Murray: Leonidas Polk, the Confederacy's bishop general

Murray: Leonidas Polk, the Confederacy's bishop general

July 6th, 2014 By Dr. R. Smith Murray in Opinion Columns

Leonidas Polk, the Episcopal bishop of Louisiana.

Photo by Contributed Photo/Times Free Press.

Before the outbreak of the Civil War, Leonidas Polk, the Episcopal bishop of Louisiana, felt that the South needed a top notch university. Many Southern elites were sending their sons north for college. A good Southern college would educate their sons without Northern bias and abolitionist rhetoric.

Working with the Episcopal Church, Polk raised over $300,000, which funded the placement of the cornerstone of The University of the South at Sewanee in 1860 and led to the building of the university.

Many years later Jim Ogden, historian at the Chickamauga and Chattanooga National Military Park, took Civil War author Steven Woodworth on a tour of the university at Sewanee. A special chair was noted in the chapel, and Odgen urged Woodworth to sit in it.

Once his guest was seated, Jim Ogden announced that the chair was dedicated to Leonidas Polk. As if jolted by electrical shock, Woodworth bolted from the chair and said, "I feel dumber already."

Perhaps some of us are too critical of the bishop general. However, we have plenty of ammunition.

Polk owed his generalship to Confederate President Jefferson Davis. They had been friends at West Point. After graduating from the Academy, Polk entered the ministry and thereafter never studied any military texts.

At the outset of the war and before Gen. Albert S. Johnston took firm control of the Confederate armies of the West, Davis placed Polk in charge of units in the Mississippi Valley north of the Red River.

Polk promptly made three mistakes: one of commission and two of omission. On the commission side, he invaded Kentucky, which converted the state's neutrality into siding with the North.

On the omission side, as he invaded the state, he failed to take Columbus, before Gen. Ulysses S. Grant could do so. In addition, he failed to move Fort Henry to the other side of the Ohio River, onto higher ground to strengthen its fortifications. That led to the easy capture of the fort by Grant and his Union gunboats - and provided the Federals easy access to Fort Donelson, Tenn.

Still, Polk's early war endeavors weren't all negative. He hit a positive note on the eve of the battle of Shiloh, where he was a stalwart asset. Confederate P.G.T. Beauregard and Braxton Bragg feared the element of surprise had been lost and advised calling off the attack.

Polk stood firmly and correctly with Gen. Albert Sidney Johnston insisting that the attack should go on. Although Shiloh failed to become a Confederate victory, it was worth the gamble.

Polk's other contribution was his effect on soldiers. He was popular and admired. The idea that the Confederates had a bishop general fighting alongside boosted the soldiers' morale and made them feel that surely God was on their side.

Part of Polk's popularity came from not being a strict disciplinarian. Bragg's strengths, on the other hand, were organization and discipline. The first joining of Polk's and Bragg's troops occurred at Corinth, Miss., just before the Battle of Shiloh. Bragg was appalled by the laxity of Polk's troops and considered Polk to be a slovenly soldier.

Later when Polk was put under Bragg's command, Bragg attempted to get rid of him, but Jefferson Davis wouldn't permit it. Polk reciprocated, partially because he was aware of Bragg's disregard and partially because he saw Bragg as a social inferior. Polk resented having to take orders from Bragg.

In two major battles, at Perryville, Ky., and Chickamauga, Ga., Bragg ordered Polk to initiate a "day-dawn" attack. Polk refused on both occasions. At Perryville, Polk thought an offensive-defensive strategy was a better plan. At Chickamauga, Polk simply never transmitted the orders to the generals who were to lead the attack.

It wasn't until after Chickamauga that Jefferson Davis allowed Bragg to transfer Polk out of his command. During the Atlanta campaign, Polk served under Gen. Joseph Johnston without any major disputes. Then by and large, Johnston didn't assign Polk any major responsibility, such as he had at Perryville and Chickamauga.

Steven Woodworth said about Polk, "Aside from being completely unqualified for his position, Polk's chief drawback as a general was that he never really saw the need of taking orders from anyone below the rank of God, with whom he tended to confuse himself."

Dr. Murray is a retired urologist. For more information, visit www.chattahistoricalassoc.org or contact LaVonne Jolley at 423-886-2090.