Marker #539 “A General’s Prayer”

Historical marker #539 notes the “General’s Prayer” given at Harrodsburg’s St. Philips Episcopal Church on October 9, 1862, following the Battle of Perryville. The prayer was offered by Confederate General Leonidas K. Polk in the aftermath of Kentucky’s largest Civil War engagement. Harrodsburg was located ten miles northeast of Perryville and became one of the local communities to treat the wounded and dying soldiers.

On October 8, 1862, Union and Confederate forces clashed at Perryville in what was the end of a six-week campaign. Arguably the most intense fighting in Kentucky, the brutal battle lasted five hours and incurred 7,500 casualties as both armies fought in terrain that included tightly packed ridges. The traumatized town of three hundred residents bore the heavy burden of caring for and ultimately burying thousands of fallen soldiers. Although the Confederate Army won a tactical victory, General Braxton Bragg ordered his forces to retreat after learning thousands of Union troops were headed to the area.

The wounded not left on the battlefield were taken to Harrodsburg as the Confederate Army withdrew from Perryville. The town’s 1,700 residents saw the horrors of war as the wounded were sheltered in private homes, barns, churches, hotels, and schools. The hot, dry weather caused drought conditions and limited water, adding to the misery and further complicating sanitation. As a result, the wounded also suffered from diarrhea, pneumonia, and typhoid fever. The hospitals, while well-ventilated, were filthy.

One building spared use as a field hospital was Harrodsburg’s St. Phillips Episcopal Church. The Gothic-style church opened for services only a year earlier on September 12, 1861. Following the bloodshed at Perryville, Confederate General Leonidas K. Polk went to the church to pray and asked the church bell to be tolled. Polk, originally from Tennessee and the second cousin of President James K. Polk, graduated from West Point in 1827 but later left the army and became the first Episcopal bishop of Louisiana in 1841. He returned to service as part of the Confederate Army in 1861. There was some speculation that the church’s stained-glass windows did not allow enough light for the space to be used as a hospital, but likely it was an order from bishop-general Polk that the building continue to function as a church and a place of prayer that left the structure undisturbed. Polk would later be part of an unsuccessful attempt to stop General William Tecumseh Sherman’s march through Georgia—Polk was killed at the Battle of Pine Mountain, near Kennesaw, Georgia, on June 14, 1864, after nearly being cut in half by a cannonball.

The Confederate Army did not remain long in Harrodsburg as Federal forces took control of the town a few days after the Battle of Perryville. The retreat was a turning point in the Civil War. Bragg’s evacuation of Kentucky surrendered the state to Union control for the remainder of the conflict, as the Confederates retreated into middle Tennessee.