150 Years Ago: Dipping Handkerchiefs in the Blood of General Polk

150 years ago today the Confederate Bishop General- Leonidas Polk- a Corps commander in the Army of Tennessee, lost his life when he was struck by a Union shell on Pine Mountain, Georgia during the Atlanta Campaign. David Power Conyngham, a journalist from Corhane, Killenaule, Co. Tipperary, was one of the first Union men to see the site of Polk’s death. He would later describe the rather macabre activities carried out by both he and other men at the spot, perhaps providing a glimpse of the toll the war had taken on these men by 1864.

Bishop and Lieutenant-General Leonidas Polk (Library of Congress)

Bishop and Lieutenant-General Leonidas Polk (Library of Congress)

On 14th June Polk was in company with Generals Johnston, Hardee, Jackson and their staffs as they observed Federal movements in front of their position atop Pine Mountain. Patrick Cleburne’s Adjutant, Irving Buck, outlined the events that followed, as he later heard them:

‘General Johnston mounted Beauregard’s works and turned his field glasses to the left, when a shot directed at him came directly from the front. He immediately turned his glasses upon the battery firing, at the same time directing the staff and escort to disperse. General Polk moved off by himself, walking thoughtfully along, his hands folded behind his back, his left side towards the enemy, when a second came, then a third, the last of which- a Parrott shell- struck him, entering his left arm, passing through his body, emerging from his right arm, then struck a tree and exploded.’ (1)

Pine Mountain, Georgia, where Gen. Polk was Killed (Library of Congress)

Pine Mountain, Georgia, where Gen. Polk was Killed (Library of Congress)

David Power Conyngham  was following Sherman’s advance towards Atlanta as a correspondent for the New York Herald and for a time as a member of Brigadier-General Henry M. Judah’s staff. He had previously spent time as a volunteer aide with the Irish Brigade, and after the conflict would pen the most famous account of that unit, The Irish Brigade and its Campaigns. He also recorded his experiences with Sherman, in his 1865 book Sherman’s March through the South. Conyngham credits Sherman himself with directing the fire on the Confederate officers which led to Polk’s death. The Tipperary man later saw the spot where Polk fell, and describes the activity that he and others engaged in at the site:

‘When we took that hill [Pine Mountain], two artillerists, who had concealed themselves until we had come up, and then came within our lines, showed us where his [Polk’s] body lay after being hit. There was one pool of clotted gore there, as if an animal had been bled. The shell had passed through his body from the left side, tearing the limbs and body to pieces. Doctor M—- and myself searched that mass of blood, and discovering pieces of the ribs and arm bones, which we kept as souvenirs. The men dipped their handkerchiefs in it too, whether as a sacred relic, or to remind them of a traitor, I do not know.’ (2)

Conyngham’s is a fascinating account of the supposed actions of Union soldiers at the site where and enemy General fell. The idea of keeping fragmented parts of the body as souvenirs and dipping handkerchiefs in the blood of their fallen enemy is one I have not come across before- have any reader’s encountered any similar accounts from the Civil War?

Captain David Power Conyngham while serving with the Irish Brigade (Library of Congress)

Captain David Power Conyngham while serving with the Irish Brigade (Library of Congress)

(1) Buck 1908: 223; (2) Kohl (ed.) 1994: xviii-xxi, Conyngham 1865: 112;


Buck, Irving Ashby 1908. Cleburne and His Command

Conyngham, David Power 1865. Sherman’s March Through the South

Kohl, Lawrence (ed.) 1994. Conyngham, David Power. The Irish Brigade and its Campaigns (1st Edition 1867)


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Categories: Atlanta, Tipperary

Author:Damian Shiels

I am an archaeologist based in Ireland, specialising in conflict archaeology.

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6 Comments on “150 Years Ago: Dipping Handkerchiefs in the Blood of General Polk”

  1. June 14, 2014 at 1:55 pm #

    Damian– I’ve come across accounts of Confederate barbarities involving Union remains at Manassas. Harry Smeltzer at Bull Runnings wrote about the episodes. Here is a link to one of the posts. Harry may be able to point out the others: http://bullrunnings.wordpress.com/…/primary-accounts…/

    (I left a similar comment at your FB page.)

  2. June 14, 2014 at 3:31 pm #

    The 14th Brooklyn has an account before 2nd Manassas where they visited the battleground of 1st Manassas. They came upon a gruesome site of hastily buried Union men, many exposed where the hogs had been rooting. They recognized red pants, which was their uniform, within the site and found a skull which they believed a Confederate carved his initials into upon other carvings on the unfortunate fellow’s skull. This angered the men where they sought out Bee’s monument, first one placed to mark the spot of his death and destroyed it. I am assuming this was not that unusual, even at this early part of the war.

    • June 22, 2014 at 9:49 am #

      Hi Jim,

      Thanks for this- gruesome stuff. I must keep my eye out for more accounts of a similar nature.

      Kind Regards,


  3. Brendan
    June 26, 2014 at 6:42 pm #

    This Harper’s Weekly had illustrations of supposed souvenirs the Rebels made from Yankee body parts. Seems dubious to me, but who knows:

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