“A Piece of Bone,” Bishop Polk, and the National Tribune

Alfred Waud’s sketch of the death of Bishop Polk (loc)

Editor’s note: Stephen Davis’ forthcoming book, The National Tribune Remembers the Atlanta Campaign, will be published next year by Savas Beatie.

The National Tribune, a weekly newspaper published in Washington from 1877 to 1943, was arguably the most comprehensive repository of Union soldiers’ reminiscences after the Civil War. It solicited and published long series of articles written by Federal officers, private soldiers’ recollections of battles, amusing incidents they remembered years later, and all manner of correspondence as the veterans mailed in comments on what they had read in the paper (often offering disagreement as to “what happened”). Altogether, the National Tribune is as rich a storehouse for Union veterans’ recollections as Confederate Veteran magazine (1893-1932) was for reminiscing Southern soldiers.

Yet the National Tribune remains an under-used trove of treasure. For example, Albert Castel cites Confederate Veteran a dozen times in his Decision in the West (University Press of Kansas, 1992), but as for citations of the National Tribune, he has exactly zero.

There are several reasons for this. The National Tribune has never been reprinted in its entirety as have Confederate Veteran (National Historical Society) and the Southern Historical Society Papers (Kraus Reprint). Complete runs of the paper are known to be housed in fewer than a dozen and a half major libraries across the country. Secondly, until recently there has been no thorough index for the National Tribune’s thousands of Civil War articles. This void has been remedied by the three-volume index compiled by Richard Sauers (Savas Beatie, 2018).

Scholars are starting to consult and cite the National Tribune, thanks to its having been posted online by the Library of Congress (at least through 1911, the year that the newspaper began to turn away from its Civil War emphasis). Similarly, we may assume that more and more students of the Civil War will turn to its pages as well.

When they do so, they’ll come upon interesting—and often important—reminiscences written by Union veterans. Example of the former is the following, which appeared in the National Tribune’s issue of June 4, 1885:

L. RICE, “Death of Gen. Polk” (National Tribune, June 4, 1885, page 3).

TO THE EDITOR: In your issue of May 21 Gen. Carlin says, near the close of his “Memoirs”: “It was at Pine Mountain, along in June I believe, that Lieut.-Gen. Leonidas Polk, (Confederate army,) Bishop of Louisiana, was killed by a cannon ball from one of our batteries.” I turn to my diary and read: “Thursday, June 16, 1864—The fighting was kept up all night. I was on Pine Mountain to-day; saw the spot where Gen. Polk was killed yesterday, and from the clotted blood I picked out a piece of bone, washed off the blood, inclosed it in a letter and sent it home. P.M.-Again on Pine Mountain; occupied by Signal Corps.” I mention this, as several persons to whom I have in times past related the incident claimed I was certainly mistaken, as no “Bishop” ever went into the army.—J. L. RICE, 15th Wis., Ransomville, Kan. 

Rice was not the only one interested in the Bishop’s bones. The fatal shell had struck General Polk in the left arm, passing through his body, emerging from his right arm and exploding on a nearby tree.

During the night of June 14-15, Johnston withdrew his troops from Pine Mountain, which position had been an exposed salient in his line. The next day George Thomas’ troops advanced and occupied the abandoned earthworks. There, one of General David Stanley’s men saw a note fastened to a stake in the ground reading, “You damned Yankee sons of bitches has killed our old Gen. Polk.” Inspecting the Rebel works, David Conyngham of the New York Herald came upon a “mass of blood”; he knew it was Polk’s. He and a surgeon picked up some bits of bone; they looked like ribs and radii, ulnae—arm bones—and pocketed them as ghoulish souvenirs. “The men dipped their handkerchiefs in it too,” Conyngham wrote, “whether as a scared relic, or to remind them of a traitor, I do not know.” (David Conyngham, Sherman’s March through the South [1865], 112.)

2 Responses to “A Piece of Bone,” Bishop Polk, and the National Tribune

  1. Thanks for this, Steve. The National Tribune is a gold mine, yet undiscovered by 99% of those reading and researching the Civil War. Sauers’s three volume index is the key to the gold mine.

    By the way, my man George Washington Rains embalmed Polk’s corpse for the burial in Augusta. I have a letter from one of Polk’s officers to Rains. Just a tidbit for us diehard fact folks.

  2. It strikes us as odd now, but for centuries really, folks would retain the bones of heroes, saints and the like. Surely the Civil War time period saw the waning of that macabre tradition?

Please leave a comment and join the discussion!

%d bloggers like this: