Lee’s Lie

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.

12 Responses to “Lee’s Lie”

  1. guitarmandanga Says:

    Dave – interesting stuff, as always. I still maintain, though, that the shell that killed that useless sack of bishop ought to have found its mark in 1861, not 1864. The Confederacy would have been better off without him.

  2. Chris Evans Says:

    Recently rereading Glenn Tucker I think he had a hard time believing Lee’s story.

    Its interesting that the audio tour I have of Chickamauga battlefield from`the ’90s has that great line that Polk supposedly said about the attack not commencing, “Do tell General Bragg that my heart is overflowing with anxiety, overflowing with anxiety sir.” Interesting that looks like it was all made up.

    I wonder what house Polk was supposedly waiting for the attack from?


    • Dave Powell Says:

      Chris, Lee’s tale is not substantiated by any other source, though admittedly all the likely other sources are bound to be Polk supporters, so it is hard to credit Lee’s version against the testimony of at least a half-dozen other officers. I like the “overflowing with anxiety” line myself. It’s a post war embellishment, I believe, along the lines of Tom Wood’s supposed comments concerning the “fateful” order. Alas for wargamers, mapmakers, and the like, the county property records were partially destroyed in a fire back about the 1880s or 1890s, so that the names of the property owners at the time of the battle for the houses on that side of the creek are largely lost. There are a number of farms east of the Creek, and a good deal of settlement going on, but it would be simple guesswork to figure out who was where. The 1860 census isn’t really a help – it gives us the names, but not the locations, and of course, it is three years out of date by the time of the battle. Given the turmoil of those intervening three years, it becomes pretty hard to figure out who was living where. Dave Powell

      • Russell Hicks Says:

        I’m doing some research on Pollok Lee. Details are still sketchy, but Lee suffered from chronic bad health during the war. At the end he was with Johnston. He returned to Memphis afterwards but by 1866 he was dead of consumption. Dave, would you email me at your convenience? Russell Hicks

  3. zoak Says:

    Nice post. I enjoy and appreciate your ferreting out the bio of the little guys on whom the battle really turns. Great stuff.

    While this post does directly address the issue of who to blame for failure to attack, I still cant decide who to tag with blame. ARRGGG.
    Of course they couldnt decide back then either.

    Is Polk giving a demonstration of the difference of following orders and obeying orders?

    Congrats on book deal. Yea!

    • Dave Powell Says:

      I think Polk is giving a demonstration of how not to do either.:) Blame has to be shared with Bragg, Polk, and Hill. the idea not to call all the corps and wing commanders together on the night of the 19th was a remarkably bad one. Dr. Robertson thinks that this was largely because Bragg was afraid that such a meeting would turn into a council of war, and given the lack of harmony in the army, those never went well for him. I am less sure of that, since he did call his officers together a couple of times at LaFayette in the days before the battle, but it is a useful point to remember. Lee’s untruth has to be an outgrowth of the animosity that had sprung up between Bragg and Polk, translated down to their respective staffs. But it is such a large lie that one wonders what Lee was thinking. It’s hard to give him the benefit of the doubt, assume differing interpretations, etc. There are just no points of convergence in the two versions of that morning’s events upon which you could see something getting garbled.

      • Chris Evans Says:

        I agree that Bragg should have called all the commanders together that night. It is strange how out of touch he could get sometimes. It seems that he would grow so grouchy that he didn’t care if he won or lost.

        There were some astonishing personalities in the Army of Tennessee. They remind me of one big dysfunctional family.


  4. zoak Says:

    There sure did seem to be a large percentage of personalities and that was true for both sides. It would appear that for generals the ability of managing personalities was a more important criteria for success than strategic abilities. Or maybe better said good strategy got foiled by failure to manage the personalities.

    Grant in his memoirs gave a couple of unfavorable Bragg antedotes and then said if Bragg thought his subordinates were so bad he should have replaced them. This post shows that that would not have been so easy.

    This post also shows that the popular stories may not be the accurate story.

    • Dave Powell Says:

      There is a reason the modern military places so much emphasis on teambuilding. All the technical skills in the world are useless if you can’t motivate and lead men.

  5. Bruce Allardice Says:

    Marsh Polk wasn’t exactly a paragon of honesty either. Postwar he was accused of embezzling the TN state treasury.

  6. Bruce Allardice Says:

    Major P. B. Lee died in Memphis 9-7-1866, age 35, and is buried in Memphis’ Elmwood Cemetery. His obit (in the Memphis Avalanche 9-8 and 9-11-66) says he ws born in Charlotte, NC, in 1832, attended Emory & Henry, and was a lawyer.

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