From The Historian's Corner:

A Tale of Two Polks - Civil War and Aftermath

Our guest author, James Polk Farber, describes his family around the time of the U.S. Civil War.

This monograph details the background and very differing histories, during and after the Civil War, of two of my kinsmen from the line of Maryland Polks: David R. and Ralph Lane Polk. Both were sons of the Rev. David Polk, born 1809 in Baltimore. (Rev.) David was in turn the youngest son of yet another David (a much-used Polk name everywhere). David Polk Sr. “of Baltimore” is believed to have been born in 1773 in Somerset Co., a son of Benjamin Polk, and emigrated as a young man to Baltimore where he married Margaret Cooper in 1796.

The Rev. David had a notable career as a Presbyterian minister. After receiving a “literary and scientific” education at Jefferson College (now Washington and Jefferson, PA) he attended Princeton Theological Seminary graduating in 1836. There he met and afterwards married Mary Charlotte Warner of Trenton, N.J. Following his ordination they spent their lives in Ohio and northwestern Pennsylania where the Rev. was instrumental in opening several new churches in the Clarion / Brookville area. They had in all seven children, of which David R. (b.Ohio 1844) was the eldest son and Ralph L.(b. Ohio 1849) the second eldest son. A youngest son, Charles Cooper Polk, was born (1856) in Pa.

Rev. David Polk died in Brookville, PA in 1857. (The writer attended a commemorative ceremony honoring his life and clerical contributions in Brookville in 1999.) The Rev. David was reputed to have been a cousin of President James K. Polk, but neither Dr. John Polk (our Clan Historian) nor I have been able to arrive at a firm construct of how that relationship might have been possible.

Following the Rev.'s death the family removed to Trenton, NJ where the onset of the Civil War found them. David, then 17, enlisted in the first brigade of Jerseymen raised, specifically in Company B of the 4th Volunteer Infantry Regiment. He re-enlisted in the same unit in 1863 and stayed for the course of the war, rising to the rank of Sergeant.

The war started badly for the 4th NJ, as the regiment was captured en masse at Gaines Mill in 1862 and spent three months in captivity at Richmond. After their release (without parole it appears), the unit's next action was at Crampton's Gap, South Mountain, MD – a prelude to Antietam. There the 4th NJ made up for their Gaines Mill disgrace by charging over the Gap and overwhelming elements of Cobb's Georgia Legion. During this encounter then-Private David Polk was confirmed to have captured a stand of Confederate colours. These according to a current account were taken from him by an officer and presented to the regimental commander.

David's National Archive records plus other 4th NJ service documents show that he took part at Antietam, Fredericksburg, Gettysburg, Williamsport, MD (following Gettysburg), and the Wilderness. He was wounded in May 1864 – possibly during the unit's attack on the “Bloody Angle”salient at Spotsylvania – and was placed on medical leave until August 1864. After returning to action at 3rd Winchester, David and the 4th NJ participated in the siege of Petersburg and were present at the Appomattox surrender.

Ralph Lane Polk was a youngster during most of the war and could only follow his brother's experiences from afar. However on attaining age 16 in 1865, he enlisted as a drummer boy with the 40th New Jersey Volunteer Infantry, the last NJ unit created, which was just then just forming up. Ralph then served in the campaigns of the last six months of the war.

Following the War the brothers' paths dramatically diverged. David returned to the Clarion River area of PA where he worked as a boat builder, married and had one child. In May 1871 he died tragically in a drowning incident on the river.

Ralph Lane Polk returned to Trenton, attended the Pennington Seminary 1868-69, then decided to “go west” to seek his fortune. Arriving in Detroit he realized the possibilities in city directory publishing and founded (1870) the R. L. Polk Company which still today stands as the oldest consumer marketing information company in America.

(Afterword:) Sergeant David Polk's only child, Mabel Charlotte Polk, was my grandmother. The Crampton's Gap battlefield near Burkittsville is a scant 1-1/2 miles from our own family farm. The R. L. Polk Co. of Detroit not only still exists but its present CEO, Stephen R. Polk, is a great great grandson of the founder.

James Polk Farber (Sr.)
Middletown, Maryland
July 2008
First published in the August 2008 Pollag.