One 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.”
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.