Monday, November 19, 2018

Book News: Leonidas Polk

It doesn't take new Civil War readers long before they are confronted with the stark contrast between the stability and effectiveness of the Confederate high command structure in the East and the self-defeating constant flux and dysfunction embodied in the top leadership in the western theater. In the context of western Confederate generals who occupied high command positions for a long enough period of time to have a singularly harmful impact on the course of the war, Lieutenant General Leonidas Polk is surely second only to Braxton Bragg. While Earl Hess's recent military biography of Bragg had some success in revising the traditional view of that general's martial legacy, no one has attempted a similarly in-depth reappraisal of Polk. However that situation will change early next year with the publication of Huston Horn's Leonidas Polk: Warrior Bishop of the Confederacy (UP of Kansas, Feb 2019).

For those unfamiliar with Polk's pre-Civil War background, the book description offers a nice summary. "Leonidas Polk was a graduate of West Point who resigned his commission to enter the Episcopal priesthood as a young man. At first combining parish ministry with cotton farming in Tennessee, Polk subsequently was elected the first bishop of the Louisiana Diocese, whereupon he bought a sugarcane plantation and worked it with several hundred slaves owned by his wife. Then, in the 1850s he was instrumental in the founding of the University of the South in Sewanee, Tennessee. When secession led to war he pulled his diocese out of the national church and with other Southern bishops established what they styled the Protestant Episcopal Church in the Confederate States of America. Polk then offered his military services to his friend and former West Point classmate Jefferson Davis and became a major general in the Confederate Army."

Immediately elevated to an important department command in the West, Polk would go on to participate in most of the theater's major campaigns and battles as a corps/small-army level commander until his grisly June 1864 death at Pine Mountain, Georgia. While no one today views him as a particularly capable general officer (or at least one fit for the many high-level positions he held during the war), Polk was apparently well-regarded by many of those that served under him, subordinate officers and common soldiers alike. A long-standing critic of Bragg and notable schemer against the controversial army commander, he was also a divisive figure off the battlefield.

It will be interesting to see how Horn will approach Polk's Civil War service and war record. Jacket blurbs are notorious for overstatement, but it is noteworthy that William C. Davis feels that Horn's treatment is "the best Confederate military biography of recent years." I don't know of any previous Civil War work from Horn, but that doesn't mean he won't produce a masterpiece. On a trivia note, I wonder if he's related to Stanley Horn. It is somewhat interesting that he shares a hybrid professional identity with his subject, he being a journalist and Episcopal minister while Polk was a general and Episcopal bishop.


  1. Drew, based on information from the late Nathaniel C. Hughes, Jr., it is my understanding that Rev. Horn is a nephew of Stanley Horn.


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