Civil War in Georgia, Week 7: Death of a general

Operating from his base near Acworth, Maj. Gen. William T. Sherman ordered a forward movement of Federal troops toward the Confederate position along the Brush Mountain Line on June 10, 1864.

Gen. Joseph E. Johnston had positioned the Army of Tennessee in a northwest-facing position, taking advantage of Cobb County’s hilly terrain to entrench his force and prepare to thwart Sherman’s next advance. Lost Mountain and Lt. General William J. Hardee anchored the Confederate left; Lt. Gen. Leonidas Polk held Pine Mountain in the center, and Lt. Gen. John Bell Hood’s force occupied the right of the line near Brush Mountain. (On a modern-day map, the line extended from a point near Dallas Highway and the Paulding County line on the southwest to roughly I-75 and Barrett Parkway on the northeast.)

Advancing toward the Confederate works: Maj. Gens. James McPherson, George Thomas and John Schofield.

Fearful of their extended center at Pine Mountain, Johnston, Hardee and Polk rode out to the position the morning of June 14 to reconnoiter the area and discuss the viability of holding the mountain with Maj. Gen. William Bate. As the officers scaled the 300-foot height, eventually reaching a top devoid of trees, they came into view of the Federals in their front — including Sherman, who had just ridden up.

Spotting three gray-clad officers atop Pine Mountain, Sherman turned to Capt. Peter Simonson and the 5th Indiana battery and asked, “Can you send a shell right on the top of that knob?” The captain replied, “I’ll try, general.” The first shot went long; Sherman, observing through his field glasses, instructed the battery, “Try again, with a shorter fuse.”

Col. William Dilworth with the 3rd Florida Infantry witnessed the scene atop Pine Mountain. The first shot from one of the Indiana guns prompted Dilworth to suggest “the generals to get under the hill, but none seemed inclined to do this. I then urged them to at least scatter.”

“Hardee and Polk started with me,” Dilworth said. “We walked some paces further when a third shot was fired.”

Dilworth lost sight of Polk and began searching for him; for some unexplained reason, he had not followed the others out of harm’s way. To their horror, Dilworth, Hardee and Johnston soon found the general’s crumpled body. According to the captain’s account, “A 3-inch solid shot … struck General Polk in the left side, passing through him, breaking both arms.”

So ended the life of Polk, the “Fighting Bishop” — head of the Episcopal Diocese of Louisiana, founder of the University of the South in Tennessee, and West Point classmate of Confederate President Jefferson Davis.

Reporting to Secretary of War Edwin Stanton, Sherman nonchalantly wrote, “We killed Bishop Polk yesterday, and have made good progress today.”

Johnston, saddened at the loss of one of his lieutenants, addressed the Army of Tennessee with a written dispatch informing them of Polk’s death. He praised the “Christian, Patriot, Soldier,” noting the bishop “has neither lived nor died in vain. His example is before you and his mantle rests with you.”

Young Sally Clayton of Atlanta witnessed the arrival of Polk’s body at St. Luke’s Church and lamented, “The good old Bishop’s death seemed a personal loss to every one who looked upon his bloodless face. … Tears were shed by hundreds of those present, but very silently, not a sound was heard in the entire church but that of footsteps as the crowd passed through.”

After a service in Atlanta, a special train moved Polk’s remains to St. Paul’s Church in Augusta. His body was interred there until after the war, when the bishop entered his final resting place at Christ Church in New Orleans. The loss of Polk prompted the Confederates to fall back to the Gilgal Church Line — today the area around unincorporated Due West — where we will pick up the action next week.

Michael K. Shaffer is a Civil War historian, author and lecturer. He can be contacted at: www.civilwarhistorian.net

For more on the Civil War in Georgia, follow the AJC: http://www.ajc.com/s/opinion/ and http://www.myajc.com/s/battleofatlanta/

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