Leonidas Polk

Leonidas Polk

Polk, Leonidas, 1806-64, American Episcopal bishop and Confederate general in the Civil War, b. Raleigh, N.C. He left the army to study for the ministry and was ordained in 1831. He served as missionary bishop of the Southwest (1838-41) and bishop of Louisiana (1841-61) and was the principal founder of the Univ. of the South, Sewanee, Tenn. (1857). In the Civil War he became a major general (June, 1861) in the Confederate army and was at first engaged in the defense of the Mississippi River. He commanded a corps at Shiloh (Apr., 1862), was promoted to lieutenant general shortly after fighting at Perryville (Oct.), and commanded the Confederate right at Murfreesboro (Dec., 1862-Jan., 1863). In the Chattanooga campaign Braxton Bragg accused him of dilatoriness at Chickamauga (Sept.) and had him relieved. Polk assumed command of the Army of Mississippi (Dec.) and fought in the Atlanta campaign until he was killed (June, 1864) at Pine Mountain, Ga.

See biography by J. H. Parks (1962); K. Elgin, The Episcopalians (1970).

Leonidas Polk (April 10, 1806June 14, 1864) was a Confederate general 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 The Fighting Bishop. Polk was killed in action in 1864 during the Atlanta Campaign of the American Civil War.

Early life

Polk was born in 1806 in Raleigh, North Carolina, to Sarah (Hawkins) Polk and Colonel William Polk, a Revolutionary War veteran and prosperous planter. 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. Polk graduated eighth of 38 cadets on July 1, 1827, and was appointed a brevet second lieutenant in the artillery. He resigned his commission on December 1, 1827 so that he could enter the Virginia Theological Seminary. He was ordained as a deacon in April 1830 and made priest the following year. Also in 1830 Polk married Frances Ann Deveraux and became assistant to Bishop Richard Channing Moore in Richmond, Virginia.

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 he called "Ashwood Hall." 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 on October 9, 1860, 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'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.

Civil War

At the outbreak of the Civil War, Polk pulled the Louisiana Convention out of the Episcopal Church of the United States. His friend and former roommate at West Point, Jefferson Davis, prevailed upon Polk to accept a commission in the Confederate States Army. Polk agreed and was commissioned 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 Commonwealth of Kentucky had declared its neutrality, but Polk's action ended that neutrality and the state quickly fell under Union control.

He organized the Army of Mississippi and the First Corps (known as "Polk's Corps") of the Army of Tennessee. Polk designed his own distinctive battle flag for his brigades; a blue field with a red St. George's cross, emblazoned with eleven stars, representing each of the Confederate states.

Polk led the First Corps of Albert Sidney Johnston's army during the Battle of Shiloh. He was promoted to lieutenant general on October 10, 1862.

Following disagreements with the army's new commanding general, Braxton Bragg, Polk was transferred to Mississippi and later took charge of the Department of Alabama, Mississippi, and East Louisiana. Bragg's successor, Joseph E. Johnston, ordered Polk to join his forces with the Army of Tennessee in the Atlanta campaign.


Polk was scouting enemy positions with his staff when he was killed in action by a Federal 3" Hotchkiss shell at Pine Mountain near Marietta, Georgia, on June 14, 1864. Gens. Hardee, Johnston, and their staffs were with him, and the group drew artillery fire. The first round came close and a second even closer, causing the men to disperse. The third shell struck Polk's left arm, went through the chest, and exited hitting his right arm then exploded against a tree; it nearly cut Polk in two.

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 was buried in Augusta, Georgia, and in 1945, his remains and those of his wife were later reinterred at Christ Church Cathedral in New Orleans.

Polk's nephew, Lucius E. Polk was also a Confederate general.

In memoriam

Fort Polk in Louisiana is named in his memory.

Polk's effects

Polk's sword, which was made in New Orleans and presented to Polk by Bishop Stephen Elliott, was auctioned in Fairfield, Maine, on October 4, 2005, along with personal letters and other items. The sword sold for $77,000 and the entire collection $1.6 million. Another sword attributed to Polk and featuring many unique features including inset and engraved crosses in addition to typical adornment for Confederate Staff and Field Officer Swords, was sold at auction by Heritage Auction Gallery (Dallas, Texas) in December 2007. The Sword was attributed to Polk and featured by William Albaugh in his 1963 book, "A Photographic Supplement of Confederate Swords". The sword is thought to be manufactured by James Conning and Jacob Faser in Mobile, Alabama.


  • Dupuy, Trevor N., Johnson, Curt, and Bongard, David L., Harper Encyclopedia of Military Biography, Castle Books, 1992, 1st Ed., ISBN 0-7858-0437-4.
  • Eicher, John H., and Eicher, David J., Civil War High Commands, Stanford Univ. Press, 2001, ISBN 0-8047-3641-3.
  • Foote, Shelby, The Civil War: A Narrative: Vol. III Red River to Appomattox, Vintage Books, 1986, ISBN 0-394-74622-8.


See also

External links

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