Thursday, August 29, 2019

Review - "Leonidas Polk: Warrior Bishop of the Confederacy" by Huston Horn

[Leonidas Polk: Warrior Bishop of the Confederacy by Huston Horn (University Press of Kansas, 2019). Hardcover, 6 photos and illustrations, notes, bibliography, index. Pages main/total:vii,427/599. ISBN:978-0-7006-2750-9. $39.95]

Episcopal bishop and highly controversial Confederate lieutenant general Leonidas Polk has long been in need of a modern reevaluation. Though a pair of minor biographies primarily concerned with Polk's clerical life were published earlier this century, the standard study remains Joseph Parks's General Leonidas Polk C.S.A.: The Fighting Bishop (1962). Generally speaking, the presentation of Polk in both the popular and scholarly Civil War literature has always been largely negative, with most authors questioning his military competence and work ethic while also condemning his serial acts of alleged insubordination. Seeking a more nuanced and complete treatment of Polk's life and Civil War generalship is Huston Horn's Leonidas Polk: Warrior Bishop of the Confederacy.

With roughly 150 pages covering the period between Polk's West Point enrollment and the beginning of the Civil War, the book is much more than a military biography. While a student at the Academy, he experienced a religious epiphany of sorts that concerned both his family and West Point officials. Soon after graduation, he determined upon a career in the cloth while also embracing the planter lifestyle, splitting time between Tennessee and Louisiana and eventually amassing ownership of hundreds of slaves. Though he briefly attained impressive wealth, at least on paper, his business judgment would prove far from infallible.

While some have questioned Polk's commitment to the cloth, the contrary impression clearly shines through Horn's narrative. In it Polk exhibits an extreme dedication to the development of religious life in Louisiana and other parts of the frontier Trans-Mississippi. Rising from Episcopal priest to bishop, Polk embarked upon extensive proselytizing tours of the region that kept him away from his family for months at a time, all the while suffering from a chronic lung ailment. He added to these burdens a serious educational mission that would eventually lead his to his co-founding of the University of the South in Sewanee, Tennessee, a process that was cut short by the outbreak of war. Not allowing occasional doubts regarding the morality and propriety of slavery to alter his course, Polk's actions during this period suggest a support for slavery, secession, and southern nationalism little different in character from that expressed by a great many members of the South's planter class.

Horn's account of the public reaction to Polk's agreeing to don a Confederate general's uniform is interesting in that Polk received criticism from both warring sections. While the northern press could mock the South's bishop-general for their own partisan purposes, even some of Polk's friends and supporters were shocked at the impropriety of a high-ranking clergyman taking on a leading military role in the war. Some likened Polk to a Middle Ages throwback whose actions were antithetical to nineteenth-century values.

Though largely sympathetic, Horn does acknowledge the insubordinate streak in Polk's character that frequently got him into trouble with superiors and later historians. In western Kentucky early in the war, he approved General Gideon Pillow's aggressive plan to occupy Columbus. Whatever one thinks of their joint belief that federal forces were on the cusp of moving en masse into the pro-Union border state and needed to be preempted, such a highly charged military and political move should never have been made without the prior approval of the Davis administration. Throughout the war, Polk was also not reluctant to go above the chain of command and offer unsolicited strategic advice (which often sounded more like lectures) to the president, with whom friendly relations existed. General Braxton Bragg would later complain that Polk always thought he knew better than those placed above him and allowed that mindset to guide his behavior. In those ways, Polk was not unlike many high-ranking Civil War generals.

The repulse of Grant's attack at Belmont in November 1861, which was coordinated by Polk, might have suggested that the general could prove militarily useful. However, Polk had accepted his major generalcy with grave misgivings and after Belmont was still unsure about army service. After having done his duty in weathering the early war emergency in the Mississippi Valley, he tried to resign on at least three occasions. Polk has often been criticized, and appropriately so, for having a one-track mind when it came to the defense of his Columbus fortress, and one might reasonably wonder whether his constant expectation of leaving the army also had any role in his neglect of other important posts.

Readers wanting an exhaustive tactical-scale description and analysis of Polk's actions and whereabouts on every major western theater battlefield will be somewhat disappointed to find that Horn's military assessment is mostly limited to high-level campaign and battle discussion, a course that is largely appropriate to Polk's capacity as corps commander. So in an otherwise lengthy book only a handful of pages each are devoted to Polk's direct role in battles such as Shiloh, Perryville, and Stones River.

Though Pillow drove him to distraction early in the war, clearly the most troublesome relationship of Polk's Civil War career was with Army of Tennessee commander Braxton Bragg, who upon multiple occasions accused Polk of disobedience and gross insubordination. Many historians have followed Bragg's lead. Horn, on the other hand, finds room for mitigating factors that, if generally accepted, should somewhat leaven the general opprobrium heaped upon Polk by history. The following are a few prime examples of Polk at his most controversial.

Though Bragg entirely misread the military situation in Kentucky during the close lead-in to Perryville (erroneously believing the small Union column moving on Frankfort was the enemy army's main body), he never forgave Polk for not following his order to quickly attack the opposing force in his front and join the rest of the army at Versailles. A serious disaster might have occurred had Polk obeyed, and most observers are in agreement that Polk acted wisely. Even so, from that point onward the Bragg-Polk relationship, never particularly warm, would grow bitterly antagonistic.

During the Chickamauga Campaign, Polk was ordered to attack General Thomas Crittenden's advancing Union corps on September 13 under the assumption it was near and isolated, and Polk again demurred. Horn is more forgiving of Polk's inaction during this episode than other writers have been, arguing that Crittenden had already turned away from Polk's front and positioned himself strongly behind Chickamauga Creek by the time any coordinated Confederate attack might have reached him.

The Chickamauga myth that Polk was found in an easy chair reading a paper and awaiting breakfast mid-morning on the 20th when his wing should have been conducting a dawn attack on the Union left stubbornly persists as perhaps the most commonly cited example of Polk's ingrained insubordination. However, more recent scholars of the battle (most notably William Glenn Robertson) have determined the story to be a fabrication with outrageous details that grew in the telling. Even Bragg himself contributed to it. The story and its later embellishments are also probably the source of much of the popular perception of Polk being exceptionally slothful in his personal habits. Horn's Polk is an active wing commander who had every intention of launching the ordered dawn attack, only to be thwarted in timing by a series of fog-of-war circumstances and classic D.H. Hill. Nevertheless, the delay in attacking led to Polk's arrest and removal from command.

Polk's first opportunity since 1861 to conduct an essentially independent operation of any size was his handling of the Army of Mississippi during the 1864 Meridian Campaign. Though Nathan Bedford Forrest turned back General Sherman's cooperating cavalry wing under Sooy Smith, Polk did little if anything to even annoy let alone directly oppose Sherman's infantry advance into the Mississippi interior, where Union soldiers wreaked havoc upon the infrastructure. Later, though there were few sources of major complaint with it, Polk's service in Georgia after joining forces with the Army of Tennessee was equally undistinguished before his grisly death at Pine Mountain. There was genuine sorrow in the ranks over Polk's passing, and it brings to mind how highly regarded he was by the Confederacy's western soldiers and many of their generals, even though some among the latter considered him less than attentive when it came to taking care of his command. Unfortunately, the phenomenon of Polk's immense popularity with the common soldier is not examined at any depth in the book.

As for problems with text and presentation, typos and careless content errors appear regularly. As an example of the latter, in the Chickamauga discussion Horn writes that General Thomas commanded the largest "brigade" in the federal army when, as evidenced elsewhere, he clearly knows the difference between brigades, divisions, and corps. While the book is generously sized the same cannot be said for its collection of illustrations, which comprise a meager handful. Far more unfortunate is the complete absence of map coverage of Polk's service in the field.

Leonidas Polk: Warrior Bishop of the Confederacy is easily the best and most comprehensive combined treatment of Polk's ecclesiastical and military careers. Nowhere else will readers find a more detailed, evenhanded, and understanding portrait of Polk as man, father, husband, priest, and general. Horn persuasively presents Polk as a flawed yet dutiful general. While Polk possessed no outstanding command attributes that would place him anywhere near the top echelon of Confederate military leaders, he also was not the hopelessly incompetent and unshakably insubordinate general that has so often emerged from the literature. For anyone seeking the most well-rounded reassessment of Polk's generalship and the insights that might provide into Confederate command relationships and failures in the western theater, Horn's study is essential new reading.


  1. Good review; I was hoping you'd do this one. I was highly anticipating this book, and ended up being somewhat disappointed. You are absolutely right about it being largely sympathetic and I thought it overly so. A few things really jumped out at me while reading it. When the author referred in passing to Jones Withers being an ally of Polk against Bragg, nothing could be farther from the truth; Withers was solidly pro-Bragg. There was also a reference to A.P. Stewart coming west with Longstreet, which obviously he did not. Those aren't critical errors, but they did give me the impression that the author might not have had sufficient background regarding the personalities within the Army of Tennessee and that's critical to any understanding of Polk, Bragg, etc. The book doesn't place much blame, if any, on Polk for the toxic relationship between Bragg and him and I would have liked to have seen that explored a little more evenly.

    His version of events surrounding the errant orders for September 20 at Chickamauga was ok, but he certainly portrayed Polk as more pro-active than either Glenn Robertson or Dave Powell, and their versions are more plausible. Incidentally, nothing by Powell or Robertson was included in the bibliography, which was almost unbelievable to me.

    Personally, I thought the pre-war part of the book to be outstanding, certainly the best telling of Polk's clerical and planter life. It's a decent book, and a must read for anyone interested in the Army of Tennessee, but I thought it was a little too one-sided. That's not unusual in biographies, though. It's always good to see another Army of Tennessee biography!

    Andy Papen

    1. Hi Andy,
      I seem to recall him discussing Robertson and Powell in the notes.

      Yeah, for reasons you cite and others, I got the impression the author's grasp of the background military literature wasn't as strong as we'd like to see for someone embarking on a revisionist biography project covering a major figure like Polk.

  2. Hello Drew

    I also seem to remember something in the notes, but neither is sourced in the bibliography. Granted, Robertson's Chickamauga Volume 1 likely wasn't available in time, but his essay on the September 20 order in Gateway to the Confederacy was.

    I was hoping one of the Army of the Tennessee "heavyweights" would tackle Polk at some point, but then again they might go into it with preconceptions that a fresh face would not. There is a ton of good info in this biography, but I think Polk needed a little more criticism. I know nothing about the Episcopal church, so the portions dealing with Polk's rise in the church hierarchy was fascinating. Looking forward to your review of Larry Daniel's book as well.

    Andy Papen

  3. "As for problems with text and presentation, typos and careless content errors appear regularly."

    That's disappointing for something published by a university press.

    A little internet searching indicates the author, Huston Horn, is a career journalist and Episcopal minister. His only previously published book that I find is a Time-Life book about pioneers. Combined with your review and Andy's comments, I wonder whether Horn lacks sufficient familiarity with the Civil War to effectively tackle the wartime questions about Polk's abilities as a general.

    Nevertheless, I will keep the book on my To Read list. With a new biography of Bragg and new bibliographic book about Hood in recent years it's good to see some much needed reevaluation. Tilling fresh ground is much better than yet another book about Lincoln or Gettysburg.


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