Leonidas Polk was born in Raleigh, North Carolina on April 10, 1806. He was the second son and third of eleven children born to William and Sarah (Hawkins) Polk. Polk’s father was a colonel in the Revolutionary War, who acquired a great deal of land working as a surveyor. A prominent planter, the elder Polk was also a member of the North Carolina General Assembly and a trustee of the University of North Carolina.
U.S. Military Academy Cadet
Young Polk grew up on his family’s plantation, studied at the Raleigh Academy, and briefly attended the University of North Carolina, before receiving an appointment to the United States Military Academy. He entered the Academy on July 1, 1823 and graduated on July 1, 1827, ranking eighth in his class of thirty-eight cadets. During his four years at West Point, Polk became close friends with Jefferson Davis, who would become the first and only President of the Confederate States of America.
During his senior year at West Point, Polk joined the Episcopal Church. Chaplain Charles P. McIlvaine baptized Polk in the academy’s chapel. Polk’s religious fervor prompted him to forsake his military future for a career in the clergy. Upon graduating from the Academy, Polk received a brevet promotion to second lieutenant of artillery on July 1, 1827, but he never served with his unit. Instead, he went on leave for six months and then resigned his commission on December 1, 1827, to enter the Virginia Theological Seminary.
Polk pursued his religious studies for three years, and on Good Friday, April 9, 1830, Bishop Richard Channing Moore ordained him as a deacon in the Episcopal Church. One month later, on May 6, 1830, Polk married Frances Ann Deveraux. A childhood friend of Polk’s, Deveraux was the daughter of a prominent North Carolina planter and slaveholder. Their marriage, which lasted thirty-four years, produced ten children, eight of whom survived to adulthood.
Following their wedding, Polk and his bride settled in Richmond, where he began his duties as an assistant to Bishop Moore at the Monumental Church. In 1831, Polk took an extended visit to Europe without his wife or first-born child. Upon his return, Polk briefly lived in North Carolina. In 1833, Polk moved his family, along with many slaves, to Maury County, near Columbia, Tennessee, where he established a plantation on a sizable tract of family land. Over the next few years, Polk became one of the more prominent planters and the largest slaveholder in Maury County.
While engaged as a planter in Tennessee, Polk continued his clerical duties, serving as the priest of St. Peter’s Church in Columbia. In 1838, the Episcopal Church selected Polk to serve as the missionary bishop of the southwest, a vast area encompassing Arkansas, Louisiana, Alabama, Mississippi, the Republic of Texas, and part of the Indian Territory. Church officials consecrated Polk at Cincinnati, Ohio on December 9, 1838. Afterward, Polk spent the next two years traveling about his new mission organizing congregations, holding services, baptizing, celebrating the sacraments, and performing other clerical duties.
In September 1841, the Episcopal House of Bishops elected Polk to the bishopric of the Louisiana Diocese. On October 16, the House of Deputies confirmed the election, and Polk became Bishop of Louisiana. At about the same time, Mrs. Polk inherited hundreds of slaves when her mother died. Bishop Polk purchased Leighton Plantation near Thibodaux Louisiana, where he moved his family along with 400 slaves who cultivated his sugarcane. There, he lived a comfortable lifestyle for the next twenty years.
When the Civil War began, Polk cast his lot with the South. The bishop contacted Jefferson Davis, his old friend from West Point, and offered his service to the Confederacy. Even though Polk had never served in the military or commanded a soldier in combat, Davis offered him a commission as a major general in the Provisional Confederate Army, effective June 25, 1861. Davis placed Polk in charge of Department No. 2, which encompassed the area along the Mississippi River from the Red River in Louisiana up to Paducah, Kentucky.
Within four months of receiving his commission, Polk committed one of the bigger blunders of the Civil War. One day after President Abraham Lincoln issued his call for volunteers on April 14, 1861, Kentucky Governor Beriah Magoffin tersely responded that his state would provide no troops. On May 24, the Kentucky legislature passed a resolution officially declaring the state’s neutrality. Throughout the summer, the North and South courted support from the vital border state.
On September 4, 1861, without authorization, Polk violated the Commonwealth’s neutrality by ordering Brigadier General Gideon Johnson Pillow to occupy Columbus, Kentucky, an important port on the Mississippi River. Within one week, voters in Kentucky elected a new Unionist legislature that ended the state’s neutrality. The South lost any hopes for persuading the Bluegrass State to join the Confederacy, and Kentucky remained within the Union throughout the war.
Clashes with President Davis and Albert Johnston
Six days after Polk’s impolitic invasion of Kentucky, President Davis reorganized the Confederate defenses in the West. Davis placed Albert Sidney Johnston (Polk’s former roommate at West Point) in charge of the Western Military Department, which encompassed most of the Confederacy west of the Appalachian Mountains. On September 21, 1861, officials assigned Polk to command the 1st Division of the Western Department.
Put off by the reorganization, Polk tendered a letter of resignation to President Davis on November 6, 1861. A day later, Polk’s new command saw its first combat at Belmont, Missouri. Although Polk was not present, his subordinate, Brigadier General Gideon Pillow, led a successful counterattack against Brigadier General Ulysses S. Grant’s Union forces that had captured Camp Johnston near Belmont. Pillow’s soldiers forced Grant’s command to retreat across the Mississippi River to Kentucky.
Meanwhile, Davis refused Polk’s request to be relieved, but Polk continued to chafe under Johnston’s command. In January 1862, Polk and Johnston clashed over the defense of Fort Henry in northern Tennessee, which Polk had failed to reinforce, despite Johnston’s direct orders. Polk’s defiance of Johnston’s authority was characteristic of the bishop’s demeanor throughout the war.
Provoked by Polk’s insubordination, in February 1862 Johnston ordered Pillow and 5,000 men from Polk’s command to reinforce the garrison at Fort Henry, which Grant was preparing to attack. Johnston’s action was too little too late. On February 6, Grant seized Fort Henry. On February 16, the occupied Fort Donelson and forced Johnston to withdraw his force to Corinth, Mississippi.
Army of the Mississippi
On March 5, 1862, Johnston merged forces with General P. G. T. Beauregard to form the Army of the Mississippi. As commander of the 1st Corps of the newly created army, Polk took part in the Confederate defeat at the Battle of Shiloh (April 6–7, 1862).
Following Johnston’s death at Shiloh, Polk served under Beauregard during the Confederate retreat after Major General Henry Halleck’s Siege of Corinth (April 29–May 30, 1862).
On June 27, 1862, Confederate President Davis sacked Beauregard as commander of the Western District and the Army of the Mississippi and replaced him with Braxton Bragg. When Bragg invaded Kentucky, launching the Confederate Heartland Campaign, Polk commanded the right-wing of the Army of the Mississippi.
At the Battle of Perryville (October 8, 1862), Polk disregarded Bragg’s order to attack the Union lines (perhaps with good reason). Bragg responded by taking control of the troops in the field and leading the assault himself. Afterward, Bragg blamed Polk for the Confederate defeat. Polk responded by starting an unsuccessful campaign to have his close friend Davis relieve Bragg of his command.
Lieutenant General with the Army of Tennessee
Despite the hostility between Polk and Bragg, Davis promoted Polk to lieutenant general on October 11, 1862, effective October 10. In November, Bragg merged the Army of the Mississippi with Lieutenant General Kirby Smith’s Army of Kentucky to form the Army of Tennessee. Polk served as a corps commander with the newly created army at the Battle of Stones River (December 31, 1862-January 2, 1863), during the Tullahoma Campaign (June 24–July 3, 1863), and at the Battle of Chickamauga (September 19 – 20, 1863).
More Trouble with Braxton Bragg
Following the Union victory at Stones River, Polk renewed his lobbying to have Bragg removed from command. Prior to and during the Battle of Chickamauga, Polk continued his pattern of disregarding the orders of his superior officer and acting independently. Polk’s actions so infuriated Bragg that he relieved Polk of his command and wrote to President Davis that:
Gen’l Polk by education and habit is unfit for executing the plans of others. He will convince himself his own are better and follow them without reflecting on the consequences.
Commander of the Department of Mississippi and East Louisiana
Davis skirted the controversy by transferring the bishop to command the Department of Mississippi and East Louisiana in December. While serving in that capacity, Polk was unsuccessful in halting Major General William T. Sherman’s raid against Meridian, Mississippi (February 14-20, 1864).
Death during the Atlanta Campaign
In May 1864, Sherman launched his Atlanta Campaign (May 7-September 2, 1864). Sherman’s offensive prompted Jefferson Davis to order Polk to bring his Army of Mississippi east to help defend the Georgia capital. On May 11, Polk’s forces joined General Joseph Johnston’s Army of Tennessee near Resaca, Georgia.
A little over one month later, on June 14, 1864, Polk joined Johnston and Lieutenant General William J. Hardee on a scouting mission atop a small promontory near Marietta, Georgia known as Pine Mountain. As the three generals and their aides clustered near the crest of the knoll, Union artillerists observed them only 600 yards away. When Sherman arrived on the scene, he reportedly exclaimed, “How saucy they are!” and ordered the Yankee gunners to open fire with their three-inch cannon. The first two shells scattered the Rebels, but for some unknown reason, Polk lingered atop the hill, while the others beat a hasty retreat. The third shell scored a direct hit on the bishop’s left arm, traveling through his torso, and then exiting through his right arm. The shot nearly cut Polk’s body in half, killing him instantly.
Polk’s men recovered his mutilated body and sent it to Atlanta, where thousands of mourners viewed it as it lay in state. Following funeral services in Augusta, Georgia on June 29, 1864, Polk’s remains were buried under the altar of Saint Paul’s Church. In 1945, Polk’s body was removed from Georgia and re-interred alongside his wife at Christ Church Cathedral in New Orleans.