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Chapter 21: General Polk and Columbus, Kentucky.

  • Leonidas Polk.
  • -- his ancestry, birth, and education. -- marriage, Ordination, and travels. -- farmer, Manufacturer, and Preacher. -- Missionary Bishop. -- Bishop of Louisiana. -- pecuniary losses. -- University of the South. -- Sugar and cotton planting. -- visit to Richmond. -- appointed Brigadier-General. -- the Bishop-soldier. -- appearance. -- anecdotes. -- command in West Tennessee. -- services. -- force. -- occupation of Columbus. -- River-defenses. -- Polk's subsequent career. -- Governor Reynolds's recollections of General Johnston at Columbus. -- his plans. -- anecdotes. -- habits.


As General Polk felt unwilling to leave his post at Columbus, just at this juncture, and as General Johnston wished to obtain as full a knowledge as possible. of his line of defense, he went thither on the 18th of September. It was a great pleasure to him to meet again, after the lapse of many years, his old comrade. It was no small consideration to feel that he had in so responsible a position a friend to whose loyalty of heart and native chivalry he could trust entirely, and one who, if long unused to arms, was yet, by virtue of early training, and a bold, aggressive spirit, every inch a soldier.

General Polk's great services, his close public and private relations with the subject of this memoir, his anomalous position as bishop and general, and the wide misapprehension of his life and character by those who knew only one side or the other, warrant a more extended notice.

Leonidas Polk was descended from a family noted in our Revolutionary annals. It came from the north of Ireland about 1722, to Maryland; and about 1753, Thomas, the son of William Polk, found a congenial home in the Scotch-Irish settlement of Mecklenburg County, in the province of North Carolina. Here he married and prospered, attaining wealth and eminence among his people. It may be recollected that for Mecklenburg County is claimed the honor of making the first Declaration of Independence from the mother-country. According to the historian of these events, Colonel Thomas Polk convoked the meeting that took this first step in treason. He was a prime mover for resistance, an active patriot and soldier in the War of the Revolution, and rose to the rank of brigadier-general in the State forces. [319]

William Polk, his eldest son, then a lad not seventeen years old, left college in April, 1775, to become a lieutenant in the South Carolina line. He was actively engaged to the end of the war, toward the close as lieutenant-colonel, and was twice desperately wounded, once in the shoulder and again in the mouth. In 1783, he was made Surveyor-General of Middle Tennessee, and removed to where Nashville now stands. He returned, however, to North Carolina, where he held various honorable and important trusts, and died at Raleigh in 1834, aged seventy-six years. Like his father, he was a fine type of that sturdy and tenacious Scotch-Irish stock which knows so well how to subdue the opposing forces of Nature and man, and to maintain its rights against all odds.

Leonidas Polk was the fourth son of Colonel William Polk, and was born in Raleigh, North Carolina, April 10, 1806. He was an ardent, energetic, athletic youth; and, after spending one year at the famous college at Chapel Hill, North Carolina, went to West Point in 1823. Here, as has been previously told, he became the room-mate of Albert Sidney Johnston, who, though one year his senior in the Academy, and several years older, regarded him with an affection that ripened into life-long friendship. He applied himself with zeal to his studies, and stood among the first for more than two years; but some neglect of duty lost him his stand, and he fell into a brief state of indifference and disappointment. Looking into the future from this gloom, he began to contemplate the mysteries of life and death, the solution of which he found in the religion of Christ. He entered on his new walk in life with enthusiasm, and it served as an incentive to every honorable deed. He even went beyond his strength, and, persevering in duty while ill, brought on an attack of pneumonia that impaired his health for years. He was graduated eighth in his class in 1827.

The young soldier, after a little delay, resigned his commission, resolving to devote himself to the ministry. At this time he engaged himself to Miss Devereaux, to whom he had been attached from early boyhood; but the marriage was postponed until he had finished his theological education at Alexandria. He was married in May, 1830, and ordained in the Monumental Church, Richmond, Virginia, by Bishop Moore, to whom he became episcopant. To those who remember the stately presence and powerful form of the warrior-bishop thirty years later, it may sound strange to hear that for years he was often disabled by ill-health, and more than once pronounced on the verge of the grave. He was ordained priest May 31, 1831, but soon betook himself, on horseback, to the Valley of Virginia and thence to Philadelphia, in search of health. He was advised by eminent physicians that a sea-voyage and rest from all labor could alone save his life, and at once sailed for Europe.

Mr. Polk remained more than a year abroad, traveling in France, Germany, Italy, and England, and returned greatly improved in health, [320] in October, 1832. He was still warned that the open air alone would save him, and in 1834 settled as a farmer on a large tract of land in Maury County, Tennessee, which Colonel William Polk divided between four of his sons. Here these brethren dwelt in unity, as affluent farmers. His restless energy remaining unsatisfied by the management of a large estate and many slaves, he established a saw and grist mill, a steam flouring-mill, and a bagging-factory, and interested himself in other kindred enterprises. He also projected and raised the funds to build the Columbia Institute, a seminary for girls. Though Columbia was seven miles distant, he preached in the church there, and also weekly to the negroes; attending likewise the General Convention, and performing other ministerial duties. These labors brought on two attacks of illness, in May, 1836, and he was obliged to desist. But he persuaded Bishop Otey to take the church in Columbia, while he still preached to his own servants, and devoted himself to good works. He was, in very truth, a pillar of his Church; and his genial and affectionate temper cast a pleasant light over his happy and hospitable household, and throughout his neighborhood.

In 1838 he was made Missionary Bishop of the Southwest, and was consecrated on the 8th of December. Though he had embarrassed himself by a security debt for $30,000, his means were still ample, and he entered with energy upon a field embracing Louisiana, Arkansas, Texas, and the Indian Territory. Hardship, danger, and privation, were constant attendants of his missionary work; and not only his salary, but much more, went to build up the infant church. In 1841 he was elected Bishop of Louisiana, and his usefulness was increased by this concentration of effort.

A series of providential visitations, not necessary to be recounted here, had crippled Bishop Polk's large estate; but his pecuniary losses neither shook his earnest faith nor abated his hope and zeal in all good works.

The chief business of Bishop Polk's life for five or six years before the war, though not to the detriment of his duties as bishop, was in developing the plan and procuring the endowment of the University of the South, at Sewanee, on the Cumberland Mountains, in Tennessee. He secured 5,000 acres of land, and subscriptions for $400,000, and gave the start to an institution which is now doing a very useful work, and has before it a career of most excellent promise, but which he designed making second to none in this country — a place where Southern youth could obtain all those advantages of the higher university education which they were then seeking at the North or abroad. The building up of this institution had now become the great end of his life, when the war broke in upon his labors.

He was largely engaged in sugar and cotton planting, and was [321] growing old gracefully in the beneficent exercise of two responsible functions, as a patriarchal master of many slaves, and as an overseer of part of Christ's flock, when the clangor of war called him to the field of battle.

Considerable surprise was created by Bishop Polk's action in taking a military command early in the war. The circumstances were as follows, as they are detailed to the writer by Dr. William M. Polk, the bishop's son, himself a gallant soldier of the “Lost cause:”

In June, 1861, Bishop Polk went to Virginia to visit the Louisiana troops in his episcopal capacity. Governor Harris, of Tennessee, had asked him to call upon Mr. Davis, and urged upon him prompt measures for the defense of the Mississippi Valley. This, together with a desire to see his old friend, induced him to call on the President. The bishop, knowing the transcendent ability of General Johnston, urged Mr. Davis to reserve that most important field for him. As it was known that the general could not reach us for some time, the question came up as to who should be sent out to take the position pending his arrival. To Bishop Polk's utter surprise, Mr. Davis urged it upon him. Suffice it to say, that, after mature deliberation, he deemed it his duty to accept the position, and he did so; it being understood that, so soon as General Johnston had assumed full control, General Polk should be allowed to resign and return to his episcopal work.

In November, 1861, General Polk, feeling that there was no longer a necessity for his remaining in the army, and anxious to be permitted to return to his episcopal work, sent in his resignation to the President. Mr. Davis declined to receive it, however, and gave such reasons, backed up by those of other members of the Government, as to convince General Polk that it was not proper, at that time, to urge the matter further. lie therefore consented to hold his position until such time as the Government should feel disposed to release him. Upon two subsequent occasions he made like attempts, but with like results. Proceeding to Memphis, he assumed command of his department.

Bishop Polk, at this time, wrote to the patriarchal Meade, Bishop of Virginia, justifying his course. He said, “When I accept a commission in the Confederate army, I not only perform the duties of a good citizen, but contend for the principles which lie at the foundation of our social, political, and religious polity.” He did not resign his bishopric, and always hoped to resume its functions. He said, not long before his death : “I feel like a man who has dropped his business when his house is on fire, to put it out; for, as soon as the war is over, I will return to my sacred calling.” This was not to be; he died in harness. But his great work went on in his example as a soldier; for self-sacrifice is the highest consecration known to the Christian world. He had his martyrdom, which, if doubtful in the eyes of many, is yet veritable with those for whom he fought and died.

Many anecdotes are told of him, illustrating his martial energy, while he was still a missionary bishop. His tall and powerful form, his resolute gray eye, broad, square, intellectual brow, aquiline features, massive jaw, and air of command, made him a striking figure, [322] whether in the pulpit or in the saddle. His manner combined suavity, vivacity, and resolute will. When a missionary in the Southwest, he stopped to dine at the house of Mr. McMacken, a planter. His host, addressing him as “general,” was corrected, and told he was “Bishop Polk;” but replied, quickly, “I knew he was a commanding officer in the department to which he belonged.”

He was once at church, where he heard a brother bishop preach, the subject of the discourse being principally the travels of the speaker in Europe. As they were coming out of the building, a friend asked Bishop Polk, sarcastically, “Do you call that the gospel?” To which he replied: “Oh, no! that is the Acts of the apostles!”

The following is an illustration of the piety and earnestness of his character, as well as of the charm of his manner: After having, in the course of his travels, staid at the house of a gentleman, previously unknown to him, as the bishop drove from the gate his host remarked, “I now realize what the apostle meant when he said, ‘ Some have entertained angels unawares.’ ”

In this brief sketch and these anecdotes may be discovered the signs of an heroic nature. Polk believed that no calling gave the citizen exemption from the duty of defending his home and country. As a priest, he had always remembered that he was a gentleman and a soldier of Christ; as a soldier, he never forgot that, though consecrated to a mission of patriotism, he was first of all a Christian. It certainly does not become any preaching zealot, who served as a trumpeter calling others to the fray, to condemn or censure him who took up the sword. While Cornelius, the centurion, is accounted righteous, or Abraham is justified for rescuing Lot, the Southern people will hold dear the memory of the soldier-bishop. Henceforth, General Polk was the right arm of his commander. The currents of these two lives that had so nearly touched toward their sources, and afterward had parted so widely, moved thereafter with a common purpose to a common end. Their friendship was founded upon mutual esteem. When General Polk came from Europe, he brought with him a beautiful onyx cameo — the head of Washington — which he gave to General Johnston on his return, saying: “I could find nothing so appropriate as a present for you; for I have never known any one whose character so closely resembled Washington's in all respects as your own.” A very dear friend confirms this view of General Johnston thus: “Did you ever see Jefferson's estimate of the character of Washington? It is better than the best for General Johnston.”

When General Polk took command in West Tennessee, his department extended from the mouth of the Arkansas River, on both sides of the Mississippi, to the northern limits of Confederate authority, and east as far as the Mobile & Ohio Railroad. For the following account [323] of his services, previous to General Johnston's arrival, I am again indebted to Dr. William M. Polk:

The force which he found in his command was mainly composed of a part of the Tennessee State army, together with some few Confederate troops in Mississippi. General Pillow, as the representative of the Tennessee State forces, was in chief command at Memphis; and the credit of all that had been done prior to that time is clearly his. A man of marked energy and executive ability, he was in a position to be of signal service to General Polk in the work that lay before him. Isham G. Harris, the Governor of the State, was in truth a “war Governor.” Filled with energy and of great ability, he had done much toward organizing an efficient force throughout his State. This was now transferred to the Confederate Government, that portion belonging to West Tennessee coming under General Polk's jurisdiction. He at once set himself to work to increase his army, and perfect its organization. Much had been done, but much remained to be accomplished before we could be in condition to make headway against the enemy. Everything was in embryo. Seizing upon the materials at hand, General Polk set himself to work to create out of it an efficient army, and to prepare his department for offensive or defensive operations, as occasion might require. Recruiting was pushed night and day; the entire country was ransacked for small-arms, and metal from which to manufacture field-ordnance; nitre-beds were opened; and, under the supervision of Colonel Hunt, ordnance-officer, arrangements for the manufacture of all kinds of ordnance material were completed. Thus did General Polk obtain a large proportion of the ordnance-supplies for his entire command. Under the management of Major Thomas Peters, quartermaster, aided by Major Anderson, and of Major J. J. Murphy, commissary, quartermaster and commissary supplies were abundantly accumulated. When it is remembered that this successful organization, not only of an army but of the departments necessary to equip an army, was the work of a few months, all being created from the raw material, one can afford to smile at those who pretend that the Southern people are without energy.

One of the pleasantest moments of General Polk's life was at Columbus, where General Johnston, after inspecting his department, complimented him upon what had been done. They had been talking of the affairs of the Western Department, and General Polk, in the full confidence of that friendship which he knew General Johnston entertained for him, expressed himself concerning certain criticisms of the management of the affairs of his command. General Johnston replied to him affectionately: “Never mind, old friend; I understand and appreciate what you have done, and will see that you are supported.”

At a later period, when the concentration at Corinth took place, it was chiefly from the ordnance, quartermaster, and commissary supplies belonging to this department that the army was supplied. This was especially the case in regard to that all-important element of an army's success-field transportation.

The troops under General Polk's command were chiefly the State troops transferred by Tennessee to the Confederate service — the equivalent of about ten regiments of all arms, with 3,000 muskets, and a brigade of Mississippians under Brigadier-General Charles Clark. Polk [324] had taken command on July 13th, and, two weeks after, sent General Pillow with 6,000 men to New Madrid, on the right bank of the Mississippi. This point was important, because its occupation prevented any movement by the enemy on Pocahontas, by the way of Chalk Bluffs. While it was expected to make the campaign in Tennessee defensive, the intention was to carry on active operations in Missouri by a combined movement of the armies of Price, McCulloch, Hardee, and Pillow, aided by Jeff Thompson's irregular command. It has already been seen that this plan failed through want of cooperation. Both Generals Polk and Pillow felt the pressing necessity for the occupation of Columbus, and on August 28th Pillow wrote to Polk urging its immediate seizure. This had been Polk's own view for some time, but orders from the War Department had restrained him. It was only, therefore, when an hour's delay might have proved fatal, and when it was too late to prevent the seizure of Paducah by the Federals, that General Polk felt justified in exceeding his instructions, and thus disturbing the pretended neutrality of Kentucky. The Secretary of War and Governor Harris both remonstrated; but President Davis replied to his explanations, “Necessity justifies your action.” Polk was rapidly fortifying, when General Johnston arrived at Columbus. About this time, September 10th, Grant wrote to Fremont, proposing to attack Columbus, which, under the circumstances, seems to the writer judicious though apparently bold; but Fremont took no notice of his application.1

After the failure of the campaign projected against St. Louis, in the summer of 1861, General Polk turned his attention toward perfecting the river-defenses. Missouri and Arkansas were added to his department, but he was unable to avail himself of these increased powers, as the defense of the Mississippi was his main object, and occupied all his resources. Dr. Polk says :

Finding in Island No.10 a most advantageous position, works were begun there. His design now was to make that the advanced point of defense-holding Fort Pillow as a position to fall back upon, in the event he was driven to it. With those two points thoroughly fortified, he saw that the bulk of his force would be left free for aggressive movements upon the enemy. While engaged in this work, the opportunity for seizing Columbus presented itself. He promptly availed himself of it, and held on to it until his conduct was approved by his superiors. General Polk's plan for the defense of the river was now this: Columbus, the advanced and most important point, was to be most thoroughly fortified. The lines in the rear, covering the batteries commanding the river, were to be so constructed as to permit of their being held by a fraction of his force, the larger portion remaining free to operate in the open field. Island No.10 was to be fortified as a reserve to Columbus; New Madrid to be fortified, so as to prevent the enemy getting possession of the Missouri shore at that point, and thus obstructing river navigation below No. 10; [325] while Fort Pillow was to form the last stronghold in the chain. Most of the winter was spent in strengthening these positions. From the nature of the surrounding country the larger portion of the work was required upon Columbus and Pillow; and a proportionate amount was put on No. 10 and New Madrid; so that when the time came to occupy them, they, as well as Fort Pillow, were in a proper state of defense.

General Polk's share in this campaign will appear as the events arise. Of his valuable and conspicuous services after the battle of Shiloh, it is not within the scope of this work to give a detailed account. At Perryville, at Murfreesboro, at Chickamauga, in baffling Sherman in February, 1864, and in General J. E. Johnston's retreat from North Georgia, his courage and skill made him one of the main supports of the Confederate cause in the West. Whoever was at the head, it was upon Polk and Hardee, the corps commanders, as upon two massive pillars, that the weight of organization and discipline rested. General Polk was made a lieutenant-general, October 10, 1862, and was killed by a shell aimed at him, June 14, 1864, near Marietta, Georgia, while boldly reconnoitring the enemy's position.

Hon. Thomas C. Reynolds, the constitutional Lieutenant-Governor of Missouri, and, after Governor Jackson's death, its legal Governor, has given the writer his recollections of General Johnston at Columbus. Himself a gentleman of fine talents and culture, Governor Reynolds's opinions and impressions cannot fail to receive consideration:

My recollections of your illustrious father are of little or no historical interest. Soon after he arrived at Columbus, Kentucky, he did me the honor of inviting me to come upon his staff as honorary aide-de-camp, with the rank of colonel; at the same time he appointed on his staff other gentlemen holding high political offices in Kentucky, Arkansas, or in some other State within his department. He stated to me that he had made those appointments in order to have near to him gentlemen of position, who could advise him on the condition, politically and otherwise, of any State in which he might be carrying on a campaign, so that he might take it into consideration in deciding on his military operations. This was one of the many incidents which showed me that he was a complete general; for, while no true soldier will permit any merely political influences around him, yet an able commander should always take into consideration, and be minutely and accurately informed of, the condition, resources, etc., of the country in which he operates. At that time General Johnston contemplated a campaign in Missouri, General Price having taken Lexington about that time, and Fremont being the Federal commander in this State. I accepted the position on his staff with the understanding that I should not be expected to serve on it, except in such a campaign. We both thought my position, as Lieutenant-Governor of Missouri, might lead to misconstruction of my course, should I serve in any other State. The Missouri Unionists, we believed, would endeavor to dampen the hopes of the Confederate element in the State, by representing that the second officer of its government had so little confidence in our holding it, that he had joined a campaign in some other quarter. [326]

The only incident at all resembling actual hostilities during General Johnston's stay at Columbus, Kentucky, occurred on October 11, 1861. A Federal gunboat commenced shelling the fortifications we were erecting on the high bluff immediately north of the town. That shelling continued only about an hour. During all of it he and his immediate staff remained near the battery of Captain Bankhead, which from the bluff was answering the fire of the gunboat. We stood close by the battery; and, after a shell had exploded near to it, Captain Bankhead came up to the general and remarked to him that the gunboat was evidently “getting its range,” and he should not expose his person needlessly. The general very calmly answered, “Captain, we must all take our risks.” Afterward, the manner of his death at Shiloh impressed the incident permanently on my memory. But, in fact, his conduct on that occasion was not rash, but wise. He doubtless was aware of that defect of new troops (to which General Joseph E. Johnston subsequently alluded in a conversation with Colonel Freemantle), in refusing full confidence, even to a commander-in-chief, unless they had seen him under fire. The rising ground back of the bluff was filled with those soldiers who were not under arms or on duty at the time, and their admiration, as they saw the tall form of the general, standing in full uniform next the battery, and in full view from the gunboat, was evidenced by loud cheers.

On one occasion only did General Johnston have a case presented to him in which my knowledge of the border States could be of any use to him. Some Unionist of local prominence (whose name I forget) had been brought in as a civilian prisoner, and, as usual in such cases, there was a local clamor for harsh treatment of him. The general advised with me concerning the policy to be pursued in such cases, frankly stating his own preference, on military grounds, for the exemption of civilians from molestation of any kind. He was evidently much gratified by my entirely agreeing with him on political grounds, and assuring him that I believed he would be sustained in such a policy by the civil authorities of Missouri and Kentucky, at least on the Confederate side.

His habit was to spend an hour or two after tea with his immediate staff, and his conversations in those social reunions gave me the very highest opinion of his profound judgment. He was a man of stately but winning courtesy, although occasionally indulging in pleasantry. At present I can recall but two of those conversations. One evening we received a St. Louis paper containing a general order of General Fremont, announcing his staff — a numerous body, composed largely of gentlemen with foreign names.2 After the list was read over to him, the general, with an expressive smile, remarked, “There is too much tail to that kite.” I believe the United States Government soon afterward came to the same conclusion. On another evening, some of his staff were discussing the question of the probable boundary-line of the Confederate States, in the final treaty of peace; none then doubted their achievement of independence. The general's opinion being requested, he answered: “In the beginning of a great war like this, I never try to prognosticate final results. I do the duty which, for the time being, lies before me, and I leave the rest to Providence.”

He possessed, in an admirable degree, the habit of reticence-so essential in a commander. When he left Columbus for Bowling Green, his departure was [327] conducted at night with such privacy that I doubt if any one of those he left at the former place, except the officer in command, had even a suspicion of his intention to transfer his headquarters. A few days before we left, he called me out one afternoon into the lawn, to a distance from the house, beyond the possibility of being overheard by any one, and remarked to me: “Colonel, you may desire to go to Richmond; I called you here to tell you that there is no need at present of your remaining with me; for a long time to come there will be no active operations on this line, if I can prevent them; we have no powder.” We had then been so long together, and had become so well acquainted, that he knew he did not need to enjoin secrecy on me. It was accordingly arranged that I should have an indefinite leave of absence, but return to the staff should he enter on a campaign in Missouri. I accompanied him a part of the way toward Bowling Green, and then went on to Richmond, Virginia.

While he was not a martinet, his enforcement of discipline was admirable, and yet extremely quiet. When he reached Columbus, the discipline of the considerable forces assembled there had been visibly relaxed. Within a week after he had assumed command, a great change was apparent, and was noticed by every one, although few could understand precisely how it was effected. I presume it was done simply by calling the attention of the higher officers to the enforcement of the army regulations. Much also was due to his habit of personal inspection. He once remarked to me that he did not feel entirely well unless he rode every day about twenty miles. The figure may seem large, but I remember it perfectly. Every afternoon, in the fine October weather, he rode with some of his staff about the camps, quietly inspecting; his eye seemed to be everywhere. He had nothing whatever of the military demagogue in his composition; every one under him was quietly but firmly kept to his proper position. I remember that, from the moment I joined his staff until I left it, he invariably addressed me as “colonel,” dropping the use of his previous salutation of me as “Governor.” The entire army, as by some instinct, soon conceived the greatest admiration of and confidence in him; he looked like a great soldier, but had also a kindly face and high-bred courtesy which gained him the affection of all who came near him.

He paid great attention to the health of his troops and the sanitary condition of his camps. But a little incident made me suspect that, in his reliance on his iron constitution, he was not equally careful of his own health and comfort. The night on which we left Columbus was very cold, and the car on which we traveled had no stove in it, or a very small one. He complained of cold feet, and I at once took from my valise a pair of stout woolen socks, and put them over his boots. He said that he had never heard of that expedient, and, soon finding himself relieved, got me to explain how the effect was produced; of course, he was perfectly familiar with the atmospherical laws which elucidated it.

A very warm friendship grew up between General Johnston and myself; my admiration of his character and military abilities is such that I consider his death to have been the greatest blow which the Confederacy received. More than any other officer that I have met, he appreciated the great military fact that the occupation of Missouri, flanking the somewhat disaffected Northwest, might have totally changed the course of the war.

I remain, my dear colonel, sincerely your friend,


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