Archive for December, 2011

Lee’s Lie

December 3, 2011

On September 22nd, 1863, half way between Ringgold and Chattanooga, Braxton Bragg took the time to vent his frustrations in a letter to his wife. He’d just won the battle of Chickamauga, but the victory had been both bloody and precarious. Greater success eluded him, he felt, largely because of incompetent Generals. Chief among those ranked Leonidas Polk, Bishop of Louisiana, Lieutenant General of the Confederacy, and intimate of Jefferson Davis.

Two days before, Bragg had assigned Polk the key role in his intended assault on Rosecrans and the Army of the Cumberland, to commence at “day-dawn.” Bragg gave Polk his instructions at 9:00 p.m. the evening before, in plenty of time to prepare for the attack. He assigned Polk a powerful force – five divisions of troops, nearly 30,000 men. There was no reason, thought Bragg, that the attack should not go off as planned.
Instead, as he informed Elise, sunrise came and went without the roar of battle. Anxious, he dispatched Major Pollock B. Lee to discover what was happening. An hour or so later, Lee returned, bearing an outrageous – and infuriating – tale. Lee found Polk an hour after sunrise, “two miles from his troops sitting in a rocking chair at a house, waiting his breakfast,” and reading a newspaper. When Lee asked about the attack, Polk replied that “he did not know why the action had not commenced, as ‘he had ordered it.'”

This incident is one of the more famous command miscues of the entire war, (rivaling the loss of Special Orders 191) and there is no doubt that Polk failed to do his full duty that morning. Polk failed to communicate with General Hill, who was to lead the attack, nor tell General Breckinridge, who spent the night at Polk’s fire, that he was part of the effort. It is pretty hard to defend Polk’s laxity.

However, Lee’s fiction was nothing but slander. I won’t attempt to dissect the actual event in any great detail, but suffice to say that Polk was up before dawn, and when he also heard no sounds, dispatched couriers to order Hill into the attack immediately. While that attack did not happen, it was not because Polk was enjoying a delightful Sunday brunch.

Bragg is pretty clear that Lee was the source of the tale. As soon as 8:00 a.m. that same morning, in a meeting with Hill, Bragg relayed the essential details of the fable to his fellow North Carolinian. He also reiterated those same details in letters to his wife and to President Davis, just days after the battle; and, as late as 1873, to a fellow former Confederate.

Luck did not shine on Pollack Lee’s early career as a soldier. He joined the service as a staff officer, commissioned originally as a major in the Tennessee state forces by Governor Isham Harris. That commission transferred to Confederate service when Tennessee embraced the Confederacy. Lee, in the meantime, was serving as a member of Felix K. Zellicoffer’s military family. In November of 1861, he transferred to the staff of George Bibb Crittenden, the Confederate brother of Thomas L. Crittenden. That transfer proved to be a poor career move. Not only did George B. Crittenden lose the battle of Mill Springs Kentucky the following January, but Zellicoffer was killed and Crittenden turned out to be a drunk. With one patron dead and the other in disgrace, Lee spent most of 1862 in rear echelon positions. He missed the battle of Shiloh, the invasion of Kentucky, and other notable events.

Finally, in November 1862, Crittenden’s resignation was accepted and Crittenden then recommended Lee to the Richmond authorities for other service. After serving on various inspection and judicial boards, Lee joined the Army of Tennessee, catching on as a member of Bragg’s Staff.

There is no record of Lee serving with Polk prior to Chickamauga, though of course Lee would have come into contact with Polk while with Bragg, and Lee must have been aware of the controversies embroiling the army in the Spring of 1863. Perhaps his loyalty to Bragg manifested as a dislike of Polk strong enough to fabricate the porch tale. The surviving record is sparse, however, and Lee never explained his version of the story.

In fact, at least once he denied being the source of the tale, in a confrontation a few weeks after the battle. His denial was not credible. After Bragg’s relief, Lee was again transferred to rear area duty. Polk, of course, had been transferred to Mississippi in the interim, and commanded the forces there until he was called back to join the Army of Tennessee in May, 1864. Sometime that spring, in a move that only a military bureaucracy could think made sense, Lee was assigned as an Inspector to Polk’s department in Mississippi. He was not made welcome.

A number of family members served on Polk’s staff, including his son William M Polk, and a cousin, Marshall T. Polk. Marsh Polk commanded an artillery battery at Shiloh, where he was badly wounded and lost a leg, whereupon he transferred to the General’s staff.

When Lee arrived at Polk’s headquarters, Marsh Polk met him with “the most scathing denunciation as a lying poltroon and cowardly cur.” The one-legged Polk then challenged Lee to a duel. Lee declined, refusing to fight a cripple. James H. Polk, who was acting as Marsh’s second in the matter, then offered to take Marsh’s place. Lee refused to fight him as well.

One night subsequent to these events, chance brought Lee and Marsh Polk together in the public room of a hotel, whereupon Marsh lit into Major Lee. “In the presence of a large gathering of officers, Marsh denounced [Lee] as a liar and a coward, shaking his finger at him and telling him that the ball which carried away his leg had spared his right arm and trigger finger. Lee slunk out of the hotel and we saw no more of him.”
Lee continued to serve in staff positions throughout the war, with the Army of Tennessee up through Hood’s disastrous final campaign in Tennessee. His last official appointment before war’s end came on April 20, 1865, when he was named as a staff officer to Joseph E. Johnston in North Carolina. He was still a major.

Lee was never promoted, never commanded troops in battle, and served in largely anonymous staff positions through the war. He left – as far as I can tell – no personal papers, nor did he contribute anything like reminiscences or to veteran’s activities after the war – again, as far as I know.

Lee apparently died in 1872, but no heirs could be found, or so I surmise from legal notices published in the Memphis Appeal that summer; but even an obituary notice has proved difficult to locate. If anyone has any more knowledge of Lee or his family, I would certainly like to hear from you.

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