Leonidas Polk was born with a silver spoon in his mouth…and he died with a lead shell in his torso. Nevertheless the fifty-eight years that he lived between those two events tells a fascinating story of a man who was born into Southern aristocracy, served the Lord as a minister, and died on the battlefield as a soldier. Polk was maligned by some, adored by many, and forever remembered because of his unrelenting commitment to God and his unwavering belief in serving his country.
The story of Leonidas Polk begins in North Carolina, where he was born on April 10, 1806 as the second of what would be twelve children to William and Sarah Hawkins Polk. The Polks originally came to North Carolina when Leonidas’ grandfather, Thomas Polk moved there from Pennsylvania in 1753. He immediately bought land and began the life of a successful planter. After marrying Susanna Sprat, a fellow Pennsylvanian, Polk continued to make a name and a fortune for himself in Mecklenburg County, North Carolina. But Polk was much more than simply a wealthy planter; he was also a fierce patriot.
As tensions mounted between the British throne and the American colonies, Thomas Polk left no doubt where he stood. In 1775 he signed the “Mecklenburg Declaration” which proclaimed that the citizens of Mecklenburg County sought to break all ties with Britain and establish an independent government. The fires of independence were being stoked all throughout the colonies, with the ultimate results being a formal “Declaration of Independence” declared by the Continental Congress on July 4, 1776, and subsequent war with the British.
Thomas Polk was commissioned as a colonel in the Fourth North Carolina regiment where he valiantly fought the British in the American South, before being assigned to serve under George Washington in the North. In the infamous winter of 1777-1778, Polk served at Valley Forge with Washington, amid the perilous conditions of hunger, disease, and weather that took the life of over two thousand colonial soldiers. Washington repeatedly sent requests to the Continental Congress for supplies, but none were to be found. In the early spring, Washington sent Polk back to his native North Carolina to try and gather whatever supplies he could for the destitute men. While Polk was in North Carolina, his immediate superior officer, Brigadier General Francis Nash was killed. The obvious replacement for Nash was Polk, but he was passed over for a junior officer who, according to Polk, had gained the position by political means rather than valorous military achievements. Polk was infuriated, and sent his letter of resignation to the Governor of North Carolina who refused it. Polk then sent a letter of resignation to Washington himself who reluctantly accepted it. Though even in his anger he continued to be a loyal patriot, committed to the hope of an Independent nation, accepting the position of commissary agent with the task of trying to keep the army in North Carolina adequately supplied. In this position, Polk undoubtedly did the best he could under extremely difficult circumstance. Clothes, food, ammunition, and other supplies were simply too scare to be found in the amounts that an army required. Polk frequently clashed with General Horatio Gates, the commander of the Southern theater, who blamed him, even questioning his loyalty to the cause, because of his inability to procure supplies. Given the fact that Polk paid for many of the supplies out of his own pocket, it’s easy to understand his frustration. He again considered resigning, but changed his mind when Nathaniel Greene took over for Gates in 1780. Polk worked well with Greene, and even returned to the battlefield under his command. In 1781, Polk finally received his much coveted promotion to general which he would keep for the duration of the war.
Polk’s son William, who would become the father of Leonidas, was an even greater Revolutionary War hero than his general father. William dropped out of Queens College in 1775, at the age of sixteen, to enlist in the Continental Army where he was assigned the rank of second lieutenant. In a battle in Orangeburg, South Carolina, he received a shoulder wound that knocked him out of service for nine months, and required him to give up his commission. But as soon as the wound healed he joined the Ninth North Carolina regiment where he served as a major under Washington, being once again injured at the Battle of Germantown where he was shot in the jaw, losing four teeth. Amazingly, he was able to remain in active service and was transferred back to his native North Carolina to fight the British in the South. Faithful and fearless service led to his being promoted to lieutenant colonel over the Fourth South Carolina regiment. At the Battle of Eutaw Springs, Polk was officially recognized for his courage where he almost lost his life, and did lose his brother Thomas.
“In one of the numerous hand-to-hand encounters of the day Polk's horse was shot dead and fell upon him, and a British soldier was in the very act of pinning him to the ground with the bayonet, when a timely saber-stroke from one of his sergeants cut down his assailant and saved his life. As might have been expected in so desperately contested a battle, all the commands suffered heavy loss, and among the killed was William Polk's youngest brother, Thomas, who was a lieutenant in his regiment.”1
The war made the Polk name famous in America, especially William, who was deeply revered in the South for his military conduct. After the war he used his name and political connections to his advantage by becoming the chief surveyor of the central district of Tennessee. At that time, the “Tennessee territory” was still apart of North Carolina, and as chief surveyor, Polk was in a position to accumulate vast portions of land for himself, which he did by claiming 100,000 acres.
Polk’s war heroism and political connections helped him land numerous lucrative positions throughout his life. George Washington appointed him as supervisor of internal revenue for North Carolina, in addition to serving as President of the State Bank of North Carolina for eight years.2
In addition to government and financial service, William also served as a trustee for the University of North Carolina, beginning in 1792, where he was instrumental in the institution’s early development. He continued to serve in this capacity for the remainder of his life.
In 1789, William married Grizelda Gilchrist with whom he had two children before the marriage ended with Grizelda’s death in 1799. By 1801, Polk had relocated to Raleigh where he married Sarah Hawkins, who was the daughter of a wealthy land owner named Philemon Hawkins, who served with William Polk in the North Carolina General Assembly; thus making Leonidas the grandson of two prominent aristocrats. Leonidas, the second son, was born in 1806 and raised in Raleigh. Polk’s most well known biographer, his son William, states that not much is known about Leonidas formative childhood years, except that “he appears to have been known as a high spirited and healthy child.”3 This is undoubtedly true, as he would later in life be known for an irascibility that bordered on obnoxious.
Leonidas grew up in a home where there was much love and over indulgence, but little in the way of religion. William, though descended from devout Presbyterians, was lukewarm at best where religion was concerned. On one occasion, when Leonidas and a friend were visiting on the Polks front porch, William joined in and told the boys of the heroism that led to their independence during the Revolutionary War. In an effort to fuse the boys with a desire to cherish and honor their freedom, William reminded the young men that there were older patriots to thank for the liberties they enjoyed. Leonidas mentioned his belief that the in order for the political freedoms to be adequately recognized they should be melded with Christianity, since it was ultimately God who blessed their arms with victory. With this, William quietly stood up and left the conversation.
On another occasion, William had a conversation with John S. Ravenscroft, the Episcopal Bishop of North Carolina, in which he asked if a man could earn his way to Heaven by performing good deeds. Ravenscroft responded in the negative saying: “No sir: he would go straight to Hell.”4 Polk appeared unbothered by the answer, perhaps because he didn’t believe it. In his mind, a life of good deeds combined with faithfulness to one’s country would certainly result in a pleasant afterlife, if one even existed. Even Leonidas’ son William reluctantly admits the lack of religious feelings in his grandfather, stating: “It must be admitted that he was not a professedly religious man.”5
In 1821, Leonidas enrolled as a student at the University of North Carolina where he was successful and popular among the student body. After spending two years there, his father gained for him an appointment to the United States Military Academy at West Point. Leonidas was thrilled at the chance to attend and arrived on campus in June 1823.
At this point in his life the wide-eyed seventeen year old contemplated his future with unending optimism. Perhaps he would be a military hero like his father and grandfather before him. Or maybe a West Point education would ultimately lead to political office and national fame. At the very least, a combination of family, political, and educational influence promised a successful and lucrative life for young Leonidas Polk. But in all the thoughts of his future, religion played no large part. His eyes were on earthly treasures, but he had no way of knowing how his eyes would be opened to eternal realties before his time at West Point was over. Indeed, his life would soon change in a dramatic and permanent way.
In those days, a West Point education began by living outdoors in “camp” for the first summer. Beginning in September, the cadets would move into the barracks and assume the life of a soldier-scholar. Polk initially enjoyed the excitement of camp life, but it soon began to wane. He was grateful when September arrived and he was assigned a room, with three other cadets, one of whom was second year student Albert Sydney Johnston, who would remain a lifelong friend, as well as a future fellow Confederate general until his death at the Battle of Shiloh in 1862.
Polk was an overall good student. His previous education had prepared him well for the academic rigors of West Point, but it was his attitude that occasionally landed him in trouble. Two controversies involving Polk arose during the early part of his West Point tenure. One involved money, the other involved academic integrity.
Clearly, Polk was somewhat spoiled where material pleasures were concerned; and because of this, he had a difficult time sustaining the lifestyle he was accustomed to on a cadet’s salary. Nevertheless, West Point had strict rules regarding finances and the cadets were forbidden to accept money from home. Regardless of this rule, Polk wrote to his wealthy father requesting money, to which William Polk readily acquiesced, mailing fifty dollars to him. Superintendent Sylvanus Thayer learned of the matter and quickly fired off a firm, but kind letter to William, notifying him of this violation of rules, and informing him that it was a dismissible offense. However, Thayer was willing to overlook it this time, provided it not happen again. William graciously relented, but Leonidas was furious. He accused Thayer of planting spies who were snooping around in his personal business. He suggested to his father that Thayer’s actions proved his ungentlemanly status, but ultimately Leonidas’ pleas fell on deaf ears. William was not willing to rock the boat on behalf of his spoiled son.
At this point in his life, it’s easy to see the sinful materialism that permeated Leonidas’ character. To be sure, he had many good qualities, but they were often overshadowed by the fact that at heart he was the privileged son of a wealthy aristocrat; and what’s more, he expected to be treated as one. While other students either obeyed the rules, or simply didn’t have the financial means to break them, Polk saw himself as above the law. During his time at the University of North Carolina, Polk had written a letter to his sister in which he bemoaned his brother’s inability to find a wife by stating that few women were worthy to be Polks.6 Though perhaps he was writing somewhat “tongue in cheek” concerning his brother, he clearly held a view of superiority over his colleagues.
The other West Point controversy involving Polk regarded the practice of cheating in a drawing class. Apparently several cadets were caught tracing the work of another student instead of doing their own drawing. When caught, Polk admitted to the offense, but amazingly argued that there was nothing wrong with doing it. Furthermore, he felt that he and a few others had been singled out for discipline of something that virtually all the cadets took part in. Polk biographer Glenn Robins writes:
“Believing that he had been unjustly penalized, Polk registered a formal complain with Secretary of War James Barbour. At no point during the investigation did Polk deny that he had traced his assignments but he did supply a ridiculous excuse for continuing to disregard Thayer’s direct order. He maintained that no cadet gained an unfair advantage by tracing because ‘the practice was so general that it might be called universal, and since they traced without the semblance of secrecy toward each other, its criminality was lessened to almost nothing, and their perfect openness seemed very little like a wish…to defraud’ anyone. In addition, Polk asserted that the cadets ‘were willing to risk violating the order, and …abide by the consequence, provided each suffered in proportion to the magnitudes of his offense.”7
Not surprisingly, Barbour dismissed Polk’s complaint and Thayer’s disciplinary action stood. Those found guilty would be docked one letter grade. Ironically, and humorously, Polk seems to have expended far more time and energy fighting the issue than he would have had he simply done the assignment the right way to begin with. But his youthful exuberance and his prideful sense of justice, took control of his actions.
During Polk’s first two years at West Point, he was an intelligent, albeit precocious student. Like many, his keen intellect waged war with his youthful mischievousness, resulting in the occasional disciplinary action. But all in all, he was a successful student with a promising military career before him. And like most students, he went to class, did his assignments, performed his duties, and attended the mandatory chapels, where students typically daydreamed or studied while the campus chaplain gave dry and boring theological lectures. However, the chapels underwent a dramatic change with the arrival of Charles P. McIlvaine as professor of ethics and chaplain in the summer of 1825.
McIlvaine was an evangelical Episcopal, who transformed the dry chapel lectures into fiery evangelistic sermons. Cadet C.J. Wright remembered McIlvaine's first day in chapel vividly:
“On the first Sunday of Dr. McIlvaine’s preaching at West Point the cadets went to chapel, as usual, some with books to read, and others hoping to sleep, but none expecting to take any interest in the sermon. Had a bugle been sounded in the chapel they could not have been more astonished. Books were dropped, sleep was forgotten, attention was riveted. There was general surprise and gratification. From that day on the chaplain's influence grew more and more powerful...”8
Like many outspoken evangelists, McIlvaine drew skeptical interest from the young people. They were enamored with his preaching, but somewhat fearful of being drawn into a lifetime commitment to Christ. Nevertheless, the chaplain sought to evangelize the students and openly welcomed any religious inquiry, or even pastoral counseling requests that came his way. In April of 1826, after having served just short of a year, McIlvaine was delighted to have a student seek him out for advice. McIlvaine gave the young cadet some wise counsel, and also sent him away with two gospel tracts. He encouraged him to keep and read one of them, and place the other one somewhere around campus where another student might find it. This he dutifully did, and the result was a second visit from another student one week later. The second student was a very agitated Leonidas Polk.
Polk came into McIlvaine’s study and said, “My name is Polk.” According to McIlvaine, that was about all Polk could manage to say as he was on the verge of an emotional outburst. With tears in his eyes and a lump in his throat, Polk was led to a seat where McIlvaine sought to counsel him. Apparently Polk’s reputation had preceded him because McIlvaine later said he assumed that Polk was in trouble with the institution’s authorities. But Polk’s reason for visiting wasn’t disciplinary in nature, but rather spiritual. He told of how the chaplain’s recent chapel messages on the evidences of Christianity had deeply affected him. Furthermore, after hearing that McIlvaine had left several copies of Olynthus Gregory’s “Letters on the Evidences” in the West Point library, Polk had acquired a copy and eagerly read it. Polk’s conviction of sin was at a fever pitch, when he surprisingly happened onto the gospel tract that was lying in the barracks. It proved be the last straw, and now a distraught Polk had sought out Rev. McIlvaine. Tenderly and lovingly, McIlvaine shared the gospel and prayed with the deeply convicted Polk, who wanted to commit his life to Christ but feared the ridicule he might face from his fellow cadets. According to McIlvaine, he was not aware of a single professing Christian among the student body at that time. While this may be an overstatement, it seems clear that religion was not a big deal on the West Point campus. Chapel attendance was merely another in a long line of “duties” that a dedicated soldier was expected to comply with.
McIlvaine pulled no punches in his exhortations to Polk. Indeed, he said their may very well be ridicule, but this was to be expected from those who follow Christ. In fact, Jesus himself had stated:
“If the world hate you, ye know that it hated me before it hated you. If ye were of the world, the world would love his own: but because ye are not of the world, but I have chosen you out of the world, therefore the world hateth you.” John 15:18-19 (KJV)
Polk’s mind and heart were settled. He would become a follower of Jesus Christ both privately and publicly. The student body initially experienced this shock on the next day, when at the end of the service at the time of prayer, Polk got out of his seat and kneeled in prayer. The other cadets were stunned and mesmerized, not to mention spiritually convicted themselves. A hushful reverence fell over the room as they witnessed the transformation of the ornery, spoiled, fun loving rich kid from Raleigh. Polk was a broken and humbled man, who had become a “new creature in Christ Jesus.” (2 Corinthians 5:17) In addition to this, Polk’s conversion sparked a revival on the spiritually lethargic campus. McIlvaine recounted:
“Cadets and officers afterward told me that if I had chosen one man out of the whole corps, whose example would have the greatest effect on the minds of his comrades, I should have chosen him. In the course of a week, one and another, strangers to me, came on the same errand, each without previous communication with anyone until he went to Cadet Polk and asked to be introduced to me. I found it necessary to have meetings for them twice or thrice a week in my house for instruction and prayer. Soon the number of cadets, with some professors and instructors, was so great as wholly to occupy the largest room I had, and in the case of almost every cadet who came his chosen introducer was Leonidas Polk, the first-born of these many brethren.”9
On May 25, 1826, Polk along with fellow Cadet William Magruder, became the first two cadets ever baptized in the West Point chapel. At the end of the service, McIlvaine charged them to “pray your Master and Savior to take you out of the world rather than allow you to bring reproach on the cause you have now professed.”10 Polk responded with a deep, loud, and heart felt, “Amen!”
Polk wrote home to tell his father about his newfound faith, but not surprisingly he found a cool response. William feared that his son had simply been caught up in some emotional excitement and that he had rashly embraced religion; but Polk’s conversion proved to be no passing fancy. His attitude, actions, and academic conduct were all transformed by the event, which as time would tell, proved to be a lifelong change.
In 1827, Polk graduated eighth in a class of thirty-eight and was brevetted as a second lieutenant of artillery, but his desires for the future were non-military. Superintendent Thayer had recommended Polk as a professor of mathematics at a Massachusetts college, which would eventually become Amherst. Polk saw it as opportunity not only to teach and make a living, but also further his own education. Additionally, he desired to have two of his younger brothers attend the college where he could mentor them in academic and undoubtedly spiritual pursuits. He graciously wrote to his father requesting permission to seek the appointment. Although he would be required to resign from the Army, he saw no problems given the fact that it was his Superintendent who had recommended him for the position. But William Polk saw this as an unnecessary interruption in what was his son’s true calling as a professional soldier. He wrote Leonidas that he could not consent because a man should pursue what he is genuinely meant to do rather than waste more time with further education. Leonidas agreed, but not in the way his father had hoped. Indeed, he did have a desire to pursue his true calling in life. And so he wrote his father that he would not be a professor, nor would he be a soldier. He had decided to enter the ministry and give his life to the vocational service of God. William was beside himself. In his mind, Leonidas had become a full fledged religious fanatic and was throwing away a promising career for no good reason. Leonidas would enter the Virginia Theological Seminary and become a minister. William snorted that the seminary would “ruin a good soldier to make a poor parson.”11
For quite some time, Leonidas had courted Frances Devereaux, who like him, came from a wealthy, North Carolina family. Ironically, Devereaux was also the great-granddaughter of Puritan theologian Jonathan Edwards, whose preaching had sparked the revival known as the First Great Awakening in colonial America. Leonidas sought marriage prior to his entrance to seminary, but Frances thought it unwise. In May 1828, they became engaged, but they weren’t married until May of 1830. Shortly thereafter, Polk accepted his first assignment as Assistant Rector of Monumental Episcopal Church in Richmond, Virginia.
In the fall of 1830, Leonidas quickly discovered that a minister’s life was not void of suffering. Two of his siblings died in a short amount of time, including his younger brother Hamilton. Leonidas had taken a leave of absence from his church duties to go to Raleigh and help care for Hamilton both physically and spiritually. Shortly before his death, Hamilton was baptized by his brother; then Leonidas preached his funeral before heading back north to Richmond.
Leonidas’ own health was weak at this time as well. During the summer of 1830 he had taken on most of the church duties with the Rector on leave. The strain, coupled with the stress of his dying brothers weighed on him deeply. After Hamilton’s death, he returned to Richmond and served until April 1831, when he felt compelled to resign. His first son, whom he named Hamilton after his late brother, was born in January of 1831, and so it was with a growing family that Leonidas and Frances returned to North Carolina in the spring of 1831. But Leonidas’s stay would be short. He ventured to Philadelphia to see a trusted doctor friend about his own health problems. The doctor told him he had only a few months to live, but Polk wisely sought a second opinion, which recommended that he immediately take a sea voyage to bolster his failing health. Without returning to North Carolina, Polk departed New York for Europe in August of 1831, where he spent fourteen months traveling and seeking medical care. Eventually he was told that his only ailment was weariness, and after almost a year abroad, he returned to his family in 1832. Though such a seemingly sudden and extended trip to Europe seems rash to modern ears, such ventures were not that uncommon in Polk’s day among those who had the money and the doctor’s counsel to do it. He returned with renewed vigor, strength, and health to take on his next challenge.
The Polks decided that they would relocate to Tennessee, where Leonidas’ brother Lucius was a successful planter. William still owned five thousand acres there, which he divided between his four adult sons. But Leonidas’ portion was leased until 1834. Regardless of this, the Polks moved to Maury Country, Tennessee in 1833 and Leonidas began working on a house for his family to live in. In the midst of this, in early 1834, William Polk passed away, leaving the family devastated. Especially Leonidas who had written and spoke to his father repeatedly about the need to make a commitment to Christ as Lord. William had brushed it aside time and time again, but now time was gone for him and Leonidas felt the pain sharply.
Polk began running his own plantation in 1834, where he also built a family chapel, St. John’s Chapel for his family, his brother’s family, and their plantation workers. At the same time, he also accepted the role as Rector of St. Peter’s Church in Columbia, Tennessee. Though the Tennessee diocese was tiny under Bishop James Otey, Polk was content to serve the small church while making the majority of his living as a planter. In a sense, he had the best of both worlds. The ministry would never gain him the financial security of a plantation, but his heart’s desire was to serve the Lord. In Tennessee, he could do both.
The Episcopal church of that day had a desire to spread the gospel to the American Southwest, which back then consisted of Louisiana, Texas, Arkansas, and Indian Territory (now Oklahoma). Consequently, they saw no greater candidate for the task than the zealously evangelistic Polk, and so he was elected as “Missionary Bishop to the Southwest” in 1838.
Polk left his Tennessee land in the care of his brother and moved his family to Louisiana where he began an Apostle Paul-like life of missionary travels. Officially, his territory stretched as far east as Alabama and as far west as the outskirts of West Texas, so he was seldom home. He preached the gospel all across the Southwest and tried to assist in the establishment of Episcopal churches.
On one trip through Indian Territory, Polk encountered two desperados. While passing on the trail they nodded at each other and continued on their perspective ways. Eventually, Polk came to his destination, the home of Cherokee Chief John Ross, where he recounted the story and described the two men. Ross knew them well as robbers in the area and told Polk they must have known he was well armed or they would have attacked. To the contrary, Polk responded that as a minister he abstained from carrying a gun, trusting on God alone for protection.
Later that evening, Ross was speaking with Polk’s black servant about the perils of their traveling unarmed. The servant responded that, to the contrary, they were always well armed and protected. The next day, when Polk prepared to leave he noticed Ross was much cooler towards him than the previous day. When he mentioned it to his servant, and the topic of their arms came up, Polk perceived that Ross thought he was lying to him. Polk asked the servant why he told Ross they were armed. The servant responded: “Aren’t you armed Master, with the sword of the Spirit?”12 Indeed they were, and that sword protected them through many perilous missionary journeys.
In 1841, Polk was elected Bishop of Louisiana, which at that time also included Alabama, Arkansas, Mississippi, Texas, and Indian Territory. Although he was now the reigning bishop over a vast territory, his ecclesiastical title did not take away from his missionary zeal. He sought to plant churches throughout his region that would call sinners to repentance and faith in Christ; and the sinner’s skin color was irrelevant. Even though Polk was himself a slave owner, he made himself unpopular with many other slave owners by his call to evangelize the black slaves, as well as their white owners. Some of the owners feared that if the slaves came to an understanding that God was sovereign over all things, including the owners, then their ultimate allegiance would be to God. But Polk argued that though this was true, teaching slaves Christianity would not only fulfill the Christians’ call to “make disciples of all the nations” (Matthew 28:19), but would in fact produce slaves even more hard working and loyal because they would do their work as though they were doing in “unto the Lord.” (Colossians 3:23)
The idea of slave discipleship was not merely a theoretical concept to Polk. Upon his move to the New Orleans area to take up his bishopric, he purchased a large sugar plantation known as Leighton. The plantation proved to be one of the largest and most productive in Louisiana, due in large part to the fact that Polk owned over two hundred slaves that worked the land.
Polk and his wife viewed the slaves as an extension of their family. He hired a full-time chaplain to see to their religious training and he encouraged marriage among the slaves. When two slaves decided to marry, Polk would perform the ceremony himself at his house, then host a party for the newlyweds, as well as the other slaves. His wife would make a wedding dress for the bride, and the entire Polk household would take part in the festivities. In terms of “master-slave” relations, Polk far exceeded many of his contemporaries in the kindness and grace he showed towards those whom he saw as under his care.
In the late 1850’s Polk, along with other Episcopal leaders, began to formulate plans for a university to serve the denomination. Too many Southern Episcopalians had seen their children migrate north for education, only to be taught from an “anti-Southern” mindset. Seeking to squelch such prejudices, Polk desired a college that would rival any Ivy League school in terms of scholarship, but which would stay true to the southern region’s philosophical worldview. Others within the denomination sought the school to be simply an Episcopal training center, bereft of any “regional” characteristics; but Polk’s side won the day and the University of the South was founded in Sewanee, Tennessee in 1860.
In 1861, the Civil War brought a deep crisis to Polk’s life. Though he was a man of the cloth, he had fierce loyalties to the South and believed wholeheartedly in their right to secession. He was also a West Point graduate with military training, though he had no combat experience.
Ironically, one of his West Point classmates and friends, Jefferson Davis, had been elected President of the new Confederate States of America; and shortly after his election Davis received a letter from Polk in which he expressed fear over a Northern attempt to gain control of the Mississippi River. Davis expressed doubt that the Yankees would initially seek the river because they were marshaling forces for an invasion of Virginia and it was there that most of the Confederate firepower was assigned. At the end of Davis’ letter of response to his old friend, he mentioned a desire to visit with him in person. Davis would eventually seek Polk’s services as a general on three separate occasions. Twice Polk refused, but the third time was a charm. Yet, even then he did not enter into the decision lightly. He wrote to his wife:
“No man is more deeply impressed with the paramount importance of our success in this movement, nor more filled with apprehension at the prospect of its failure; but what my duty may be I have not yet determined. I cannot ignore what I know; I cannot forget what I have learned; nor can I forget I have been educated by the country for its service in certain contingencies. Yet I feel the step to which I have been invited is one of the very gravest character in all its bearings all the way around, and I am not going to decide it hastily. Whatever may be the result, I hope I may be guided from on High in determining, and I trust, in any event, I may be permitted to see my way clear before me.”13
Polk clearly felt a sense of duty stemming from his military education and natural talents as a leader. Consequently, he felt led of God to accept the commission as a Major General in the Confederate Army.
Polk’s decision received mixed reviews. Some ministerial colleagues believed that a minister had no business taking part in war, unless it was to serve as a Chaplain. Others supported, and even admired Polk for his willingness to put himself in personal danger for a cause he believed in. Still others simply saw the appointment as token one Davis made to an old friend who had no military experience.
His Civil War record is also somewhat disputed. Without question, he was beloved by many of the men who served under him. He was a gracious and kind commander who sought not only their physical, but also their spiritual well being. At times, he could be combative with his fellow commanders, most clearly seen in his spat with Braxton Bragg in which he requested to Davis, Bragg’s removal. But in fairness to Polk, many Confederate generals clashed with the abrasive Bragg and Polk’s request was simply one of a plethora that reached Davis’ desk.
Through the annals of history, Polk has been remembered more for his religious duties than his military prowess. Or more specifically, he is known for his melding of the two interests. Famously nicknamed, “The Fighting Bishop” Polk serves as an enigmatic figure of one who was devoted to God, while also willing to take up arms in defense of country. And in the midst of war, his faith made a lasting impression on the men around him. He performed the wedding ceremony for cavalryman John Hunt Morgan, and in 1864, he baptized Generals Joseph Johnston and John Bell Hood with a simple water cup, which was all that could be found in their camp.
The end came for Polk on June 14, 1864, when he along with Johnston, William Hardee, and their staffs rode to the top of Pine Mountain, Georgia during the Atlanta campaign to try and ascertain the best strategy for battling William T. Sherman’s mammoth Union force. Their location, atop the mountain left them vulnerable to artillery fire, and not surprisingly the Federals fired a salvo their direction. Johnston, Hardee, and their men scattered; but mysteriously Polk took his time. With his hands crossed behind him, he slowly sauntered towards the others when a second shot landed near him. Calmly, peaceably, with not a hint of fear he continued walking, until seconds later when a third shell ripped through his arm and torso. The shot almost ripped his body in two, and he was killed instantly. Johnston ran out to him and mournfully exclaimed: “I would rather anything than this!”14
The news of Polk’s death was met with tremendous sorrow across the Confederacy. Private Sam Watkins perhaps summed it up best in his memoir of the war:
“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. His soldiers always loved and honored him. They called him ‘Bishop Polk.’ ‘Bishop Polk’ was ever a favorite with the army, and when any position was to be held, and it was known that ‘Bishop Polk’ was there, we knew and felt that ‘all was well.’”15
Leonidas Polk’s life and death offer a compelling example of God’s grace exhibited in a sinner’s heart. Raised wealthy and privileged, Polk initially sought fame through a military career at West Point; but God had other plans. Overcoming the fear of ridicule from his classmates, and the fear of rejection from his father; Polk publicly committed his life to Christ and subsequently devoted his career to ministry. He chose service to God over service to country, then ironically ended up dying on the battlefield serving both. In Polk we see a man tortured between duty to God and country, and eventually dying at peace as both a man of God and a man of war. As a young man, Polk’s heart was dramatically changed by the power of Christ’s gospel and he ultimately died without fear because he was confident that beyond the grave the Lord would bless him with an eternal reward in a place where death, sin, pain, sorrow, and even war would be no more.
1 William Mecklenburg Polk, Leonidas Polk: Bishop and General, 2 Volumes. (New York: Longmans, Green, and Co., 1915) 1:45.
2 Glenn Robins, The Bishop of the Old South: The Ministry and Civil War Legacy of Leonidas Polk (Macon, GA: Mercer University Press, 2006) pg. 8.
3 Polk, pg. 63.
4 E. Clowes Chorley, Men and movements in the American Episcopal Church (New York: Scribner, 1946) pg. 164. Also quoted in, Robbins, pg. 12.
5 Polk, 1:52.
6 Robins, pg. 14.
7 Robins, pg. 21; and Leonidas Polk to James Barbour, 23 January 1826, Leonidas Polk Papers, Jesse du Pont Library, University of the South, Sewanee, Tennessee.
8 Polk, pg. 89.
9 Ibid, pg. 92-93.
11 Robins, pg. 33.
12 Polk, pg. 171.
13 Polk, pg. 357.
14 Craig L Symonds, General Joseph E. Johnston: A Civil War Biography. (New York: W.W. Norton, 1992), pg. 306, Robbins, pg. 193.
15 Sam Watkins, Co. Aytch: Maury Grays First Tennessee Regiment or The Side Show of the Big Show (Chattanooga, TN: Times Printing Company, 1900) pg. 133.