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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 successful, 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 lacking prior combat experience. He fought as a corps commander in many of the major battles of the Western Theater, but is remembered more for his bitter disagreements with his immediate superior, Gen. Braxton Bragg of the Army of Tennessee, than for his success in combat. While serving under the command of Gen. Joseph E. Johnston, he was killed in action in 1864 during the Atlanta Campaign.
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
Besides being a basically incompetent general, Polk had the added fault of hating to take orders.
Steven E. Woodworth, Jefferson Davis and His Generals
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.
Bragg thoroughly despised ... the genial but pompous and often incompetent Bishop Polk. Bragg considered Polk "an old woman, utterly worthless", especially at disciplining men. Unfortunately for Bragg and for the Confederacy as a whole, Polk remained a great favorite of Jefferson Davis despite carefully couched hints from Bragg, which protected the irritatingly self-righteous Polk from the increasingly sycophantic Bragg and made his appointment to wing command a political necessity.
Kenneth W. Noe, Perryville
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.]
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.
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.
Polk's nephew, Lucius E. Polk, was also a Confederate general. Polk's son, William Mecklenburg Polk, was a physician and a Confederate captain, who later authored his most flattering biography.