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ARTICLES Confederate General Leonidas Polk and the collapse of the Confederate command structure in the Western Theater

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 Read more about “Louisville and the Civil War: A History & Guide” 

Louisville and the Civil War: A History & Guide.  This book traces the Civil War in Louisville and gives the reader a sense of how the city looked towards the Union and the Confederacy.  This includes discussion of how Louisville turned from a very pro-Union city towards supporting the Confederacy, or at least the Lost Cause.

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On the morning of June 14, 1864, at the crest of Pine Mountain, near Marietta, Georgia, Confederate General William Hardee, Joseph Johnston, and Leonidas Polk held a conference to determine whether or not the Confederate Army of Tennessee should remain or withdraw.  The three generals were in a dirt and log bastion containing the South Carolina battery of Lt. Rene T. Beauregard, son of Confederate General Pierre Gustave Toutant Beauregard.  Standing atop to parapet, Col. William S. Dilworth, acting commander of Findley’s Florida Brigade, pointed out to Johnston, Hardee and Polk the Federal works and batteries in the valley below.  Then, noticing that the generals' staffs also had collected in the bastion, Dilworth asked them to retire to the rear.  Such a large crowd would attract the fire of the enemy.  The staff officers moved back, but Johnston, Hardee, and Polk remained.  Dilworth noticed a puff of white smoke coming from a Federal cannon and moments later a solid shot shrieked overhead.  Dilworh immediately told the three generals to take cover on the reverse side of the mountain.  None of the generals moved.  For Civil War generals it was a point of honor, not to show fear under fire.  Dilworth again insisted that the generals at least separate.  They did.  Johnston strolled off to the left and Hardee to the right.  Polk lingered behind.  A second cannon shot came screaming in, followed by a third.  Defiantly, Polk turned around one last time to see the Yankees in the valley below when the third shell entered his left side and tore him in half.  Polk’s death was typical of his military career: as a general he was courageous, but he would not listen to advice from his subordinates or his superiors, and insisted on commanding in the field his own way ignoring advice or direct commands.1  This paper argues that because of Leonidas Polk’s insubordination, semi-mutinous acts, and behind the scenes manipulation of turning the Army of Tennessee’s generals and President Jefferson Davis against Confederate General Braxton Bragg, Polk caused the Confederate command structure in the Western Theater to weaken and eventually collapse.  When the Kentucky invasion of 1861, the Battle of Perryville of 1862, the Battle of Stone’s River of December 31, 1862-January 1, 1863, the Tullahoma Campaign of 1863, and the Chickamauga-Chattanooga Campaign of 1863 are analyzed, it becomes evident that it was Polk who caused the breakdown of the Confederate command structure in the Army of the Tennessee.

Confederate General Leonidas Polk
University of Louisville's Nu Xi Chapter of the Phi Alpha Theta History Honor Society published in their online journal^2 this article as one of the two best graduate papers submitted to them from the History Department in 2004.

The first incident of Polk’s insubordination occurred during the Kentucky invasion of 1861.  The Kentucky invasion of 1861 reveals that Polk ignored the political ramifications of a Confederate invasion and shows that Polk had not informed President Davis of his intentions to invade Kentucky.  Even after he invaded, he disobeyed orders when President Jefferson Davis ordered him to leave Kentucky.  Polk changed the official correspondence to reflect his version of events pertaining to the invasion of Kentucky.

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When the Civil War broke out in April 1861, Kentucky declared its neutrality.  Kentucky’s neutrality benefited the Confederacy because the state of Kentucky shielded the South from invasion.  If Kentucky ended its neutrality by declaring its allegiance with the South, the result could be advantageous, because Kentucky’s mass resources in manpower and material would add to the Confederacy’s lack in resources.  As President Abraham Lincoln once said of Kentucky, “I would like to have God on my side, but I must have Kentucky.  To lose Kentucky is nearly the same as to lose the whole game.”2

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In June 1861, President Jefferson Davis asked Leonidas Polk to accept a commission as Brigadier General and later Davis promoted Polk to the rank of Major General.  Davis appointed Polk to command Department No. 2, which consisted of the Mississippi Valley.  One reason why Davis appointed Polk to this position was because of his long standing friendship with Davis.  A second reason existed for Polk’s appointment.  Davis hoped Polk’s widespread familiarity with the people of the Mississippi Valley while he was an Episcopalian Bishop would make him sensitive to the delicate political situation in Kentucky.3  Tennessee Governor Isham Harris assigned General Gideon Pillow to serve under Polk.  By the end of August 1861 Pillow was pressuring Polk to allow the seizure of Columbus, Kentucky, a town situated on high bluffs overlooking the Mississippi River.  Columbus represented a better position from which to defend Tennessee’s stretch of river than anyplace in the northern part of the state.  By the end of August 1861, rumors circulated that the Federals were also preparing to seize Columbus.  The rumors were, in fact, true.  On August 28, 1861, Union General John Fremont had ordered Col. Ulysses S. Grant to seize Columbus as soon as possible.4  Governor Harris informed Polk on September 2 to leave matters alone for a couple of days.  Governor Harris hoped that the Federals would invade Kentucky first and take Columbus.  If the Yankees invaded Kentucky first, pro-Southern Kentuckians would then have the provocation they needed to take Kentucky out of the Union and into the Confederacy.  Polk had other plans.  Polk wrote to Governor Benjamin Magoffin of Kentucky that “it (was) of the greatest importance to the Southern cause in Kentucky or elsewhere that I should be ahead of the enemy in occupying Columbus and Paducah.”5  Back in Richmond, Jefferson Davis had no idea that Polk was planning to invade Kentucky and occupy Columbus.  On September 2, 1861, Davis wrote to Polk: “Keep me better advised of your forces and purposes.  It is only when forewarned that I can meet your wishes or your wants.”6  On September 3, 1861, Pillow, acting under Polk’s orders, moved his troops into Kentucky and Columbus and thereby violating Kentucky’s neutrality.7  On September 11, 1861, Polk submitted his report to the War Department on his version of the events after the invasion of Kentucky.  On September 4, 1861 Harris learned that Polk had invaded the state.  Harris telegraphed Polk: “Just learned that Pillow’s command is at Hickman.  This is unfortunate, as the President and myself are pledged to respect the neutrality of Kentucky.  I hope they will be withdrawn instantly, unless their presence there is an absolute necessity.”8  As reprinted in the Official Records, on September 4, Secretary of War L. P. Walker telegraphed Polk: “News has reached me here that General Pillow has landed his troops at Hickman, Ky.  Order their prompt withdrawal from Kentucky.”9  On September 4, Polk sent a telegram to Davis stating that the enemy had descended the Mississippi River and placed cannons and entrenched themselves opposite the town of Columbus, which Polk wrote “left no doubt upon the minds of any of their intention to seize and forcibly posses said town, I thought proper, under the plenary power delegated to me, to direct a sufficient portion of my command, both by river and by land, to concentrate at Columbus. . .It is my intention to continue to occupy and keep this position.”10  As reprinted in the Official Records, on September 4, Davis' response to Polk’s invasion of Kentucky: “The necessity justifies the action.”11

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But a much different version of events that took place exists than what was submitted by Polk, which, in time, became part of the Official Records.  The Jefferson Davis Papers demonstrate a different version of events, in which Polk has purposely changed the dates of September 5 to September 4.  By changing the date of September 5, Polk hoped to show that Davis gave permission for his invasion when in fact he did not.  According to the Jefferson Davis Papers, Governor Harris had sent a copy of the telegram he sent to Polk to withdraw his forces from Kentucky to President Davis.  Davis received Governor Isham Harris' note on September 5, 1861.  Davis wrote on the telegram: “Secretary of War-Telegraph promptly to General Polk to withdraw troops from Kentucky-& explain movement Ans(wer)-Governor Harris inform him of action & that movement was unauthorized.”12  Secretary Walker telegraphed Polk to remove his forces on September 5th, not the 4th as stated in Polk’s version.  The Jefferson Davis Papers contains a similar but significantly different dispatch.  In Polk’s version the telegram reads, “The necessity justifies the means,” but Davis' telegram actually read: “Richmond Sept. 5th/61 Your telegram rec[eived].  The necessity must justify the action.”13  It becomes clear that Polk’s version of events as reprinted in the Official Records is different from the record in the more trustworthy Jefferson Davis Papers.  Polk intentionally altered the correspondence to reflect his own interpretation of the movement.  Polk wanted the records to show that Davis knew of his intentions to invade Kentucky and had given it his blessing.  Actually, Davis had not been aware of Polk’s plan to invade the state and did not authorize the invasion.  As historian Steven Woodworth wrote of the invasion, “Polk appears, in the light of this incident, even more manipulative and duplicitous than heretofore.  Polk had carried out his own policy, knowing that it was contrary to Davis' wishes and he had been dishonest in his attempts to justify and sustain that policy—one that was harmful to the Confederacy.”14  Because of Polk’s actions, the Union army had justification to enter Kentucky did so, and seized Paducah, located on the mouth of the Tennessee River.  The Federals had outflanked Columbus which held no military value to the Confederacy.  Kentucky’s Senate and House passed resolutions to stay in the Union and the Union flag was hoisted above the capitol in Frankfort.  The invasion of Kentucky and Polk’s manipulation of the records shows Polk to be deceptive.  He had kept President Davis in the dark about his intentions to invade Kentucky and once he had made his decision to invade the state, he would not leave, even though President Davis, Governor Isham Harris, Governor Benjamin Magoffin, and Inspector General of the Kentucky State Guard Simon Buckner, all asked Polk to leave.  The invasion of Kentucky also demonstrated the indecisiveness of Davis and the reliance of Davis on his personal friends.  Davis decided to support Polk in his decision to invade Kentucky, even though Davis knew that his decision lost him Kentucky to the Union cause.

The second occurrence of Polk’s insubordination occurred during the Kentucky Campaign of 1862.  Two incidents divided the military relationship between Polk and Confederate General Braxton Bragg.  The first incident occurred at Bardstown, Kentucky in September of 1862.  On September 20, 1862, Bragg marched his army to Bardstown, Kentucky, where he had hoped to obtain supplies and unite his command with General Edmund Kirby Smith’s Army of East Tennessee.  From there, Bragg hoped to move against Louisville, Kentucky or Cincinnati, Ohio.  But Union General Don Carlos Buell’s troops had already reached Louisville.

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The failure of Kentuckians to join the Confederate army in large numbers discouraged Bragg.  Only a thousand men had enlisted and those who did enlist wanted to be in the cavalry.  On September 25, Bragg wrote to Secretary of War Samuel Cooper that he needed at least fifty thousand recruits to hold the state.  By the end of September sufficient numbers of volunteers did not step forward so conscription was needed.  In order to conscript troops, Bragg knew he had to replace the Union governor with a Confederate one.  To install Confederate gubernatorial claimant Richard Hawes as governor, to confer with Smith, and to inform himself on military conditions in central Kentucky, Bragg decided to move to Frankfort: Kentucky’s state capitol.  On September 28, 1862, Bragg traveled to Frankfort, Kentucky leaving his army under Polk’s command at Bardstown.  On September 29, Bragg spent a day at Danville and met with Richard Hawes.  While Bragg was in Danville, he sent a dispatch to Polk ordering him to advance his troops to Taylorsville, twenty miles northeast of Bardstown.  On September 30, Bragg moved onto Nicholasville.  While in Nicholasville, Bragg received a dispatch from Polk, in which Polk reported that Buell’s army was demoralized, because of Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation, which “does not look very promising for their cause.”15  Bragg was lulled into a false sense of security thinking that since the Union army was demoralized, they would not move out of Louisville for some time.  On October 1, Bragg arrived in Lexington.  While in Lexington, Bragg met with General Kirby Smith and both decided to move the Army of East Tennessee to Frankfort and made arrangements for Hawes inauguration.  On October 2, Bragg received a report informing him that a Union force had forced Confederate General Patrick Cleburne to evacuate Shelbyville and retreat to Frankfort.  Hoping to unite his command with Smith’s army near Frankfort, Bragg sent a dispatch to Polk to hold his troops “in readiness, with cooked rations.”16  Bragg continued that if Polk learned that a large Union force was moving on Frankfort, he was to “strike [that force’s right flank] without orders.”17  At 1:00 p.m. on October 2, 1862, Bragg sent Polk additional instructions: “The enemy is certainly advancing on Frankfort.  Put your whole available force in motion by Bloomfield and strike him in flank & rear.  If we can combine our movements he is certainly lost.”18  Instead of carrying out Bragg’s offensive plan, Polk prepared to retreat to Danville.  On October 3, Polk was still encamped at Bardstown when he received Bragg’s dispatch, ordering a march to Frankfort.  He had not stationed his troops at Taylorsville, despite the fact that for more than a day he had known Cleburne was in danger.  On his own, Polk decided that Bragg misjudged Buell’s movements.  Cavalry reports suggested that the bulk of the Union army was converging on Bardstown.  Polk made the decision to disobey orders and retreat toward Danville.  He called a council of his generals and his generals agreed with his plans to fall back to Danville.  Polk justified his actions by saying that the Federals were advancing on his front and flank.19

Polk’s sympathetic biographer, Joseph Parks, viewed Polk’s own disobedience of orders by accepting Polk’s explanation thereby avoiding any controversy about Polk’s movement, while historian Grady McWhiney wrote that had Polk marched rapidly to Frankfort on October 3 or 4 and cooperated with Smith, the outcome of the Kentucky Campaign might have been different.  Outnumbered, Union Generals Joshua Sill and Edward Dumont would have been defeated or, at least, forced to retire to Louisville.  In any event, the Confederates would have been united and better able to challenge Union General Don Carlos Buell’s main force.  Polk’s retreat was the safest course to follow, but it was exactly what Buell expected.  Polk made it easier for Buell to execute his own plan and at the same time forced Bragg to cancel his plans to crush Sill.  By retreating, Polk showed both a lack of boldness and a lack of confidence in his commander’s judgment.  McWhiney noted, “Older, richer, and closer to the President than Bragg, Polk probably had been a bishop too long to be a successful subordinate.”20  Historian John Noe wrote that Bragg had heard nothing of the Federal movements toward Polk at Bardstown and his subordinates had left him in the dark.  Neither Polk nor Major General William Hardee indicated the seriousness of the Federal pressure coming to bear on their army at Bardstown.  Noe admitted that Polk did not explain that Federal columns were on Sheperdsville and Taylorsville roads.  Noe wrote that “Polk’s vagueness continued to contribute mightily to the growing crisis within the Army of the Mississippi high command.”21  Noe disagreed with McWhiney saying that if Polk had moved out of Bardstown and moved toward Frankfort, it would have opened his left flank to a devastating attack.  Noe argued that Polk chose correctly in falling back to Danville.22

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On October 6, the second incident occurred that further divided Bragg and Polk.  Polk sent a message to Bragg stating: “I have directed General Hardee to ascertain, if possible, the strength of the enemy which may be covered by his advance.  I cannot think it large.”23  On October 7, Hardee sent a dispatch to Bragg stating that: “Tomorrow morning early we may expect a fight.  If the enemy does not attack us, you ought unless pressed in another direction to send forward all the reinforcements necessary, take command in person, and wipe him out . . . The enemy is about two miles from us; an advance of infantry, Liddell’s brigade, about one mile.”24  Bragg sent reinforcements to Hardee, but did not go to Perryville, because Smith was still reporting the main Federal concentration at Frankfort.  At 5:40 p.m. on October 7, Bragg wrote Polk: “In view of the news from Hardee you had better move with Cheatham’s division to his support and give the enemy battle immediately [emphasis added]; rout him, and then move to our support at Versailles.”25  On October 8, when Bragg reached Perryville at 9:30 a.m., he received a message from Polk, written at 6:00 a.m., promising to attack at daylight, but no attack had begun when Bragg arrived on the field.  Polk explained to Bragg that after meeting with his highest ranking generals, he had decided to adopt a “defensive-offensive, to await the movements of the enemy, and to be guided by events,”26 rather than follow orders.  Parks posed the question: “What was the exact meaning of immediately?”  Parks used Polk’s explanation for the disobedience of orders directly from the Official Records of the War of the Rebellion.  Polk stated that the order was “not mandatory, but simply suggestive and advisory.”27  McWhiney argued that Hardee never stated that the Union army was moving in heavy force against his position.  In his dispatches at 3:20 p.m. and 7:30 p.m. on October 7 Hardee did not mention the size of the Union army.28  McWhiney stated: “If Polk knew that most of Buell’s army was at Perryville, why did he keep this information from Bragg?  Moreover, why did Polk write at 6:00 a.m. on October 8 that he would attack immediately if he considered great caution necessary?”29  Bragg’s information was faulty.  Rather than relying on reports from his own cavalry, he relied on Hardee, Polk and Smith’s evaluations of the reports.  Historian Earl Hess agreed with McWhiney and blamed inadequate intelligence from the cavalry for Polk’s statement that the Federal force was not large.  Bragg believed that the Federal force was going to strike him at Versailles.  Polk examined the ground on October 8 and decided that the entire Union army was in front of him, and felt it would be foolish to attack with only sixteen thousand men.  John Noe agrees with Hess that Bragg should have used his cavalry to better determine where the Union force had concentrated, but Noe states that Polk indeed knew that the Federal force in front of him was large and consisted of at least two divisions.  Noe takes Polk’s side of the argument, insisting that Polk knew that the Federal force was approaching and had informed Bragg.30  Noe blames Hardee for the confusion, not Polk.  Noe wrote: “At no point did [Hardee] indicate the size of the opposing army or express concern.  His request for Buckner, to command his division in person, reinforces the notion that he and Polk suspected one or two divisions or at most a corps were approaching Perryville on the Springfield Pike.  Hardee implied he had enough manpower to wipe out the Federal column.”31

Hardee never stated the clear opinion about what sort of force opposed him on the Springfield Pike.  Noe agreed that Polk was derelict in not informing Bragg in canceling the attack on October 8 and not bothering to inform Bragg about the change, but he insisted that Polk is not to blame for taking a defensive posture.32  Both the incident at Bardstown and Perryville would haunt Bragg six months later, when Polk and Hardee insisted that they saved the Confederate army from disaster.

After the Battle of Perryville in October 1862, Polk and Hardee began their mission to turn the Confederate officers in the Army of Tennessee against Bragg.  Polk and Hardee censured Bragg to other officers.  President Davis summoned Hardee, Smith, and Bragg to Richmond to hear their reasons why the Confederate forces lost.  Parks stated that when Polk arrived in Richmond, he told Davis that Bragg excelled in organization and discipline, but lacked in the higher elements of generalship during the conduct of the campaign.  He considered the Kentucky Campaign a failure.  Smith and Hardee agreed with him.  Polk stated that Bragg had lost the confidence of his generals.33  According to Woodworth, the outcome of the Kentucky campaign complicated Davis problems in dealing with his generals.  The failure to defeat Buell and hold Kentucky was not Bragg’s fault yet he received all the blame.  Bragg’s popularity with his generals and the Confederate press started to decline.  Polk persuaded Hardee and Smith that Bragg was leading the army to destruction.  Buckner and the other Kentucky generals could not forgive Bragg for telling the truth about Kentucky’s failure to rise up and fight for the Confederacy.34  While Polk tried to remove Bragg in Richmond, Hardee worked on turning the army officer’s corps against Bragg.  McWhiney pointed out that according to several reports, Polk fostered opposition to Bragg and schemed to have him removed from command.  Of the twenty generals under Bragg’s command in Kentucky, only Polk and Hardee expressed dissatisfaction with Bragg, while thirteen generals declared their support of Bragg.  According to historian Craig Symonds, Cleburne was skeptical of Bragg’s judgment, but his opinion of Bragg became more pronounced when Hardee, his friend and personal mentor, expressed doubts about Bragg’s fitness for command.  Symonds points out that it was Hardee who combined direct criticism and innuendo to demolish Bragg’s reputation within the junior officers of the Army of Tennessee’s Second Corps.35

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After the battle of Stones River, fought from December 31, 1862 to January 2, 1863, the anti-Bragg contingent grew and Bragg had very few generals supporting him.  Polk and Hardee had succeeded in turning the officer’s corps against Bragg.  Confederate Generals Benjamin Cheatham, John McCown, John C. Breckinridge, Patrick Cleburne would not serve under Bragg and all urged Bragg to resign.  Bragg came to believe that a conspiracy existed in Hardee’s Corps, with Breckinridge at the center, and Hardee the apparent heir to the army command.36  According to McWhiney, Bragg wanted sympathy and understanding rather than relief from command.  He felt persecuted, desperately in need of support and encouragement.  Bragg began to see himself as a martyr.37  When Hardee opposed Bragg, Cleburne followed suit.  Symonds wrote that the bitter squabbling within the high command resulted in the undermining of the army’s readiness and morale.  Davis' critics pushed hard for Bragg’s removal and the harder they pushed, the more it seemed to Davis that Bragg was the victim of an organized cabal, a conclusion that provoked the president’s instant sympathy and determined support for him.  Assailed by his own generals and suffering from poor health, Bragg became increasingly ineffective, uncertain, and dogmatic.38

On January 22, 1863, Polk sent a packet of materials to Davis which enclosed copies of all correspondence between Polk’s corps commanders and Bragg, hoping to convince Davis that dropping Bragg from command would be the right decision.  Polk thought that hearing from others would change Davis mind toward Bragg.  Polk felt it was his duty to tell the President what he and his division commanders replied to Bragg’s letter dated on January 11, 1863.  Bragg’s letter of January 11 had been sent to all of his corps and division commanders, in which he asked for his generals to express their views on the retreat from Murfreesboro on January 3, 1863, and whether his generals supported him as commander of the army.  The newspapers in Richmond, Virginia and Alabama accused Bragg of acting contrary to the advice of his commanders.  Bragg wrote that his corps and division commanders were the only ones who knew the true facts.  Bragg hoped that his commanders supported his decision to retreat from Murfreesboro and his ability to command the army.  The letters Bragg received from his commanders were not favorable.  Confederate General William Hardee stated that he had supported the decision to retire, but added that after consulting with his subordinates, Hardee felt that a change in command in the army was necessary.39  Confederate Generals John Breckinridge and Patrick Cleburne endorsed their support of Hardee’s letter.

Polk argued to Davis that Bragg should be transferred.40  President Davis telegraphed a message to General Joseph Johnston.  He ordered Johnston to proceed to Bragg’s headquarters to investigate the battle at Murfreesboro and the problems with the Confederate high command within the Army of Tennessee.41  Johnston arrived at Bragg’s headquarters on January 30, 1863.  According to Woodworth, Johnston found no signs of a lack of confidence in their commander.  In fact, the condition of the army impressed him.  It was well clothed, healthy, and well disciplined.  Davis wanted to ease Bragg out of command and replace him with Johnston, yet Johnston would not take command of the Army of Tennessee.  Johnston did not want to take the field in the troubled west, and downplayed the discord within the Army of Tennessee.  According to Cozzens, Johnston only heard what he wanted to hear, or Hardee, Polk, and Governor Isham Harris of Tennessee were less than candid with Johnston.  Johnston came away convinced that any disaffection or want of confidence in Bragg that might exist stemmed largely from the Kentucky campaign and was actually on the wane.42

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As for the clarification of Bragg’s letter of January 11, in which Bragg asked whether his generals supported him for his retreat from Murfreesboro.  Polk asked Bragg “Did he really mean to invoke the judgment of his subordinates regarding his fitness to command?”43  Bragg replied no.  Bragg said that the intent of his letter simply had been to record his subordinate’s views of the retreat from Murfreesboro.  According to Cozzens, Polk was delighted.  By compelling his silence, Bragg allowed Polk to reap the benefits of a change of commanders without having to implicate himself in what would be seen as an unseemly effort to discredit a superior officer.44  Polk ignored the circular and parried Johnston’s questions.  Polk’s ploy may have succeeded had Johnston been inclined to remove Bragg.  But because he was not, Polk had to act fast.  In a final conversation with Johnston, Polk said Bragg had lost the confidence of the army or at least of Polk’s corps and should be replaced preferably by Johnston himself.  Polk took the issue directly to Davis.  He forwarded copies of Cheatham and Wither’s note of January 3, his endorsement, Bragg’s circular letter, and Bragg’s reply.  Polk advised Davis to replace Bragg with Johnston.  According to Cozzens, Polk erred again.  Davis simply reiterated his decision to leave the matter in Johnston’s hands.45  Symonds says that Davis would not choose between Polk, Hardee, or Bragg and Johnston would not make the decision.  The Army of Tennessee was paralyzed and leaderless.46  Woodworth points out that communication between Bragg and his generals stopped.  Polk and Hardee convinced themselves that any plan of Bragg’s would fail.  Their belief became, in effect, a self-fulfilling prophecy.  The constant agitation of Bragg’s generals had produced a situation in which the army’s command apparatus had become paralyzed and prey to the enemy.47  Earl Hess stated that before the Battle of Stone’s River, Bragg never overcame the mistrust his subordinates and his men felt toward him for giving up Kentucky.  This mistrust simply deepened with the outcome of the battle of Stone’s River.48

On March 30, 1863, Polk continued his behind the scenes manipulation to have Bragg relieved of command.  Polk wrote to Davis recommending that Bragg would be of greater value in some other field.  He recommended Bragg for Inspector General.  On March 30, 1863, Davis decided to visit the army himself and found the army in a high state of efficiency.  In the mean time, the army had also gained 9,414 men.  According to Parks, Bragg blamed Polk for the disaster at Perryville.  On April 13, Bragg sent to all wing and division commanders, except Polk, a letter citing Polk’s note from Bardstown and a section of his report of the Battle of Perryville.  Bragg wanted to prove Polk’s disobedience to his officers.  Hardee sent his letter to Polk, fearing that Bragg was planning a court martial.49  According to historian Nathaniel Hughes, Bragg accused Hardee of “sustaining Polk in his disobedience” at Bardstown and Perryville.  Hardee refused to answer.50  Cozzens says that Davis merely deferred to Johnston’s judgment and by mid April 1863, the matter was closed.

The feud between Bragg and Polk endangered the Army of the Tennessee and left it vulnerable to the Union army.  By April 1863, the feud between Polk, Bragg, Cheatham, Hardee and Breckinridge widened.  Bragg knew he could not get rid of Hardee or Polk because they were too powerful to have relieved of command or to court martial.  Instead, Bragg decided to go after his subordinates.  General Cheatham was first to come under Bragg’s attack.  Bragg stated that he was drunk and dilatory at Stone’s River on December 31, 1862.  Bragg convinced Polk to censure Cheatham.  Bragg blamed McCown for delaying the attack on December 31 by two hours.  McCown was court-martialed.  Bragg blamed Breckinridge for failing to dispatch reinforcements across the river quickly on December 31 and poor direction on January 2.  Bragg implied that these actions would have succeeded had Breckinridge had done his job.  Bragg had Breckinridge and Hardee transferred to Mississippi.  Bragg’s victory in ridding himself of some of his enemies was hollow.  The damage was done to the high command of the Army of Tennessee and Confederate poor fortunes in the West proved permanent.  According to Cozzens, the dissension sown by the defeats of Perryville and Stone’s River had all but wrecked the army from within.  Bragg, Polk, Cheatham, Hardee, Breckinridge internecine feud so absorbed them that they neglected what should have been the sole object of their attention: the defense of what remained of Confederate Tennessee against Union General William Rosecrans.  While the generals feuded, no plan of strategy nor any defensive line was established or maintained.  Rosecrans advanced and Bragg conceded Middle Tennessee without firing a shot in its defense.  A paralyzed army fell back on Chattanooga and thereby Tennessee was lost.  At a time when the high command should have been united in an effort to deny Rosecrans the Confederate heartland, the anti-Bragg faction, with Polk at the center, renewed its efforts to unseat Bragg.51

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The fourth incident of Polk’s insubordination and semi-mutinous acts occurred during the events leading up to the Battle of Chickamauga in September of 1863.  Bragg had three excellent opportunities to destroy a segment of Rosecrans Army of the Cumberland.  On August 28, 1863, Union General William S. Rosecrans' Army of the Cumberland had maneuvered Confederate General Braxton Bragg’s army out of Chattanooga, Tennessee.  Bragg ordered his troops south towards the Georgia border.  Bragg had thought of an elaborate plan in which he sent planted Rebel “deserters” that he knew would fall into Union hands.  The Rebel “deserters” informed Rosecrans that the Rebels were demoralized and were retreating, but Bragg’s withdrawal had actually been orderly and his men retired just south of Chattanooga before stopping to concentrate and gather reinforcements.  Between September 4 through the 6, 1863, Rosecrans' three corps emerged from the north Georgia mountain passes south of Chattanooga separately and widely scattered.  Bragg recognized his opportunity to attack each isolated corps and destroy them one by one.  On September 9, Bragg ordered General Thomas Hindman to attack Union General James Negley’s troops at McLemore’s Cove, Tennessee.  Bragg gave direct orders to attack, but Hindman halted his movement and decided to scout the Union column.  On September 11, Bragg wanted Confederate General Buckner to attack.  But, Buckner and Hindman held a council of war and instead decided to do nothing.  On September 13, Rosecrans left wing was isolated.  Bragg ordered Polk to attack, but Polk held a council of war and refused to attack and once again went on the defensive.  Parks explanation for Polk’s disobedience was that neither Bragg nor Polk knew where Crittenden’s divisions were located.  At the time Polk was to attack, Crittenden had already concentrated west of Chickamauga Creek.  No force existed on the Graysville Road.  Bragg had ordered Polk to attack an enemy force that did not exist.52  According to Woodworth, Crittenden’s advance down the LaFayette Road put the Federal 21st Corps in easy striking distance of Bragg’s army and Union General George Thomas and Alexander McCook’s Corps were too far away to support the isolated force at Lee and Gordon’s Mill.  At 8:00 p.m. on September 12, Bragg gave Polk a direct order to attack the next morning.  In his usual manner, Polk consulted his generals and wrote Bragg that he was facing Crittenden’s entire corp.53  Woodworth agrees with Polk that all of Crittenden’s three divisions were located at Lee and Gordon’s Mill.  Polk suggested that more Union forces existed behind Crittenden’s corps.  Polk said he would only attack if Buckner’s entire corps would support him.  Bragg sent Buckner to Polk.  Polk, with the support of reinforcements, had a two to one superiority over the Federal force, but on September 13, Polk did not attack.  The Federal 21st Corps concentrated on the west bank at Lee and Gordon’s Mill.  The opportunity to wipe out the Federal army piece by piece had slipped by.  Union General James Negley escaped and Rosecrans united his command.54

After the Battle of Chickamauga, the Army of Tennessee turned to mutiny.  D.H. Hill, Thomas Hindman, and James Longstreet did not want Bragg in command.  These three generals turned to Polk.  Hill, Hindman, and Longstreet wanted Polk to write to President Davis, urging that Bragg be replaced with Confederate General Robert E. Lee.  Polk wrote to Lee describing the events that had occurred.  With this action, Bragg had enough of the disobedience from his generals.  Bragg relieved Polk of command and sent him to Atlanta.  Bragg suspended Hindman and relieved Hill of command.  President Davis hoped that the great victory at Chickamauga would produce harmony within the army, but once again Davis was wrong.  The generals signed a petition to have Bragg relieved of command.  On October 8, 1863, Davis visited Polk and then Bragg.  Polk escaped a court martial only because of his friendship with Davis.  Davis removed D. H. Hill and transferred James Longstreet and Simeon Buckner to East Tennessee.  Davis dismissed a charge of inquiry into Bragg’s actions at Chickamauga.  Bragg would stay in command.55  Hughes wrote that the fact Davis kept Bragg in command in the face of formidable resistance represents one of his greatest errors in judgment.56  Woodworth wrote that Davis kept Bragg in command because there was no one to replace him.  Beauregard would have been a disaster as a theater commander.  Johnston was out because of his previous failure as a theater commander during the Vicksburg Campaign of June and July of 1863.  Lee was in Virginia and unavailable.  Hardee was lackluster and Davis had too much respect for military discipline to appoint Polk, Longstreet, or Buckner, each of whom had spoken out against Bragg.57

According to Woodworth, Davis allowed Polk to undermine Bragg so completely that to support Bragg properly would mean firing half of the officer’s corps of the Army of Tennessee.  The alternative was undermining discipline by granting a victory to insubordination, removing Bragg, and replacing him with an inferior.58

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Bragg reorganized the Army of Tennessee to get rid of cliques within corps, divisions, and brigades who hated him.  Tennessee officers did not like Bragg because of his disagreements with McCown and Cheatham.  Kentucky officers hated Bragg for his frankness over Kentucky’s failure to support the Confederate invasion of 1862.  Morale in the Army of the Tennessee sank even lower.59  Cozzens agreed that the shifting of commanders did little to help morale and accomplished little to nothing.  Bragg’s preoccupation with the anti-Bragg generals caused him to neglect the Federal army.  By the time Bragg realized the weakness in his own lines, it was too late.60  Symonds agrees that the morale was so low that hundreds of the enlisted men walked away from their posts and deserted to the Federal army.61  Woodworth wrote that at Missionary Ridge the army had become completely demoralized and lost faith in its commander as a result of the bickering and backbiting by most of the army’s generals against Bragg.  The distrust of Bragg had finally filtered down through the ranks to the privates.62  After the fall of Lookout Mountain and Missionary Ridge, on November 24, 1863 and November 25, 1863, Bragg sent Davis his formal resignation.  On December 2, 1863, Davis relieved Bragg of command, but it was too late for the western theater.

After Davis sent Polk to Mississippi, Davis gave Polk command of a small army of his own.  During the Atlanta Campaign in 1864, Polk confronted Union General William T. Sherman’s thirty five thousand man army.  Sherman’s mission was to destroy the railroad leading into Meridian and any war supplies that he found in the town.  Polk located his headquarters in Meridian, Mississippi.  When Sherman approached Meridian, Polk fell back to Demopolis.  After destroying fifty miles of public and private property across Mississippi, Sherman withdrew his army and headed back for Vicksburg.  Polk wrote to President Davis that he had destroyed Sherman’s army.  Polk exaggerated.63  Sherman was not destroyed and once he had accomplished his mission, he simply turned around and headed back to Vicksburg.

By May 11, 1864, Polk’s army had joined General Joseph Johnston’s army and both armies moved to Resaca, Georgia.  General Joseph Johnston’s army continued to fall back, until June 1864, when Johnston finally decided to make a stand at Kennesaw Mountain.  On June 11, 1864, Confederate Generals Joseph Johnston, William Hardee, and Leonidas Polk decided to inspect the Union troops in the valley below.  The three generals attracted attention on the high peak on Pine Mountain and Union artillery shells began to reign down on the Confederate generals.  Subordinates pleaded for the generals to disperse.  At first they did not listen, but eventually the generals headed in different directions.  Polk was the last to move and just at that moment an artillery shell tore General Polk in half.  During the Perryville Campaign, the battle of Stone’s River, and the Chickamauga-Chattanooga Campaign, the insubordination, semi-mutinous acts, and behind the scenes manipulation ruined the Army of Tennessee.  Polk did incalculable damage to the Confederate fortunes in the West.  After Polk invaded Kentucky in September 1861, Davis could have rectified the situation and ordered Polk to leave the state, then replace Polk and apologize to Kentucky’s Governor Benjamin Magoffin.  Instead, Davis let Polk stay in the state.  In one devastating blow, Davis and Isham Harris had lost Kentucky to the Union, because of Polk’s actions.  After the Perryville Campaign, Polk through his insubordination had thrown away two opportunities to attack the Federals, when they were off guard.  After the Battle of Stone’s River, Polk’s behind the scenes manipulation had turned most of the officer corps of the Army of Tennessee against Bragg.  During the Battle of Chickamauga, Polk disobeyed orders and threw away an opportunity to destroy a wing of the isolated Federal army.  After the Battle of Chickamauga, Polk turned to mutiny.  The feuding between Polk and his loyal followers against Bragg had led to a total breakdown in communication and trust in the Confederate officer corps and among the Confederate officer corps.  Once the disloyalty had filtered down to the individual private, the Army of Tennessee ceased to function as a effective fighting force.

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Resources

Cozzens, Peter, No Better Place to Die: The Battle of Stones River, Chicago: University of Illinois, 1990.

Hess, Earl, Banners to the Breeze: The Kentucky Campaign, Corinth, and Stones River, Lincoln and London: University of Nebraska Press, 2000.

Hughes, Nathaniel, Jr., General William Hardee: Old Reliable, Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1965, reprint 1992.

McWhiney, Braxton Bragg and Confederate Defeat, Vol. I, Tuscaloosa and London: University of Alabama Press, 1969, 1991.

Noe, Kenneth, Perryville: This Grand Havoc of Battle, Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 2001.

Parks, Joseph, General Leonidas Polk, C.S.A.: The Fighting Bishop, Baton Rouge: Louisiana State Press, 1962.

Symonds, Craig, Stonewall Jackson of the West: Patrick Cleburne and the Civil War, Lawrence: University of Kansas, 1997.

The War of the Rebellion: A Compilation of the Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies, 128 vols., Washington, D. C.: Government Printing Office, 1880-1901.

Woodworth, Steven, No Band of Brothers: Problems of the Rebel High Command, Columbia and London: University of Missouri Press, 1999.

The Art of Command in the Civil War, London: University of Nebraska Press, 1998.

Jefferson Davis and his Generals: The Failure of Confederate High Command in the West, Lawrence: University of Kansas, 1997.

Six Armies in Tennessee: The Chickamauga Campaign and Chattanooga Campaign, Lincoln and London: University of Nebraska Press, 1998.

Castel, Albert, "Who Killed the Bishop," Columbiad, 2, (Summer 1998).

McWhiney, Grady, "Controversy in Kentucky: Braxton Bragg's Campaign of 1862", Civil War History, 1960, 6 (1): 28.


1Albert Castel, "Who Killed the Bishop?," Columbiad, 2 (Summer 1998), 34-36.
2Steven Woodworth, "'The Indeterminate Quantities': Jefferson Davis, Leonidas Polk and the End of Kentucky Neutrality, September 1861," Civil War History. 37. (October 1992): 289.
3Woodworth,  290.
4The War of the Rebellion: A Compilation of the Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies, (Washington, D.C.:GPO, 1880-1901), Series 1, Vol. 3.
5Official Records, Series I, Vol. IV, Chapter XII.
6Lynda Crist & Mary Dix, ed., The Papers of Jefferson Davis, Vol. 7, 1861 (Baton Rouge & London: Louisiana State Press, 1992), 318.
7Steven Woodworth, Jefferson Davis and His Generals: The Failure of Confederate Command in the West (University of Kansas, 1990). 38; Steven Woodworth, "'The Indeterminate Quantities': Jefferson Davis, Leonidas Polk, and the End of Kentucky Neutrality, September 1861," Civil War History 37 (October 1992), 291.
8O.R. Series I, Vol. IV, Chapter XII.
9O.R. Series I, Vol. IV, Chapter XII.
10O.R. Series I, Vol. IV, Chapter XII.
11O.R. Series I, Vol. IV, Chapter XII.
12Lynda Crist & Mary Dix, ed., The Papers of Jefferson Davis, Vol. 7, 1861 (Baton Rouge & London: Louisiana State Press, 1992), 325.
13Crist & Dix,  The Papers of Jefferson Davis, 327.
14Woodworth, Jefferson Davis and His Generals: The Failure of Confederate Command in the West, 295.
15O.R. Series I, Vol. XVI/II, 894.
16O.R. XVI/II, 896-897.
17O.R. XVI, pt. 2, 896-897.
18O.R. XVI, pt. 2, 896-897.
19O.R. XVI, pt. 1, 1,094-1095.
20Grady McWhiney, "Controversy in Kentucky: Braxton Bragg's Campaign of 1862," Civil War History, 6 (1960): 28.
21John Noe, Perryville: This Grand Havoc of Battle (Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 2001), 127.
22Noe, 127.
23O.R. XVI, pt. 2 p. 1,095.
24O.R. XVI, pt. 1 p. 1095-1096.
25O.R. XVI, pt. 1, 1,096.
26O.R. XVI, pt. 1 1,092, 1096, 1,120.
27O.R. XVI, pt. 1, 1,102.
28McWhiney, "Controversy in Kentucky: Bragg's Kentucky Campaign of 1862," 30-31.
29Grady McWhiney, Braxton Bragg and Confederate Defeat, vol. 1 (Tuscaloosa and London: University of Alabama Press, 1991), 308.
30Noe, Perryville: This Grand Havoc of Battle, 132.
31Noe, Perryville: This Grand Havoc of Battle, 139.
32Noe, Perryville: This Grand Havoc of Battle, 158.
33Joseph Parks, General Leonidas Polk, C.S.A.: The Fighting Bishop (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State Press, 1962), 280.
34Woodworth, Jefferson Davis and his Generals: The Failure of Confederate High Command in the West, 161.
35Craig Symonds, Stonewall Jackson of the West: Patrick Cleburne and the Civil War (Lawrence: University of Kansas Press, 1997), 104.
36Peter Cozzens, No Better Place to Die: The Battle of Stone's River (Chicago: University of Illinois, 1990), 210.
37McWhiney, Braxton Bragg and Confederate Defeat, vol. 1, 376.
38Symonds, Stonewall Jackson of the West: Patrick Cleburne and the Civil War, 120.
39Nathaniel Hughes, Jr., General William Hardee: Old Reliable (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State Press, 1965, reprint 1992), 148.
40Parks, General Leonidas Polk, C.S.A.: The Fighting Bishop, 298.
41O.R. Series I, Vol. XXIII, pt. 2, p. 35.
42Cozzens, No Better Place to Die: The Battle of Stone's River, 211.
43Cozzens, 211.
44Cozzens, 211-212.
45Cozzens, 211.
46Symonds, Stonewall Jackson of the West: Patrick Cleburne and the Civil War, 123.
47Steven Woodworth, No Band of Brothers: Problems of the Rebel High Command (Columbia and London: University of Missouri Press, 1999), 75.
48Earl Hess, Banners to the Breeze: The Kentucky Campaign, Corinth, Stone's River (Lincoln and London: University of Nebraska Press, 2000), 231.
49Parks, General Leonidas Polk, C.S.A.: The Fighting Bishop, 299-301.
50Nathaniel Hughes, Jr., General William Hardee: Old Reliable (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State Press, 1965, reprint 1992), 150.
51Cozzens, No Better Place To Die: The Battle of Stone's River, 215-216.
52Parks, General Leonidas Polk, C.S.A.: The Fighting Bishop, 329.
53Steven Woodworth, Six Armies in Tennessee: The Chickamauga Campaign and Chattanooga Campaign (Lincoln and London: University of Nebraska Press, 1998), 75.
54Woodworth, Six Armies in Tennessee: The Chickamauga Campaign and Chattanooga Campaign, 75.
55Parks, General Leonidas Polk, C.S.A.: The Fighting Bishop, 355.
56Hughes, General William Hardee: Old Reliable, 165.
57Steven Woodworth, Jefferson Davis and His Generals: The Failure of Confederate Command in the West, 242.
58Woodworth, Jefferson Davis and His Generals: The Failure of Confederate Command in the West, 243.
59Woodworth, 245.
60Cozzens, No Better Place to Die: The Battle of Stone's River, 218.
61Symonds, Stonewall Jackson of the West: Patrick Cleburne and the Civil War, 159.
62Woodworth, Jefferson Davis and His Generals: The Failure of Confederate Command in the West, 252.
63Parks, General Leonidas Polk, C.S.A.: The Fighting Bishop, 355.

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