Monday, June 4, 2012

Leonidas Polk, Bishop and General

When I visited the church I posted yesterday, St. Philip's Episcopal Church in Harrodsburg, KY, I saw this historic marker next to the street. I had been aware of Bishop Polk previously, but the marker set me wondering anew about why a bishop would go off to war. Yes, I knew they did such things during the Crusades, but this was in the middle of the 19th century. Hadn't the church gotten beyond that by then?

Seen through twenty-first century eyes, Bishop Polk was a man of great contradictions. He was a graduate of the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, NY, but quickly resigned his commission to enter seminary to become a priest. He married the great-granddaughter of Jonathan Edwards, the Puritan preacher and theologian. Ordained in 1831, he moved his family to Tennessee the following year. By 1840 he was reported to be the owner of 111 slaves. The U.S. Census of 1850 listed him as owner of 215 slaves. In the interim, he had been elected Episcopal Bishop of Louisiana. He was one of the founding bishops of The University of the South, at Sewanee, Tennessee, which was founded with secessionist motivations.

When Louisiana seceded from the Union, Polk also separated the Diocese of Louisiana from the Episcopal Church of the United States. He then wrote to his former West Point classmate, Confederate President Jefferson Davis, offering his services to the Confederate Army. Davis named him a Major General. Polk served without distinction, but still managed to be promoted to Lt. General, due to his friendship with Davis. He was killed by Union artillery on June 14, 1864, near Marietta, Georgia.

Looking back, Bishop Polk seems to have been a man of great ego and even greater ambition. It appears he had little respect for his superiors and their orders, with the result that he was blamed for both defeats and lost opportunities on the battlefield. Yet he apparently was loved by his men and greatly mourned when he died. Perhaps he was best suited to serving the church, after all. But then there's that small detail of owning all those slaves.....

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