Friday, November 8, 2013

Book Review--Confederate General Leonidas Polk

White, Cheryl H. Confederate General Leonidas Polk: Louisiana's Fighting Bishop. The History Press, Charleston, SC. 2013. 124 pages, 109 pages text. Index, bibliography, notes, b/w photos. ISBN 9781609497378, $19.99.

Bishop General or General Bishop? That is the dichotomy of Leonidas Polk. Attempting to answer this question is Dr. Cheryl White, professor of history at Louisiana State University in Shreveport. Polk was a complicated man with many facets and to fully cover him in less than 110 pages is a near impossible assignment. White puts forth the statement that her book "is not an attempt to rewrite that which has already been written about the life of Leonidas Polk but, rather, to add to that literature by simply looking at him through a more localized lens using the historical backdrop of his episcopacy in Louisiana."

Polk was born into a family with revolutionary history. Family members served proudly in the Revolutionary War. His father, William, was part of the North Carolina welcoming party for the Marquis de Lafayette in 1825. The name Leonidas seems to have foreshadowed the complexity in young Polk's life. Leonidas was the name of a Spartan warrior whose fame stems from the Battle of Thermopylae. A different Leonidas however was a third century bishop who was martyred at Corinth.

Polk attended West Point where he was to become friends with both Jefferson Davis and Albert Sydney Johnston, both of whom would figure into Polk's later life. While at West Point Polk fell under the spell of academy chaplain Charles Pettit McIlvaine, eventually being baptized in 1826. Polk graduated eighth in his class and then entered the Virginia Theological Seminary being ordained a priest in 1831.

Leonidas Polk. Courtesy: Library
of Congress
It wasn't until 1838 that Leonidas was appointed as missionary bishop to the southwest. In 1841 he purchased a sugar plantation in Louisiana and became a large slaveholder. The plantation was prosperous until 1854 when a yellow fever epidemic led to Polk going bankrupt. This was also the period of time known as "the great awakening", a period of religious revival in America. Going against the grain of slaveholders Polk believed in Christianizing slaves and appeared to see no conflict between slave holding and his religious calling.

With the secession crisis brewing Polk put his allegiances with his state and ultimately the Confederacy. His West Point training along with his friendship with new Confederate President Jefferson Davis led to his appointment as a Major General. He was assigned command of the Western Department No. 2 which included the important state of Kentucky. This position was above Polk's ability and looking back it is obvious he should not have been appointed such a large command given his lack of recent military experience.

During the war Polk continued his religious practice. When Louisiana seceded he believed that the Episcopal Church of the state no longer belonged to the national church. His goal was to set up a new national church once the Confederacy won it's freedom. He also believed that religion could play a role in stemming violence and calming the passions on both sides. He was known to baptize men before he sent them into battle, knowing many would not come back.

Polk served under Braxton Bragg, a situation which neither man was happy with. They did not get along and Polk was eventually suspended for not following orders after the escape of Union General William Rosecrans and his men after the battle at Chickamauga. It was again Polk's connections that served him well as Davis transferred him to command of the Department of Mississippi and east Louisiana. After Bragg was relieved of duty Polk served under Joseph Johnston during the Atlanta Campaign. As the armies maneuvered around each other Confederate leaders met Johnston, Polk, and William Hardee met on Pine Mountain. It was here that Polk was hit with artillery fire, dying instantly.

In this short work neither Polk the religious man nor Polk the soldier take priority. There just was not enough word count to delve too deeply into either realm and that is a shame. In addition a further edit might have done this book well, there are several typos including the mention of John Q. Hood instead of, I assume, John Bell Hood. Aside from this the book is readable and while I have not read any of the other couple of Polk biographies this seems like a good introduction to the Fighting Bishop.

For a man as complex as Polk seeming little has been written on him. Joseph Parks General Leonidas Polk, C.S.A. (Southern Biography Series) and Glenn Robins The Bishop of the Old South: The Ministry and Civil War Legacy of Leonidas Polk look to be the only full length modern biographies.

1 comment:

  1. Excellent review! Your observations about Gen Polk are spot on! Bishop Polk should of stayed in the ministry instead of being in the Confederate Army...