The Biting Bishop

IMG_4601One of the principal founders of the University of the South, where I teach, was Leonidas Polk,  the Episcopal Bishop of Louisiana as well as a Confederate Brigadier General. His occupation of both roles earned him the title “The Fighting Bishop” (as indeed a piece in the New York Times about him last year is entitled).  For what it’s worth, though, I prefer another important cleric of the University’s past, Thomas Gailor.  I work in the building named for him, where the portrait to the right now hangs.  In the past few weeks, I have begun to think of him as “The Biting Bishop.”

Here’s why.  As re-told in Purple Sewanee, Gailor’s first encounter with Sewanee took place not on the Domain but in “the Sewanee Tunnel” (i.e., the Cumberland Tunnel) in 1863, when he was six and a half years old.  Gailor’s mother and he were in search of news about his father, who had died while fighting under Braxton Bragg’s command the previous year.  As he recalls,

I remember eating raw sweet potatoes, given to me by Confederate soldiers on the train.  Major Martin Walt, Quartermaster of Wood’s brigade, came to my mother and handed her a satchel, saying, “We are about to enter a long tunnel, and there are no lights. This satchel is full of money for the soldiers, who are to be paid in Chattanooga. There are rough people on this train, and they may attack me in the tunnel. Please keep the satchel and hold it tight until we get out of the darkness of the tunnel.”

The Cumberland Tunnel in Cowan, built 1849-1852

The Cumberland Tunnel in Cowan, built 1849-1852 by Irish laborers

My mother took the satchel, and, just as we dashed into the tunnel, she said to me, “Catch hold of this satchel; somebody us trying to take it from me.” I, a small boy, remember grabbing the satchel, and biting hard on a hand that was trying to take it—so hard, that the hand let go—and when we emerged from the darkness of the tunnel, my mother called Major Walt and gave him his satchel, and told him the story; but there was no one we could accuse; tho I suspected a hard-faced woman in the seat in front of us, who kept her right hand in a muff. I hope that that hand had the marks of my bite.  (Lily Baker, et al., eds, Purple Sewanee [Sewanee, TN: 1932, rep. 1961] pp. 25-26)

Postscript.  Now, I would love to leave this blog-post at that, but there is another story about Bishop Gailor told by Sam Williamson a few years ago that deserves mention. Many years after the encounter in the Cumberland Tunnel, when he was in his late seventies, Gailor raised his powerful voice on the eve of another war. On March 28, 1933, he was the keynote speaker before a crowd of 1500+ in Memphis gathered in protest against Nazi treatment of the Jews. “It is impossible to believe that sane men would so indulge their madness. Their acts are sheer and brutal barbarism and a contradiction of the principles of civilization,” Gailor said on that occasion, then going on to warn against “a relapse into savagery.”  According to the next day’s Memphis Commercial-Appeal, the bishop was greeted with “thunderous applause.”  It sounds as though, even late in life, Thomas Gailor knew that sometimes direct confrontation was the correct ethical instinct.

About Uncomely and Broken

I am a classicist in Sewanee, Tennessee.
This entry was posted in Ireland, Military, Sewanee, The South, Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to The Biting Bishop

  1. Sarah Davenport says:

    Gailor’s comments about the tunnel incident reminded me of similar stories in “Recollections of 92 Years: 1824-1916,” by Elizabeth Avery Meriwether. Are you familiar with that book?

    • Hello Sarah– I’m not familiar with it. What’s the story you’re thinking of? Eager to hear!

      • Sarah Davenport says:

        Meriwether’s remembrances include many tales of life in the South during the Civil
        War. In one instance, late in the war, she needed to carry some gold pieces across the picket lines from Memphis on her way to Tuscaloosa. Unlike the items she presented to the Censor (who allowed her to keep roughly half of what she submitted on her list), Meriwether did not declare the gold. She writes, “I had no notion of trying to take that gold through the Picket lines. I knew that if I did so, and if I were discovered, that I would be imprisoned in the dreadful Irving Block, so what I did was this: I made a girdle of strong cloth and ‘quilted’ my gold, piece by piece, in that girdle. I thought if anyone happened to touch the girdle they would think the hard stuff merely my corsage stiffened with whale bone… A certain Mrs. J, a good Southern woman, lived five miles beyond the Picket lines and, being a quiet, prudent woman, she had never given the Yankees any cause for offense and so had been favored with a pass which allowed her to go freely between her home and the city. This good woman agreed to wear my girdle to her home, where I could stop and get it after my examination at the Picket lines and after I was safely on my way to Tuscaloosa.” Everything went according to plan, and she arrived in Alabama without losing her gold.
        Meriwether also lived in Winchester early in her marriage, around 1850, when her husband worked as a civil engineer with the railroad.

      • Sarah, thanks for passing along this story. It’s always fascinating to hear of the lengths to which people are forced in wartime. It would be wonderful to know where some of that gold now is, with such a wonderful story attached to it.

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