All it had done for the last three days was rain. In Georgia the red clay normally starts to bake in June so that by the end of July it has those telltale fissures every few feet, but in the June of 1864 it rained. From the 11th to the 14th it rained, and would rain for 10 days after, but today one of the most beloved Confederate generals would die. Beloved not only by his men, but by most southerners and many northerners as well, this rotund man had been an Episcopal Bishop of Louisiana for some twenty years and just recently baptized Generals Joseph E. Johnston and John Bell Hood.
Born on April 10, 1806 in Raleigh, North Carolina, Leonidas Polk graduated from West Point in 1827, along with the future President of the Confederacy Jefferson Davis and fellow officer Albert Sidney Johnston. Called to pursue a religious career, he resigned his commission in the army. Over the next thirty years that career would include missionary work and his appointment to the prestigious post of Bishop.
Secession brought the Bishop into the fold of the Confederate Army. He seized the city of Columbus, Kentucky, on September 3, 1861. On November 7, 1861, Polk defeated a then unknown Ulysses S. Grant at Belmont, Missouri. He saw action at Pittsburgh Landing (Shiloh), Perryville, Stone's River, and his troops bore the brunt of the first day's fighting at Chickamauga. He was transferred to Alabama after questioning Braxton Bragg about a decision.
Polk fought with the Army of Tennessee during the Atlanta Campaign. Called to the line by Lieutenant General William J. Hardee, the swarthy Cajun, Johnston, Polk, and others journeyed to Pine Mountain to see if the position could be maintained. Sherman had surrounded the rebels on three sides and Hardee was fearful of being enveloped by Uncle Billy. As they studied the position Rebel infantry repeatedly warned the officers that Union artillery had the range of their position, but for some reason these men chose to ignore the warning and continued in full sight of the Federal batteries. Although mini-balls had come nearby, the big guns were under orders to conserve ammunition and did not fire until Sherman rode up and ordered them to keep the observers under cover. The first shot scattered most of the generals, but Polk, for some reason known but to him, took his time.
A second round struck nearby and the third round entered Polk through an arm, passing through his chest and exiting through the other arm. He was dead. Johnston stood over the man who had baptized him earlier in the campaign and cried. One of the few men who had little use for Rebels, and even less for the clergy was Gen. Sherman, who in a tersely worded statement sent to Gen. Halleck, "We killed Bishop Polk yesterday and have made good progress today..."
An interesting note: Polk donated the land for Maury County's Saint John's Church. It was so beautiful that General Patrick Cleburne remarked, "It is almost worth dying for to be buried in such a beautiful place." After Cleburne's death a few days later at the Battle of Franklin he was buried there until later disinterred.
The Polk Monument (pictured at right) is a tall shaft erected on the spot where Leonidas Polk fell that fateful day. Beginning in the 1890's many of the important events of The Civil War were being commemorated. A Marietta, Georgia soldier and his wife had the monument built to honor the general, fearing others would forget him. The monument is on private property but still accessible. From Kennesaw Mountain National Battlefield Park take Stilesboro Road west to Beaumont Drive. Turn left (south) and drive to the historic marker on the right. A path from the marker leads into the woods about 300 feet to the statue.
From a reader:
It was said at Sewanee, The University of the South that the Illinois soldier who fired the cannon that killed Leonidas Polk was so distraught that he had killed such a fine man that he committed suicide.
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