Thursday, October 9, 2014

James Lusk Alcorn, Wartime in the Delta, Part 2: Was Alcorn a Double Agent?

This is post seven on James Alcorn and continues the story of his wartime activities in the Yazoo-Mississippi Delta. See earlier posts for 17 February 2014, 16 April 2014, 24 March 2014, 17 July 2014, 24 July 2014, and 18 September 2014. The sequence is best if kept in that order, but the first post on his “activities in the Delta” is my last one of 18 September 2014.

By June of 1862, the Union army controlled the Mississippi River as far south as Vicksburg and had established a headquarters at Helena, Arkansas across the river from Mound Place, Alcorn’s plantation home. Helena was also the home of Alcorn’s cousin, James Miles. Alcorn wrote Governor Pettus highlighting a number of local disasters occurring at the time, noting Yankees among the floods, cotton burnings, and hog cholera. I should note here that during the course of the long, miserable war, no one side had complete control of any territory in the Yazoo-Mississippi Delta for very long, towns, farms, and inhabitants continually at the mercy of warring armies and the elements. Privations and abuses grew as did windows of opportunity for survival and personal gain for men on both sides.

During the summer of 1862, Federal officers started taking cotton in return for claims payable by the United States government to be honored after the war if the owners could prove their loyalty to the Union. That would be nigh impossible even if the owners had been loyal. On the other side, the Confederacy would destroy the cotton rather than allow it to fall into Federal hands. Needless to say “privations and abuses” ran rampant through the cotton planters. So did need and opportunity. In addition to thieving Yankees and desperate Confederates, there were the smugglers, and many a Delta planter sold his cotton to these opportunists who found markets in primarily Federally occupied territory. Yes, the cotton went into Yankee hands, but a goodly portion of the lucrative trade went to the planter before the cotton even left the secreted quay.

Alcorn’s first encounter with the enemy occurred in August 1862 when he and two neighbors ran into Union soldiers on the Yazoo Pass. The Mississippians were arrested and taken across the river to Helena. Alcorn was released a few days later and allowed to go to his cousin’s (James Miles’) home. Following this arrest, Alcorn sent his wife Amelia and their children to the relative safety of Amelia’s family home in Greene County, Alabama.

Over the next few years, correspondence between him and his wife indicate he was determined to provide for his family and that she take nothing from her parents. After the war, he wrote her, he’d make a larger fortune than ever—and he’d been a wealthy man at the start of the conflict.

In early September of ’62, we again find Alcorn at the headquarters of the Union military governor in Helena protesting the issuance of emancipation papers in the case of some of his runaway slaves, a violation of his rights as a citizen of Mississippi and in violation of U. S. law. Alcorn claimed the value of those slaves to be $35,000. Information (probably the census) states that Alcorn owned 93 slaves in 1860. There’s no number given as to how many he’s claiming to have run away.

For those of you who have not studied the self-inflicted difficulties the Union army was having dealing with the contraband (liberated Negro slaves) created by its havoc, suffice it to say a number of Union commanders acted unilaterally in granting freedom to the people they were overrunning, and Washington had yet to formulate a plan to deal with these folks whose livelihood had been destroyed. Given the lack of definitive guidance under which the Union commanders were operating, Alcorn’s presumption that the Union invaders had overstepped their legal authority—even in the minds of their own leaders back in D.C.—is not farfetched. There’s no known record as to whether he got his people back, nor is there a record as to whether they did or did not want to come back. The Union army housed those displaced people in crowded, filthy “refugee” camps, and the liberated slave may have viewed his first look at liberty with disdain and preferred the autonomous little plantation hamlet, rife with family, friends, neighbors, and a shanty that was, at least, his own, known to history as the plantation’s slave quarter.  

Alcorn was arrested again in November of 1862, but on this occasion, he writes his wife, he made the acquaintance of the “higher officers” in Helena and tells her he had “a pleasant” time of it. The Yankees returned his horse and treated him with “marked respect.” Hmmm—maybe Polk should have tried that. The mutual respect continued, and he states that the Federal officers referred to him as “old Chef Sesh,” but though his new, shall we say, associates tried to convince him to swear an oath of allegiance to the Union, he refused.

By the years 1863-1864 Alcorn was sending Amelia wagon trains from Coahoma County loaded with corn, coffee, and sugar (all scarce), goods he’d obtained in Memphis or Helena. In one letter, he tells her he is sending her $470.00 in Confederate script and $2350. From the context of the letter, it’s not unfair to assume that $2350 was in gold. This was hidden in a fruit can. Minga, his overseer, directed the wagon train and carried the money. Alcorn further instructed Amelia to pay her bills with the Confederate money and save the gold. He did buy some land in Greene County for her to live on, and he instructed her to grow cotton, not corn for food as the Confederate government suggested. Based on these farming instructions and his adamant desire she not depend on her parents for anything, I’m assuming Alcorn sent his slaves to Alabama with her—those that had not escaped or been kidnapped by the Yankees, I mean. That letter was written in early 1863. Alcorn argued that the war would be over within a year and cotton would be worth plenty. Alcorn wasn’t suffering financial hardship. 

In February 1863, General C. C. Washburn, USA, and his staff occupied Mound Place. This is the same time period that Alcorn was sending money and well-appointed wagon trains to Amelia in Alabama. Almost seven years later, Washburn publicly commended Alcorn regarding his relationship with the Federals on his plantation without casting any doubt as to his loyalty to the South. That timely compliment was reported in the Friar Point Weekly Delta on November 3, 1869. Gubernatorial elections were scheduled for the end of November that year, and Alcorn was running on the Republican ticket (he won—but more on that in a later post). Naturally he’d have wanted any little tidbit indicative of possible betrayal to the South cleared up, so you can take Washburn’s comment for whatever it was worth to either side.

I intend to go into Alcorn’s activity during Reconstruction during which I believe he strategically aligned himself with a hated enemy in order to better position himself for the good of the state and the interests of her people, which would have included himself. The same might be said for his relationship with the Union hierarchy in Helena and later at Mound Place. As stated above, upon first contact with the enemy, he’d sent his family away. His father-in-law was a staunch democrat and passionate secessionist, but there is nothing to be gleaned from that. His wanting his wife and kids out of harm’s way is reasonable.

Following their departure, he made repeated trips to the Union headquarters in Helena—one might glean something from that. Then in early 1863, General Washburn moved right into Mound Place (granted, Alcorn would not have had much say), reconnoitering the Friar Point region and the Yazoo Pass through which General Grant hoped to send gunboats (and eventually did) into the Coldwater-Yazoo River system as part of his siege of Vicksburg. There is, however, a bothersome Federal report on record in the files of the Department of the Tennessee dated 4 February 1863 which quotes Alcorn as saying “There would be no difficulty in reaching the Yazoo River with boats of medium size.”

Ah, but in Alcorn’s defense, he kept a diary of the names and types of Union boats in the Yazoo Pass and estimated the number of men they carried. At least once he gave this information to Confederate scouts and entertained Captain A. H. Forest and his men who were blockading the pass downstream as fast as the Federals cleared it up. A double agent? Known or unknown? Who knows, but there may well have been more to his relationship with those Federals than meets the eye, and Alcorn might very well have been playing a risky, even dangerous, game. Whatever Alcorn’s intrigues, they have been lost to time and probably hostile politics—Alcorn’s subsequent actions during Reconstruction offended a greater number of Mississippians than did his questionable activities during the war. He did cite in a personal letter that the Confederacy sent a spy to watch him. The spy, according to Alcorn, was not very good, because he was captured.

I have no more information as to what this “spy” was doing, but if he was there to check up on Alcorn either the Confederacy had cause to distrust Alcorn, or if he had some other purpose, than Alcorn was suffering with a guilty conscience. Of further note: In regards to the information Alcorn was passing to either side, some information proved more valuable than the other—that’s how the double agent thing works, right—pass garbage to get good? Well, Grant took Vicksburg.

Okay, to say Alcorn’s treachery led to that is really speculative, but that’s not my point. How valuable that information regarding gunboats in the Yazoo Pass  proved to Grant, I don’t know, and whether or not the man could have figured it out on his own I still don’t know. I doubt it was an inspirational thought on the part of Alcorn—“Hey, why don’t y’all move gunboats down the Yazoo-Coldwater system.” My guess is the idea struck the Yankees first, and they simply asked—can we get boats through? The point is Alcorn passed that information to an enemy who was robbing, raping, and plundering his own people, a people he claimed to support and even helped propel into secession with his vote. To this Southerner, that one liner in the archives of the Army of Tennessee highlights a despicable act and a man of questionable character. I consider I could be wrong on both counts, but I just can’t get past it.

Washburn’s staff moved into the house, and his troops took over the slave quarters (another indication the slaves might have been sent to Alabama with Amelia—of course, it’s possible they were all sitting over in Helena (and maybe wishing they were in Alabama).

The officers were respectful of Alcorn’s property within the walls, but outside the troops killed his stock, rolled his wagons into the pass, stole his food and supplies, and tore down and burned his fences. I have no way of knowing how much of this destruction was permeated by Washburn’s troops or if the damage was inflicted by the “operators” on/in support of those passing gunboats. My “reasoning” tells me Washburn could have kept his troops in line, unless, of course, the destruction was by design, and that cannot be ruled out.

By the fall of 1863 the state is struggling as is its Democratic party. More and more people are speaking ill of Jeff Davis, and Alcorn remains a popular Whig influence from Coahoma County. In his favor, he is on record for having supported the South with secession and now for opposing the Democratic regime that appears to be leading it to disaster. The time is right to reenter the political arena.
More to come, and thanks for reading,




Thursday, September 18, 2014

James Lusk Alcorn’s Wartime Activities Back Home in the Mississippi Delta

Here I pick up the thread of James L. Alcorn, Union Whig, secessionist, and future Republican Reconstruction governor of Mississippi. This is my sixth post on the man, and it introduces his wartime activities from the close of his brief, inglorious military career in Kentucky in the fall-winter of 1861-1862 through the Union occupation of his Yazoo Pass plantation home in the winter of 1863. For those of you who have not followed previous posts, the thread starts with a post on 17 February 14, and continues on 24 March, 16 April, 17 July, and 24 July.
 Alcorn returned to Mississippi in the winter of 1862 no longer harboring delusions of a role in the Confederate government or its army. Before retiring from military service, he recorded his enmity of the Democratic Party controlling the central government in Richmond, and its leader (Jeff Davis), not only in letters to his wife, but also when addressing his troops. This could not have been a morale booster to a bunch of men who voluntarily sat through sixty days of rain, snow, and measles for God and country. They probably had their own opinion of army life—and maybe even their fearless leader and native son—but their immediate senior, just my opinion now, needs to keep a stiff upper lip and not pass the blame for that misadventure in Kentucky onto someone else, even if it does fall to someone else (see my 24 July 2014 post). In spite of 150 years of Yankee argument to the contrary, Confederate soldiers were neither stupid nor misguided, at least no stupider and misguided than any other “defeated” group and many a victor. Alcorn’s action outlines his frustration and lack of discretion and reflects somewhat on his ability to sacrifice for a cause that would require unflinching dedication to achieve. It’s only my opinion, but Alcorn displayed disillusion long before the going really got tough.  

Though he’d cast aside his aspirations within the central government, he was still in a position to participate in state affairs. Upon his return from Kentucky, he was invited to address the state house of representatives in Jackson. In an editorial written in the pro-Democratic, secessionist newspaper Mississippian, the address exemplified a man of “despotic character”. Alcorn advocated abolishing the Confederate Constitution (patterned on that same U.S. Constitution, which, of course, the South and not the North honored), muzzling the press, and establishing a dictatorship (I’m reasonably confident those last words were penned by the editor of the paper and not spoken publicly by Alcorn). Alcorn advocated the Whig tradition of a strong central government capable of decisive action. But a strong central government was (and is) anathema to state rights advocates.

Alcorn’s thoughts on crisis management, frankly, mirrored the same tyrannical views of the Whig turned Republican president in Washington, and talk about a double standard, Alcorn described Jefferson Davis as a “corrupt tyrant who disgraces the head of government by his low jealousies and constitutional timidity.” I take the term “constitutional timidity” to imply a healthy respect for the constitution—in this case the Confederate Constitution. One must consider that Alcorn admired Lincoln’s lack of respect for the U.S. Constitution, but I do believe blatant disregard for the document by the North was one of the South’s motivations for secession.

By March of 1863, Alcorn was expressing thorough disgust at the resistance (or lack thereof) to Yankee gunboats moving through the Yazoo Pass and the plundering of his plantation home by Union soldiers while Davis protected Richmond and allowed Yankees to ravage the lower Mississippi Valley. In his defense, Davis did successfully defend his capitol right up till near the end, and he managed to kill a lot of Yankees doing so. I’ve heard it stated over the eons of my life that perhaps a change in capitols on the part of the Confederacy would have been a smart move, but that’s a thought for another post. The point is, war came early to Mississippi and men such as Alcorn blamed the debacle on Davis’ misguided priorities. No doubt Alcorn’s perspective would have been different had he been part of the Confederate government, but I can’t see his thoughts on Davis being any different if he’d been a bona fide Confederate general trying to cope with the situation in the west.

Alcorn didn’t blame Jefferson Davis for Mississippi’s secession—he wasn’t even at the secession convention—he was in Washington representing the state in the U.S. Senate. Alcorn was at the secession convention, and he voted in favor. Alcorn believed Mississippi had a right to secede and was justified in doing so, though he did doubt the prudence of the act—correctly surmising that his ex-Whig associates in Washington had no more respect for the Constitution than he did and would opt for war.

What he blamed Davis for was the prosecution of the war—that and protecting Richmond, while the west and the Mississippi River were lost. [Ah, yes, defense might be the stronger position in battle, but it “ain’t no way” to win a war. That’s just me talking].

In the fall of 1863, Mississippi elected former Confederate general Charles Clark governor. General Clark had been severely wounded at the Battle of Baton Rouge, taken prisoner, and later released. Some might say his fighting days were over. Personally, I’d say he never stopped fighting, God bless him. In the years leading up to the war, Clark had represented Bolivar County in the state house on the Whig ticket, and Alcorn had served with him on the state military board immediately following secession.

In the same election that sent Whig-turned-Democrat Clark to the gubernatorial office, Alcorn was elected to the legislature and helped Mississippi resist the invasion. By this time, there were folks within the state clamoring for a separate negotiated peace with the Union. Their clamor was louder than their support apparently because Clark won with little opposition. Despite his rapport with Governor Clark, Alcorn never lessened his hostility for the Democratic-controlled Confederate government.

Another note about this election, which kept in place leaders determined to “carry on” and sent Alcorn back to the state house: It was held in the fall of 1863. Vicksburg had fallen and Jackson had been burned twice (the second time, July 1863, to the ground). But before all that, in the late winter of ’63, Grant’s forays into the hinterlands of Mississippi north of Vicksburg had brought Union troops to Alcorn’s plantation home, Mounds Place. But Alcorn’s involvement with Union officers predated even that and was more extensive than tossing the gauntlet at Lew Wallace and inviting him to come on down to Fort Beauregard and joust. [Again, see my 24 July 2014 post].

The plot thickens.  

More in my next post and thanks for reading,


Thursday, July 24, 2014

The Conclusion of James Lusk Alcorn’s Military Service

This post is my fifth on James Lusk Alcorn, Mississippi Whig, Union Whig and Republican Reconstruction governor/U.S. senator from Mississippi. See earlier posts for 17 February 2014, 24 March 2014, 16 April 2014, and 17 July 2014, preferably in that order.

When last we saw J. L. Alcorn he had been relieved, per his request, of his duties in Hopkinsville, Kentucky and was back in Mississippi by early November 1861. On the 21st of that month he joined Brigadier General Reuben Davis in joint command of 10,000 sixty-day state volunteers, called up by Governor John Pettus in response to an urgent request from General G. J. Pillow who, in temporary command of Confederate forces in western Kentucky, believed an attack by Union forces in Paducah and Cairo was imminent.

These recruits were mustered into service under the condition that they were to provide their own arms and material provisions. The state would pay their salaries and the Confederate army would provide their sustenance. They would be subject to the orders of the commanding general (CSA vice state governor).

In mid-December, Alcorn gathered 2,000 men in Grenada, Mississippi and started north to Kentucky. Due to the convoluted limits on their service and his own confusion regarding where exactly he fit in the chain of command (again), Alcorn ended up appealing directly to General Leonidas Polk, Pillow’s immediate superior, for commissary privileges for his men.  

Christmas eve 1861 found Alcorn and three regiments of recruits in Columbus, Kentucky, his men outside in the mud and a cold rain—again suffering with the measles—him in a cold, smoky, but dry cabin, wishing at times “Lincoln and Jeff Davis were both in hell.” Within five days, his command had moved east to “Camp Beauregard” on an uncompleted railroad running between Paducah and Fulton Station. The Yankees had Paducah and Alcorn and his ill-equipped troops had the Fulton Station end near the Tennessee line. On 29 December, Alcorn became aware that 500 cavalrymen under General Lew Wallace were moving south along the railroad and were five miles south of Mayfield, Kentucky. General Wallace sent a challenge for Alcorn to meet them in the vicinity of Mayfield and Viola and fight man to man. General Alcorn, his men poorly armed and his position in the chain of command still murky, responded with a “come and get me”, then shot off a missive to Lieutenant Colonel J. H. Miller “requesting” support. 

Miller advised General Polk that he was sending troops in support of Alcorn “supposing it would be all right,” and back at Camp Beauregard, Alcorn sent a company of cavalry to intercept the enemy (a delaying action, I assume) while he prepared the camp for combat. His cavalry did skirmish with Wallace’s. 

In the meantime, Miller’s advisory reaching Polk, the General started 1500 men to Alcorn’s aid, then countermanded the action and ordered Alcorn to evacuate Camp Beauregard. Polk explained himself on 30 December in a report to General S. A. Johnston: Alcorn’s men, Polk advised, were untrained sixty-day troops armed with every variety of weapons available and were sick with the measles and could not be effective.  

Hmmpf! You know who I think wasn’t effective? Polk. Do you reckon that great “variety of weapons” could still kill Yankees? I think so, too. I wonder what would have happened if General Alcorn had just ordered Lieutenant Colonel Miller to get his ass on over to Camp Beauregard on the double and bring troops?  

I can probably answer my own question. Miller was the commanding officer of the First Mississippi Cavalry Battalion, which is probably why Alcorn appealed to him to begin with. The First Mississippi Cavalry was stationed in Columbus, Polk’s headquarters. That 1500 men Polk dispatched probably included the First Mississippi and then some. It would have been hard for a light colonel to move out with only his own battalion without the commanding general being made aware. This begs the question as to why Alcorn didn’t go directly to Polk to begin with. I don’t care how confused one might be about where one is situated in the chain, General Alcorn certainly knew that Lieutenant Colonel Miller was subordinate to Polk and would have to go to him. No doubt he did realize that and figured he’d have better luck with Polk if Miller approached him rather than if Polk received a request directly from Alcorn. What a mess. It was all for naught. Even Miller’s success was brief. And why, if Wallace had only 500 men and Polk had 1500 available, didn’t Polk send them anyway? Shoot, that “variety of weapons” probably wouldn’t even have been needed. I can give Polk the benefit of the doubt and consider that Camp Beauregard simply wasn’t worth fighting for—or didn’t need to be fought for, because the Yankees probably wouldn’t move that far south. Shoot, the place was on the Tennessee line and in Fulton County to boot! That 500 head of cavalry very probably would have been isolated behind enemy lines if it made it all the way to Camp Beauregard. This might also explain why Wallace’s forces wanted Alcorn to meet them half way—in fact, there was nothing I can see in Wallace’s challenge that indicated he intended to move on Camp Beauregard. It was, after all, Alcorn who said “come and get me.” Having invited the man down, he then decided he needed to gather reinforcements—just in case he accepted. No doubt there’s a lot of information missing from this equation, but Polk did feel compelled to defend his decision to General Johnston the next day. No matter, Alcorn resented the lost opportunity. He felt he could have held the camp with 1,000 additional men.  

I don’t know how long Camp Beauregard remained abandoned (if it ever fully was). For sure it was reoccupied by the Confederates in short order, because what history I’ve found on the place indicates that it remained occupied by Confederate troops until March 1862. A significant number of unknown Confederates died and are buried there—for certain it was a hotbed for measles.  

Alcorn’s sixty-day troops sat out their last thirty days in Columbus, Kentucky, then returned to Grenada where they were discharged. Alcorn told Governor Pettus if he decided to organize any more sixty-day troops to talk to General Polk in Columbus as to their disposition. He was also emphatic that he was not interested in being involved with any troops or commands unless they were for Mississippi, to be employed on Mississippi soil only. He was obviously disillusioned with the management of the Confederate army. I’m not sure why he wasn’t equally disillusioned with his governor, but for different reasons. From where I’m looking back, those troops were not properly supported by either the CSA or their state. No doubt, Alcorn must have agreed that if the CSA took those men, they should assume full responsibility—including providing them a place in the chain of command. The Confederate government, of course, demanded material support from the state and that chain of command...well, suffice it to say what Alcorn saw were symptoms of the problem (he could even be considered part of that problem).  

Thus, Alcorn ended his military career and returned to his Yazoo Pass plantation home. Within Mississippi he was still in a position to be influential in government. He had no delusions of being so in a national government (or its military) controlled by Jefferson Davis and the democrats. Within the year another army and another government, the hate-filled spawn of another political party, would have to be contended with, and there’s much to be said, and surmised, in regards to Alcorn’s cooperation with the latter, cooperation sorely lacking between him and his own. Look for Alcorn’s wartime activities in occupied Mississippi in future posts.

Thanks for reading,

Thursday, July 17, 2014

James Lusk Alcorn’s Combat Service, Part One

This post is my fourth on James Lusk Alcorn, Mississippi Whig, Union Whig and Republican Reconstruction governor/U.S. senator from Mississippi. See earlier posts on 17 February 2014, 24 March 2014, and 16 April 2014.

When last I left Alcorn in the late summer of 1861, Fort Sumter had fallen and war had commenced in the east. To the north, Union and Confederate forces were jockeying for Kentucky and preening for a war that would ultimately sweep down the Ohio-Mississippi Valley into Mississippi itself. In Mississippi, Reuben Davis, head of Mississippi’s State Military Board had just persuaded Alcorn not to resign his commission or position on the board.

Temper cooled and feelings soothed, Alcorn approached Wiley P. Harris, the state’s premier jurist and at the time Alcorn approached him, a representative to the Provisional Congress of the Confederate States. Alcorn requested Harris intercede for him with the Confederate government allowing him to raise and arm a regiment to serve under the Confederate army (CSA). Secretary of War, L. P. Walker agreed to the request.

 At this point, given that Alcorn would be drawing his men from the state, he approached Governor John Pettus to bless the plan. The “fire-eater” Pettus balked, since the regiment Alcorn proposed would take men and officers from state control (theoretically, 1000 men and 34 officers). Alcorn subsequently tried to convince Pettus that he could cut a deal with the Confederate army that, should the regiment be required in support of the state, it would be freed up to do so. Yeah, really, on a cold day in hell and even that’s presuming the CSA wasn’t using it at the time. But it was for naught. Pettus wasn’t buying any bridges that day, either. Now I don’t know if that sort of dickering actually occurred in other instances (in this case, Pettus stood between, and the Confederate army was never broached), but I can tell you from my own military experience that once you’ve turned something over to Washington (in this case it would have been Richmond), you’ve lost it for good.

Regiment or not, the war must go on. On 3 September 1861, Confederate General Leonidas Polk invaded western Kentucky and established his headquarters at Columbus. Not to be outdone, General U.S. Grant crossed the Ohio into the northern part of that state and took Paducah and Smithville. Given this potential threat to Mississippi, Brigadier General J. L. Alcorn returned to military service, establishing his headquarters in Iuka, Mississippi (northeast corner of the state) where he immediately began the arduous task of arming and provisioning two regiments of raw recruits. That would be 2,000 men and 68 officers, right? Theoretically speaking.

So, let’s take a closer look at this. Alcorn volunteered to arm and provision, with his own money, one regiment for Confederate service, but Pettus refused to allow it. Now, state aid coming grudgingly, Alcorn is up in Iuka desperately trying to get two state regiments armed and supplied. It’s as if Governor Pettus is saying, “I’m not gonna take care of them, but you can’t have them.”

Okay, I understand that Governor Pettus’ point was who would command those forces, the state governor or the Confederate army. Given how things turned out.... Okay, the push-pull between the Southern states and Richmond is well known and this particular event is not a shining star pinned in the column for “state support to the central government.” It wouldn’t be so dark a mark if Pettus had at least supported Alcorn in provisioning those troops, but it doesn’t appear that he was particularly forthcoming.

In mid-September, an aide to General Albert S. Johnston, Commander, CSA West, arrived Iuka with orders from the general to support his advance into Kentucky. Four days later, Alcorn found himself and his troops in Russellville, Kentucky, and sending telegrams to Pettus begging for provisions before he became an “impediment” to the Confederate army. Now, I’m no rocket scientist, but I imagine Pettus is sitting back in Jackson thinking that if the Confederate army is going to abscond with Mississippi’s troops, the Confederate army can damn well supply and feed them. Don’t get me wrong, I do not agree with this attitude, if indeed it was the case, but I can see it happening.

In the brief interval between his arrival in Russellville and his subsequent move to Hopkinsville, Kentucky, seat of Christian County, where Union and Confederate loyalties were sharply divided, Alcorn experienced glimpses of the “enemy” and a small skirmish, which could have been something as insignificant as shots fired at and by partisans and everybody missed. Once in Hopkinsville, General Simon B. Buckner (who in a few months would be thrown the keys to the rapidly retreating commanding officers of Fort Donelson, which he promptly turned over to General Grant) gave Alcorn full jurisdiction of the town with the understanding that his forces were to be self-sustaining. In other words, “the Confederate Army isn’t feeding you”. Guess that answered that question, didn’t it, Governor Pettus?

The record is not clear as to how Alcorn kept his men fed, however, he does not appear to have robbed the local citizenry. Alcorn was considered a good occupier. The ladies loved him, and one must assume it would have been primarily women, children, and old men present—the town’s finest young men already in the uniforms of one side or the other. Okay, the very finest were in gray, but my point is, the people in the town were a vulnerable lot, and Alcorn did right by them.

Alcorn’s duties ended in mid-October when, his troops suffering with a measles epidemic, General Buckner ordered him to report on enemy movements east of Hopkinsville and to send support to Fort Donelson in Tennessee. On the first order, General Alcorn complied effectively, however, in regards to the second, his men sick with measles, he was unable to send reinforcements to Fort Donelson. Additionally, the reader should note that his two regiments had been ordered to Donelson. He had not. Apparently, the CSA had presumed to take these Mississippi troops into the regular army, but not Alcorn. This was a sticking point for Alcorn and did nothing to improve his regard for Jefferson Davis. His command nominally in the hands of the Confederate army and he in limbo, he wrote General Buckner requesting to be relieved effective 27 October 1861. As per his request, Brigadier General Lloyd Tilghman arrived in Hopkinsville on the date requested to find two regiments of raw recruits, not yet mustered into the Confederate army, and sick with measles.

General Tilghman, confronted with the dire situation in Hopkinsville as well as Alcorn’s murky and untenable position in the chain of command, went to bat for him (I know it’s an anachronism for this point in history, but it works well). General Tilghman reported to Colonel W. W. Mackall (General Johnston’s Chief of Staff) that Alcorn should be retained in Confederate service along with his troops. (Again, I’m reading between the lines here, but I’m assuming that with his first orders to move from Iuka to Russellville, Kentucky, Alcorn fell under Confederate command. Why his position wasn’t clear to him I do not know, but his remarks indicate he blamed that on the Confederate army. Certainly the decision to muster the troops into Confederate service, but leave their general behind clearly stated Alcorn’s services were no longer required by the Confederate army. But why? Failure to comply with Buckner’s request for reinforcements to Donelson certainly could have influenced the decision, depending on when it was made.)
Another source states that Generals Polk and Johnston also petitioned Richmond to retain Alcorn. If this is true, either the official correspondence did not survive or there never was any such “official” request forwarded up the chain. That doesn’t mean they didn’t petition on his behalf, but rather that the petition was not official, which tells a tale in itself. In other words: “We’re for you, but we don’t want to be on paper as being for you in the face of someone who dislikes you as much as does our commander-in-chief”, or something to that effect.

Politics probably was in play here. In December 1861, President Davis wrote to Wiley P. Harris in response to a different request that the Confederacy was no longer engaged in the “partisan warfare” that had taken place during the summer and fall of 1861, but that Federal forces were now being led “by men of military education and experience in war.” By implication, I take that to mean President Davis figured we should do likewise. Giving justification to that analysis would be the subject of a whole other study—I mean...really? If that wasn’t a crock, the Confederacy wouldn’t have had Nathan Bedford Forrest would it? I think what Davis’ statement to Harris “on a different request” clearly states is that Alcorn wasn’t the only person in Mississippi—and probably the whole South—suffering this stonewalling. And another thought: If such individuals could afford to recruit and outfit their own regiments (and Alcorn could), perhaps he should have just done what Forrest did and gone out and formed one up vice asking permission. But then, I don’t think Nathan Bedford Forrest was too politic, whereas I’d be willing to bet the political advantages and disadvantages on such matters weighed heavy on Alcorn’s mind. He would have wanted to work within Mississippi’s system in order to buy political collateral for the future.

I’d hoped to complete Alcorn’s military service in one post, but related tangents have made this article longer than I intended. I’ll finish up his military career (not the war years, but his “military” role in the conflict) next week. Comments, particularly enlightening ones on the conflicts between the Confederacy and her states, would be of particular interest. Thanks for reading.




Sunday, May 11, 2014

Dad’s Whig Book, Michael Holt’s The Rise and Fall of the American Whig Party

I recently finished a tome I affectionately refer to as “Dad’s Whig Book,” and I’d like to deviate from my series on Mississippi’s Whig, John Lusk Alcorn, and do a review of Michael Holt’s The Rise and Fall of the American Whig Party.  I’m holding my local Whig in abeyance, so to speak, for the bigger picture. As an aside, it wasn’t me who dubbed that 985-page monster “Dad’s Whig Book.” That honor belongs to his kids. From sheer size alone, I can guess the work impacted their lives to no small extent, just as it’s had a harmless impact on mine for months now. I can no longer stay up and read until the wee hours of the morning, evening respites put me to sleep. I have, therefore, taken to rising ahead of everyone else still hanging around the old homestead and making myself a cup of coffee. I then relax for an hour or more with my book of choice. For months now, The Rise and Fall of the American Whig Party has helped me usher in daybreak; and though now anxious to dive into supplementary reading to build on all I’ve learned, I’m gonna miss it.

The book is neither a difficult read, nor an easy one. You need to be interested in the political history of the period leading up to the War Between the States. Doctor Holt is witty and entertaining. He also possesses extensive knowledge of his subject and is meticulous in his research. He has one hundred and ninety-three pages of footnotes nestled onto the end—I read every one (some are quite meaty)—and twenty pages of bibliography. I’ve already made my list of what to read next.

The Rise and Fall of the American Whig Party is a detailed history of that party from its founding in 1833 as the primary opposition to the Democratic Party, through its demise and the rise of the Republican Party, dark child of its northern wing [my take on the Republican Party, not Professor Holt’s]. The Whig Party’s tumultuous twenty plus years highlight the men and the forces that led to sectionalism and finally war. One of the things I particularly liked was the detail with which Professor Holt delves into politics within the individual states and how the needs/demands of the states affected politics/political parties at the national level. In my opinion, one can’t develop a good appreciation for what went wrong without those details.

Though the book is about the Whig Party, its story cannot be complete without reference to the Democratic Party (primarily) and the third parties prone to pop up in 19th C. politics (i.e. Free Soil, Nativist, and the Know Nothings), which proved adept at provoking a reaction from the Whigs. Over the party’s lifetime, Whig reactions led to the perversion of Whig policies until, in the end, the party no longer represented its core values—at least not with enough constituents to sustain itself. And another point: the leadership of these splinter parties did not necessarily mean new faces on the political scene—some of these characters jumped from one party to the next depending on ideals, egos, the mindset of their constituents, and/or the social mores of the day—among other reasons. I think of such lapses in character as political “expediency.”

The book deals with politics. Comparatively speaking there is less detail given to economic conditions and political corruption within both parties at the local, state, and national levels. I infer such corruption must have been rampant given the sudden rise of the Know-Nothings in the early 1850s and the havoc their “no party” philosophy created for both Whigs and Democrats. I do not fault the author for this—the book is already just under 1,000 pages and its focus is politics. I am merely informing the reader. For economics and corruption I suggest consulting Professor Holt’s bibliography.

I loved the work, but though Professor Holt admits an admiration for the Whig Party, I do not. Nor do I suffer from admiration for the Democrat or Republican Parties. For me, political parties are necessary evils—kind of like disease to keep populations in check. But political forces make and break nations, they wage war, and impact our daily lives. I simply want to understand and be able to discuss the driving forces of that era, which led to disunion and the subsequent destruction of the South and with it the Republic. In his conclusion, Professor Holt alludes to his possibly being identified as a purveyor of the now discredited argument that a “blundering generation of narrow-minded or misguided political leaders” were the cause of the Civil War. Shoot, I didn’t know it was discredited. Apparently today the official (historian’s) line is that “the war’s coming…resulted from basic social, economic, and ideological differences between the sections deriving from the presence of African-American slavery in the South and its absence from the North. In its cruder—and more common—formulation, the ‘forces’ that caused the war were self-generating and operated toward their inevitable conclusion almost without the need of human agency.”

[Gee whiz, I do believe the proponents of this argument are saying “it was nobody’s fault.” Are you kidding me? Well, darn, that pretentious, politically-correct reference to “African-American slavery” vice just “slavery” speaks volumes about not only the argument’s recent evolution but also the mindset of whoever formulated this latest analysis of the causes of the Civil War. I hope not one drop of Southern blood flows through their veins. Oh, well, no matter what, I’d bet my next paycheck it didn’t emanate from the brain of a Southern layman. We know what caused the war—Yankees, thats what. Yankees who didn’t live up to their side of the bargain and betrayed us! There. You have it in a nutshell.]

Seriously, Professor Holt’s The Rise and Fall of the American Whig Party leaves no doubt in my mind that selfish, hate-filled, and “expedient” politicians played a major role in causing the Civil War—not that I believed differently when I started the book. Economics most definitely played a role as did ideological differences over slavery—fed, more often than not, by the above mentioned selfish, hate-filled, and “expedient” politicians of the day. Professor Holt, page after page, showed ’em doing it. “…self-generating and operated toward their inevitable conclusion almost without the need of human agency” my patootie!

The book is an excellent asset to any student of that period. If you like attempting to figure out what went wrong, you’ll love this work. I can’t promise you’ll come to any conclusion—other than there were alot of folks at fault—but you will enjoy the journey.

I’ll be back with my Mississippi Whig next time.

Thanks for reading,

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

James Lusk Alcorn’s Role in the War Between the States, The Early Years

This post constitutes the third in a series dealing with James Lusk Alcorn, Mississippi Whig, Union Whig, and Republican Reconstruction governor/U.S. senator from Mississippi. An ardent Whig who rose to power and wealth during the decades leading up to the War Between the States, Alcorn successfully thwarted the forces of secession in 1850 and argued passionately against secession in January 1861, succumbing to the tide only when secessionist sentiment had become so strong he knew there was no way to curb it. During the fateful roll call vote at the Mississippi State House in Jackson on 9 January 1861, he finally capitulated and to the jubilant hurrahs of gallery observers, he cast his lot with Dixie and signed the Mississippi Ordinance of Secession. All but one of his fellow Union Whigs, John W. Wood, followed suit. Wood proved to be the lone dissenter of all the delegates. 

Almost immediately, the Secession Convention offered Alcorn a commission of Brigadier General with a post on the State Military Board, and believing the position merited political capital in case war ensued, he declined a seat in the Southern Congress at Montgomery and accepted the commission. Major General Jefferson Davis headed Mississippi’s military board. Alcorn’s fellow brigadiers included Earl Van Dorn, Charles Clark, and C. H. Mott. All these men, with the exception of Alcorn, had served in the Mexican War. 

Alcorn took his position to heart. He, along with Van Dorn, believed war was imminent; however, it appears, they were the only two on the board to believe the state’s number one priority, while the winter of ’61 waned, was war preparedness.  Davis’ tenure as head of the board, of course, was short-lived, for he left to become the Confederacy’s only president. Van Dorn, Clark, and Mott left shortly thereafter to accept commissions in the Confederate Army. From the moment of his capitulation to the forces of secession and his “crossing the Rubicon” speech, Alcorn coveted a commission in the regular army, but his request to Richmond was met with silence.  

Worse, with the departure of his four fellow board members, Alcorn should have been promoted to head Mississippi’s State Military Board. Instead, Governor Pettus appointed Reuben Davis to the senior slot. It was Reuben Davis, a man who was, or would become, a friend, who dissuaded Alcorn from resigning his commission and returning to his Yazoo Pass plantation home. Alcorn is on record for reviewing recruits in Corinth during this early period.  

Throughout the war, at times more vehemently than at others, particularly after his worse fears of invasion had been realized, Alcorn argued that we should go out and meet the enemy, not wait until the enemy was on Mississippi soil. He had no qualms about voicing this strategy with his initially unconcerned leaders. In addition to being snubbed for head of the State Military Board, Alcorn’s attempts to raise and outfit individual units under his own command were rebuffed. One such request was returned by President Davis’ Secretary of War, L. P. Walker, annotated “No Brigades auth.” [auth.=authorized] It is fairly easy for the uninitiated such as me to make a wild-ass guess as to what was happening here—one of two things or a combination of both.  

(1) James Alcorn’s lack of military experience, compounded with his political opposition to military hero and former U.S. Secretary of War, Jeff Davis, determined Alcorn to be a military officer of unknown quality, and/or  (2) the Confederate government might have considered independent units under the command of aggressive, autonomous leadership as the metaphorical loose cannon, particularly egregious to a man convinced that by announcing to the enemy “we only wish to be left alone” that he would ensure the enemy would indeed leave us alone. Certainly Jeff Davis would not have relished the likes of James Alcorn charging up the Mississippi Valley, untested saber raised high and glinting in the sun. 

You know, ever since I was a kid (and I am not a young woman), I’ve looked at maps of Mississippi highlighting Yankee incursions into the state during 1863-1864. And ever since I was that kid I’ve noted there sure were a lot of Yankees running around loose and unconstrained by their own seniors, much less the Confederate Army. Okay, perhaps I’m being too kind to those U.S. military seniors given that the behavior of their men was a matter of policy, but that’s another story. The point I’m trying to make is that the barbarous behavior of the Union Army was not countered in the manner to which I believe they deserved while a Confederate army of 30,000 men remained holed up and starving in Vicksburg. And please don’t, “oh duh” me. I know this observation is not original. My point is that even to a child a hundred years after the fact, it was obvious something was missing in our grand strategy. I don’t know how far up the Mississippi valley Alcorn (and he wasn’t the only man using his head back then, either) may have gotten before he was stopped; certainly his effort should have been directed, but I do think his grand strategy was right—and the best part is that it wasn’t twenty-twenty hindsight. It was foresight. 

More on Alcorn and the war years in my next post. Thanks for reading.






Monday, March 24, 2014

James Lusk Alcorn, Prelude to War

This post is an outgrowth of my decision to correct historical mistakes I’ve discovered in my work over the years (see my post of February 10, 2014). I find the subject of J. L. Alcorn interesting and relevant to my future work, so I’ve decided to continue blogging about him for several more posts, highlighting his actions during the War, Reconstruction, and finally the Mississippi Constitutional Convention of 1890. Before I get off the subject of confessing my historical mistakes, the implication made in my 17 February 2014 post that Alcorn was too cozy with the enemy during the War may have been hasty (I’ve been doing a lot of research during the past month). The term double agent could hit closer to the mark. 

James Lusk Alcorn was a Whig. The Northern wing of the American Whig Party became the Republican Party. Mississippi had, at the time of the War Between the States and for decades prior, been a Democratic bastion. At no time in the state’s history was its legislature comprised of more than one-third Whigs—the remaining two-thirds being Democrats. Jefferson Davis was a democrat.  Democrats and Whigs hated each other. These last two sentences are important to remember. 

There were states in the South fonder of Whigs than Mississippi—Louisiana, North Carolina, Florida, and Georgia represent the best examples. But all the Southern states had viable Whig parties comprised of large land owners, but also successful business people. If you think Republican of today (or even yesterday), you’ll have a general feel for Whigs. But like the Democratic Party, the Whig Party had Northern and Southern wings and the great divide—I’m sure you’ve guessed it—was slavery.  

The Whig Party began life (metaphorically speaking) in 1833-1834 dispassionate toward slavery, and the Northern and Southern wings managed to work together until the 1840s when the more adamant Free Soil Party, ineffectual on its own, began to sell its votes to the highest bidder (Democrat or Whig) in the Northern state legislatures in return for senate seats. State legislatures couldn’t change slavery; that had to be done at the Washington level. So in return for Free Soilers’ consolidation with either the Democratic or Whig legislatures, in whatever state we happen to be talking about, the victorious party would reward the “spoilers” by sending a Free Soil senator to Washington. [This was before passage of the 17th Amendment.] Too often, Northern Whigs ended up making their beds with Free Soilers, which did not rub well with their fellow Whigs in the South. 

The sectional divide was further exacerbated by all that new territory that came with U. S. victory in the Mexican War (i.e., whether slavery should be allowed or not) and the subsequent Compromise of 1850. Controversy over said Compromise led to the founding of the Union Party, put simply here, the brain-child of Georgia Whigs, Alexander Stephens and Robert Toombs, and Georgia Democrat, Howell Cobb who teamed up to offset the sectional strife between the Northern and Southern Wings of the Whig Party and counter the State Rights Southern Democrats who were calling for secession. The “State Righters” were themselves offset by moderate Democrats who did not advocate secession. The “Union” movement also proved popular in the North, but its most secure foothold, though brief, was in the South and represented a moderate, pro-Union fusion of Whigs and Democrats. In Mississippi, J. L. Alcorn, along with many other influential Whigs in the state, became members of the Union Party and that party elected Henry Foote, a Union Democrat, governor in 1850. In my humble and admittedly academically limited opinion, the Southern Whigs did more to curb the secessionist movement in 1850 and get the Compromise through Congress than anyone else, North or South, because everybody had problems with it.  

Needless to say, things continued to degenerate between the North and South and both parties skewed along sectional lines. 

You know, sometimes I think it was really the political parties that, in their need for dissension in order to gain adherents, created the sectional rift, then dragged their constituents along with them into war. That would mean Calhoun of South Carolina was right. But I wax philosophical here (plus, this is hardly an original concept), and I will now desist, leaving that thought as fodder for another post. 

Officially the Whig Party fell apart. The subsequent split in the Northern and Southern wings of the Democratic Party in 1860 resulted in the election of the (it’s just my opinion, but hemlock by any other name is still hemlock) Republican Abraham Lincoln, and we all know what happened next. And yes, Lincoln was a Whig. 

James Lusk Alcorn never stopped being a Union Whig and better informed historians than I agree. I think we can safely assume his dislike of Jeff Davis and the Democrats was reciprocated and subsequent slights by the Confederate government possibly reflect this. But most importantly, and I’m believing this more and more as my research continues, James Lusk Alcorn never stopped being a Southerner and a Mississippian. In my 17 February post, I quoted Alcorn’s speech right before he voted for the Ordinance of Secession. It was the overtly dramatic statement that ended “...I  enlist in the army that marches to Rome.”  

This, after he and a handful of fellow Union Whigs’ had spent two days arguing against secession! I don’t know if he’d prepared his allies for what he was about to do. It was a roll call vote and his was the first name called (A-lcorn—I’m assuming the delegates names were listed alphabetically). The subsequent applause brought down the house and all but one of those Union delegates voted for the Ordinance, then consecrated their “yea” vote with their signature. Alcorn, no doubt, had seen the handwriting on the wall; it was as if he thought, well, hell, they’re going and they’re not going with out me. He might have guessed he’d be on the wrong side of history, but (at least at the time) he wasn’t going to be on the wrong side of Mississippi. 

And another thought: One has to wonder what might have happened had there been an Alcorn in Richmond who realized that the army needed to march on Rome and it needed to be quick about it.  

Despite Alcorn’s dramatic capitulation in support of secession, his words qualified how he thought the coming war should be fought. It also says a lot about how well he understood the hate-filled enemy residing above the Mason-Dixon line, and I believe it explains his actions during the War, into which I will delve in my next post.


Thanks for reading.