Thursday, April 11, 2019

Booknotes: Leonidas Polk

New Arrival:
Leonidas Polk: Warrior Bishop of the Confederacy by Huston Horn (UP of Kansas, 2019).

Among the group of longest serving generals in the Confederacy's western high command, Leonidas Polk has to be second only to Braxton Bragg in arousing historical controversy and questions over his competence. Oddly enough, though, he was very popular with the men he led. Nothing grabbed me long ago when I leafed through the two existing major biographies of Polk, so I welcome this new treatment. William C. Davis certainly has high praise for Huston Horn's Leonidas Polk: Warrior Bishop of the Confederacy, deeming it "the best Confederate military biography of recent years." I certainly agree with the other jacket blurb writer, Sam Davis Elliott, that we are "long overdue" for a complete reevaluation of the general.

As most readers know, Polk was one of those West Point graduates who immediately resigned to pursue other opportunities, in his case the Episcopal priesthood. "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."

More from the description: "Recognizing his indispensable familiarity with the Mississippi Valley, Confederate president Jefferson Davis commissioned his elevation to a high military position regardless of his lack of prior combat experience. Polk commanded troops in the Battles of Belmont, Shiloh, Perryville, Stones River, Chickamauga, and Meridian as well as several smaller engagements in Georgia leading up to Atlanta. Polk is remembered for his bitter disagreements with his immediate superior, the likewise-controversial General Braxton Bragg of the Army of Tennessee. In 1864, while serving under the command of General Joseph E. Johnston, Polk was killed by Union cannon fire as he observed General Sherman’s emplacements on the hills outside Atlanta."

Modern assessments of Polk's military ability and subordinate behavior have been almost overwhelmingly negative, so I will be very curious to read Horn's take on Polk's Civil War career. The description is coy about revealing any areas of major revisionist views. The 20-page bibliography gives off the vibe of deep research. The only negative thing that immediately jumps out is the complete absence of maps in the book, though that is less of a problem in high-level biographies like this one. Looking forward to reading it.

1 comment:

  1. I may pick this one up. Very interested in anything Army of Tennessee related, and Western Theater in general, so this one definitely piques my interest.


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