William Polk – Continental Army Officer – North Carolina


Colonel William Polk (9 July 1758 – 14 January 1834) was a North Carolina banker, educational administrator, political leader, renowned Continental officer in the War for American Independence, and survivor of the 1777/1778 encampment at Valley Forge.

==Early life and background==

William Polk was born in Mecklenburg County, North Carolina, on July 9, 1758, the eldest child of Thomas Polk and his wife, Sussana Spratt. From the earliest days of rebellion against British authority, Mecklenburg had been a hotbed of revolutionary fervor, and the Polk family was very active in this cause. William’s father was commander of the local militia, a rumored key player in adoption of the Mecklenburg Resolves of May 31, 1775, and later colonel of the 4th North Carolina Regiment, Continental Line. Following their father’s example, three of Thomas Polk’s sons served as officers in the war against the British. One, Thomas, was killed in action serving alongside his brother William at the Battle of Eutaw Springs.

== American Revolutionary War==

* At the onset of military action between the American colonies and Great Britain, William Polk left Queens College (an unrelated precursor of the modern Queens University) to accept a commission as second lieutenant in his uncle Ezekiel Polk’s company of the Third South Carolina Regiment, commanded by Col. William Thomson. In a campaign to subdue Tory forces in South Carolina, he was severely wounded in the left shoulder at Great Cane Brake on 23 December 1775. Borne on a litter 120 miles to his father’s home in North Carolina, he spent the following nine months recuperating from the dangerously infected wound. His reportedly was the first American blood shed south of Lexington and Concord, Massachusetts.

* 1776, November 26: The Provincial Congress of North Carolina at Halifax elected young Polk major of the Ninth Regiment, North Carolina Continental Line. When the North Carolina regiments were ordered north, the Ninth had only about half its complement of men, and its colonel and lieutenant colonel remained in North Carolina to superintend further recruiting. Polk, a combat veteran of imposing stature—he stood six feet, four —was given command and marched the regiment to Maryland for inoculation against smallpox, then to Trenton, N.J., where it joined the main body of General Washington’s army.

* 1777, September 11: Polk and his regiment saw action at the Battle of Brandywine.

* 1777, October 4: At the Battle of Germantown Polk was shot in the mouth while in the act of giving a command. The musket ball ranged along the upper jaw, knocking out four teeth and shattering the jawbone.

* 1777/1778, winter: Recuperating from this wound, Polk remained with his regiment during the difficult encampment at Valley Forge.

* 1778, March: Their ranks severely depleted by death and the expiration of enlistments, North Carolina’s ten regiments were reduced to four. Superfluous officers, including Polk, were removed by lot from active service. Polk returned to North Carolina, where he engaged in recruiting duty.

* 1778, fall – 1780, April: Polk continued in his recruiting duties and participated in skirmishes against the Tories.

* 1780, May: After the fall of Charleston, the Southern Department of the army was reorganized under General Horatio Gates. Polk was assigned to the staff of General Richard Caswell, the former governor of North Carolina.

* 1780: Polk saw action at the disastrous Battle of Camden. When the Continentals began to give ground, Polk joined with the North Carolina militia and fought with them. Once De Kalb fell and the rout of Continentals was complete, Polk was able to lead a large number of troops in a successful retreat to North Carolina. That fall he acquired a position under General William Davidson.

* 1781, January: General Davidson’s militia, including Polk, marched to the aid of Daniel Morgan, who after his success at Cowpens was on the run from the main body of Cornwallis’s army.

* 1781, February – April: When Cornwallis attempted to cross the Catawba at Cowan’s Ford, he was attacked by Davidson’s militia. Polk was riding alongside Davidson when the general was shot from his horse and killed instantly. Word of Davidson’s death spread quickly, and the demoralized militia broke in the face of an enemy bayonet charge. Polk rallied the few men he could and led them to Salem, reporting for service to General Andrew Pickens, with whom he remained until, following the Battle of Guilford Court House, Pickens left the army of General Nathanael Greene. Soon thereafter Polk was commissioned lieutenant colonel by Governor John Rutledge of South Carolina and took command of the 4th and then the 3rd regiments of that state, mustering his regiment under the command of General Thomas Sumter. Less than a month after being commissioned, Polk, together with troops under Colonel Wade Hampton, grandfather of the Confederate general of that name, led his regiment on a forced march of sixty miles in seventeen hours, surprising the British at Friday’s Ferry on the Congaree and burning the blockhouse near Fort Granby.

* 1781, May 11–15: Polk joined General Greene at Fort Motte, which capitulated on the second day of a siege, and then marched under General Sumter’s command to Orangeburg, where the British garrison quickly surrended.

* 1781, July. Polk’s regiment invested the British garrison around Watboo Church, burning bridges and causeways, then retired to await the arrival of Sumter’s artillery. In the morning the British cavalry made “a furious charge,” but were thrown back. That night the British abandoned their position, burned the church and other buildings and retreated to Quinby Bridge, where they were saved from certain defeat by Sumter’s failure to employ his artillery.

* 1781, September 8: Polk’s regiment covered the left wing of the American army under General Nathanael Greene at the Battle of Eutaw Springs. While charging the enemy, Polk’s horse was shot dead and fell on top of him, pinning him to the ground. A British soldier was in the act of plunging a bayonet into Polk when he was cut down by a sergeant in Polk’s regiment. (Polk’s brother Lieutenant Thomas Polk was killed during the battle.) With regard to Colonel Polk’s performance that day, Greene wrote in his official report:

Lieutenant-Colonels Polk and Middleton were no less conspicuous for their good conduct than their intrepidity, and the troops under their command gave a specimen of what may be expected from men naturally brave when improved by proper discipline.

* Eutaw Springs was the last major battle in the South prior to Yorktown and was Polk’s final military engagement. With the end of hostilities, Polk returned to North Carolina, a veteran of some of the Revolution’s fiercest battles and a survivor of the harshest winter encampment in the history of the United States military. He was twenty-two years old.

==Life After the Revolution==

===Politician, Public Servant, and Prominent Citizen===

In 1783 the North Carolina General Assembly appointed Polk Surveyor General of the Middle District, now a part of Tennessee. In this capacity Polk acquired large tracts of land in the area. Twice he was elected to the House of Commons before returning in 1786 to his native Mecklenburg County, where he was re-elected to the House of Commons in 1787, served a one-year term and was re-elected in 1790. He was a candidate for Speaker of the House in 1791, but was defeated by Stephen Cabarrus. That March President Washington appointed him Supervisor of Internal Revenue for the District of North Carolina, a position he held for seventeen years, or until the Internal Revenue Laws were repealed.

Polk was among the Continental Army officers who founded the North Carolina Society of the Cincinnati on October 23, 1783.

After the death of his first wife in 1799, he moved to property on Blount Street in Raleigh. In December of that year he was elected Grand Master of Masons of North Carolina and served in that office until December 1802.

Federalists in the state legislature nominated him for governor in 1802, but by a two-to-one margin he lost to John Baptista Ashe, a fellow officer in the Revolution. Ashe died before taking office.

Polk became the first president of the State Bank of North Carolina in 1811 and held that office for eight years.

In March 1812, as war with Britain seemed imminent, President Madison offered Polk a commission as brigadier in the U.S. Army. A Federalist and opponent of the war, he declined the offer. Not until August 1814 when the British sacked Washington did he recant his opposition to the war. Writing his brother-in-law William Hawkins, governor of North Carolina, he offered his services to the state in whatever capacity the governor saw fit. Inasmuch as North Carolina was not seriously threatened, he was not called upon.

In June 1818 Polk became one of the first vice presidents of Raleigh Auxiliary of the American Colonization Society and remained active in the group for many years.

The Federalists again nominated him for governor in 1814, and again he was defeated.

===Canova’s Washington===

After the War of 1812 the North Carolina legislature commissioned the celebrated sculptor Antonio Canova of Venice, Italy, to produce a statue of Washington for the Statehouse. On Christmas Eve 1821 it arrived in Raleigh and was met with great fanfare, including a 24-gun salute, marching bands, and a parade of both houses of the legislature and the governor. In last position, just ahead of the statue, were veterans of the Revolution, with Polk bearing the Stars and Stripes. The Capitol building burned in June 1831 and the statue was destroyed. An accurate copy was produced in recent years from molds of the original, which were preserved in Italy, and stands in the rotunda of the old Capitol building.

===Lafayette’s Visit to Raleigh===

Lafayette visited Raleigh in March 1825 as part of his Grand Tour and Colonel Polk was appointed to give an address on the occasion. Upon the completion of his speech, Polk and Lafayette embraced and wept at the memory of the dangers and hardships they had shared. Lafayette attended various balls, dinners, and other events, including breakfast at Colonel Polk’s home on the morning of March 3.

===Service to education===

Polk was made a trustee of the University of North Carolina in 1790 and served until his death, including a term as president of the trustees from 1802-1805. Among other educational efforts, he founded a school for sixteen pupils in Raleigh in 1827 and assisted his wife Sarah in founding a school for poor children in 1822.


In October 1789 Polk married Grizelda Gilchrist, a granddaughter of a former colonial attorney general of North Carolina. She was born in Suffolk, Virginia, on October 24, 1768. The couple had two children, Thomas Gilchrist Polk, born February 22, 1791, and William Julius Polk, born March 21, 1793. Grizelda Polk died in 1799.

Polk remarried on New Year’s Day 1801 Sarah Hawkins, whose brother William later became governor of North Carolina. Sarah bore thirteen children, two of whom died in infancy.

==Notable Relations==

* Ezekiel Polk, William’s uncle and first commanding officer during the Revolution.
* James K. Polk, 11th President of the United States and William’s first cousin, once removed, being the grandson of his father’s brother Ezekiel.
* Leonidas Polk, William’s second son by his wife Sarah, was known as “The Fighting Bishop,” being both an Episcopal bishop and Confederate general. (Killed in action at Pine Mountain, Tennessee.) He was instrumental in establishing the University of the South in Sewanee, Tennessee. Fort Polk is named in his honor.
* Leonidas Lafayette Polk, whose precise family connection is uncertain, a Confederate colonel and first North Carolina Commissioner of Agriculture.


Polk died on January 14, 1834, at his home in Raleigh.

His obituary in the January 21, 1834, issue of the Raleigh Register contained the following:

Colonel Polk was at his death the sole surviving field officer of the North Carolina Line; and it will be no disparagement to the illustrious dead to say that no one of his compatriots manifested deeper or more ardent devotion to the cause of his country; that in her service no officer more gallantly exposed his life or more cheerfully endured privation and suffering, and that no one of his rank in the army contributed more by his personal services to bring that glorious contest to a successful end.

> —The Raleigh Register, January 21, 1834, quoted by Marshall DeLancey Haywood


* Despite the long and distinguished life of Colonel William Polk, his memory has been over-shadowed by that of his presidential cousin. Nevertheless, the town of Polkville, North Carolina is named for him, as is Polk County.

* Polk Correctional Institution (originally Polk Youth Institution), opened in 1997 near Butner, North Carolina, is a North Carolina maximum-security prison for men aged 19–25. The original Polk Prison was built in 1920 on the grounds of Camp Polk, a World War I U.S. Army tank base in Raleigh. The facility is named for Colonel William Polk.

* There are conflicting sources regarding the town of Polkton. Some allege that it is named for William, others that it was named for Confederate Leonidas L. Polk, who founded the town.{Citation needed|date=March 2011}

* There are also conflicting theories regarding the name of Polk County, Tennessee. Some assert that the county was named for President Polk, but others believe it was named for William, who had owned property there.{Citation needed|date=March 2011}

David Swain, the governor of North Carolina at the time of Polk’s death, said:

He was a contemporary and personal friend of Andrew Jackson, not less heroic in war, and quite as sagacious, and more successful in private life. It is known that Colonel Polk greatly advanced the interests and enhanced the wealth of the hero of New Orleans by information furnished him from his field notes as a surveyor, and in directing Jackson in his selection of valuable tracts of land in the State of Tennessee; that to Samuel Polk, the father of the President (James K. Polk), he gave the agency of renting and selling his (William’s) immense and valuable estate in lands in the most fertile section of that state; that as President of the Bank of North Carolina, he made Jacob Johnson, the father of President Andrew Johnson, its first porter; so that of the three native North Carolinians who entered the White House through the gates of Tennessee, all were indebted alike for the benefactions, and for promotion to a more favorable position in life, to the same individual, Colonel William Polk.


Source(s): http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/William_Polk_(colonel)