Episcopal bishop and Confederate general Leonidas Polk was born in Raleigh, North Carolina, April 10, 1806. He briefly attended the University of North Carolina before entering the U.S. Military Academy. He graduated eighth in his class in 1827. He became an Episcopalian during his senior year and resigned his commission six months after graduation to enter the ministry. He was ordained a deacon in 1830.
Polk married Frances (Fanny) Ann Devereux in May 1830 and immediately was posted as assistant to Bishop Richard Channing Moore of Monumental Church of Richmond, the church in which he and Fanny were married. In 1832 he moved his family to Tennessee, where he received a portion of the Polk lands near Mount Pleasant and built a home called “Ashwood.”
He became missionary bishop of the Southwest in 1838 and bishop of Louisiana in 1841. At the Louisiana Convention in 1842 he proposed that religious education should be extended to blacks. He was active in the establishment of the University of the South at Sewanee, Tennessee, where he laid its cornerstone in 1860. When the Civil War began and Louisiana seceded from the Union, Polk, as bishop, and without the prior consent of the Louisiana Convention, pulled his convention out of the Episcopal Church of the United States.
Confederate President Jefferson Davis, friend and former West Point classmate, encouraged Polk to accept a commission in the Confederate army, and Polk eventually exchanged his clerical vestments for a uniform. He was commissioned major general in the Provisional Army of the Confederacy on June 25, 1861. In the early months of the conflict, he commanded the vast territory of Department No. 2 (headquartered in Memphis) which included the Mississippi River defenses from the Red River to Paducah, Kentucky. To fortify the river further he occupied Columbus, Kentucky, on September 4, 1861, violating Kentucky’s neutrality. This act probably hurt the Confederate cause in the area more than it benefited it. He also organized the Army of the Mississippi, later a part of the Army of Tennessee. He was superseded in command of Department No. 2 by General Albert Sidney Johnston.
Polk commanded the Confederate right at Shiloh, leading four charges personally. At Perryville, he was second-in-command to General Braxton Bragg, who criticized him for not attacking the Union forces when ordered. Bragg blamed Polk for the failure of the Perryville campaign. Polk commanded the right flank at the battle of Stones River, and his corps took the pivotal Round Forest twice before Bragg’s army withdrew. At Chickamauga Bragg relieved Polk of command, had him transferred to Mississippi, and ordered him court-martialed for disobeying orders. After careful investigation, Jefferson Davis dismissed the charges. Polk took command of the Department of Alabama, Mississippi, and East Louisiana in December 1863 with headquarters in Meridian, Mississippi.
General Joseph E. Johnston, who replaced Bragg following the battle of Chickamauga, ordered Polk’s forces to assist him in the Atlanta campaign. While examining the Federal position in company with Generals Johnston and Hardee, Polk, then a corps commander in the Army of Tennessee, was instantly killed by a shot to the chest at Pine Mountain near Marietta, Georgia, on June 14, 1864.