Leonidas Polk was ‘fighting bishop of Louisiana’

Jim Bradshaw
November 23, 2008

Leonidas K. Polk wore a number of hats, most unusually both that of a Confederate general and an Episcopal bishop, both at the same time.

He consecrated the Church of the Epiphany in New Iberia in 1858, just in time to see it used as a field hospital during the war in which he commanded troops.

He was a native of North Carolina and apparently entertained the idea of a military career as a young man. He entered West Point in 1823, with that in mind, but there met Charles Petit McIlvaine, later Episcopal Bishop of Ohio, but then chaplain to the cadet corps.

Under McIlvaine’s guidance, Polk began to consider the cross rather than the sword. Polk graduated eighth in his class from West Point in 1827, but that same year entered the Virginia Theological Seminary.

He came to Louisiana about 10 years later, after having been named Missionary Bishop of the Southwest, eventually ending up in New Orleans, where he found that "the rapid increase of the American population upon the French" was producing fertile ground for Protestant preaching.

In 1841, he bought Leighton Plantation near Thibodaux on Bayou Lafourche, but sold it in 1854 after yellow fever decimated the Lafourche country. But he remained a sugar planter and Southerner at heart.

When the Civil War broke out, he at first directed his congregations to pray for a quick peace. As things worsened, he found that the progress of affairs makes it expedient "to direct further changes in the public services of the Church." He directed that "in the prayers for those in civil authority for the words "the President of the United States" substitute the words "the President of the Confederate states."

He then traveled to Richmond at the invitation of President Jefferson Davis, and apparently was not surprised when he was offered a commission in the Confederate Army.

Bishop Polk became Major Gen. Polk and his first command included the Louisiana parishes north of the Red River.

As he descended the steps of the Virginia Capitol following his conference with Davis, a friend stopped to congratulate him on the promotion.

"I do not consider it a promotion," came the reply. "The highest office on earth is that of bishop in the Church of God."

When another said that he was surprised that Polk would "throw off the gown for the sword," Polk replied, "No sir, I buckle the sword over the gown."

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