On this day in 1864, Leonidas Polk, one of the Confederacy’s more unique generals as he was also an Episcopal bishop, died this day in 1864 during William T. Sherman’s Atlanta Campaign. In fact, Sherman was directly involved in Polk’s death as the general spotted a cluster of Confederate officers scouting along a ridge. On his orders, the 5th Indiana Battery opened fire and General Polk was nearly cut in two.
Today, Glenn Robins joins us to discuss his biography of Polk, The Bishop of the Old South, and Polk himself.
1. Why do people remain interested in Leonidas Polk?
Aside from a basic interest in the mid-nineteenth century, I think people are fascinated with why a high-profile and well-liked cleric accepted a combat assignment with the Confederate army rather than serve as a chaplain. The noted Civil War historian James McPherson contends that the Civil War armies may have been the most religious in American history. And yet, there is really no one comparable to Polk, a bishop who became a general. Also, the dramatic and unusual circumstances of Polk’s death—being killed by artillery fire—seem to have created something of a sympathetic figure. Some people see him as a symbol of the Confederate cause by conflating his religious devotion, his reputable personal character, and his military service. Finally, religious generals such as Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson are viewed simply as Christian, whereas Polk is a decidedly Episcopalian figure, which appeals to a certain population.
2. What were your reasons for writing this biography of Leonidas Polk?
Generally, Leonidas Polk is known as the Bishop-General and his life is viewed through the narrow lens of the Civil War. I wanted to construct a narrative of Polk’s life that emphasized his prewar activities, particularly his ministerial career, his ownership of a large sugar plantation, and his role in developing the University of the South.
3. What surprised you the most about Polk’s prewar life?
First, in economic terms, he was a very successful sugar planter. He used innovative farming techniques and employed a slave management system that afforded slaves more responsibility and greater autonomy. Second, he was deeply committed to his ministerial responsibilities. He helped make the Louisiana Diocese a vibrant Episcopal organ in the South that challenged the societal influence of the region’s larger protestant denominations. Third, Polk had a remarkably ambitious vision for the University of the South. He did not envision the university as an insular institution—quite the contrary. He hoped that the university would compete with the premier universities of the nation and of Europe. He intended to recruit world-class scholars, promote academic excellence, and cultivate the Episcopal faith, as well as make the university a gathering place for social elites and public intellectuals. Of course, the war and Polk’s death changed all of that.
4. What stands out about Polk’s Civil War generalship?
Polk was a mediocre corps commander serving in a theater dominated by mediocre generals. Despite his West Point education, Polk had no real military experience and was probably not deserving of such a high-ranking appointment. It’s counterfactual history, but I have always wondered how Polk would have fared in the Army of Northern Virginia under that army’s superior leadership. Whatever limitations Polk had as a fighting man, he was widely popular with his men. Late in the war Polk became more involved in the religious life of the Army of Tennessee. He baptized several generals, including Braxton Bragg, which was truly bizarre considering that each man attempted to have the other stripped of his command.
5. Having reached the sesquicentennial of the Civil War and the death of Leonidas Polk, do you have any thoughts about future studies in these areas?
I think for those individuals who survived the war more work needs to be done on their postwar lives and not just on their involvement in the political reconstruction of the nation and their respective states. Instead, there needs to be a greater emphasis on how the war impacted the participants as individuals and as families, and on how groups and individuals understood and assigned meaning to the war. As for those figures like Polk who died in battle, we need clear assessments of their initial view of the war and to know if their view of the war changed over time, and why. And for those individuals who have become symbols of a particular version or interpretation of the war, we need to examine whether the memory of the man matches the realities of the man.
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