Now available: Leonidas Polk: Warrior Bishop of the Confederacy
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.
How would you describe your book in two or three sentences? The book covers the principal phases of Leonidas Polk’s life: West Point cadet, Episcopal priest/bishop, sugar planter, University of the South founder, and Confederate general. In many respects an estimable human being, Polk was infected by the virulent racism of his times. And as divisive as the Civil War was to most Americans, Polk took it one step further by dividing the Episcopal Church as well.
What was your inspiration to research and write about the “Warrior Bishop of the Confederacy?” Growing up in a Southern “Lost Cause” household, and becoming an Episcopal minister myself, I was struck by the commonalities between Leonidas Polk and me – and I reflected upon the differences.
What was the most challenging aspect of researching and writing the book? The deciphering and copying over several years of Polk’s voluminous original and microfilmed correspondence. He once himself compared his daunting penmanship to hieroglyphics – but it was worse than that.
William C. Davis says that there are those who have maintained that General Leonidas Polk did more to bring about Confederate defeat than any other single man. Do you agree with that assessment? I am not a military historian, but I suspect such a blanket disparagement is overly harsh. What may be said in his favor was his bravery in combat (foolhardy, sometimes) and his abiding popularity with his rank and file soldiers.
Despite a lack of prior combat experience, General Polk was quickly promoted through the Confederate ranks by President Jefferson Davis. How has history viewed his military service and Davis’s decision to advance him? History knows that Davis and Polk were friends since their West Point days together: “a set,” they called it. That friendship covered many a flaw.
What is one thing you would like readers to take from your work? The disjuncture of Polk’s life as a Christian clergyman and the owner of slaves – albeit the most beneficent of masters, as he liked to think of himself.
If you could have any one person read your book, who would that be? Polly Lee Carroll, my wife and companion for 55 years who read numerous drafts and fixed plenty of footnotes, but died of lymphoma in 2013 before the final version was finished.
Huston Horn followed his career in journalism at the Nashville Tennessean, Sports Illustrated, and Time-Life Books with an ordained ministry in the Episcopal Church. He lives in Pasadena, California.