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Civil War Trust

The Death of Bishop Polk

The Atlanta Campaign - June 14, 1864
Stephen Davis

Leonidas Polk
An Episcopal bishop before the war, Polk fought in nearly every major battle in the Western Theater prior to his death. (Library of Congress)

On June 5, Gen. Joseph Johnston pitched his new line from Lost Mountain northeastward to Gilgal Church, an important road junction. Then he extended it further, across the railroad, all the way to its right anchor at Brush Mountain. This new "mountain line," stretching for ten miles, was held by Gen. John Bell Hood's corps on the right, Lt. Gen. Leonidas Polk's in the middle, and Gen. William J. Hardee's on the left. At its center was Pine Mountain, actually a mile in front of the Southerners' main works. Held by William Bate's division of Hardee's corps, it thus formed a salient, though it was not connected by trenches to the main line; the 300-foot mountain was too commanding not to be occupied. 

After reaching the Western & Atlantic Railroad at Acworth, Gen. William T. Sherman spent a week resting his troops and securing his rail link to the rear. Two divisions of the Seventeenth Corps arrived on June 8, making good those troops recently lost to battle and sickness. On the 10th the army group started to march. Maj. Gen. Oliver O. Howard's Fourth Corps first encountered the rebels on Pine Mountain on June 10; Howard was soon joined by the other corps of Thomas' army, Maj. Gen. John Palmer's Fourteenth and Maj. Gen. Joseph Hooker's Twentieth. Skirmishing and artillery fire filled the next several days as the Federals tested the Southern position, and began working their way around the east of the mountain. 

Battery at Pine Mountain
The remnants of a 4-gun battery at Pine Mountain can still be seen today. (Douglas Ullman, Jr. )

By the evening of the 13th, General Hardee began to worry that the enemy might envelop Pine Mountain, and isolate Bate's division. After breakfast on June 14, Generals Johnston and Polk met, went to Hardee's headquarters around 10 a.m., and from there rode to Bate's position on Pine Mountain. At its top, around 11 o'clock, the generals dismounted and began to survey the enemy's lines. Col. W.S. Dilworth, whose Florida brigade held the mountain crest, saw that the group of officers drew minie balls from Federal sharpshooters and warned them to disperse; enemy artillery had the range and would soon open. 

Polk's Death - Waud
The death of General Polk as sketched by Alfred Waud. (Library of Congress)

General Sherman himself was down below and spotted the group of Rebel officers. "How saucy they are!" General Howard remembered Sherman saying. Sherman ordered nearby batteries to open fire. The three-inch rifles of the Fifth Indiana Battery fired a salvo, as did Battery E, Pennsylvania Light Artillery. The Northern shot rained near the Confederate generals; Dilworth warned them to move. Hardee and Johnston walked away; Dilworth noticed General Polk held back, apparently distracted by some view of the enemy's lines. Then came an artillery round - a solid shot or a shell - which struck Polk, entering his left side and passing through his body. The general fell dead, instantly killed. 

A shaken Johnston and Hardee huddled near the corpse. "My dear, dear friend," Hardee grieved. Johnston tearfully laid his hand on Polk's forehead lamenting, "I would rather anything but this." Stretcher-bearers came up and the general's body was moved onto a litter. Staff officers escorted it down the mountain; one led the general's horse, "Jerry." Union signal officers had broken the Rebels' wigwag code and picked up a message from Pine Mountain around noon: "Send an ambulance for General Polk's body."

Polk Monument
This obelisk on Pine Mountain marks the spot where Polk was killed. To reach it, follow the break in the woods near the historical marker. (Douglas Ullman, Jr. )

Johnston wired President Davis that afternoon: "the army and the country this morning had the calamity to lose Lieutenant General Polk, who fell by a canon-shot directed at one of our batteries."

 

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