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On Oct. 8, 1862, the sun set on two exhausted armies outside Perryville, Ky. The Army of Tennessee, headed by the Confederate general Braxton Bragg, had been slugging it out with Gen. Carlos Buell’s Army of the Ohio since early morning. The battle had been intense and bloody, but because of a peculiar phenomenon known as an acoustic shadow — in which topographical oddities prevent people close by from hearing a sound, while people much farther away can — it was late afternoon before General Buell knew the fight was in progress just two miles from his headquarters.
Buell was not the only one confused. At dusk, the Confederate brigadier general St. John R. Liddell informed Maj. Gen. Leonidas Polk that he believed his men had exchanged fire with another Confederate unit by mistake. Polk rode over to investigate and demanded the other colonel stop firing at his own men. Puzzled at the order, 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?” The officer responded that he was 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 gray coat appeared blue in the fading light, and the Indiana colonel assumed Polk was a Union officer.
Playing on the colonel’s confusion, Polk gamely acted out the charade. He 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. Returning to General Liddell, Polk exclaimed, “General, every mother’s son of them are Yankees.” Liddell quickly resumed firing and killed Colonel Keith and a large number of his men.
Polk survived Perryville to fight in many battles, but the Confederates might have been better served if he had been captured that day. The rebel army had its share of inept and contentious officers, but few made as many serious blunders as the so-called “Fighting Bishop.” Polk had virtually no military experience when the war began, yet he became one of the Confederacy’s highest-ranking generals and the bane of his superior officers.Photo Gen. Leonidas PolkCredit Library of Congress/Getty Images
Born in North Carolina on April 10, 1806, Polk attended the University of North Carolina before entering West Point in 1823. Two things occurred at the academy that changed his life forever: he came under the influence of the Episcopal chaplain and was baptized into the church, and he formed a lasting friendship with fellow cadet and future Confederate president Jefferson Davis. Although Polk excelled at West Point and should have graduated near the top of his class, he was demoted to eighth place in the class of 1827 because of a cheating allegation.
Polk was commissioned a brevet second lieutenant of cavalry but resigned just a few months later (at the time, West Point graduates were not required to serve in the Army). He then enrolled in the Virginia Theological Seminary, married Frances Anne Devereux and was ordained an Episcopal minister.
Acquiring both land and slaves in Tennessee through his marriage, Polk settled there and worked as a minister and planter. Although he had little church experience, the new pastor was quite charismatic and he rose quickly in the church hierarchy. In 1838, he was appointed the missionary bishop of the Southwest; three years later, he became the first Episcopal bishop of Louisiana. Although he failed as a planter, Polk was instrumental in founding the University of the South at Sewanee, Tenn., just before the Civil War began. Bishop Polk envisioned the college as a place 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. After the formation of the Confederacy, he 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 became focused on defending the Mississippi River and neglected to strengthen critical positions such as Forts Henry and Donelson farther inland. He also made one of the greatest military blunders of the war.
Kentucky, a slave-holding border state, had refused to comply with President Lincoln’s call for volunteers to crush the rebellion after the firing on Fort Sumter. Instead, the governor declared neutrality in the conflict. Kentucky’s rich resources and strategic location on the Ohio River made it one of the most important states, and both Lincoln and Davis respected the neutrality in hopes of eventually luring it to their side. Unfortunately for the Confederates, Leonidas Polk saw things differently.Library of Congress“Death of General Polk,” a sketch by the war correspondent Alfred Waud.
Convinced the Union was preparing to advance down the Mississippi River in September 1861, Polk decided Columbus, Ky., 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 the city. He then persuaded Davis to let him stay by arguing that the move was a military necessity.
Polk’s occupation of Columbus violated Kentucky’s neutrality and opened the door for a larger Union force to take possession of Paducah. 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. The historian Steven E. Woodworth has described Polk’s move into Kentucky as “one of the most decisive catastrophes the Confederacy ever suffered.” While it can never be known for certain, it is possible Kentucky would have remained neutral indefinitely had it not been for Polk’s rash action. If it had, the Union would have found it exceedingly difficult to maneuver around the state, and the capture of Forts Henry and Donelson might not have occurred.
While in Columbus, Polk quarreled so often with his subordinate Gideon J. Pillow that Pillow offered his resignation (though he later retracted it). Relations were hardly better with his department commander (and former best friend), Albert Sidney Johnston. Polk chafed under Johnston’s command, while Johnston found it difficult to control the bishop. Polk finally submitted his resignation to Davis, but the president refused to accept it. Instead, Polk was given command of a corps in Johnston’s Army of Mississippi and led it at Shiloh.
When Braxton Bragg invaded Kentucky in the late summer of 1862, Polk commanded his right wing. But Polk once again proved incapable of serving well with others. During the campaign, Bragg ordered Polk to attack the enemy’s flank as it approached Frankfort. Polk refused to obey the order because a large enemy force was in his front. Bragg was not aware of this fact, but Polk made no attempt to explain the reason for his insubordination. His note to Bragg simply read, “The last twenty-four hours have developed a condition of things on my front and left flank … which makes compliance with this order not only eminently inexpedient but impracticable.” He then retreated, which made Bragg’s position in Frankfort untenable. Bragg was inaugurating a Confederate governor at the time, but the inauguration speech was cut short when Yankee shells began to fall in the capital. Bragg, the rebel governor and the rest of the troops beat a hasty retreat.
Later, on Oct. 7, when the two armies first made contact at Perryville, Polk arrived on the field with reinforcements and orders from Bragg to attack immediately. Polk, however, decided to wait and let the enemy make the first move, thus surrendering the initiative. And, once again, he failed to communicate effectively with Bragg. Polk gave his commander virtually no information on the size of the enemy’s force or its disposition, and he did not ask for reinforcements even though he later claimed he believed he was facing the main Union Army. After receiving reinforcements of their own, the Yankees attacked early on Oct. 8 and Bragg retreated the next day.
When the Confederates withdrew from Kentucky soon after, 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 in October 1862, and President Davis had the commission dated so that only James Longstreet would be his senior. Polk went on to lead a corps in Bragg’s Army of Tennessee in the Stones River, Tullahoma and Chickamauga campaigns.
Part of his staying power is attributable to his popularity among rank-and-file soldiers. Regal and elegant, he looked like a successful general and was always affable and caring of his soldiers. Pvt. Sam Watkins remembered, “His soldiers always loved and honored him.” Watkins related one popular story about Polk that took place at Chickamauga (other sources put it at Perryville). The division commander Frank Cheatham was addressing the men before an attack to fire them up. “Forward, boys!,” he yelled, “and give ’em hell!” Watkins claimed Polk, who refused to curse, simply cried out, “Do as General Cheatham says, boys.”
Polk and Bragg continued to work at cross purposes during the Chickamauga Campaign. When Bragg discovered that an isolated Union division was vulnerable to attack, he ordered Polk to destroy it at daylight on Sept. 13, 1863. 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 the debacle at Columbus, 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’s left at daylight. As Bragg listened anxiously for the attack to begin, there was only silence as the day began. 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 farm house 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 had not been made because he had not yet been to the front.
The officer galloped back to tell Bragg, who let out a “terrible exclamation,” mounted his horse and galloped off to see Polk. By the time he arrived, Polk had already left. Before he departed, Polk told one of the headquarters staff, “Do tell General Bragg that my heart is overflowing with anxiety for the attack. Overflowing with anxiety, sir.” When Polk finally advanced at mid-morning, he made only temporary gains against the stubborn Union defenders.
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 in December 1863 and put him in charge of the Department of Mississippi and East Louisiana. While serving in that capacity, Bishop Polk faced William T. Sherman in the Meridian Campaign and, to his credit, succeeded in saving most of the area’s important railroad stock from destruction.
Polk went on to serve as a corps commander under Gen. Joseph E. Johnston during the 1864 Atlanta Campaign. On June 14, he, Johnston and Gen. William Hardee stood atop Pine Mountain observing the Union forces below. A nearby artillery officer had just warned the trio to disperse lest they draw the enemy’s fire when a shell landed nearby. Johnston and Hardee began moving back from the mountain’s rim, but Polk lingered to take one last look at the enemy. A solid shot from a Yankee battery killed him instantly.
Sam Watkins saw Polk’s body and remembered how the cannon ball had torn through his left breast and heart. “He was as white as a piece of marble, and a most remarkable thing about him was, that not a drop of blood was ever seen to come out of the place through which the cannon ball had passed. My pen and ability is inadequate to the task of doing his memory justice. Every private soldier loved him.”
Men like Watkins may have loved Polk, but he proved too independent-minded and uncooperative to be a good general. In his history of the Army of Tennessee, Thomas Connelly condemned Polk’s “remarkable ability to evade the blame for situations that were the result of … flaws in his character.” Polk, Connelly claimed, could be “stubborn, aloof, insubordinate, quarrelsome, and childish.” He was, put simply, “the most dangerous man in the Army of Tennessee.”
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