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Leonidas Polk. The Bishop-General who died for the South. Interesting reminiscence of life at West Point of the gallant Churchman and Soldier.[From the Richmond times, August 2, 1890.]

By Bishop Charles P. Mcilvaine.
When I began duty as chaplain and professor of ethics, etc., at the Military Academy, West Point, in the summer of 1825, the late Bishop Polk was cadet in his third year. [372]

As my academic instructions were confined to the fourth or oldest class, and the association of the cadets with the officers of the academy was very limited, I had no knowledge of him as one of the congregation to which I preached on Sunday, until circumstances of a very interesting character brought him to my house. The condition of the academy was very far from being encouraging to a chaplain seeking the spiritual welfare of his charge. There was not one professor of religion among the officers, military or civil. Several of them were friendly to the efforts of the chaplain, others were decidedly the reverse. Of the cadets, not one was known to make a profession of personal interest in religion. There was a great deal of avowed and manifested infidelity, accompanied with manifestation of a disposition to scoff at the Christian faith and life, and this among cadets, officers, and instructors. My venerable and beloved friend and then commanding officer, Colonel Sylvanus Thayer, whose name I can never utter without a tribute of veneration and love, though not a communicant of any church, must be understood, with other of the officers, as untouched by any such remarks as the above.

I had been laboring under these circumstances nearly a year without the slightest appearance of any encouragement. Not a cadet had ever called to see me; I knew them only as I met them in my class, or saw them as a congregation. They seemed to feel as if it would be regarded as a profession of some serious interest in religion to come to see me. One of them, whose father had requested him by letter that he would become acquainted with me, was afraid (as he afterwards told me) to do so, out of the fear just mentioned. He put it off until tidings of his father's death constrained him to fill his father's last injunction. These statements are important in their bearing on the character of our cadet.

In the deepest of my discouragement, when I scarcely ventured to hope for any fruit of my ministry, and when I had concluded a series of discourses on the Evidences of Christianity without any known effect, the cadet just alluded to came to my study. He introduced himself by saying he came to fulfill his father's last request; that his father had recently died; and, he was ashamed to say, a foolish fear had long kept him from coming to see me. Before he left me I put two tracts into his hands. ‘This,’ I said, ‘is for you.’ It was addressed to a person in affliction. The other was addressed to an unbeliever. ‘Take this,’ I said, ‘and drop it somewhere in the barracks; perhaps I shall hear of it again.’ He smiled, and said he would do as I asked. A week had passed, and I had forgotten the tract, but the following Saturday afternoon came another cadet. I [373] met him at the door. He was a stranger to me. As I took his hand he said, ‘My name is Polk,’ and could say no more. Perceiving that some great trouble was in his mind, I led him to a chair; he was still silent, as if he feared to try to speak lest he should not control his feelings. Supposing he had gotten into trouble with the authorities of the institution, I asked him to trust me as a friend, and freely tell me all his burden; then he could contain himself no longer, but with a burst of feeling and intense expression of a mind convinced of sin, and literally and earnestly begging to be told what he must do for salvation. I will not take space to relate the particulars of that part of the conversation. I was amazed at the depth and power of his convictions and anxieties, and his readiness for whatever might be required of him as a servant of Christ.


Picked up a tract.

The hand of God was manifestly there. He had conversed with nobody. There was no one there but his minister who could have comprehended his state of mind. I asked him how it came. ‘I picked up a tract in my room; who put it there I do not know.’ I asked, ‘What tract?’ He gave the title; it was the tract sent at a venture the previous Saturday. Then he said the discourses on the Evidences of Christianity had made a certain measure of impression on his mind, which had been in a degree skeptical. That having heard I had caused a number of copies of Dr. Olenthus Gregory's letters on the Evidences, Doctrines and Duties to be brought to West Point and deposited with the quartermaster, he obtained a copy. That book had strengthened his impressions, but he was not aware to what extent the truth had taken hold of him till he read that tract; then he gave up, and the next thing was that visit to us. I have never conversed with one thus seeking the way of life in whom the feeling of His need of light and grace, the sense of all spiritual necessity was deeper, or in whom the single anxiety to get to Christ and be His, and have the hope of His salvation, was more thoroughly absorbing. His docility and humbleness of spirit in receiving instruction, his literal thirst after it, were very striking.


A Cadet for Christ.

After I had given him instruction, and prayed with him, he became tranquil; he began to speak of his circumstances. It was the first [374] known instance in the history of the academy of a cadet having come out and taken position as a follower of Christ. He considered how he would be wondered at and observed, and by some ridiculed. He felt deeply the need of the greatest circumspection and strength from above, lest he should not walk consistently with the new life on which he now sought to enter. It was Saturday; next Sunday he would attend Divine worship as he had never attended before. It would get abroad in the corps that this great change had come over his mind. He would be watched in the chapel. He reflected that in no instance had ever a cadet knelt in the service, and, so far as was remembered, no officer, professor, or instructor. The chapel was then so small that the cadets sat on benches without backs, and were so crowded together that it was very difficult for any to kneel. He asked me what he ought to do, not having the slightest idea of shrinking from any confession of Christ in word or deed that might be duty, and yet modest and far from a disposition to make himself unnecessarily an object of observation. I said he had better begin at once. The next day, when the confession in the service came, I could hear his movement to get space to kneel, and then his deep tone of response as if he was trembling with new emotion, and then it seemed as if an impression of solemnity pervaded all the congregation.


A New sight.

It was a new sight, that single kneeling cadet. Such a thing had not been supposed to be possible as a cadet that turned to God. From that time he grew rapidly in spiritual knowledge, and in the consolation of Christ. He came to Him as a lost sinner; he sought refuge in Him and found peace with God; his mind soon became peaceful and happy. Such was the carefulness and consistency of his walk, so manifestly had he become a new man, with a new heart, and a new life begun, and yet so wisely and inoffensively did he go in and out with those around him, that I never heard of any who doubted his sincerity or gainsayed the reality of his conversion, and did not regard him with respect for entire consistency of life. There was that in his previous standing in the corps which gave his example a special impressiveness. He had been among his comrades a gay, high-spirited youth, not much given to study, not over careful of obedience to the interior discipline of the corps, not unwilling to join in certain not perfectly temperate frolics with his companions; popular among them, and regarded as of such high gentlemanly [375] honor and frankness that nothing mean or insincere could possibly be imputed to him.


A good example.

Cadets and officers both told me that if I had chosen out of the whole corps one whose example in becoming a disciple of Christ would have the greatest effect on the minds of his fellows, I should have chosen him. The case was more impressive because not only was the conversation so decided and manifest, but it was so without man's hand. It was known how entirely it had grown up without the least conversation with any man until it was disclosed to me as related above. It pleased God that though the first, it was not the only instance. In the course of another week, one and another, strangers to me, came on the same errand, each without previous conversation with anybody until he went to Cadet Polk and asked him to introduce him to me.


Meetings necessary.

And so it went on, till I found it necessary to have meetings for them twice or thrice a week in my house for instruction, conversation and prayer. Soon the number of cadets, with some professors and instructors, coming to these meetings—and be it observed that, under these circumstances, the very attendance was a profession of earnest spiritual concern—the number was so great as to wholly occupy the largest room I had, and in each instance the state of mind disclosed was of the same independent origination as described in that of Cadet Polk, coming directly from God, no communication with man, scarcely with any book but the Scriptures, until it was strong enough to seek a private interview with the chaplain, and in almost every case of a cadet so coming, his chosen instructor was the first born of their brethren. Into the particulars of that week of grace, the remembrance of which fills me with wonder and praise whenever I think of it, and out of which came many to confess Christ before men, who walked afterwards as becometh the Gospel, I shall not enter here. Some became ministers of the Gospel. Beside those who then came forward and openly confessed Christ before men, there were several who received impressions which afterwards matured into decided religious character and profession, so that from time to time, and almost to the present year, I have received new information of those whom I did not know in any such connection, but who have ascribed their subsequent [376] religious life to that beginning. Cadet Polk was of an Episcopal family in North Carolina, but had not been baptized in infancy. His baptism now was not hurried; due time was given him to try and examine himself, and know it was no mere sudden impulse of excitement that had taken possession of him. Forty days after my first interview with him, on Sunday, the 25th of May, 1826, he was baptized in the chapel, at morning prayer, in the presence of the corps and an unusually large attendance of officers and professors. Another cadet, William B. Magruder, who still lives, was baptized at the same time.


Adult baptism.

The service for adult baptism had never been witnessed there before. The circumstances made it an occasion of intense interest among the cadets. Perceiving the intensity with which the mind of Cadet Polk was occupied in preparation for it, and apprehensive that all sorts of rumors had gone to Washington concerning what was going on at the academy—as if discipline and order and study were broken up by religion—and we had various noisy demonstrations of excitement in the chapel, rumors I need not say without the slightest appearance of foundation. Apprehensive, I say, lest under some strength of emotion my young friend should afford the least excuse for such reports, I charged him to be on his guard, and he promised.

All went on quietly but with the deepest solemnity, till after the last words of the baptismal office, when I addressed a few words of exhortation to the two, ending with the sentence: ‘Pray your Master and Saviour to take you out of the world, rather than allow you to bring reproach on the cause you have now professed.’ Then he could hold no longer, and there came from the depth of his heart an Amen, which spoke to every other heart in the congregation and is remembered to this day.

That Amen was recently renewed in my recollection by a letter from a gentleman, a stranger to me. He had just heard of the death of Bishop Polk, and he remembered spending a Sunday at West Point in the spring of 1826, and attending service in the chapel, and that two cadets were baptized, and that I addressed them. He remembered the very words as given above, and he said that one of the cadets responded to them with an Amen, so deep-toned and so uttered as if all his soul were in it, that it made a deep impression on him, and he had the sound of it yet in his ears, and he said he had an impression that one of the two was named Polk. In a few days [377] after the 4th of June the cadets were received to the communion of the Lord's Supper with others of the corps—one professor, one instructor, and four inhabitants of the Point. It was not only their first communion, but it is not known that the Lord's Supper had ever been administered there before. I find in my record of that communion the name of the cadet who dropped the tract in the barracks in young Polk's room. He was then as much without any religious impressions as his friend, for they were intimate friends. One night, at one of the meetings in my study, when the usual devotional exercises and exposition of Scripture had just been concluded, and we were sitting for the conversation which usually succeeded, Cadet Polk said, with a manner of great emphasis: ‘I would give anything to know who it was that placed that tract in my room.’ ‘Why,’ said I, ‘what would you do?’ ‘I would not rest 'till by God's blessing he should know what I know,’ was his reply. ‘Well,’ I answered, ‘I will tell you; it was Parks.’ ‘Why,’ he exclaimed, ‘he is my intimate friend.’ Then he thought for awhile and said: ‘He is officer-of-the-day to-morrow, between the sections going to recitation, and he will have a good deal of tedious time in the guard-room. I will put on the mantel-piece a copy of Gregory's Letters’ (he thought nobody could withstand that book); ‘he will look at it just to kill time, and we will see.’ The other's smiled at his confidence, but he did it, and all resulted as he expected. His friend saw the book in the guard-room, but his state of mind, unknown to any one, was far more prepared to embrace the truth than even he himself was conscious of. He read, but did not afterwards remember what he had read, or that it had excited any other thought than that it was the very book that Polk was said to have been so influenced by. Then the desire arose to go to his friend and disclose convictions of a concern for his soul which were now obtaining the mastery. When he knocked at his friend's door the latter was on his knees praying for him, and when he arose and found who it was at the door, was not surprised, but well divined his errand. The visitor entered, and began to ask our young Christian cadet, and to tell him how he felt, and how it was. But the conversation had proceeded but a few moments before the enquirer threw himself on his friend's neck in strong emotion, and the next thing was for both to go to the chaplain's study. ‘Here he is,’ said Polk, as if he took it for granted I was expecting him. That cadet then disclosed a state of mind which had commenced about the time of his receiving the tracts which I gave [378] him in my study, which he had resisted, and which sometimes he supposed he had mastered, but which now asserted itself, though until that day it had never been communicated to any human being.


Entered the artillery.

After graduating in 1826, that cadet entered the artillery, and afterwards became a clergyman of the Episcopal Church, in which service he died a few years ago. After Cadet Polk had then taken position on the Lord's side, he was very determined that no gainsayer should find any reason to charge religion with making him a poorer soldier or student; he would show it only made him more faithful in all military and academic duties. He had not been a student before, though always holding a respectable grade in his class; this he now deeply regretted. But he was now at the termination of his third year; too much time had been lost to accomplish what otherwise he might have done, but the remaining year he improved diligently. I remember well his telling me of his having been prevented the day before, by unavoidable causes, from giving any attention to his mathematical recitation, and the bugle sounding, and he expected to be called to the blackboard, and having to expose his ignorance, and his pain to think it would be set down to the effect of religion making him careless of his studies; and how he was called up and knew nothing of the proposition given him to demonstrate but the text, and how, while others were reciting, he stood in silence and said to himself: ‘This is not my fault, I have not willingly come into this position, and yet if I fail what will be said? May I not in such circumstances ask God to help me?’ He prayed. Little did the section imagine what was going on while he seemed only considering his proposition. The result was that he went through his work with entire success by a process entirely new to himself and that was not in the book. In military duties he became equally faithful. Prior to that he had not been made an officer of any grade, but there had then occurred a special need for the appointment of orderly sergeants whom nothing could move from their faithfulness. At early roll-call the members of the oldest class had come to assert a traditional right of lying in bed and being reported as present. This had been known to the authorities for some time, and they had tried to break it up, but had failed to find cadets for orderly sergeants whose faithfulness was strong enough to stand the press of the established usage and the commands of their comrades.


[379]

Chosen Sergeant.

But now there were cadets of a new principle of action. The compliment was paid them of believing they would do their duty. Two were chosen, one of whom was Polk. The chaplain hearing of it, and desirous of an acknowledgement of the reason, he took his stand beside his friend Colonel Thayer, as the companies were marching out to form the evening parade. Forth came his two beloved boys with their companions. One of them was an ungraceful looking soldier. As they approached, the chaplain said to the superintendent, ‘Colonel, why have you chosen those two cadets for orderly sergeants? As for one of them, Polk, I do not wonder; he is a fine looking fellow and marches well, but the other is a mere slouch.’ ‘The truth is,’ answered my friend, ‘we had to take them.’ Then relating the necessity as above stated, he said, ‘I thought these young men could be relied on to do their duty at all hazards.’ He was right. They did it. They were memorialized and threatened, and the alternative was put to them either to resign or allow the traditional right practice to go on. They quietly answered that neither would be right, and after a while they had no difficulty.

During his course, from the date above given, Cadet Polk was a frequent guest at my house, and much beloved in my family; always maintaining a most consistent walk, fervent in spirit, serving the Lord, and beloved among his fellow cadets. He graduated July I, 1827, and was made brevet second lieutenant artillery. But he never entered upon service. He took leave of absence to December 1st of the same year, and then resigned. His health was not strong. He had inherited a tendency to pulmonary disorder, and it was thought that foreign travel would be of service, and he went abroad. I gave him a letter to Olenthus Gregory, whose book on the Evidences, etc., had been so connected with the progress of his mind in divine things. In it I related the good it had done under God's blessing. Dr. Gregory was then professor of mathematics in the Military College at Woolwich, and the author of scientific works then used as text-books in the West Point Academy.

He was a beautiful example of the highest character for scientific research and attainments, with the humblest and simplest spirit of Christian faith and life. He was delighted to receive his young guest, and to perceive the freshness, devotedness and simplicity of his religious character. Mr. Polk was made an inmate of his house, and greatly enjoyed the society of his distinguished host.

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