Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Polk and the Diocese of Louisiana

Bishop Leonidas Polk was the Bishop Ordinary of the Episcopal Diocese of Louisiana. When the Civil War began, Polk withdrew it from the Episcopal Church of the United States.

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Anonymous said...

The Leonidas Polk Camp of the Sons of Confederate Veterans holds an annual memorial service for the Bishop-General on the top of Pine Mountain, Cobb County, Georgia. The next one will be held on June 20, 2009 at 10:30 a.m. All interested persons are invited.

Below are the remarks from one of these services:

Bishop-General Leonidas Polk Memorial Address
Pine Mountain, Georgia
16 June, 2007

The American capacity for historical amnesia is often astonishing. The South is better than the rest of the nation in considering the lessons to be learned from days of yore, but today, in this era which is described as both increasingly homogenized and yet "diverse," we are drifting towards a mental self-absorption and narcissism which seems to plague so much else of the land. If that notorious "fifteen minutes of fame" is the best one can expect in the modern world, what should Clio, the muse of history, mutter to an impatient present?

This attitude is, of course, shallow. We are not so removed from the past nor has the human condition evolved so much since the nation's founding not to provide a useful lamp unto our feet today.

After the American Revolution, the central point in American history is certainly the effort of the Southern states to establish their own, independent political existence. That effort, first seriously proposed in the days of President Jackson, (after New England’s flirtations with secession under Jefferson and during the War of 1812) and advocated with increasing ardor, became a brief and brilliant reality in the years 1861 through 1865. Those few years are but a sneeze in the measurement of world history. When compared with the long and languid history of nation-states like Egypt it should diminish to almost nothing. And yet, despite the general disinterest in history across the earth, our effort to be free is well-known to almost all sensate beings on the planet.

Confederate Battle Flags were observed at the fall of the Berlin Wall. They fluttered in the wind in the streets of Moscow and Leningrad as the Soviet Empire finally creaked to collapse. They were a unit insignia of a British armored force in Operation Desert Storm. Naturally, in present-day, “freedom loving,” multi-cultural and politically correct America such a display by an American unit would be impossible.

Our struggle to be free still resonates in the rhetoric of politics today. Some of the issues such as states rights, limited government and race relations, stem from the realities of those days. For those who still read, a visit to any bookstore will quickly convince them that popular interest is still high. For those, quite probably the majority of the land, who are voluntary illiterates and avoid serious literature the way a cat avoids water, there still are novels, romances, even comic books in which the War is depicted. One novel in particular has gone from best seller to celluloid immortality: Gone With The Wind is part and parcel of our popular culture even today. Scarlett O’Hara is known across the globe.

Our fascination with that War transcends the normal American indifference to the past. The cultural icons of the nation include Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson rather than Generals Sheridan, Pope, Burnside, Schurz, Hunter or even the victorious Grant or Sherman. Indeed, if this were the time of Imperial Rome, I have no hesitancy in saying that Lee would certainly have been deified. It is an interesting inconsistency in our ahistorical times that the losers in our most destructive war hold such a grip today.

So, we are here today to pause in our busy daily course and remember a bit of that sometimes confusing and contradictory past.

But remembering the past is insufficient. If that were all we were to do, then the comic book would suffice. We need also to learn from the past.

Today we memorialize the Bishop-General of the Confederacy, Leonidas Polk. Through him, we also recall the struggles and sacrifices of the soldiers and civilians of the Southland.

Leonidas was descended from Revolutionary War patriot and general Thomas Polk. Thomas Polk, Leonidas’ grandfather, read the Mecklenberg Declaration of Independence - the first colonial announcement of the secession of the colonists from the British Mother country in Charlotte in 1775 - a full year before the Declaration was promulgated by the Congress in Philadelphia.

Thomas Polk lead North Carolinians to serve under Washington and he, himself, was at several major battles, stayed that bitter winter at Valley Forge and was charged at one time with the custody of the Liberty Bell when it was removed from Philadelphia.

For his troubles, Lord Cornwallis occupied Polk’s home in Charlotte and set about looting what was reported to be the only painted house in that community.

After the reversal of British fortunes at King’s Mountain, Polk gleefully wrote to the Board of War: “I have the pleasure to inform you that on Saturday last the noted Colonel Ferguson with 150 men fell on King’s Mountain; 800 taken prisoners, and 1500 stand of arms. . . . A glorious affair. In a few days time we will be in Charlotte, and I will take possession of my house, and his lordship will take the woods.”

The future Bishop-General’s father, William Polk, was also a revolutionary war officer, rising to Lieutenant Colonel and also serving under Washington. He was seriously wounded on two occasions. Like his father, he also served through the winter at Valley Forge. He later returned to North Carolina after his regiment was so reduced as to require its consolidation with others - and his position being effectively abolished - he joined with North Carolina militia units and made the acquaintance of a young man who became his life-long friend: Andrew Jackson. He also campaigned with another cavalry officer: Colonel Wade Hampton (grandfather of the famed Confederate officer).

After the war, he served in the North Carolina state legislature and took federal appointments under Washington, Adams and Jefferson. When he served as Surveyor General for North Carolina he advised property acquisitions in Tennessee for Andrew Jackson, the father of James K. Polk and the father of Andrew Johnson. Thus, all of Tennessee’s presidents (all with North Carolina roots) came to that state through the advice of the father of the Bishop-General.

J. E. B. Stuart remarked when Col. Washington called on the American troops to fire into the building that housed him as well as the murderous John Brown that “the revolutionary blood will show through.”

The importance assigned to genealogy in early biographical works used to mystify me. No more. Revolutionary tradition fresh in the Polk family meant that a new American Revolution was well within the tradition of a Patriot grandson and son of officers who survived Valley Forge, Cornwallis and Tarleton. The blood would show through again.

What is significant about Leonidas Polk’s father and grandfather was that they were prepared to make sacrifices and did not even shirk from revolution in order to achieve liberty. The lessons of their lives would not be lost on their descendant.

Polk experienced a religious conversion at West Point - said to be the first ever recorded at the that institution - in 1826. As a result, he did not pursue a military career as did some of his classmates. Instead, he entered the ministry and became an active priest in the Episcopal church.

If we study his career prior to the war, we discover an interesting pattern.

Polk as a churchman and an educational advocate wanted to improve the world around him. He sought to create an endowment for the University of the South second to none.

At the time, the young men of the South, in order to get a first class education, were sent either north or out of the country. Polk, along with others such as Thomas R. R. Cobb, feared that this meant that the future of the South was dependent on educators who were often hostile to the values of Dixie. Their sons were being shipped off and indoctrinated in doctrines that were religiously and socially incompatible.

As an point of interest, the endowment Polk sought would have provided the University of the South with an annual income of approximately $200,000. By comparison, the University of Virginia had an annual income of $15,000 and the University of Georgia drew in about $6,000. He sought to bring the best scholars in science, fine arts and literature. He didn’t intend for the South to merely outshine the North. He intended for the South to outshine world. The University of the South, Polk felt, would compare with Oxford and Cambridge. Polk sought to create a “Southern Republic of Letters.”

And, by 1859 he raised enough to about equal the annual income of the University of Georgia and the University of Virginia combined. As Polk playfully wrote to a close friend “ we have concluded to have done with the Yankee boys altogether.”

Consider the difference in history if Polk had been successful and war not swept these plans (and Cobb’s and other visionaries) away. We have seen that even in the poverty that was the Southland’s lot after the devastation of war and Reconstruction Southern literature blossomed like no other area of the nation. Add this to solid science and fine arts and H.L. Mencken’s jibes against this region would have been baseless. Polk also envisioned that the church would play a major role through education in ensuring that Southern society would reflect moral, traditional values. In short, Polk was building a place where anyone would be proud to live and rear their children.

In some respects, it might even be said that Polk was a forerunner of local control of education or even home schooling.

When war approached, the Polk family was touched in a way that many of you may not be aware. When Bishop Polk indicated that the new Southern nation should have a Southern church and began to separate the Episcopal Church in the South from the North, it was “controversial” as the cant critical expression goes. In that Spring of 1861 Mrs. Polk as well as the Bishop’s daughters came to Suwanee. There an arsonist or arsonists attempted to incinerate the family. If it hadn’t been for the timely action of a family “servant” - yes, a slave - Mrs. Polk and her daughters would have been burned alive. We hear a great deal about Preston Brooks beating Charles Sumner, but, like the crimes of the terrorist John Brown, very seldom do we hear about the attempted murder by arson of the Polk women. While the arsonist or arsonists were not caught, they were apparently gentle and highly moral humanitarians concerned about the barbarisms of the Southland.

As a further aside, the separation of the churches was also viewed as an example that the regions could peacefully separate and go their own ways.

These actions certainly did not discourage the Bishop from becoming the Bishop-General. It may even have spurred him on. His former roommate at West Point, Jefferson Davis extended the offer of a generalship to him. Again, this was viewed as “controversial.” Northern Unitarians and agnostics were offended that a churchman would join the military to defend his homeland - and in Polk’s case, even his family against invasion.

In fact, in an interesting expression, Polk was known to say to critics of his doffing the clerical garb for the gray military uniform that he was like a man who found his home on fire and left his business to help extinguish the blaze.

As both a churchman and a general, Leonidas Polk, while not possessed of the acumen of General Lee - who was? - won the confidence and even affection of his soldiery.

Before one battle, General Frank Cheatham, a more worldly officer than Polk, was telling his troops, in rather profane language where to send the Yankees. Attention shifted to the Bishop-General for his reaction. Polk listened, tilted his head and merely said: “Do as General Cheatham says, boys.”

Another time, Polk rode up to a line of soldiers firing into the Confederate ranks. He was wearing a dark cloak over his uniform. In his loud voice he called to them to cease firing as they were shooting at their friends. A federal officer faced about and squinted at him. Polk had ridden into federal lines. The firing ceased. Looking at Polk’s commanding presence, the young officer demanded: “Who are you?” The Bishop-General, knowing he was in for a penny and in for a pound, blustered: “You will find out soon enough who I am! Cease fire, I tell you.” The federals did and Polk turned his horse around and cantered slowly away until he was out of sight. Then he retired as swiftly as possible to the safety of his own men.

He was a man of commanding presence - even amongst his enemies.

Here, on this summit General William T. Sherman observed some “rebels” and ordered his artillery to fire upon them. The very day before General Pat Cleburne had briefly stood here and immediately drew fire. The group of officers Sherman observed were the Commander of the Army of Tennessee, Joseph E. Johnston, General William Hardee and the Bishop-General, Leonidas Polk. That shell-fire killed General Polk. Johnston and Hardee were crushed with grief. But they were not alone. Sam Watkins, the high private in the rear ranks of Company “Aytch” fame recorded his grief in that book. (As an aside, when he died in 1901, Sam Watkins was laid to rest by members of the Leonidas Polk Bivouac of the United Confederate Veterans.)

Watkins wrote: “My pen and ability are inadequate to the task of doing his memory justice. Every private soldier loved him. Second to Stonewall Jackson, His loss was the greatest the South ever sustained. When I saw him there dead, I felt as if I had lost a friend whom I have ever loved and respected, and that the South had lost one of her best and greatest generals.

His soldiers ever loved and honored him; they called him “Bishop Polk.” “Bishop Polk” was ever a favorite with the army; and when any position was held, and it was known that “Bishop Polk” was there, we knew and felt that “all was well.”

Jefferson Davis, writing a generation after Polk’s death opined: “Our army, our country, and mankind at large sustained an irreparable loss in the death of that noble Christian and soldier, Lieutenant-General Polk . . . . Since the calamitous fall of General Albert Sidney Johnston at Shiloh and of General Thomas J. Jackson at Chancellorsville, the country sustained no heavier blow than in the death of General Polk.”

The Bishop-General and the other Confederates would be pleased - maybe even surprised - to know that we think of them today almost a century and a half later. The ancient Greeks believed that the soul never died so long as someone remembered the dead. Certainly the souls of those who now live can be renewed and refreshed by these examples.

After all, the Confederacy, like a candle burned for a brief time and was snuffed out. But defeat is like death. It comes to all peoples, all nations. It is not merely the result, but our response to these results, that make things memorable.

We must keep in mind that Leonidas Polk, like his Spartan namesake at Thermopylae, did not fight for a marker like this one. Indeed, in Polk’s case we know that he did not want to die in combat. (Patton’s comment about making some other poor solider die for HIS country comes to mind.) Polk sought to survive the war and continue what he saw his life’s work: the church and education - for us.

But, the pressure of events had other plans for his career and the South.

One of the great scribes of our language, the Englishman Rudyard Kipling touched on this subject in his poem: The Heritage

Our Fathers in a wondrous age,
Ere yet the Earth was small,
Ensured to us an heritage,
And doubted not at all

That we, the children of their heart,
Which then did beat so high,
In later time should play like part
For our posterity.

A thousand years they steadfast built,
To ‘vantage us and ours,
The Walls that were a world’s despair,
The sea-constraining Towers:
Yet in their midmost pride they knew,
And unto Kings made known,
Not all from these their strength they drew,
Their faith from brass or stone.

Youth’s passions, manhood’s fierce intent,
With age’s judgement wise,
They spent, and counted not they spent,
At daily sacrifice.
Not lambs alone nor purchased doves
Or tithe of trader’s gold -
Their lives most dear, their dearer loves,
They offered up of old.

Refraining e’en from lawful things,
They bowed their necks to bear
The unadorned yoke that brings
Stark toil and sternest care.
Wherefore through them is Freedom sure;
Wherefore through them we stand,
From all but sloth and pride secure,
In a delightsome land.

Then fretful, murmur not they gave
So great a charge to keep,
Nor dream that awestruck Time shall save
Their labor while we sleep.

Dear-bought and clear, a thousand year,
Our father’s title runs.
Make we likewise their sacrifice,
Defrauding not our sons.

No, Polk did not fight for markers or memorials. He and his brothers in grey and the civilians who supported them at home all fought for us. They sought to make this land a better place for us. In Polk we see the Southern knight who would elevate our morals, educate our minds and ensure liberty for us.

Herein is the lesson of the lives of our Confederate ancestors. Just as they did, we should dedicate our lives and our energies to those who come next - born and unborn. We are links in that chain. Our Confederate ancestors, being human, made mistakes. We should learn from those mistakes and profit thereby. After all, the cost paid for some of these mistakes has been enormous.

But, their lives, like the life of Leonidas Polk, is rich with a heritage of honor. Polk’s and our other Confederate ancestors’ concern for us today is evident in their actions and their sacrifices. We would be deeply unworthy if we did not recall them, study them, learn from them and improve upon them.

That is what is expected of us both by those who have gone before and those to whom we will pass the torch. Will you be equal to that task? Your ancestors and your descendants await you actions.

Martin K. O’Toole
Lt. Commander, Leonidas Polk Camp #1446
Smyrna, Georgia
Judge Advocate
Georgia Division
Sons of Confederate Veterans