One of the most interesting people in America’s Civil War was a man by the name of Leonidas Polk. There is an army post in Louisiana named after him. He illustrates a profound truth: People may look at something as a tragedy or, conversely, a happy occurrence while, in reality, the exact opposite is true. In other words, things are not always as they appear. This is glaringly illustrated by an event involving Polk that occurred in 1864.
Polk was a bishop in the Episcopal Church. He lived in the Deep South, owned many slaves, and was a strong supporter of the Confederacy. He was also a close friend, since college days, of Jefferson Davis, president of the Confederate States.
Though Polk had very little military experience, Davis, because of their friendship, made him one of the highest generals in the Confederate Army. While there are many Civil War scholars holding various opinions, the common belief is that putting Polk in that position was disastrous for the South. A few even think it might have cost the Confederacy the war. Polk made many blunders on the battlefield that cost the lives of many men, and–on more than one occasion–he made decisions that resulted in defeat for the Rebels.
In 1864, during a battle near Atlanta, GA, a number of Confederate generals, including Polk, were meeting near a grove of trees. They were spotted by some Union soldiers. The information was given to an artillery unit. Knowing only that the group included many high-ranking military officers, the artillery unit fired upon the meeting. Polk was killed.
When soldiers in the South heard of his death, they were struck by profound grief. They explained how much Polk had loved them and that they did not know how they could overcome the loss of this great military genius. In the South, the day of his funeral was one of the saddest of the war.
The Northern side had the opposite reaction. Soldiers greeted Polk’s death with jubilation. They had been able to kill one of the South’s highest-ranking leaders. We can understand how quickly the news spread and how the artillery unit was praised for its ability to strike such a blow to the enemy. We can be sure the soldiers were giving each other high fives, if that was a thing back then.
But the soldiers on both sides misinterpreted what had happened. As far as the South was concerned, how many of the soldiers mourning Polk’s death would actually survive the war because he couldn’t make any more terrible military decisions? They didn’t understand that his inexperience had already cost many lives on their side—many of their friends’ lives. Their only thought was that he was a preacher who loved them. If they had known the truth—that he had been placed in his position of authority simply because of an old friendship—their weeping would have turned to dancing.
On the Northern side of the equation, the military leaders knew that they had lost one of their most powerful weapons when the Southern general Polk was killed! They were looking forward to future battles in which his blunders would have meant victory for them. One writer points out that Polk’s incompetence made him far more valuable to the North alive than dead. According to McDonough, the beauty of Polk’s mistakes was that no matter how bad he was as a general, Davis would never fire him (James L. McDonough, William Tecumseh Sherman: In the Service of My Country, 459). Another historian described the shell that killed Polk as “one of the worst shots fired for the Union cause during the entire course of the war” (Steven E. Woodworth, Sherman: Lessons in Leadership, 116). The Northern soldiers didn’t realize the mistake they had made in killing Polk. If they had, their dancing would have turned to crying.
We can only wonder how often we misinterpret the value of things that happen in our lives. Things that appear to be bad may actually be good. God may allow certain circumstances in our lives that we initially don’t welcome, but that turn out great. An example of this from God’s Word is the story of Joseph being sold into slavery by his brothers. Another example is Stephen’s death in Acts 7.
On the other hand, sometimes things that appear to be good turn out to be to our detriment. We have all heard stories of people who won a great deal of money through the lottery. They were ecstatic, only to find out later that the money ruined their lives. Certainly, sin can cause us to have a similar experience. If we, through sinful activity, obtain something we want and think will make us happy, we will find out that the opposite is true.
Leonidas Polk teaches us a valuable lesson: Don’t judge things by the world’s standards or simply by face value. Things don’t always appear as they seem.