‘This Has Been a Dear Visit’ – The Death of General Polk

June 14, 1864 (Tuesday)

Leonidas Polk
Leonidas Polk

When last we left Generals William Tecumseh Sherman and Joe Johnston in Georgia, the latter had taken up positions in the mountains north of Marietta, while the former shadowed, unable to mount the attack he wanted. At the first, Johnston’s lines were long but thin, and he found them too much so. Through June 13th, the day previous, Johnston held council with his corps commander, Leonidas Polk, seeking a means by which to shorten his lines. This would, he hoped, strengthen his position, but also allow him to keep John Bell Hood’s Corps in reserve so that he might attack portions of Sherman’s line if the opportunity arose.

“The rains continued to pour,” wrote Sherman in his memoirs, “and made our developments slow and dilatory, for there were no roads, and these had to be improvised by each division for its own supply-train from the depot in Big Shanty to the camps.”

To General Henry Halleck, the army’s Chief of Staff in Washington, Sherman wrote late on the 13th: “We have had hard and cold rains for about ten days. A gleam of sunshine this evening give hope of a change. The roads are insufficient here, and the fields and new ground are simply impassable to wheels. As soon as possible I will study Johnston’s position on the Kennesaw and Lost Mountains, and adopt some plan to dislodge him or draw him out of his position.”

For Sherman, the opportunity came on this date. So too did it come for Johnston. Col. William Dilwoth was in command of a brigade of Floridians, and it was he who led Johnston, Leonidas Polk, William Hardee, and their large staffs, to the summit. “Before reaching this point,” wrote Dilworth a fortnight later, “I asked the generals not to allow more than three or four persons to go with us, as a large crowd would be sure to attract the fire of the enemy. All dropped back except Gens. Johnston, Hardee, and Polk.”

Pine Mountain
Pine Mountain

From atop Pine Mountain, overlooking both Federal and Confederate positions, General Johnston was joined by corps commanders Leonidas Polk and William Hardee. There they stood in the open and near a battery at the crest of the hill. Standing upon the breastworks, Johnston peered through his field glasses at the lines before him.

“In about ten minutes,” continued Dilworth, “there came a shower of minnie balls from the enemy’s sharpshooters. I turned and saw that a large crowd had collected around the battery. I turned and told the generals that unless the crowd scattered, their artillery would open.”

While Johnston studied, General Sherman reconnoitered the Confederate lines, riding along his own. As he rose, he was devising a means for attacking between Kennesaw and Pine Mountains. “When abreast of Pine Mountain,” Sherman recalled, “I noticed a rebel battery on its crest, with a continuous line of fresh rifle-trench about half-way down the hill. Our skirmishers were at the time engaged in the woods about the base of this hill between the lines, and I estimated the distance to the battery on the crest at about eight hundred yards. Near it, in plain view, stood a group of the enemy, evidently observing us with glasses.”

Sherman called General O.O. Howard to his side, and requested that his artillery open upon the gathered few. Howard reminded him that General George Thomas, his immediate commander, had ordered him to use the artillery sparingly. “This was right,” Sherman agreed, “according to the general policy, but I explained to him that we must keep up the morale of a bold offensive, that he must use his artillery, force the enemy to remain on the timid defensive, and ordered him to cause a battery close by to fire three volleys.”

Pine Mountain
Pine Mountain

It was said that the glint from Johnston’s field glasses was what actually caught the eye General Sherman. “How saucy they are!” he was to have exclaimed. “Make ’em take cover.”

Here, Col. Dilwoth picks up the narrative: “I had scarcely got down from the parapet when a solid shot from the enemy’s battery came over our heads. I then urged the generals to get under the hill, but none seemed inclined to do this. I then urged them to the right of the brigade line, General Hardee saying he wished to see the right of my line.”

General Sherman continued on, the sounds of his artillery booming in his wake. “The next division in order was Geary’s,” he wrote, “and I gave him similar orders.”

Atop Pine Mountain, the generals and Col. Dilworth were moving to their right, mostly ignoring the threat before them. “We had walked but about ten paces from the battery when a second shot came. We walked on some paces further when a third shot was fired. I looked around but did not see Gen. Polk. Something had attracted his attention, and he stopped behind. A moment after and some one exclaimed: ‘General Polk is killed!’ Gen. Hardee immediately turned to go to him. I caught him by the arm and told him he must not expose himself.”

But Hardee rushed to Polk, now lying flat upon his back, feet toward the enemy. Johnston, too, was there. “General,” spoke Hardee, “this has been a dear visit. We have lost a brave man, whose death leaves a vacancy not easily filled.” Hardee knelt beside the body and whispered into its ear, “My dear, dear friend, little did I think this morning that I should be called upon to witness this.”

Tears now filled Johnston’s eyes, and he laid his hand upon the cooling head. “We have lost much,” he uttered, “I would rather anything but this.”

The death of General Polk
The death of General Polk

The scene as described was sterile and honorable, but war is seldom either. By the account of Samuel R. Watkins, author of Company Aytch, who was at the base of the mountain when Polk’s body was borne from the summit, “a solid shot from the Federal guns struck him on his left breast, passing through his body and through his heart. I saw him while the infirmary coprs were brining him off the field. He was as white as a piece of marble, and a most remarkable thing about him was, that not a drop of blood was ever seen to come out of the place through which the cannon ball had passed.”

Dilworth added: “The fatal shot was a three inch solid shot. It struck General Polk in the left side, passing through him, breaking both arms, I think, though I did not examine the wound very closely. I suppose he was walking at the time he was struck.”

“In this distiguished leader,” wrote Johnston that night in a message to his army, “we have lost the most courteous of gentlement, the most gallant of soldiers. The Christian patriot soldier has neither lived nor died in vain. His example is before you; his mantle rests with you.”1

  1. Sources: Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 38, Part 4, p466, 776; Leonidas Polk, Bishop and General, Volume 2 by William Mecklenburg Polk; Company Aytch by Samuel R. Watkins; The Bishop of the Old South by Glenn Robins; Memoirs by William Tecumseh Sherman; Narrative of Military Operations by Joseph Johnston; Letter from William Dilworth to the Macon Daily Telegraph, written on June 30, 1864. []
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