The Death of General Leonidas Polk
In June of 1864, Major General William T. Sherman’s army was marching, maneuvering, and fighting its way towards Atlanta, Georgia. On June 14th, Sherman’s men were near Pine Mountain, northwest of Atlanta and not far from Kennesaw Mountain. That morning, as Sherman made a personal reconnaissance of the area to plan troop movements, he noticed a group of Confederate observers on Pine Mountain, some high ground that is more of a hill than a mountain. Sherman ordered the Union 4th Corps commander, Major General Oliver Howard, to fire artillery at the observers. Sherman then rode off to inspect another position.
The Confederate observers weren’t just any Rebel soldiers. The group included General Joseph E. Johnston, the overall commander of Confederate forces in the campaign, and Generals William Hardee and Leonidas Polk, both of whom were corps commanders.
Lieutenant General Leonidas Polk was a North Carolina born West Point graduate who found another calling as an Episcopal clergyman. Polk eventually became Bishop of Louisiana, a post he held at the outbreak of the Civil War. Polk was given a commission as a Major General by his old friend from West Point, President Jefferson Davis. He commanded troops in many of the major battles in the western theatre of operations, though in many cases his generalship left much to be desired. Despite this, Polk remained very popular with the men under his command.
Howard found the nearest artillery officer and passed on Sherman’s order. The artillery officer was Captain Peter Simonson, chief of artillery for Major General David Stanley’s division of the 4th Corps. Simonson directed the 5th Indiana Battery to open fire.
On Pine Mountain, the Generals and some other officers including Colonel William Dilworth of the 4th Florida Infantry were observing Union positions from within an artillery battery enclosure. Simonson’s first shot passed over the heads of the group, and Dilworth urged that the generals take cover on the other side of the mountain, or at least split up. The generals began moving back, but Polk lingered and was the slowest to move. At that point, the second or third cannon shot (accounts vary as to which shot it was), a three inch solid shot, made a direct hit on Polk’s left side and ripped through him, killing him instantly.
Sherman and the rest of the Federals learned that Polk had been killed after a Union signal officer who had cracked the Confederate signal code decoded a message asking for an ambulance for Polk’s body. Confederate prisoners captured later that day confirmed the news. In a dispatch sent to Major General Henry Halleck in Washington the next day, Sherman wrote succinctly “We killed Bishop Polk yesterday, and made good progress today”.
Captain Simonson, the Federal artillery officer commanding the battery that fired the fatal shot at Polk, was shot and killed by a Confederate sharpshooter while laying out a position for an artillery battery just two days later on June 16th.
Decision in the West: The Atlanta Campaign of 1864
by Albert Castel
Generals in Gray by Ezra J. Warner
History of the Fifth Indiana Battery by D.D. Holm
Memoirs of General W.T. Sherman
by William T. Sherman
Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies in the War of the Rebellion, Series I, Volume XXXVIII, Parts 2 and 4.