloved Louisiana, and deposited in such a shrine as a loving, mourning people shall prepare for him.” That day would not come until almost 81 years later, when in May 1945 Bishop Polk had his third and final funeral and was reinterred beneath the chancel of the Episcopal Christ Church Cathedral in New Orleans.
Back in north Georgia, Pine Mountain was not included within the postwar boundaries for the Kennesaw Mountain National Battlefield Park, leaving the site of Polk’s demise on private property, hidden in the piney woods and in danger of being lost to history. Thanks to the efforts of a Confederate veteran, J.G. Morris, an impressive monument stands on the spot today. The 20-foot marble obelisk, dedicated in 1902, is inscribed on its south face “In Memory of Lieut. Gen. Leonidas Polk, who fell on this spot June 14, 1864,” with a moving verse carved below. The remains of the earthworks that protected Beauregard’s hilltop battery are clearly visible nearby.
But a more fitting postwar remembrance may be the sentiment Polk expressed in a prayer on October 9, 1862, the day after the bloody Battle of Perryville. “Peace to the land,” he said, “and blessings on friend and foe alike.”
Russell S. Bonds writes from Marietta, Ga. Additional reading: Joseph Parks’ General Leonidas Polk, C.S.A.: The Fighting Bishop (1962); Decision in the West: The Atlanta Campaign of 1864 (1992) and Articles of War (2001), both by Albert Castel.
Originally published in the May 2006 issue of Civil War Times. To subscribe, click here.