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Civil War Encyclopedia >> People - Confederate Military
Leonidas: Lion-like, taken from a king of Sparta, a son of King Anaxandridas II, who was believed to be a descendant of Heracles. The name is heroic because of the Battle of Thermopylae.
Graduating 8th from West Point, Polk decided to join the Episcopal Church after serving 6 months in the Army. Ordained the Bishop of Louisiana in 1841, Polk went on to found Sewanee, The University of the South, in 1857.
Commissioned a major general on June 28, , 1861, Leonidas Polk was appointed to head the Confederate Department Number 2 on July 4, mostly because Jefferson Davis knew he could not trust Gideon Pillow, then in command of the area. Polk expressed his belief to Davis that Albert Sidney Johnston should be the man appointed to command what essentially was the Confederate Department of the West, but nobody knew where he was. After Polk accepted the position, he journeyed west to Tennessee, where he met with Governor Isham Harris and recommended Felix Zollicoffer be put in command of the volunteers in East Tennessee.
In Western Tennessee the situation was extremely complex. Two independent commands under William Hardee and Pillow were battling in :Arkansas and Missouri, and the 40,444 square miles of neutral Kentucky to his north were protected by a 6,000-man, Confederate-leaning state militia under the command of Simon Boliver Buckner. Missouri was almost lost to the Confederacy, with Sterling Price and Ben McCullough in the southwest corner.
From his headquarters in Memphis Polk ordered Pillow to occupy New Madrid and secure a pledge from Hardee to cooperate with this movement by threatening St. Louis from Ironton, southwest of the Mississippi River port. Hardee, joined by Price and McCullough, formed a column totaling 20,000 men while Pillow had less than 10,000, including some Missouri volunteers, but this early in the war, that was a sizable number.
On the morning of August 10, Federal commander Nathaniel Lyons and the 5,400-man Army of the West struck Price and McCullough's combined force of about 10,000 men at Wilson's Creek. (Lyons was unaware that Price and McCullough had already combined forces). Lyons was killed and the federals suffered a serious setback, losing the battle. Hardee, however, felt the army was too small to take St. Louis, Headquarters of the Department of the West under John C. Fremont, so any further advance was postponed.
Polk decided to move closer to Kentucky and relocated his headquarters from Memphis to Union City in late August. On September 2, 1861 Davis extended Polk's command to include Arkansas and Missouri, but Polk had been distracted to other important matters. Early on September 3 an officer reported "...The enemy are maneuvering with gunboats and 3,000 men near Columbus, on Missouri side." Official Records The war of the rebellion: a compilation of the official records of the Union and Confederate armies. / Series 1 - Volume 3, p. 694
Polk faced a strong Union navy with no boats other than transports converted from steamships. The Bishop decided to act on a plan conceived by Pillow and occupy Columbus, Kentucky, whose 150-foot cliffs gave him an advantage over vessels on the Mississippi River. It also made him the man who violated Kentucky's neutrality, beating Union Department of the West Commander John C. Fremont to the punch. Two days later Ulysses S. Grant seized Paducah. In a letter dated September 15, 1861, Jefferson Davis told Bishop Polk that "Your wish for A. S. Johnston to command the operations in the West has been fulfilled."
When General Johnston arrived, Missouri occupied most of Polk's time. He had pulled Hardee towards New Madrid while Jeff Thompson's cavalry skirmished with federal officers in south-central Missouri and Sterling Price was resupplying in the southwest. Almost immediately upon his arrival, Johnston reorganized his department, giving Leonidas Polk command of the Mississippi, Cumberland and Tennessee Rivers. On October 31 Polk asked for relief from such a large command.
November 1, 1861, brought an order from General Fremont to Grant asking him to demonstrate in support of the troops battling Jeff Thompson. Grant, wanting to secure his position as Polk's counterpart (in command of the Mississippi for the Union), ordered Charles Ferguson Smith to advance from Paducah on November 7. Grant would land a small force further south on the Mississippi to support the advance, all designed to distract Polk from Grant's real goal, the occupation of Belmont, Missouri.
About 8:30 am reports began reaching Polk of a Union advance in force against Belmont, so Polk ordered Gid Pillow across the river to defend a Rebel camp. As Grant advanced Pillow's men fell back fighting in spite of a roughly equal size force (no surprise here...Pillow was one of the worst Confederate officers). Polk did not want to leave in case of a similar attack by Charles Smith. When Grant routed Pillow, Polk ordered Frank Cheatham across the river and went with him. Polk ordered Cheatham to move his division north of Belmont and block Grant's return to his boats.
Grant broke through Cheatham's line, advanced to his boats, then returned to the battlefield to be certain that all his men had gotten through. Polk spotted the Brigadier General and said, "There is a Yankee; you may try your marksmanship on him if you wish." Fortunately for Grant they were all staff officers. Polk, too, escape serious harm when a Dahlgren gun exploded within ten feet of his position, then atop the bluffs on the Kentucky side of the river.
Over the next several days Grant and Polk met on six occasions, mostly to arrange prisoner exchanges. Polk felt Grant was uneasy at first, but quickly accepted this role expected of a commander. Of course, the uneasiness might well be attributed to changes going on in Grant's command structure at the time. Fremont was out and General Henry Halleck was in. The next several months would favor the aggressive Grant much to the chagrin of of both Leonidas Polk and Henry Halleck.
In early January, 1862 Grant once again demonstrated against Columbus, Kentucky, but a few days later Halleck approved Grant's plan to attack forts on the Cumberland River. Late in the month Jefferson Davis ordered P. G. T. Beauregard west to assume second-in-command duties under Johnston. As he had done when Johnston arrived, General Polk again offered his resignation, which Davis again refused.
Polk's family had been living in Nashville during his time in Kentucky. William Hardee's withdrawal from Bowling Green meant Nashville would be the Army of the Ohio's next stop. Mrs. Polk returned to the family home in New Orleans about the time Don Carlos Buell moved south from Bowling Green. Grant's victory at Fort Donelson left Polk in a dangerous position in Columbus, so he was ordered to withdraw on February 20, 1862.
Some of Polk's troops reinforced Island No. 10, while others withdrew south on the Tennessee side of the Mississippi River. Of Polk's three division commanders, John McCown, A. P. Stuart and Marshall Walker, McCown seemed to have the most experience for the duty. As John Pope besieged the Confederates at Island No. 10, Polk received orders to withdraw to Corinth, Mississippi. Others were also moving to join Johnston and Beauregard in Corinth - from Nashville came Hardee, and John Breckinridge and from the southern coast came Braxton Bragg. As the Army of Mississippi organized, these would be its corps commanders.
On April 2, 1862, division commander Frank Cheatham telegraphed Polk that Lew Wallace was detached from the main force of Yankees at Pittsburg Landing. Polk forwarded the information to Johnston, who decided it was time to attack Grant. Polk, along with 9,136 men or 9,422 men (both figures are from the Official Records), headed north and struck the Union line at Shiloh Church on the left flank of the Confederate line (Battle of Shiloh). With the defeat of Confederate forces at Shiloh and Corinth, Polk moved east to Chattanooga with the Army of Mississippi, now under the command of Bragg.
In late August, 1862, Bragg moved began the Confederate Invasion of Kentucky. When Bragg's Army arrived in Bardstown and Kirby Smith did not, Bragg left Leonidas Polk in command at Bardstown on September 28 while he left to find Smith. Bragg ordered Polk to take Taylorsville, Sheppardsville, Mount Washington and Elizabeth, each roughly halfway between Bardstown and Louisville on September 30. Polk's men, already short of water, left on October 2, with a cavalry screen. Almost immediately they returned when the cavalry ran into Buell's Army of the Ohio advancing in force towards Polk's position.
The Bishop chose to withdraw to the southeast, not realizing that reports of the Union advance in force comprised two brigades without much support. This set up one enduring question replayed in the minds of historians. If Polk had advanced as ordered, he could have cut these brigades off from Buell's main body of men and could have change the outcome of Bragg's invasion.
Over the next several days as they retreated, Polk's men desperately searched for water. Word reached them that a river near Perryville had water, so the Bishop withdrew to Harrodsburg, north of the small Kentucky town. Union soldiers had heard the same rumor and arrived before Polk, setting up the Battle of Perryville on October 8, 1862. Leonidas Polk was in command of the Right Wing of the Army of the Mississippi, with Frank Cheatham as his sole division commander and A. P. Stewart, Daniel Donelson, George Maney and Preston Smith were his brigade commanders. The battle began around 2:30 pm and by 3:00 pm Maney and Donelson, with Stewart in support were gaining ground against the Union left under the command of John Starkweather.
By 3:45 pm Stewart took the center of the Rebel line and with support from Bushrod Johnston and Pat Cleburne to the left, Stewart had pushed the regiments holding this area well back. Then Maney began to gain ground on the right and soon the Union troops engaged in the battle were pulling back from most positions. By 4:30pm the Rebel line was in good shape while the Union troops were circling in front of Wilson's Creek. Starkweather stubbornly held his position because he realized that had he withdrawn, Bragg would be able to slip behind McCook's Corps and cut it off from the main body of Buell's force. That evening, Bragg ordered a withdrawal the next morning.
No one was happy about Bragg's order to withdraw. Not the men, not the generals and not the Bishop. Still, it was Bragg's decision and the West Point-trained Polk would not disobey an order. Polk did tell anyone who would listen about his unhappiness with his commanding general. It was an unhappiness that would fester until it boiled over after Chickamauga.
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Leonidas Polk was last changed on - January 7, 2008
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