General Leonidas Polk
the "Battling Bishop"

The Battling Bishop, Lieutenant General Leonidas Polk


Leonidas Polk was born April 10, 1806 at Raleigh, North Carolina.  In 1821, he would attend the University of North Carolina.  He earned an appointment to the United States Military Academy at West Point, NY in 1823 and graduated 8th out of 38 in the Class of 1827 (this class included the likes of Jefferson Davis and Albert Sidney Johnston ).  He was commissioned as a Second Lieutenant of Artillery.  He resigned his Commission on December 1, 1927 to pursue a higher calling.

In 1831, Polk enrolled at Virginia Theological Seminary.  He was ordained an Episcopalian minister and would travel by boat, horse, rail and mail carriage throughout Mississippi and Louisiana spreading the word of God.

In 1838, he was named the Missionary Bishop of the Southwest, and would hold the first Episcopalian service at Shreveport, Louisiana in 1839.  Two years later, in 1841, he was named the first Bishop of Louisiana.

From 1842 until 1854, Polk operated Leighton Plantation near the town of Thibodaux.  He would resign this position in 1855 to serve as Rector of Trinity Church in New Orleans, which he did until 1860.

In 1860, Polk resigned this post to devote more time to the establishment of University of the South at Sewanee, Tennessee.

On June 25, 1861, Polk accepts a Commission as a Major General in the Army of the Confederate States of America.  He considers this to be his duty to God.  He is assigned command of Department 2 at Columbus, Kentucky.  At the same time, he terminates his association with the Episcopal Church.  Nonetheless, from this moment forward, history shall remember him as the "Battling Bishop."

September 15 of that year, Polk was reassigned as Commander of the First Division of the Department of War.  

On November 7, 1861, Polk and his troops defeated the troops of Ulysses Simpson Grant (then a virtual unknown) at Belmont Missouri .

During the Battle of Shiloh , April 6 and 7 of 1862, Polk would lead the I Corps of the Army of Mississippi .  Later that year, Polks would lead a division of the Army of Tennessee under General Braxtron Bragg.  (Note that Confederate Armies were named for states while Union armies were named for Rivers.  As such, there was the Confederate Army of Tennessee and the Union Army of the Tennessee).

Polk was cited for gallantry at the Battle of Perryville, Kentucky and was promoted to Lieutenant General on October 10, 1862.  Polk would also see action at Stone's River (NPS Site ), where the author lost an ancestor , and his troops would bear the brunt of the first day's fighting at Chickamauga, near Fort Oglethorpe, Georgia (about 8 miles from Chattanooga, Tennessee - which would have been part of Georgia, save for a surveying error and a really bad decision from the United States Supreme Court).

On October 23, 1862, Polk was given command of the Army of Mississippi .  Two months later, on December 23, 1862, Polk was made commander of the Department of Alabama, Mississippi and Eastern Louisiana.

In May of 1864, Polk was given full command of the Army of Tennessee, one of the major armies of the Confederate Army (the other being the Army of Northern Virginia under the command of Robert E. Lee ).

Flag of Polk's Division

On June 14, 1864, Polk was killed by artillery from the Federals at Pine Mountain , Cobb County, Georgia.  Polk was called to the line by General William J. Hardee along with General Jospeh E. Johnston and others.  They were trying to determine whether the Rebel troops, who had been enveloped by Sherman at Pine Mountain, could be safely extracted or whether they should hold their ground.  Confederate artillery officers continually advised Hardee, Polk and the others in their party that they were well within the range of federal artilley, but they continued to make their observations and assessment.  Even with Federal volleys flying overhead, the generals continued their assessment and observations.  The Federal troops were, in essence, conserving their ammunition until General William T. Sherman (called "Uncle Billy" by the Confederate troops) ordered the Federal artillery units to open fire on the observers.  With the first artillery fire, all but Polk scattered quickly.  Even with the second round, Polk held his position.  The third round would enter Polk through an arm, pass through his chest, and exit the other arm.  Johnston cried as he stood over the man who had just recently baptised him.

General Sherman, who held the rebels in very low regard (and had even less respect for the clergy), wrote to General Henry Wager Halleck that "(w)e killed Bishop Polk yesterday and have made even better progress today..."

It is rumored that the Federal soldier who actually fired the shot which took the life of General Polk took his own life.

Polk would be buried next to his wife in Augusta.  However, they were exhumed in 1944 and moved to the Christ Church Cathedral in New Orleans, Louisiana.

Bishop Leonidas Polk
Picture of Bishop Leonidas Polk by Matthew B. Brady

Copyright 2003 Richard R. Pettys, Jr.
Copyright 2003 Wyndell Taylor
Permission is given for private and non-commercial use.