tv The Civil War Confederate General Leonidas Polk CSPAN December 16, 2021 4:31am-5:25am EST
watch saturdays on c-span 2 and find a full schedule on your program guide or watch anytime on c-span.org/history. >> i wanted to be introducing david powell, because i'm of course a big fan of his work. so i wanted to jump on the opportunity to do that but also we have our favorite here. i can't wait to hear what's going to be said here today. he's a graduate of the virginia military institute in 1983 with a b.a. in history. he's published numerous articles in various magazines and more than 15 historical simulations of different battles. he is nationally recognized for his tours on that important battlefield and for publishing six books on the campaign including the campaign trilogy
completed 2016. more recently dave has published a book on the battle of new market, coauthored one on the campaign with now renown historian david and his wife anne with their three bloodhounds live and work on the northwest chicago illinois. and like myself a fellow war gamer and designer. everybody, david powell. >> thank you. can you hear me? that's always the first question, right? first of all, let's clear one
thing up. the family tradition is leonidas. and i suspect in his life it has -- his father was a revolutionary war veteran wounded in the war, and his mother sarah hawkins polk of native of north carolina. he was born into privilege. by the time he was born his father was a wealthy landowner with holdings in north carolina and also extensive holdings in middle tennessee. leonidas had a traditional i guess southern upscale bringing
or upbringing. he was very much raised in wealth and privilege. he was a member of the southern planner class. his father who was good friends with andrew jackson owned 100,000 acres of land in tennessee just to give you an example. i always like leonidas and his brother lucious were clearly named in the sort of ant bellum classic tradition. he'll have a nephew named lucious as well from his brother who will serve as a brigade commander during the war. in 1827 -- well, in 1823 leonidas gained an appointment to west point. he had expressed an interest in a military career. his father, after all, was a
veteran. and he did well at west point. he graduated in 1827 eighth out of 38 graduate cadets. he had, however, an interesting experience while there. he went through a religious experience and a religious conversion. he had been raised as a presbyterian. at the time he was at west point episcopalianism was almost the official rimgen of the upper class and certainly the most favored religion at west point. so he converted to episcopalianism. he was notable early in his career as a sort of a party animal. i think his comrades, his fellow cadets called him a larking
youth. but then he became a very devout -- a very devout episcopalian, very devout christian. it was noted throughout the academy. it also raised a considerable ruckus in his family who -- who didn't like this idea of a conversion. there were irish stock and did not like the idea of a conversion into high church episcopalianism. while he was at west point he formed some other important connections. two, however, would be among the most significant of his life and really of the life of the confederacy. the man or his closest friend in the class of 1826 one year ahead of him was albert sydney johnson. and his next closest friend one year behind him was jefferson
davis. so you've heard already in talking about or in previous talking about the relationship of davis with johnson in the context of beauregard. among his other classmates gabriel range a confederate brigadier general. napoleon buford. one of the interesting things about studying the civil war as is evidenced by all our discussions here today is how close everybody is, how many connections there are between people who you might not assume know each other very well.
another man who would be injury significant in polk's life and vice versa was braxton bragg, but they did not go to academy together. he's almost 11 years younger than leonidas polk. he just missed the cut off. in those days the rankings -- the assignments for commissions went engineers -- the top of the class got the engineers commissions and artillery came in the next cohort then cavalry followed by the poor lonely infantry at the very bottom. that's why all the glass goats end up serving in infantry regiments. i'm sure the infantry soldiers are very, very happy about that. but in 1827, june 1, after
graduation, he doesn't report to duty. typically cadets got a graduation leave, and they went home for a varying amount of time. in those days it could be anywhere from up to a couple of months given travel conditions. polk never reported for duty. instead he went for a grand tour so to speak. he traveled for approximately six months. this was all paid for by his father. it was a graduation gift. and it would set the stage for a lot of what polk would do later in life. he took many, many trips. he loved to travel. and then in december 1827 he --
he returned home to middle tennessee. and he'd already convinced our decided -- convinced himself of a course of action. he was not going to be a soldier. the rimgsen conversion at west point had completely changed him. his focus now shifted to a life devoted to christianity. and so on december 1, 1827, he penned his letter of resignation which was then forwarded to washington, d.c., to the war department. which means that second lieutenant leonidas polk never once served a single day with troops. he had no military experience beyond the halls of west point and whatever limited training they would do during summer
encampments. for a while he returned to raleigh, north carolina, where he managed his father's family estates. he spent a year and a half roughly learning how to run a major plantation, and then in 1829 he attended the virginia theological seminary. he was ordained as a priest in 1830, and he married a woman named francis anne devaro. polk succeeded pretty well as an episcopalian priest. he relocated to morry county, tennessee, near columbia. if you're familiar with the western campaigns columbia, spring hill, franklin. he was the priest of the episcopalian church in columbia
and also the largest slaveholder in the county. among the property he received from his father were by 1850 his estates included 400 slaves. he was by any measure an extremely wealthy man and also rose quickly through the church. in 1838 he was appointed the missionary bishop of the southwest which was perfect for leonidas polk because he loved to travel. so he traveled extensively through mississippi, alabama, tennessee, ventured into arkansas, kentucky and other adjoining states. so he combined his love of sightseeing, love of travel with a missionary zeal. and also, interestingly enough,
taught him a great deal about the geography of what would become the western confederacy, what would become the department number 2 of the confederate states of america in 1861. he was among the probably most well-traveled men of his time. in 1841 he was elected by his fellow bishops to become the bishop of louisiana. so after that he divided his time between middle tennessee and new orleans. he would remain the bishop of louisiana for the rest of his life. he incorporated several -- at least two european trips, so he did travel abroad. and -- and he was also
increasingly over this period of time pro-slavery and becoming an ardent successionest. one of the things he brought home from his tours through europe is a need for the south to find a following of its own. he also knew in the 1850s the great universities in the new world, anyway, tended to be in the northeast, harvard, princeton, what we would come to call yale, the ivy league schools. but he also had visited oxford and cambridge, and he had seen those great institutions of learning. and so by 1856 he was raising money to create an institution of that ilk that he would found
in the south. it's named in tennessee where the university of the south resides today. by 1860 they had raised enough money where they could lay the cornerstone of the new university, and also it was functioning with classrooms -- crude log cabins as classrooms but classrooms. and he was living there for approximately a year, year and a half before succession. almost forgot. here are two versions. on the one side you see polk and his episcopalian rig, his robes
of office. and there you see him as a confederate general. polk has an interesting experience. the war has come and the mississippi valley is of considerable importance to the people of louisiana, alabama and mississippi. but, of course, in 1861 the focus is on first sumpter and then virginia. polk travels to richmond in june 1861. he goes there on behalf of the governor of tennessee. harris is -- well, tennessee has yet another complicated one of those succession stories. tennessee leaves the union but
doesn't join the confederacy for approximately two months. and so for those two months tennessee creates its own army just like the state armies and discussion about earl van dorm being a major general in the forces of mississippi. well, harris had appointed brigadier generals in the army of tennessee -- or the state army of tennessee. and unlike, perhaps, some of those mississippi forlss because the army -- the tennessee state army would remain in existence for almost two months and begin to take much more shape in the organization before it joined the confederacy. many of those officers would simply be ported over as confederate brigadier generals when tennessee finally joined the confederacy.
and in june -- in june polk travels to richmond. he meets with jefferson davis. he's still a civilian at this point. he's still the bishop of louisiana. he and davis sit down and have discussions. polk does an incredible job of laying out the strategic problems that face the confederacy along the mississippi river valley and through tennessee, kentucky, tennessee and the gulf coast. and davis is very impressed. and of course, they're still good friends. davis was a senator from mississippi. they knew each other very well before the war and saw each other routinely. and so davis can think of no better man to take over the job of commanding the army or
commanding the forces and arranging for the defenses of the mississippi valley than leonidas polk. so polk leaves richmond as a major general of the confederate army. he's literally bumped as a second lieutenant 30, 40 years before who never commanded troops to now commanding what are substantial though not the entirety of all the forces in the western confederacy. polk has such a controversial after image in our war and our american civil war that it's best to remember that actually polk was reluctant to take this commission. and he accepted the command on one condition. he would only hold it -- and davis agreed with this -- until
their other great friend, albert sydney johnson arrived. and then davis intended to give johnson command of that department number 2 at which time polk said he would resign. and he did, in fact, offer to resign in august, 1861. his commission, he stated, would only fill a gap until johnson arrived. and as johnson approached, polk said, okay, i'm ready to return to the role. davis refused. in fact, davis not only refused but expanded his authority to include some of the deep state -- the gulf state forces. johnson arrives and immediately takes command of what is a terrible strategic position, but
we won't go into all of that. that's two or three talks in and of itself probably. but johnson finds out that he has a scattered number of forces, a handful of troops, 40,000 men scattered along 400 miles of frontier from basically the gap of the virginia, tennessee, kentucky border all the way to the mississippi river and into arkansas. his only chance -- he feels his only way to successfully defend this vast stretch of territory is the run a bluff on the federals who are assembling their own armies. now, in 1861 of course kentucky remains neutral. kentucky is trying very hard to stay out of the war. the governor is pro-secessionists confederate.
so to -- to most of the people on both sides, lincoln famously says to lose kentucky might be to lose the whole game. to most people on both sides they expect kentucky to tilt one way or the other. at the end of august another man we've heard a little bit about or at least mentioned here, john c. fremont issued emergency orders. among the orders he issues is an emancipation proclamation. he's going to free the slaves in his department. the south seizes upon this, of course. and the governor in kentucky uses this as a justification to try and take the confederacy out
of the war. lincoln has to rush in by telegraph and repudiate fremont and tell mcgauffen that no, no, we're not freeing the slaves. but, fortunately, for the north two days later they cross the tennessee-kentucky border and occupies columbus, kentucky, a high bluff position overlooking the mississippi river at the very western end of kentucky, southwestern corner of the state. and that -- that decision has largely been attributed for kentucky and remaining in the union and more enthusiastically embracing union recruitment. and the legislature passes a
resolution reaffirming the lincoln government calling for troops. governor mcgauffen flees south to tennessee. and for a time it looks as if that -- that will be a major tipping point. it's probably not really. the fact is that the federal government in the form of william nelson, a former union naval officer has already been arming troops for approximately a month. there are 5,000 pro-federal militia in the state and many more forming. there'll be 10,000 by the end of september. kentucky had largely already decided, but what polk doesn't do or what he's failed to do in occupying columbus is also go another 40 miles or so further north and occupy the strategic
city of -- which is where the mouth of the tennessee river is. polk has made no plans to do anything besides occupy columbus. so the very next day, september 3rd, the union troops, a force led by ulysses s. grant immediately classify -- and that will end up outflanking columbus' strategic importance along the mississippi. columbus offers to resign on november 6, 1861, not because of the controversy here but because albert sydney johnson has been in command for a while and polk feels like he's not needed anymore. davis doesn't even respond to this offer and polk does not resign and remains in command.
he's finally -- he's almost removed from the board of war in november 1861. the battle of belmont happens just a few days before in november. and belmont is essentially -- general grant takes a brigade of infantry and attacks a federal brigade encamped on the missouri side of the mississippi river across from the columbus. it's a very small, very inconsequential battle notable only because it's ulysses s. grant's first battle. grant sort of wins a victory and the confederate counter tank pushes him out. but one of the things that happens is that from columbus this heavy gun here is an example of some of the siege artillery that has been brought in to defend these confederate
posts along the river. and this heavy gun was used to support the confederate troops firing across the river, down the bluff and across the river. and at the end of the battle there was one round that was left in the gun. and when you fire one of these big, iron monsters it gets very hot and the metal expands. and then they didn't unload it immediately. they didn't take a worm, a big screw ramrod and try to extract the shell and fire off the gunpowder. they didn't do that immediately, and so the shell contracted or the tube contracted around the shell. and polk says, well, let's fire the thing, we'll clear it that way. and captain of the artillery said don't do that, that's a bad idea. polk says, well, no, i think we'll do it.
so here's what polk writes to his wife the day after. "my clothes were torn to pieces and i was literally covered with dust and fragments from the the gun exploded on november 11th. it killed 11 of the crew and wounded 20 other people. knocked polk from his horse and had polk not been able to write that letter, my talk would end here. polk is -- you can't really talk about the army of tennessee without talking about leonidas polk. most people talk about another man, a man who i refer to as one of those punch line generals because i saw a classic example of it here yesterday. i think it was dan who --
anyway, someone simply said braxton bragg. and you all laughed. because bragg is more often than not, he's one of those people, we talk about mcclellan and speed, you get a laugh. you talk about braxton bragg and comedy and, you know, cohesive leadership, you're going to get a laugh. bragg is largely considered the -- the core, the originator of the army of tennessee. he was the officer in its longest tenure. he was the man in command when it adopted the name, the army of tennessee, when it changes from the army of the mississippi. he's the man who took it into kentucky in the fall of 1862. but the man who served perhaps the longest, polk is by far, he
was there from the very beginning in 1861. and he will serve up through the atlantic campaign. the second closest commander is william j. hardy who also serves in 1861 and joins the army but will actually leave the army for several months in the fall of 1863. so polk and the army of tennessee are irrevocably intertwined. and as polk commands or first a division and then a corps, he's given a corps command very early on. he commands the first corps of the army of tennessee. that's his corps flag. when someone asks you what confederate flag looks like, what confederate troops carry
into battle, you can point to any one of a dozen flags. this is one of them. matt gave us an example of an earl van dorn patterned flag in his talk. the first corps becomes a permanent force in the army of tennessee, and polk is the first and most senior corps commander. they're really created in the gathering in march, 1862. bragg comes up from pensacola, florida. beauregard brings polk's troops south, and by now, albertson johnson, and beauregard are both present. we get the battle of shiloh, and really the most interesting thing for our purposes here are
the rivalries, the problems that grow up out of the battle of shiloh. braxton bragg in his oh so winning way when he arrives in corenth and he sees the troops, the first thing he writes home in a letter to his wife, he refers to polk's force as polk's mob. a sneer at their lack of training and discipline. and then on the eve of battle, april 5th, the march up from corenth has not gone well. the attack at shiloh, the surprise that the confederates think they need doesn't appear to happen. and so bragg and beauregard basically argue to go back, just turn around and go back to corenth. this attack is pointless. well, polk supports albert sidney johnson. why shouldn't he?
he's a good friend of johnson's, and he's also demonstrated such clear-headed analysis of risk already with the lady polk at columbus. by the way, if you're not a student of tactics, not a student of formations and how troops fight, and you fear that will ruin your military career, never fear. leonidas polk knew nothing of those things. it didn't stop him. shiloh, of course, turns into a confederate defeat. the army retreats. beauregard takes his leave and gets replaced. bragg takes command in the summer of 1862. you may have read or heard that braxton bragg remained in command of the army of tennessee from the summer of '62 until the late fall, until november 27th
of 1863 because he was a friend of jefferson davis'. that's not actually true. davis held no great animosity towards bragg, but bragg believed that davis did. as a matter of fact, at a dinner with sherman in new orleans just before the war in 1860, bragg's wife elise tells sherman that, you know, jefferson davis is no friend to my husband. they had quarrelled in the prewar army when davis was secretary of war and bragg was fairly sure that davis was keeping him out of the war because he held a grudge. i think it was because davis believed in albert sidney johnson more than anything else, and was focused on that. but if there was a true friend of jefferson davis in the ranks of the army of tennessee, and
davis protected that true friend from all political fallout, it was leonidas polk. polk will end up essentially sponsoring two mutinies against braxton bragg in the aftermath of the battle of stone's river. polk has -- and really, it goes all the way back to the kentucky campaign, the confederates march all the way into kentucky. they expect to liberate kentucky. they fight the battle of perryville in october of '62 and polk brags retreat out of kentucky with support of his generals who later will say, no, we didn't support him. this doesn't come to a head until the spring of 1863, after the battle of stone's river when the army of tennessee goes into sort of a quiet period and so
the generals have plenty of time to devote to infighting. it will, in the spring of 1863, the problems within the army of tennessee, the command problems between essentially braxton bragg on one hand and his two major corps commanders, william j. hardy and leonidas, will come to such a head that jefferson davis will actually order joe johnson to go to shelbyville, tennessee, where the army is headquartered, relieve bragg, send him to richmond, and take command of the army himself. there's a whole other talk here about why joe johnson didn't do that. but nevertheless, it did not happen. and nothing got resolved. and that boil festered until after the battle of chickamauga.
it reached a point or things were so bad in the summer of 1863 that braxton bragg and leonidas polk basically headquartered in the same small town of shelbyville, tennessee, for two months took dinner together, had social engagements together, but had such contempt for each other that they never once talked about military strategy. this is the army commander and his senior corps commander. there's a union army, a federal force under william stark rosecrans who is assembling troops and supplies to launch a campaign against the army of tennessee. you would think they might talk about that. never once did they have a military discussion. as a result in the summer of 1863, the confederate response to what is now known as the tell ahouma campaign was completely ineffectual and disorganized.
so much so, things were so bad that on july 1st, as the confederates are retreating out of middle tennessee towards chattanooga, essentially abandoning most of tennessee to federal occupation, hardy and polk hold a discussion and talk about relieving braxton bragg for his own good, saying that he's too ill to continue in command. that also didn't happen, but it shows you the state of affairs, how bad things got. and then finally, the army fights and wins its only clear cut victory of the war, the battle of chickamauga. and in classic army of tennessee fashion, the army of the cumberland, the federal side, they got defeated. people left the field. court marshals were convened, at least three generals left the army permanently. the victorious confederates held the field, things went well.
so naturally, court-martials were convened and at least three generals left the army. such is life in the army of tennessee. but after the defeat at chattanooga, it became apparent to everyone that braxton bragg no longer had the confidence of the army, so that's finally how joe johnson gets command of the army. polk and johnson get along superfinancially much better. though it turns out that joe johnson doesn't talk much about his strategy either. the atlantic campaign is interesting for the fact that not all that much happens prior to the campaign in terms of confederate planning or strategy. johnson always said that he intended to launch -- he wanted to wait for the confederates or for the federals to attack and then he would counterattack and we would catch them moving and defeat them piecemeal, which never really happened.
but -- but the battle or the death of general polk -- polk only lasts until june 14, 1864. because on pine mountain on that date, polk meets with johnson and hardy and general hood. hood has recovered from his chickamauga wound and he is minus one leg and with a semicrippled arm, has rejoined the army as a corps commander. they talk or they meet to conduct a reconnaissance on an isolated part of the line at pine mountain. and the generals go up in an assembled group, and they're surveying the union forces and they have a clear view.
a member of the kentucky orphan brigade, an officer of one of the kentucky regiments says, you know, the federals have an accurate range of this hill, and they will soon kill many of your party. and that's actually pretty accurate. federal observers also had a good view of the party on pine mountain, and thanks to a federal deserter, i'm sorry, a confederate deserter, they even identified the people on the mountain. they gave the deserter the field glass, and he said that's general polk and that's johnson. and so sherman and/or howard, it depends on the accounts you believe, sherman and/or general oliver otis howard who is commanding the union fourth corps at this time, turn to the fifth indiana battery, and say throw a couple shells that way.
polk is struck and killed on pine mountain. and there are several depictions of it. wilbert kurtz is an atlanta historian from the 1940s and '50s who extensively documented the atlantic campaign. we have -- he's a very early preservationist, so we have him to thank for identifying many of the sites that we now associate with the atlantic campaign. he was also an artist, and he payments this picture of the confederates assembled on pine mountain. this is a very cleaned up sketch of general polk being struck by an artillery projectile. polk was struck by a ten-pound shell from, well, a ten-pound parrot from simonson's battery. and according to his -- polk's friend bishop elliot, the bishop
of georgia, the shell entered his chest from the front, making only a small wound, but severely lacerating his back. it tore his heart out of his body as it exited. we have slightly different version from an artilleryman, philip d. stefansson, a member of the washington, who described the incident, general polk walked off by himself, his hands behind him. his left side was to the enemy. a second shot came, struck polk in the left arm, tore through his heart and his body. it then struck a tree and exploded. polk obviously was dead instantly. his influence in the army of tennessee was over. and his legacy is always -- modern historians have by and large been very critical of
leonidas polk. the army, however, loved him. he was -- he was first and foremost important in their religious life, when the army of tennessee went through a major religious revival in the winter of 1864, polk was at the heart of it. he baptized john bell hood. he baptized joseph e. johnson. hood on the 16th of june will write that i had grown to love general polk with my whole heart. he was so noble, so generous, and such an able soldier. general sherman on june 15th had a more pragmatic view. this is one of my favorite sherman lines. we killed bishop polk yesterday and made good progress today.
one of the things i love about studying general sherman is that in his letters and correspondence, if it popped into his head, it went right down to the panl. he's the classic example of a person with no filter. however, not everyone or i would say that while they mourned general polk, many confederates understood also his limitations. this is a letter by lieutenant william palfrey, assistant general to francis schoop who was on johnson's staff. it may be said his death was not inopportune. he was second in command and in the event of any accident to general johnson, the army would have been in the hands of one not equal to the emergency. general polk lacked the qualities most essential for a great commander. quickness of perception, tact,
enterprise, and energy. he would have been at the mercy of a vigorous adversary. when -- i'll give you bragg's opinion, which you can imagine is fairly charged. at the time after the battle of chickamauga, bragg described polk as gallant and patriotic but luxurious in his habits. he rises late, moves slowly, and always conceives his own plans to be the best. he has proven to be an injury to -- he has proven to be an injury to us on every field where i have been associated with him. thomas connelly, the famous, rightly famous historian of the army of tennessee and his two volumes, he wrote the army had
suffered a severe loss. it's not that polk had been a spectacular corps officer. his deficiencies as a commander and his personal traits of stubbornness and childishness had played no small role in several of the army's disasters. the loss was one of morale and experience. polk was the army's most beloved general. a representative of that intangible identification of the army with tennessee. this is a view of pine mountain in the 1890s. today it's much more wooded. there is a small commemorative patch of ground with an obelisk marking the spot. it's on private ground, but it's accessible to the public, and as a matter of fact, the landowner loves to have people come by and pay their respects to general polk, and if he's home, he will come out and talk to you at great length about that. he's a good guy.
and i'll leave you with one last word. the confederates did indeed evacuate the line of pine mountain the day after polk was killed. johnson had determined it was too difficult to hold, and so when the federals summited the mountain and found the spot where polk was killed, there were still blood stains and actually body matter on the ground. they also found a sign nailed to a tree just about where the spot where polk was killed. you yankee sons of bitches have killed our old general polk. thank you. [ applause ] >> we have time for a question or two. question?
>> could you talk a little bit about polk at chickamauga? i always found his attitude or indifference or whatever you would call it there puzzling. do you have any thoughts on that? >> yeah. i actually tried to avoid getting too deep into that because i know i would spend a half hour on it, but we'll try. on september 20th, the third day of the battle, the last day of the battle, polk was supposed to attack at day dawn, according to bragg's order, which was the twilight before sunrise. instead, because of miscommunications of orders and the nondelivery of orders, polk's attack specifically with breckenridge and clayburn's division did not step off until 9:30 or 9:45 in the morning, approximately four hours late. the story that bragg repeated was that when he discovered the
delay, he sent a courier to find polk, and he found polk sitting on a porch having just finished breakfast reading a newspaper. and when the staff officer pollack lee says why aren't you attacking? polk looks up and says, well, my heart is overflowing with anxiety, sir. overflowing with anxiety for the delay. i believe that story to be not true at all. there are too many other witnesses, too many other accounts from polk's headquarters and polk's staff officers that flat out contradict it. the problem, and certainly polk was lackadaisical. but the problem had to do with the fact that unlike the federals on the night of september 1920 who had a conference of war and everybody was put on the same page, all the corps commanders and army
commanders met, braxton bragg did not hold accounts of the war. he structurally reorganized his army from five infantry corps to two wings. polk got the other wing as the next senior man. and then, well, bragg had good reason to not like councils of war. every time he held one, his general said one thing and told richmond they supported another thing, and it ended up -- it ended badly for bragg. polk was very inept in attempting to deliver the orders that he needed to deliver to d.h. hill to transmit to clayburn and breckenridge, but he was not -- he was not as incompetent as bragg would portray him. it's a very complicated story.