Fighting Parsons

Fighting Parsons

Lt. Colonel David C. Kelly, Methodist Preacher

The Rev. David C. Kelly was an unlikely candidate for a war hero or much less “a fighting parson” in Major General Nathan B. Forrest’s Cavalry command. He had intended to be a Methodist preacher and missionary, and to that end was admitted to the Tennessee Conference of the Methodist Episcopal Church, South in 1852. From 1854 to 1858 David Kelly served as a missionary to China. In 1858 he returned home to receive an appointment as pastor of the MethodistChurch in Franklin, Tennessee.  From 1860 to early 1861 he was assigned to be one of two preachers in Huntsville, Alabama, part of the Tennessee Conference in those early days.

When the war began in the spring of 1861, Nathan B. Forrest was given a commission by Governor Isham Harris of Tennessee to raise a regiment of cavalry. Colonel Forrest ran some newspaper ads to recruit volunteers and began smuggling arms and equipment south from Louisville for his new regiment. The Rev. David Kelly met Colonel Forrest in Memphis and was impressed by his energy, determination, and focused leadership. Kelly accepted a major’s commission in Forrest’s Tennessee Cavalry Battalion (also at times designated as the 26th Tennessee Cavalry Battalion, but most often as “Forrest’s Regiment.”) As Forrest’s command grew, Kelly was promoted to Lieutenant Colonel and given command of “Forrest’s Old Regiment.”

Forrest himself regarded Kelly as both a regimental commander and his chaplain, although Kelly never held a chaplain’s commission. Kelly recalled early on both Forrest’s unbending will and his concern for his soldiers:

‘This command,’ Major David C. Kelley wrote, ‘found that it was his single will, impervious to argument, appeal, or threat, which was ever to be the governing impulse in their movements. Everything necessary to supply their wants, to make them comfortable, he was quick to do, save to change his plans, to which everything had to bend. New men naturally grumbled, but when the work was done all were reconciled by the pride felt in the achievement.’

Maj Gen Nathan Bradford Forrest

Kelly served under Forrest’s leadership throughout the war. He was in every respect a “fighting parson,” a title which the men bestowed upon him in 1861. He was imaginative, once capturing a Federal supply ship by ruse, to the immense enjoyment of his men. He was also a combat leader who led from the front. In one of his reports he described a rear-guard action by two of his depleted cavalry regiments:

‘August 23, 1864, we moved with the brigade after the retreating Yankees. Attacked them at Abbeville. My command was mounted; the Fifth MISSISSIPPI dismounted. We held the position against three regiments of infantry until they had not only flanked us on both sides, but almost closed in our rear. When the order reached me to retire, my flag (the staff and material of which are riddled with shot) was in forty paces of the flag of the advancing infantry.

We lost in this engagement First Lieutenant J. T. Crews, Company E, killed, an officer of highest worth and coolest bravery; and five wounded.

Brevet Second Lieutenant Nichols, Company F, is specially worthy of notice for gallantry in the last skirmish.

Respectfully submitted.


Lieutenant-Colonel, Commanding.’

Eventually Major General Forrest was compelled to surrender at Gainesville, Alabama in May of 1865. Rev. David Kelly then went back to his church for assignment as a minister once again. In 1865 Kelly served as pastor of the MethodistChurch in Lebanon; in 1874 as Presiding Elder (District Superintendent) of the Nashville District; and in 1886 as Treasurer of the Methodist General Board of Missions. In 1890, while serving a pastorate in Gallatin, he was nominated for the office of Governor of Tennessee. He did not win the election, but he did subsequently serve in 1893 as a delegate from Tennessee to the Methodist General Conference.

David Campbell Kelly represented many Southern clergy, of different denominations, who chose both to fight and to pray for the South. He was obviously a man of many skills and abilities, but probably did not realize when he was ordained in 1852 that one of those skills was to lead cavalrymen in battle!

For further information, see Marion E. Lazenby, History of Methodism in Alabama and West Florida (1960).


Fighting Parsons

 Lt. Gen. Leonidas Polk CSALt. Gen. Leonidas Polk, CSA

  Leonidas Polk was born in Raleigh, North Carolina, to Sarah (Hawkins) Polk and Colonel William Polk, a Revolutionary War veteran and prosperous planter. Capitalizing on his position as chief surveyor of the central district of Tennessee, William was able to acquire about 100,000 acres of land. Leonidas Polk attended the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill briefly before entering the United States Military Academy at West Point. During his senior year, he joined the Episcopal Church, baptized in the Academy Chapel by Chaplain Charles P. McIlvaine, who later became the Episcopal Bishop of Ohio. Polk had an impressive academic record, excelling in rhetoric and moral philosophy. He graduated eighth of 38 cadets on July 1, 1827, and was appointed a brevet second lieutenant in the artillery.

Polk resigned his commission on December 1, 1827, so that he could enter the Virginia Theological Seminary. He became an assistant to Bishop Richard Channing Moore at Monumental Church in Richmond, Virginia. Moore ordained Polk as a deacon in April 1830 and a priest the following year. On May 6, 1830, Polk married Frances Ann Deveraux, daughter of John and Frances Pollock Devereaux; her mother was the granddaughter of Puritan theologian Jonathan Edwards. The Polks had eight children.

In 1832, Polk moved his family to the vast Polk “Rattle and Snap” tract in Maury County, Tennessee, and constructed a massive Greek Revival home he called “Ashwood Hall”. Polk was the largest slaveholder in Maury County, Tennessee, in 1840, with 111 slaves. (By 1850, census records state that Polk owned 215 slaves, but other estimates are as high as 400.) With his four brothers in Maury County, he built a family chapel, St. John’s Church, at Ashwood. He also served as priest of St. Peter’s Church in Columbia, Tennessee. He was appointed Missionary Bishop of the Southwest in September 1838 and was elected Bishop of Louisiana in October 1841.


Polk CSABishop Polk was the leading founder of the University of the South in Sewanee, Tennessee, which he envisioned as a national university for the South and a New World equivalent to Oxford and Cambridge, both in England. (In his August 1856 letter to Bishop Elliott, he expounded on the secessionist motives for his university.) Polk laid and consecrated the cornerstone for the first building on October 9, 1860. Polk’s foundational legacy at Sewanee is remembered always through his portrait Sword Over the Gown, painted by Eliphalet F. Andrews in 1900. After the original was vandalized in 1998, a copy by Connie Erickson was unveiled on June 1, 2003.

At the outbreak of the Civil War, Polk pulled the Louisiana Episcopal Convention out of the Episcopal Church of the United States. Although he hoped that secession would result in a peaceful separation of the North and South and suggested that he was reluctant to take up arms personally, he did not hesitate to write to his friend and former classmate at West Point, Jefferson Davis, offering his services in the Confederate States Army. Polk was commissioned a major general on June 25, 1861, and ordered to command Department No. 2 (roughly, the area between the Mississippi River and the Tennessee River). He committed one of the great blunders of the Civil War by dispatching troops to occupy Columbus, Kentucky, in September 1861; the critical border state of Kentucky had declared its neutrality between the Union and the Confederacy, but Polk’s action was instrumental in prompting the Kentucky legislature to request Federal aid to resist his advance, ending the state’s brief attempt at neutrality and effectively ceding it to Union control for the remainder of the war.

Polk’s command saw its first combat on November 7, 1861, in the minor, inconclusive Battle of Belmont between Polk’s subordinate, Brig. Gen. Gideon J. Pillow and Union Brig. Gen. Ulysses S. Grant. Although not present on the battlefield himself, Polk was wounded nearby on November 11 when the largest cannon in his army, nicknamed “Lady Polk” in honor of his wife, exploded during demonstration firing. The explosion stunned Polk and blew his clothes off, requiring a convalescence of several weeks. During this period Polk argued about strategy with his subordinate, Pillow, and his superior, Gen. Albert Sidney Johnston, commander of Confederate forces in the Western Theater, resentful that his former West Point roommate was giving him orders. He submitted a letter of resignation to President Davis on November 6, but Davis rejected the request.

Army of Mississippi

In April 1862, Polk commanded the First Corps of Albert Sidney Johnston’s Army of Mississippi at the Battle of Shiloh and continued in that role for much of the rest of the year under Gen. Braxton Bragg, who replaced Johnston, killed on the first day at Shiloh. At various times his command was considered a corps and at other times the “Right Wing” of the army. In the fall, during the invasion of Kentucky by Bragg and Maj. Gen. Edmund Kirby Smith, Polk was in temporary command of the Army of Mississippi while Bragg visited Frankfort to preside over the inauguration of a Confederate governor for the state. Polk disregarded an order from Bragg to attack the flank of the pursuing Union Army near Frankfort.

Bragg thoroughly despised … the genial but pompous and often incompetent Bishop Polk. Bragg considered Polk “an old woman, utterly worthless”, especially at disciplining men. Unfortunately for Bragg and for the Confederacy as a whole, Polk remained a great favorite of Jefferson Davis despite carefully couched hints from Bragg, which protected the irritatingly self-righteous Polk from the increasingly sycophantic Bragg and made his appointment to wing command a political necessity.

—Kenneth W. Noe, Perryville

At the Battle of Perryville, Polk’s right wing constituted the main attacking force against Maj. Gen. Don Carlos Buell‘s Army of the Ohio, but Polk was reluctant to attack the small portion of Buell’s army that faced him until Bragg arrived at the battlefield. One of the enduring legends of the Civil War is that Polk witnessed his subordinate, Maj. Gen. Benjamin F. Cheatham, advancing his division. Cheatham allegedly shouted, “Give ‘em hell, boys!” and Polk, retaining the sensibility of his role as an Episcopal bishop, seconded the cheer: “Give it to ‘em boys; give ‘em what General Cheatham says!”

Army of Tennessee

After Perryville, Polk began a year-long campaign to get Bragg relieved of command, hoping to use his close relationship with President Davis to accomplish his goal. Despite the failure of his Kentucky campaign, Bragg was retained in command, but this did nothing to reduce the enmity between Polk and Bragg. Polk was promoted to Lieutenant General on October 11, 1862, with date of rank of October 10. He became the second most senior Confederate of that rank during the war, behind James Longstreet. In November, the Army of Mississippi was renamed the Army of Tennessee and Polk commanded its First Corps until September 1863.

Polk fought under Bragg at the Battle of Stones River in late 1862 and once again Bragg’s subordinates politicked to remove their army commander after an unsuccessful battle (the battle was tactically inconclusive, but Bragg was unable to stop the advance of the Union Army of the Cumberland under Maj. Gen. William S. Rosecrans and Bragg withdrew his army to Tullahoma, Tennessee). Bragg was also unsuccessful in resisting Rosecrans’s advance in the Tullahoma Campaign, which began to threaten the important city of Chattanooga. In the face of Rosecrans’s expert maneuvering of his army, Polk counseled Bragg to retreat rather than stand and fight in their Tullahoma fortifications.

Rosecrans eventually maneuvered Bragg out of Chattanooga and the Army of Tennessee withdrew into the mountains of northwestern Georgia with the Army of the Cumberland in hot pursuit. Bragg planned to attack and destroy at least one of Rosecrans’s corps, advancing separately over mountainous roads. He was infuriated when Polk failed to attack an isolated Union corps at Davis’s Cross Roads as ordered on September 11. Two days later, Polk disregarded orders from Bragg to attack another isolated corps, the second failed opportunity. At the Battle of Chickamauga, Polk was given command of the Right Wing and the responsibility for initiating the attack on the second day of battle (September 19). He failed to inform his subordinates of the plan and his wing was late in attacking, allowing the Union defenders time to complete their field fortifications. Bragg wrote after the war that if it were not for the loss of these hours, “our independence might have been won.”

Chickamauga was a great tactical victory for Bragg, but instead of pursuing and destroying the Union Army as it retreated, he laid siege to it in Chattanooga, concentrating his effort against the enemies inside his army instead of his enemies from the North. He demanded an explanation from Polk on the bishop’s failure to attack in time on September 20 and Polk placed the blame entirely on one of his subordinates, Maj. Gen. D. H. Hill. Bragg wrote to President Davis, “Gen’l Polk by education and habit is unfit for executing the plans of others. He will convince himself his own are better and follow them without reflecting on the consequences.” Bragg relieved Polk of his command and ordered him to Atlanta to await further orders. Although Polk protested the “arbitrary and unlawful order” to the Secretary of War and demanded a court of inquiry, he was not restored to his position and Davis once again retained Bragg in army command, despite the protestations of a number of his subordinate generals.


President Davis transferred his friend Polk to command the Department of Mississippi and East Louisiana (December 23, 1863 – January 28, 1864) and then the Department of Alabama and East Mississippi (January 28 – May 4, 1864), giving him effective command of the state of Mississippi following the departure of Gen. Joseph E. Johnston to replace Bragg in command of the Army of Tennessee. Polk unsuccessfully attempted to oppose Maj. Gen. William T. Sherman‘s raid against Meridian, Mississippi, in February 1864. In May, he was ordered to take his forces and join with Johnston in resisting Sherman’s advance in the Atlanta Campaign. He assumed command of the Third Corps of the Army of Tennessee (which was nicknamed the “Army of Mississippi”) on May 4.

The Atlanta Campaign and Polk’s Death

Polk brought more than 20,000 men with him to Georgia. Because of his elevated rank, he became the army’s second in command under Johnston. Johnston progressively withdrew his army from strong defensive positions whenever his flanks were threatened by Sherman’s advance.

The army had suffered a severe loss. It was not that Polk had been a spectacular corps officer. His deficiencies as a commander and his personal traits of stubbornness and childishness had played no small role in several of the army’s disasters in earlier times. The loss was one of morale and experience. Polk was the army’s most beloved general, a representative of that intangible identification of the army with Tennessee.

—Thomas L. Connelly, Autumn of Glory

On June 14, 1864, Polk was scouting enemy positions near Marietta, Georgia, with his staff when he was killed in action by a Federal 3-inch Hotchkiss shell at Pine Mountain. The artillery fire was initiated when Sherman spotted a cluster of Confederate officers—Polk, Hardee, Johnston, and their staffs—in an exposed area. He pointed them out to Maj. Gen. Oliver O. Howard, commander of the IV Corps, and ordered him to fire on them. The 5th Indiana Battery, commanded by Capt. Peter Simonson, obeyed the order within minutes. The first round came close and a second even closer, causing the men to disperse. The third shell struck Polk’s left arm, went through the chest, and exited hitting his right arm then exploded against a tree; it nearly cut Polk in two.

My pen and ability is inadequate to the task of doing his memory justice. Every private soldier loved him. Second to Stonewall Jackson, his loss was the greatest the South ever sustained. When I saw him there dead, I felt that I had lost a friend whom I had ever loved and respected, and that the South had lost one of her best and greatest Generals.

—Private Sam Watkins, Co. Aytch

Although his record as a field commander was poor, Polk was immensely popular with his troops, and his death was deeply mourned in the Army of Tennessee. Polk’s funeral service was one of the most elaborate during the war, presided over by his friend, Bishop Stephen Elliott of Georgia. He was buried in Augusta, Georgia, and in 1945, his remains and those of his wife were reinterred at Christ Church Cathedral in New Orleans. His grave can be found in the front floor sanctuary, to the right of the pulpit.

Polk’s nephew, Lucius E. Polk, was also a Confederate general. His son, William Mecklenburg Polk, was a physician and a Confederate captain.

Fort Polk in Louisiana is named in Bishop Polk’s memory.


revival csaRevival Services in the Confederate Armies

by  Dr. John Brinsfield

The revivals in the Confederate armies, which eventually encompassed an area from Virginia to Arkansas and Georgia to Texas, tended to feature strong evangelical preaching by Methodists, Baptists, and Presbyterians. Yet there was also a spiritual rebirth among the Episcopalians and other liturgical faith groups as well.  Lieutenant General Leonidas Polk, Brigadier General William Pendleton, and Chaplain Charles T. Quintard of the 1st Tennessee Infantry were all ordained Episcopal priests; and Polk was, of course, also an Episcopal bishop. On May 8, 1864, when the Army of Tennessee was in winter quarters at Dalton, General John B. Hood, General Joseph E. Johnston, and Lt. Gen. William Hardee all asked Polk to baptize them. In addition, Chaplain Quintard baptized Major General B.F. Cheatham and Brigadier General O.F. Strahl of Cheatham’s Division in Atlanta at about the same time.[1] The other national leaders who joined churches in 1863-1864 included General Braxton Bragg, Lieutenant General Richard Ewell, and President Jefferson Davis.[2]

There is no question but that the revivals in the Confederate armies from 1862 to 1864 were significant events.       Chaplain J. William Jones and Chaplain L.C. Vass estimated that at least 15,000 soldiers in the Army of Northern Virginia made professions of faith during the war. The Rev. W.W. Bennett, Post Chaplain at Richmond and future President of Randolph-Macon College, believed that 150,000 soldiers in all the Confederate armies, East and West, had been converted and that one-third of all Confederate soldiers in the field were members of some branch of the Christian church at the end of the war. [3] Chaplain Jones, moreover, discovered after the war was over that “four-fifths of the Christian students of our colleges had been in the army, and that a large proportion of them had found Christ in the camp—and nearly all of the army converts were maintaining their profession, many of them pillars in the Churches.”[4]

If  Chaplain Bennett was even close in his estimates, it means that the revivals and other evangelical work in 1862-1864 produced an army which was significantly more religious than the society which originally produced it. In 1860, approximately 25% of the Southern people were church members, whereas in 1865 some 33% of the soldiers supposedly had made a Christian commitment. Professor R.L. Dabney of the Union Theological Seminary in Virginia, who had once been chaplain to the 18th Virginia Infantry in Pickett’s Brigade, wrote after the war:

In short, the conversions in the various Confederate armies within the ensuing year were counted…The strange spectacle was now presented, of a people among whom the active religious life seemed to be transferred from the churches at home—the customary seats of piety—to the army; which, among other nations, has always been dreaded as the school of vice and infidelity. Thus the grief and fears of the good, lest this gigantic war should arrest the religious training of the whole youth of the land, cut off the supply of young preachers for its pulpits, and rear up for the country a generation of men profane and unchristian, were happily consoled; they accepted this new marvel, of an army made the home and source of the religious life of a nation[5]

Not since the Great Awakening under the Rev. George Whitefield, Dabney proposed, had there been a more imposing display of “the power of the truth” upon such a great congregation.[6] Most chaplains who left records agreed that it was the most amazing display of spiritual power ever witnessed among fighting men on the American continent.[7]

Excerpted from John W. Brinsfield, ed. The Spirit Divided: Memoirs of Civil War Chaplains—The Confederacy, Macon, GA: MercerUniversity Press, 2005, pp. 191-193.


[1] Arthur Howard Noll, Doctor Quintard: Chaplain C.S.A. and Second Bishop of Tennessee, 96.

[2] Henry Steele Commager (ed.), The Blue and the Gray (Indianapolis: The Bobbs Merrill Company, 1950), I, 302.

[3] J.William Jones, Christ in the Camp, 390.

[4] Ibid., 463.

[5]  R.L. Dabney, Life and Campaigns of Lt. Gen. Thomas J. Jackson, 657.

[6] Ibid., 649.

[7] Charles Pitts, Chaplains in Gray, 2; W.W. Bennett, A Narrative of The Great Revival, 365-366.



revival csaRevival Services in the Confederate Armies

by  Dr. John Brinsfield

The Army of Tennessee

You will seek me and find me when you seek me with all your heart…Jeremiah 29

 Although there had been some scattered revival meetings in the western theater, most witnesses agreed that the major revivals in the Army of Tennessee did not begin until the winter of 1862-1863. Chaplain A.S. Worrell of the 34th Georgia Infantry, Cumming’s Brigade, wrote that after the battle of Stone’s River, “the signs of that wonderful revival in the army of the West began to appear.” Chaplain William H. Browning of the 154th Tennessee Infantry recalled,

I shall never forget the look of astonishment in the Association of Chaplains in January, 1863, when Brother Winchester, a chaplain and a minister in the Cumberland Presbyterian Church, announced a conversion in his command, and stated that he believed we were on the eve of one of the most glorious revivals ever witnessed on the American continent…

Certainly many others besides Brother George Winchester were surprised as well. The army was supposed to be a den of iniquity where guzzling whiskey, gambling away pitiful pay, and swearing were among the minor sins. In the minds of the pious, a revival in a saloon, racetrack, or bordello was as likely as a revival in the army.

However, many of the same conditions that favored a revival in the Army of Northern Virginia were also present in the Army of Tennessee. Both armies had gone through some hard campaigns, both had sustained severe casualties, both had influential leaders who supported the revivalists’ efforts to create “a converted army,” and both had visiting missionaries and assigned chaplains who were dedicated to evangelical preaching. Division and brigade commanders in the Army of Tennessee not only gave permission for the meetings to take place, but some also preached and led prayer meetings with the chaplains. For example, Brigadier General M.P. Lowry of Mississippi, an ordained Baptist minister, preached to his brigade frequently from a rostrum Major General Patrick Cleburne had constructed in the middle of his division specifically for worship services. Lieutenant  General  A.P. Stewart, a Presbyterian Elder, assisted in the administration of the Lord’s Supper, and Brigadier General Finley of the Florida Brigade, led in audible prayers.

Chaplains and missionaries left many accounts of the revival meetings in 1863 and in 1864. The Rev. L.R. Redding, an army missionary from the Georgia Conference of the Methodist Episcopal Church, South, reported that beginning in Gist’s Brigade, soldiers built chapels for the daily worship services in their camps. The Rev. J.B. McFerrin of Nashville, a charismatic preacher, gathered “an immense congregation” which eventually included soldiers from 13 brigades. Chaplain John J.D. Renfroe of the 10th Alabama Infantry described mass meetings outside with rails, logs, and rocks to serve as seats. By one account, fourteen miles of such revival services were taking place in the Army of Tennessee while they were bivouacked in Georgia in 1864.

The mass revivals in the Army of Tennessee may not have lasted quite as long as did the evangelical fervor in Virginia, but the results were just as impressive. At Dalton, Georgia, where General Joe Johnston quartered the army in the winter of 1863-1864, 47 chaplains, evangelists, and missionaries held services in every church and in the open fields for 33 regiments and brigades for five months. The Rev. S.M. Cherry, chaplain and colporter, recalled that at Dalton, the Chester House was the distribution center for “army papers, tracts, Bibles, Testaments, hymn books, and other religious literature” and the Methodist, Baptist, and PresbyterianChurches were the favorite sites for evening meetings. In 15 brigades, Rev. Cherry counted 321 conversions and 728 soldiers asking to join the Church in one month, an average of 35 conversions or professions of faith each night for 30 days. Over the course of five months, the chaplains added an estimated 13% of the Army of Tennessee to those who already identified themselves as Christians.

From John W. Brinsfield, The Spirit Divided: Memoirs of Civil War Chaplains—The Confederacy, pages 190-191.