Bishop' a big mistake
By Dr. Terry L. Jones
Leonidas Polk (Library of Congress)
On November 20, 1862, newly appointed lieutenant general Leonidas Polk was given a corps command in the Confederate Army of Tennessee. It was one of the worst mistakes ever made by President Jefferson Davis. Polk, the so-called "Fighting Bishop," had already proven himself to be inept and the bane of his superior officers. He would continue that behavior as one of the South's highest ranking generals.
North Carolina-born Polk graduated from West Point in 1823 (where he became friends with fellow cadet Jefferson Davis) but served in the army only a few months before resigning his commission to become an Episcopal minister. While studying at a seminary, he married Frances Anne Devereux. Settling in Tennessee, Polk was appointed the Missionary Bishop of the Southwest in 1838 even though he had little church experience, and three years later he became the first Episcopal bishop of Louisiana. Trinity Episcopal Church in Natchitoches is one of several churches that he dedicated. Polk also was instrumental in founding The University of the South at Sewanee, Tennessee, a school where Southern students could study free from "contaminating" Northern ideas.
Polk was a dedicated secessionist who even withdrew his Louisiana diocese from the Episcopal Church during the secession crisis of 1860-61. After the formation of the Confederacy, the Bishop contacted his old friend Jefferson Davis and offered his services to the fledging nation. In June 1861, Davis appointed Polk a major general even though he had no practical military experience.
While in command of western Tennessee, Polk made one of the greatest military blunders of the war. Kentucky, a slave-holding Border State, had declared neutrality in the conflict. Its rich resources and strategic location on the Ohio and Mississippi rivers made it one of the most important states, and both Lincoln and Davis respected the neutrality in hopes of eventually luring Kentucky to their side. Unfortunately for the Confederates, Leonidas Polk saw things differently.
Convinced the Union was preparing to advance down the Mississippi River in September 1861, Polk decided Columbus, Kentucky, was a more defensible position than the one he occupied in Tennessee. Without bothering to get permission from the War Department, or even informing it of his intentions, Polk occupied Columbus. Because Polk's Confederates invaded the state first, most Kentuckians viewed the South as the aggressor and supported the Union for the rest of the war. A prominent historian has described Polk's move into Kentucky as "one of the most decisive catastrophes the Confederacy ever suffered."
When Braxton Bragg, another of Louisiana's adopted sons, invaded Kentucky in the late summer of 1862, Polk commanded half his army. But Polk once again proved incapable of serving well under others and twice refused to obey Bragg's orders to attack the enemy.
At the Battle of Perryville, Kentucky, Polk's military career almost ended when he rode up to an officer and ordered him to stop firing on friendly troops. Puzzled, the colonel responded, "I don't think there can be any mistake about it. I am sure they are the enemy." "Enemy!" cried Polk, "Why, I have only just left them myself. Cease firing, sir! What is your name, sir?" "Colonel [Keith], of the [22nd] Indiana. And pray, sir, who are you?"
It was only then that Polk realized he had ridden into the enemy's line. His dark coat appeared blue in the fading light, and the Indiana colonel assumed Polk was a Union officer. Playing on the colonel's confusion, Polk stood in his stirrups, shook his fist at the officer, and snapped, "I'll soon show you who I am, sir! Cease firing, sir, at once!" He then rode down the Yankee line ordering the men to stop firing before returning to his own side. Once safely within his lines, Polk ordered his soldiers to commence firing and they killed Colonel Keith and many of his men.
When the Confederates withdrew from Kentucky, Polk began criticizing Bragg in private correspondence and conspiring with other discontented generals to have him removed from command. Bishop Polk even visited Davis in Richmond and informed him that the army had lost confidence in Bragg. Polk apparently believed his friendship with Davis would lead to Bragg's removal, but Davis refused.
Polk's and Bragg's relationship was permanently poisoned. Bragg came to hate the bishop and once described him as "an old woman [and] utterly worthless." On another occasion, Bragg accurately summed up Polk's character when he wrote, "Genl. Polk by education and habit is unfitted for executing the plans of others. He will convince himself his own are better and follow them without reflecting on the consequences."
Despite his quarrelsome nature and poor performance, Polk was promoted to lieutenant general and led a corps in Bragg's Army of Tennessee during the Stones River, Tullahoma, and Chickamauga campaigns. While he was unable to get along with other generals, Polk was very popular with his men. Regal and elegant, he looked like a successful general and was always affable and caring of his soldiers. One private remembered, "His soldiers always loved and honored him."
Polk and Bragg continued to work at cross purposes during the 1863 Chickamauga Campaign. When Bragg discovered that an isolated Union division was vulnerable to attack, he ordered Polk to destroy it at dawn the next day. Polk decided there were more Yankees than Bragg realized but waited until nearly midnight before getting a message to him asking for reinforcements. The attack was never made, and the Confederates lost an excellent opportunity to strike a blow at the pursuing enemy.
Perhaps Polk's second greatest failure as a general (after Columbus, Kentucky) occurred on the second day of the Battle of Chickamauga. He was in command of Bragg's right wing and was ordered to attack the enemy at daylight. As Bragg listened anxiously for the attack to begin, there was only silence as daylight came and then the sunrise. Bragg finally dispatched an officer to find out what had gone wrong. An hour after sunrise, the officer found Polk three miles in the rear sitting on a porch calmly reading a newspaper and waiting for breakfast. When asked about the delay, Polk told the officer he did not know why the attack was delayed because he had not yet been to the front.
After the battle, a furious Bragg relieved Polk of command and charged him with disobeying orders and dereliction of duty. In turn, Polk once again conspired with other generals to have Bragg removed as the army's commander. President Davis tried to smooth things over, but when that failed he simply transferred Polk west and put him in charge of the Department of Mississippi and East Louisiana.
During the 1864 Atlanta Campaign, Polk served as a corps commander under Gen. Joseph E. Johnston. On June 14, he and other generals stood atop Pine Mountain, Georgia, observing the Union forces below. A nearby artillery officer warned them to disperse lest they draw the enemy's fire but they hesitated. When a shell suddenly exploded nearby, the other generals began moving back from the mountain's rim. Polk lingered to take one last look at the enemy and was killed instantly when a Yankee solid shot tore through his body.
Author: Terry L. Jones is a professor of history at the University of Louisiana at Monroe and has published a number of books on the American Civil War.