Leonidas Polk remains something of an elusive figure to military historians. He owed his high rank to his friendship with Jefferson Davis. But Polk could have risen up the officer ranks on his own. He was charismatic, well-connected, wealthy, and a darling of New Orleans society, where he preached secession in the antebellum years as Louisiana’s Episcopal Archbishop. Politically reliable and a fire-eater and Southern nationalist for years before the war, he proved during the conflict to be stubborn and selfish, mostly noted for his long feud with Braxton Bragg, who commanded the Army of Tennessee. Yet he was brave and beloved by his men. He was easy to talk to and eschewed harsh discipline. He also showed some improvement as a commander. In the Atlanta Campaign he transferred a corps to Georgia and ably commanded it at Resaca.
On June 14, 1864, Polk was killed at Pine Mountain during an artillery barrage [ECW’s Chris Mackowski went On Location there in 2017]. As with many generals, he was not given a burial in a place of his choosing or a place dear to him. Central Tennessee and New Orleans, the two areas where he owned land and was a respected figure, were occupied by Union forces. Augusta, Georgia became his resting place. He received an elaborate funeral in Saint Paul’s Church, presided over by Bishop Stephen Elliott of Georgia. He was buried in a location under the present-day altar.
After the Civil War, Polk fit into the Lost Cause mythology. He was dead and, given the religious iconography of the Lost Cause, fit perfectly into its symbols. Yet, he was not part of the Virginia dynasty. He was also not a particularly successful battle commander. Commemoration of Polk mostly revolved around his faith and positive personal anecdotes. For example, he makes periodic appearances in Sam Watkin’s Company Aytch, where is is depicted as a warm and approachable commander.
In 1945 Polk’s body was brought to New Orleans and re-interred at Christ Church Cathedral on St. Charles Avenue. The congregation had an interesting history. During the war, it was pro-secession, and Benjamin Butler closed it for refusing to offer prayers for Abraham Lincoln’s health and success, a common convention in the Episcopal Church. The current cathedral was constructed in 1886-1889. Polk’s old church Trinity Episcopal Church, on Jackson Avenue, still stands and honors the general. Yet, Christ Church is the archbishop’s seat for Louisiana’s Episcopal Church, and therefore the headquarters of Polk’s successors.
On a quiet Saturday after I finished a Garden District tour, I went over to check out Polk’s resting place. I was let in by Reverend Travers C. Koerner. He showed me Polk’s grave, which is to the right of the pulpit. A mourning altar for Jefferson Davis, dating back to his death in New Orleans in 1889, is nearby.
Polk’s bishop’s seat, crafted by the slaves on his plantation, also stood nearby and is roped off to prevent people from sitting in it. In another room a piece of altar art featured Polk looming above one of the many churches he built. Close at hand, another piece of art featured St. George slaying the dragon. Crafted in 1939, the dragon is laced with swastikas. It is another reminder of the falsity of presenting the Confederacy and Nazi Germany as equivalences. The person who crafted this art certainly did not think so in 1939.
As I left, I spied a simple picture of Polk in his robes. It was not the the old magisterial photograph that adorns many books but rather a simple piece, showing a younger Polk. It reminded me of the several postwar photographs of P.G.T. Beauregard. Unlike his wartime photos, where he is erect and formal, Beauregard was more relaxed in his postwar pictures taken. The images undermine our concrete views of historical figures, who themselves changed as surely as the times they experienced.