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The career of Leonidas Polk. [from the New Orleans Picayune, January 7, 1894.]

The soldier who abandoned the army for the Church,

And became a General when the war between the States broke out, Earning a reputation for gallantry which Survives hostile criticism an interesting figure in American history.

The New York Tribune, eminently a Northern journal, in a review of Dr. William M. Polk's book on ‘Leonidas Polk, Bishop and General,’ says: In the far future, when the affairs of the present century may be viewed with philosophical indifference, it will perhaps occur to some student of mankind that the career of Leonidas Polk was of significance in the history of civilization. Such a student will be reminded that only certain periods have been marked by the appearance, as warriors, of men of rank in any religious system. In Europe this phenomenon has hardly been observed since the close of the Middle Ages, and the tendency there of the Nineteenth century has been such as to give characteristic value to the case of Pius IX, who left a military career for the church. But if the coming philosopher should deem the example of Polk sufficient to put the civilization of the American slave States on a level with that of the mediaeval chivalric period, he should nevertheless not be allowed to overlook the fact that the bishop who became a general had earlier turned from military life to become a priest. Thus, if he resembled the bishops of feudal times in his old age, he was in youth as complete a symbol of modern tendencies as the Pope whose name has been cited. In [322] fact, he was more—for the physical reasons which affected the choice of a career for Pius would in Polk's case have prevented him from taking orders. His life as a rector was interrupted by ill-health, and everything went to show that his physical well-being required activity out of doors. In putting aside the ambitions of a soldier he not only did violence to his own preferences, but to a family tradition which was exceptionally strong, both his father and grandfather having served with distinction in the war of independence. The present generation of Americans can perhaps hardly realize how much nearer the European ideal in force and tenacity family tradition was a century ago than it is now in this country. America was then just out of colonial leading strings. She had barely begun to diverge from habits which under previous conditions she would only too gladly have strengthened and perpetuated. When Leonidas Polk, after completing an honorable course of study at West Point, decided to enter the ministry of the Protestant Episcopal Church, he gave his father a shock of surprise such as he could have given him in no other way.

Dr. Polk gives a deeply interesting narrative of the incidents which attended his father's conversion. It came about through the influence of a new chaplain at West Point, McIlvaine, later the eloquent bishop of Ohio. The professors and cadets who had idled their way as best they could through sermon-time in other days listened with open-eyed interest to a preacher who had a message, and who knew how to delivor it. Polk—tall, handsome, a soldier by heredity not less than by education—was the first to yield. When he knelt for the first time in chapel to take a courageous part in the service, his act was the beginning of what seemed almost like a religious revolution at the post. Other young men followed his example, and in nearly every case they were prompted by his zeal. Dr. Polk suggested that his father had been skeptical in early youth, but there seemed to have been no doubts of a stubborn sort. What happened was that the soldierly instincts and training of the young cadet were turned to a new purpose. He realized in himself the favorite figure of speech about the soldier of the cross. He troubled himself little about difficult questions. What he looked for from the time when he decided to enter the ministry was orders. At the Theological Seminary in Alexandria he gained only a smattering of Greek and Hebrew, little insight into speculative problems, and no philosophy.

His health soon broke down in the ministry. An interval of foreign [323] travel was followed by years in which Polk was as much a farmer as a clergyman. Then came the appointment as missionary bishop of the Southwest, and later the care of the diocese of Louisiana. These not only satisfied his religious aspirations, but met the physical necessity for a life in the open air. His field of labor was almost boundless, and his travels were incessant. But his diocesan tasks are of interest here mainly because at the outset they included territory which was not a part of the United States. Churchmen, and doubtless others, will remember the position assumed by Bishop Polk at the time of Louisiana's secession respecting the relations of his diocese to the Protestant Episcopal Church of the United States. He held that the constitution of the Church limited it to the boundaries of the nation. If by any accident the nation lost control of any region, the churchmen of that region became independent of the Church as a national body. In the light of such a declaration, one recalls with glee the fact that Polk's first jurisdiction as a bishop included the Republic of Texas. In his episcopal visits he went into a foreign country perhaps, annually; yet it probably never occurred to him that he passed on these occasions beyond the pale of the Church to which he owed allegiance. Subsequent events made his distinction in one case as futile as it would have been in the other; though, as Dr. Polk points out, if the States in rebellion had achieved their independence, the division in the Episcopal Church, North and South, would have been a practical fact, whatever method canon lawyers might have taken to account for or to ignore it. The Bishop's haste and eagerness, however, to make his point, doubtless did as much as anything to fix upon him the accusation which his biographer deeply resents, that ‘he was one of those who were said to be plotting the dissolution of the Union.’ The absorbing interests of his growing diocese, and particularly the effort to carry out the plans which he had studied for years for a great university, are indicated as occupations vast enough even for a man of Bishop Polk's activity. Americans, as time proceeds, will perhaps be less and less certain as to the deliberate purpose of any man, or any group of men, to bring on the civil war. In the light of what happened afterwards, Bishop Polk's own letter to President Buchanan on the right of peaceable secession reads almost like a missive from one distraught, but unquestionably it expressed the hope of many Southern men of intelligence. The mere supposition that Buchanan could change the purposes which were forming in the [324] minds of the people was perhaps not the least fatuous element in the letter.

Enthusiastic as the bishop was in the cause of secession, his thoughts were turned to active participation in the conflict by an incident from which he and his family alone were sufferers. When war became a certainty he removed his wife and children from New Orleans to a house at Sewanee, Tennessee, on the lands where he had hoped to raise his proposed university, and they were barely settled before the house was burned over their heads. ‘He never doubted,’ says his biographer, ‘that the outrage was prompted by political animosity. From that day forward he considered the war against the South not so much as an international war of aggression and conquest, but rather as a war of spoliation, incendiarism, outrage, and assassination, which every man who recognized the first law of nature was bound in duty to resist, with whatever powers of head or hand he had received.’ In the very words which Dr. Polk has here chosen can be felt something of the exaggeration characteristic of the war period. The bishop himself wrote: ‘I am satisfied that it was the work of an incendiary, and that it was prompted by the spirit of black Republican hate.’ Yet, so far as evidence of incendiarism goes, these volumes are so void of it as to suggest the need of a monograph carefully treating the question whether that fire which converted a bishop into a general was not accidental after all. But this wrathful beginning was not followed by hasty acts. The bishop deliberated long before taking up the sword; and when he did take it up he did so with the express determination of laying it down as soon as possible. His letters of resignation to Jefferson Davis were frequent, especially in the early part of the war. They were not accepted, but they had the effect which indecisive conduct on the part of a military leader always has. They raised a feeling of distrust. If this was not exemplified in words, it certainly was in the acts of the Confederate government, so-called. Polk was practically the creator of what was styled ‘the Army of Mississippi.’ One must suppose when he named the men in succession under whom he wished to serve, or in whose favor he wished to retire from military service, that his alternative was his own supremacy in the department assigned to him. He wanted Albert Sydney Johnston, and Davis sent him Beauregard. He urged the merits of Joseph E. Johnston, and was saddled with Bragg. Beauregard came upon him as a sort [325] of calamity after the battle of Belmont, Missouri, and after he had industriously fortified Columbus, Kentucky. It is easy to read in Polk's letter, as given in these volumes, that his chagrin was deep when Columbus was evacuated. But this was only the beginning of his troubles as a division commander.

An effort was made to hold him responsible for the result of the battle of Shiloh. His biographer is convinced that the entire Union army could have been captured at the end of the first day's fighting. He points out that the battle should have been fought a day earlier than it was in any case, and that with becoming promptness the Federal army could have been taken utterly by surprise. The failure to accomplish these things as fully as was hoped, he attributes to the illness of Beauregard, and to the delays which Bragg experienced in getting up troops who were unaccustomed to marching. Later came the campaign which culminated with the battle of Perryville. All through this campaign, he maintains, Bragg handled his army in accordance with his mental impressions as to what Buell, the Federal commander, ought to be doing; and not in the light of information constantly pressed upon him from the front. The result was that Polk, as his biographer estimates, had to fight 58,000 men with 16,000, while Bragg gathered 36,000 men in the direction of Frankfort, Kentucky, to oppose a mere detachment of Buell's army, amounting to 12,000 men. After the battle of Chickamauga, Dr. Polk insists that it took Bragg so long to learn that his army was victorious as to make the triumph—which had cost the loss of one man out of every three—utterly useless. The elder Polk himself described Bragg's conduct as weak, and added an epigram—he had a taste for neat phrases—to the effect that there were times when weakness was wickedness. Subsequently, his wish for the appointment of Joseph E. Johnston as commander was gratified. But the possibility of retrieving past errors or misfortunes had gone by, and in the last scene of all, when Polk fell on Kenesaw, the manner of his death was such as he might have deliberately sought. Consciously or unconsciously he seems to have challenged the fate that came to him. ‘General Polk,’ writes his son, ‘walked to the crest of the hill and, entirely exposed, turned himself around, as if to take a farewell view. Folding his arms across his breast, he stood intently gazing on the scene below. While he thus stood a cannon shot crashed through his breast, and, opening a wide door, let free that indomitable spirit.’ [326]

Polk will always be an interesting figure in American history, not so much for what he did as for the contrasts in his career. The volumes in hand, if not impartial, are at least decorous in form, harsh judgments being generally tempered by some words of kindness. The illustrations comprise several portraits of Polk as bishop and general, and numerous charts or tracings of the battles and campaigns in which he was engaged.

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