Monday, December 15, 2014

James Lusk Alcorn, Eliminating the Delusions for Mississippi’s Reentry into the Union, Part One

This post is number eleven in a historical review of Mississippi’s Union Whig/Republican governor and senator, James Alcorn, during Reconstruction. See my earlier posts, best read in sequence from oldest to most recent, from 17 February, 16 April, 24 March, 17 July, 24 July, 18 September, 9 October, 18 October, 5 November 2014, and 22 November 2014.
After Federal General Canby dispersed the Mississippi legislature in May 1865 (see my 5 November post below), Alcorn visited his wife and children, still safely ensconced with her family in Alabama, and in July returned to Mound Place on the Yazoo Pass. During this interim, President Andrew Johnson appointed the “blight-free” Southern Whig and prominent judge, William Sharkey, provisional governor. Sharkey called for the election of delegates to serve at a state convention in July 1865—the purpose of which was to lay the groundwork for reinstating civil government. This groundwork included the scheduling of elections for governor, congressional representatives, legislators, and other civil positions. Alcorn did not participate, but he did discuss the convention, and I’m guessing his personal goals, with his law partner W. L. Stricklin who did run successfully as a delegate. The convention was comprised primarily of long-time Whigs, many of whom had opposed secession and reflected to some degree the same pragmatic conclusions that both Sharkey and Alcorn had reached.

Despite his non-participation in the convention, Alcorn was in Jackson at the time it met. He stayed in the home of another old-line Whig, Judge William Yerger. There he conferred with Judge Yerger’s brother, J. S. Yerger, an old political ally. Other friends/allies included among his “conferees” were Ethelbert Barksdale, then editor of the Mississippian and later the Clarion, both strong Democratic newspapers. In addition to his not playing a part in the convention, we know that Alcorn did not want his name placed in the gubernatorial contest, but that he was interested in the legislative seat representing Coahoma County. 

Around this same time, Sharkey told the people of Mississippi that regardless of their feelings about the Emancipation Proclamation, slavery was over. 

I’d like to make a point here. The Emancipation Proclamation is the consummate example of an unconstitutional executive order. Even laymen, much less their leaders, across the South—and many outside the South—realized this at the time. Congress certainly did, hence its insistence on ratification of the Thirteenth Amendment. Presidents have used executive orders to carry out the responsibilities of the “executive” since President Washington, but to be legal, those orders should apply to the execution of an existing law—in other words, they should aid the president in enforcing laws passed by Congress. The Emancipation Proclamation is about as far as one can get from that. Slavery was legal and protected by the Constitution. So, those of you out there who praise Lincoln for the Emancipation Proclamation and lambaste Obama for his “pen in hand” and making laws under the guise of executive privilege, you’re setting a double standard. Me? I proudly lambaste both of them—along with a myriad of others. FDR comes first to mind, but there are plenty more, and Congress lets them get away with the abuse today, just like it did in 1863—of course, then, as at too many other times since, it was “party” to the conspiracy, pun intended. But I digress—back to Alcorn and Reconstruction. 

On the 26th of July 1865, with Judge Sharkey as witness, Alcorn took the oath of allegiance to the United States Constitution. Days later, at a local church in the Swan Lake area of Coahoma County, his son Milton (he was still alive) and his overseer Minga, along with a number of his Coahoma County neighbors, took the oath. Peace made with Governor Sharkey’s provisional government, Alcorn left for Washington and a pardon. Alcorn had his extensive holdings, but he could not participate in politics without that pardon. 

During this first sojourn to Washington, Alcorn met with Attorney General James Speed, with whom he made his application for a pardon; Secretary of State William Henry Seward; Secretary of the Treasury, Hugh McCulloch; and President Johnson. In regards to the last individual, Alcorn notes that some of the interviews went well, some did not. My question is what were they talking about? Technically, Alcorn was not representing the state in an official capacity, and I don’t think the president would have been the person with whom Alcorn would have broached the subject of levees. This is just my opinion, but I think Alcorn had done some covert planning with Sharkey and friends in Jackson prior to his trip to Washington, and in Washington he was putting out feelers among the powers-that-be as to what was expected of the state—or more to the point, what the state should expect. 

Alcorn received his pardon on 11 September 1865 and started home two days later. What we do know from his assessment of the situation is: (1) The Radical Republicans hated the South. [The Radical Republicans had hated the South since the mid-fifties when they became Republicans. They’d hated the South as something else for decades before that.] (2) President Johnson might appear harsh, but his actions were nothing compared to what the Radicals would do. (3) The Southern states readmission to the Union would be based on the abolition of slavery (which the state convention meeting under Sharkey in July did); however, to Congress (and Johnson), abolition of slavery computed to ratification of the Thirteenth Amendment. Declaring slavery abolished simply would not do. (4) Repudiation of Confederate debts, and (5) some civil and franchise rights for the Negro. We see in his letters to Amelia that he doubted Southerners elected to Congress would be seated in the coming session. 

Back in Mississippi, elections for office were held on 2 October 1865. In Coahoma County, Alcorn’s name for representative to the state legislature had been placed in the hat while he was still in Washington. He ran unopposed, but for the most part, the Mississippi taxpayer elected a majority of Democrats and ex-Confederates to legislative office. Confederate general, B. G. Humphreys was elected governor over old-line Whig, Judge E. S. Fisher. The result was a legislature opposed to the extension of rights to the freedman. The Radicals in Congress, now in a power struggle with the president over the course Reconstruction would take, observed all this with glee. However, Mississippians chose four Whigs and one Union Democrat to represent them in the House. [That “Union Democrat/Union Whig” evolution occurred in the early fifties when Whigs and Democrats of like minds formed the “Union” party in an attempt to put the Union before party. Its biggest success was in the South, but the Northern branches lost interest and in the end it all fell apart. It’s a subject for a whole other post, but suffice it to say, a Union Democrat would work well with Whigs and would have cast a jaundiced eye on secession. Let me rephrase that—he would have worked well with Southern Whigs.]  

In the state house, Alcorn was nominated for speaker, but lost on the final count 26-38 to Democrat S. J. Gholson. Alcorn was also selected for several committees, but before any of those accomplished anything, the legislature went into joint secession to elect the state’s senators to Congress. William Sharkey was elected on the first ballot for the short term and Alcorn on the fourth ballot for the long term. Alcorn claims not to have solicited the position, but personally I think some more of that “conferring” had been going on. His desire for the senatorial position is the reason he didn’t want to be governor. Of course, another reason for his reticence regarding the gubernatorial race—because his election as governor would not have precluded his election as senator—was possibly to avoid the overt Democratic challenge to his candidacy. In Coahoma County, he didn’t have to speak one controversial word to get elected to the legislature, but for the gubernatorial run, he might have  anticipated the need to say plenty, not only in defense of his liaisons during the war but also, if he were forthright, in defense of his proposed post-war policies. And I do believe he proposed to address the challenges to the state, and how he would meet them, with candor.  

My perception of his anxieties aside, I think Alcorn wanted the senate position—I believe he had taken aim at it in July before he left Coahoma County en route Jackson. That was his reason for sitting out the convention (but his allies were represented) and for his “conferring” with the provisional governor and friends prior to his departure for Washington. His decision made, he did not deviate from his course even after his enlightening sojourn to the nation’s capital left him believing, correctly, that Congress would not seat Southerners elected to office under the terms of Presidential Reconstruction. Alcorn was a Whig and the South was in extreme economic distress. His view (hand in hand with Wiggery) was that Federal money was the way out.  

Alcorn’s biographer, Lillian A. Pereyra, points out that not only had Mississippi’s predominantly Democratic legislature sent Senators to Washington with the best possible chance of getting seated but it had also removed the two most capable members of the minority party from influencing legislation. That may have been true, but I’m not sure I agree the action was by design. That legislature was between a rock and a hard place—where were the capabilities of men such as Sharkey and Alcorn to be best employed when the choice has to be made between a hate-filled Congress or an aggrieved and defiant populace at home that might also spurn their efforts?  

Additionally, Sharkey may have been untainted by secessionist blight, but Alcorn certainly wasn’t. Recall his was the first name called at the secessionist convention in 1861, and he succumbed to the “fever”. His “yes” vote, given who he was and his decade-long fight against secession, nearly brought down the house with jubilation. Then he became a general of Mississippi’s state forces and served in the state’s Confederate legislature. He outfitted his son’s unit which became part of the Confederate Army...and on and on. Yes, he wined and dined and cooperated with Union generals during the occupation, but at the same time is known to have passed at least some intelligence to the Confederacy. Alcorn might have been acceptable to some in the Federal government, but he wouldn’t have been to the Radicals. [In fact, not even the squeaky clean Sharkey proved acceptable to the Radicals—he was a Southerner after all.]  

Hmmm—I might have just made Pereyra’s case. 

I’ll continue this tale in my next post. Thanks for reading. 






Saturday, November 22, 2014

James Lusk Alcorn, The Dawn of Reconstruction

This post is number ten in a historical review of Mississippi’s Union Whig/Republican governor and senator during Reconstruction. See my earlier posts, best read in sequence from oldest to most recent, from 17 February, 16 April, 24 March, 17 July, 24 July, 18 September, 9 October, 18 October, and 5 November 2014.

This article brings me to the period of history that initiated my interest in James Lusk Alcorn and is the setting for a number of my novels. “Reconstruction” is a term that has left a bad taste in the mouths of generations of white Southerners along with the epithet scalawag, which taints the name J. L. Alcorn to this day. After years of study, I see everything in a clearer, if not brighter light. If anything the taste of Reconstruction is fouler than ever. As a child I adhered to the simplistic approach that it was a period when a bunch of greedy, corrupt Northern opportunists and politicians, protected by the Yankee army, came South to plunder the spoils of war. Not much more to it than that. Later the “noble” ideas of civil rights for the Negro—a natural adjunct of his emancipation—seeped in. That noble idea translated, and rightly so, to Negro enfranchisement, which coupled with the disfranchisement of Southern whites, put in place a constituency designed to keep the Republican party in power for as long as it was able to hold the white South at bay. Both are true, simple concepts designed to get the blood of any self-respecting white Southerner boiling. These concepts would later be used to keep in place a constituency of a different sort—but this group, at least, was our own.

Putting aside the propaganda and ulterior motives of later generations of Southern demagogues, the tyranny and malfeasance of Reconstruction that ran rampant across the South, for over a decade in some places, were merely tools that apologists euphemistically refer to as the failure of a benign experiment in political and social awakening. My take on the apologists—smoke and mirrors in an attempt to create a faux truth from a lie.

Reconstruction was the realization of a pact loosely drawn by morally corrupt, self-righteous leaders, social, economic and political, to “Reconstruct” the South into what they thought it should be (socially) to serve their needs (economic/political)—needs reflected in the manifest destiny of the United States. The plan was not drafted with the South’s defeat in 1865. It was on the drawing table and set for necessary alterations by the 1850s. The South, its future clear within the “Union”, opted out. No war, no violence, just “you go your way and we’ll go ours”. But with its secession, the South had presented those Northern “architects” of what the United States was really meant to be with the opportunity to carry out the plan. It took some work to bring the rest of the North in line under the concepts of “Union” and “liberty and justice for all”, but ‘architects’ such as those always seem to achieve their ruthless goals. Hence a horrific war that took so many American lives, wasted the South, and destroyed the Founders’ Republic. Reconstruction was not an adjunct to the war. Reconstruction was the reason for the war.

But while research has hardened my frustration for those who view the South’s meager “victory” during Reconstruction as one of white Southerners against the defenseless and oppressed, my view of Alcorn is now more appreciative. In my opinion the term scalawag fits him less than simply noting what he was, a pragmatic Southern Whig who struggled to do what was necessary to return his Mississippi of old to its rightful place in the Union—given the terms demanded by a hate-filled victor.

It would never happen, of course, not for Mississippi nor the rest of the South. As stated above, Reconstruction did not refer to reconstructing the physical infrastructure of the devastated South. In fact, Congress (in which there was no Southern representation early on, an unconstitutional omission it later “corrected” by the introduction of Republican puppets as the Southern taxpayers’ representatives) and the powerful Northern constituents (industrialists, social engineers) that it represented went to great lengths to ensure the South’s recovery would be both slow and painful. Indeed, a case can be made that many of those people opposed recovery at all. Loyal Americans lived in the North—they’d saved the “Union” after all (Republic be damned)—and anything that would rise from the ashes of the South would be North-like in appearance and to the benefit of the North. I would like to make my point using an early example from Alcorn’s own history:

Thanks to his dealings with the occupying forces during the war, Alcorn returned to Coahoma county in the summer of 1865 with his lands intact and a supply of gold with which to rebuild. In the fall, the Union army released his home at Friar’s Point, and it is here that he brought Amelia and his children vice returning to Mound Place on the Yazoo Pass. Friar’s Point became the seat of operations for his post-war activities. He returned to his law practice and operated his plantations, acquiring new property east and south of his original holdings.

Long a Delta planter dependent on the rich alluvial land born of centuries of Mississippi River floods, Alcorn had spent his entire life in Mississippi focused on levees to control the “Father of Waters.” The river giveth, but it also taketh away—in a heartbeat. His determination to construct an adequate levee system meant constant battle with both the state and the counties making up the Delta—and interior counties that didn’t really care if the Delta flooded or not. In the early fifties, he’d become president of the Superior Board of Levee Commissioners created to coordinate all levee activity among the concerned counties. In 1861 he threw up his hands in defeat (apparently the players never, ever, all agreed) and resigned as president of the board. Disunion was on the nation by then, war followed, but Alcorn’s interest in levee construction never abated. As many of you Civil War buffs know, Grant did extensive damage to the existing levees—just one of the peacetime projects in need of real “reconstruction.”

In August of 1865, a state convention (this one blessed by President Johnson—see my 5 November 2014 post) appointed Alcorn as one of three commissioners to go to Washington to enlist Federal aid to rebuild the levees and/or find private investors. Since the state convention forbade the commissioners from pledging state funds in repaying the loans, private investors were not enthused. Needless to say, the thirty-ninth Congress was downright hostile. Regardless of Congressional sentiment, Alcorn was an optimistic Whig at heart, so it was the Federal government where he focused his hopes for support by depicting Mississippi River levees in terms of “national” interests.

In the summer of 1866, opportunity knocked when Congress began debate on a revenue bill. In 1863, when there’d been no representation of the cotton states in Congress, that body passed a law placing a 3¢ tax per pound on raw cotton. Now, the Southern states still not represented, it proposed to increase this tax to 5¢. It just so happened that at this time the U.S. District Court of Northern Mississippi was in session and contained a goodly number of the Delta’s lawyer-planters. Alcorn was one. This group took advantage of the session to hold a protest meeting against the proposed “cotton tax”. The district judge adjourned court so the protesters could hold their meeting, which Alcorn dominated. He nominated and secured the election of his friend and fellow Whig, C. D. Fontaine, as chairman and proposed a set of resolutions to be set before Congress.

One argument urged planters, in view of the tax’ probable passage, to plow up unpromising stands of cotton and plant corn since the state wouldn’t have funds to buy food from the North and West that winter anyway. That argument was countered by one that emphasized the value of cotton as wealth for the entire nation, which made it an instrument in foreign affairs. The Northern blockade during the war had forced the traditional European markets for Southern cotton to supplement their purchases of raw cotton from elsewhere. Indeed, Britain was encouraging the cultivation of cotton in her colonial possessions. Cotton, the counterargument concluded, provided the South purchase power to buy Northern goods. Southern commercial credit was based on cotton; therefore, the well-being of all Southerners, black and white, was dependent on it. A committee was appointed (Alcorn was a member) to write and present a memorial to Congress protesting the cotton tax and arguing for why it should not be.

Before the petition was drafted, the New York Chamber of Commerce memorialized Congress against the increase to 5¢, stating that taxation without representation was tyranny; the tax, at least in spirit, was unconstitutional; and the increase “lacked an impartiality which was calculated to provoke hostility at the South.” Congress, it argued, should be producing legislation to inspire the Southern people to hope for better days instead of continuing to beat them down. The tax was not removed, but was decreased to 2.5¢ per pound as of 1867.

In his annual report for the year 1867-1868, Secretary of the Treasury, Hugh McCulloch recommended repeal of the tax as a measure to restore the productive power of the Southern states as soon as possible. (Note that McCulloch was a free-market fella and perceived opponent to the “American System.”) He stated: “Even in their deplorable condition, more than two-thirds of our exports last year [1866] consisted of their products, and it is the crop of the present year [1867], small though it is, that is to save us from the ruinous indebtedness to Europe.” Don’t jump to the conclusion that this was support for the South—think of it as, “we need to jump start our new colony’s economy so we can pay the national debt we created by waging the war to destroy the South.”

Just for the record, here’s Mississippi’s share of the cotton tax, paid when the state was not represented in Congress: 

1866—3¢ per pound— $756,289.00

1867—2.5¢ per pound—$4,640,664.00

1868—2.5¢ per pound—$3,521,702.00

                For a total of—$8,918,655.00 

Between 1863-1868 when the tax was repealed, the Southern states paid $68,072,385.00 in cotton tax, all during a period when they were not represented in Congress.

Regarding Mississippi’s burden, note that the cotton crops of both 1866 and 1867 were near failures; the amount of the cotton tax paid in those years was 6 and 8 times state expenditures; and the tax was estimated to represent one quarter the value of the crops (remember that the tax was based on the weight of the cotton, not the market price).

Now, let’s go back a bit to Mississippi. That half-cent reduction in the cotton tax disarmed the 1866 planter protest, but Alcorn was not done with the tyrannical cotton tax. Now he put on his “Whig” hat and on 18 December 1866 presented a petition to both houses of Congress, which bore his name alone. In it, he cited his life-long activities with the levees in Mississippi; he highlighted the potential of the Yazoo-Mississippi Delta—to include tax revenue; and he emphasized the threat of foreign cotton production to the U.S. cotton industry (I’d be willing to bet that Congress was preoccupied with U.S. industry—maybe even the cotton industry—but not in the South.).

Then he came to the crux of his address: The people of the South considered the cotton tax not only a grievance, but a wrong. If it had to be enforced he said, mitigate its existence by using that tax on the South for the South. In the case of Mississippi, Arkansas, and Louisiana, spend the revenue on the levees to protect the alluvial cotton lands subject to flood. [Recall that such use of national subsidies for internal improvements was integral to the Whig platform.] The national government was being generous with subsidies to the North and West, particularly regarding railroad construction. Alcorn’s argument was to give the devastated South her share of her contribution (goodness knows she needed it).

Congress did not respond.

Point made.  

Thanks for reading, and more to come, Charlsie



Wednesday, November 5, 2014

James Lusk Alcorn, Waking up from the Nightmare and Preparing for the Dark Days Ahead

This post is number nine in a historical review of Mississippi’s Union Whig/Republican governor and senator during Reconstruction. See my earlier posts, best read in sequence, oldest to most recent, from 17 February, 16 April, 24 March, 17 July, 24 July, 18 September, 9 October, and 23 October 2014.

One last point regarding Alcorn’s expressed disappointment with what he perceived as Jefferson Davis’ bungling of the slavery issue in the face of international opinion—I’m not clear on what exactly Alcorn would have had him do. The South was facing off against a western world expressing a desire to be rid of the institution. Determined as the South was to preserve it, how could the man have done anything but “bungle” the issue? The Confederacy should have been seeking alliances in places that still respected the institution—Africa for instance.

Okay, I am being facetious. The Confederacy needed money and arms—she needed a European ally and in the end none were forthcoming. I have no doubt the Lincoln administration and his Secretary of State  “Henry” Seward played a significant role in that and the agreement they reached, particularly in the case of Britain, had little to do with any common abhorrence to slavery outside the sphere of abolitionists. It’s my opinion that Alcorn’s expression of disappointment in Davis’ efforts actually represented what we refer to today as  “smoke and mirrors”.

During the spring of 1864 Alcorn made a lengthy visit to General Napoleon Buford (that would be United States Army) in Helena, Arkansas during which he reviewed Negro troops and visited two Negro schools, all of which he described in glowing terms. These visits could possibly be construed as reconnoiters and may represent Alcorn’s tentative acceptance of things to come and prepare him, and with his leadership the state and the South, to deal with emancipation. That’s just a guess on my part, but there can be no doubt he was doing some cogitating on the subjects of slavery and emancipation.

Several months later, during the fall 1864 legislative session, he suggested that the Confederacy submit the slavery question to international appeal during which an international agency would study Southern slavery for twenty years and if not convinced at the end of that period that Southern slavery was not best for all concerned than the South could fight the entire world.

Yeah, the man was up to something. Maybe he was simply providing a smart-ass (excuse my use of the vernacular) response to something someone said that he considered stupid. But trying to prove to the world that Southern slavery was kinder and gentler than anything that had come before was like spitting in to the wind. Personally, I’d say the argument was true, but I’m admittedly prejudice and let’s face it, our institution being kindler and gentler than anything that had come before really isn’t saying a lot. Shoot, I heard it stated a couple of years ago that North Carolina considered its slavery kinder and gentler than that of the Deep South where slaves were worked to death. I wrote a blog on that subject, which I considered both an offense and a monumental joke.

My point is that in a world poisoned on the word “slavery” one is not going to find folks jumping at the opportunity to serve on such a tribunal. The people (read nations) who would have given Negro slavery an honest appraisal were the very ones who brought it to the New World. They’d coined the very euphemisms and arguments used to justify the humaneness of African slavery, then within a couple of centuries had turned those arguments on their head to condemn it. Alcorn was not stupid. He was a slave owner and knew the institution was not the monster abolitionists portrayed it to be, but it definitely had shortcomings, particularly for people determined to convince the rest of the world it believed its own propaganda.

It was also in the fall of 1864 that Alcorn, still registered on the Commissions of State Troops, assumed the rank of colonel and a thirty-day stint, at Governor Charles Clarke’s request, to organize militia troops to prevent the escape of deserters and Negroes in Coahoma, Bolivar, and Washington Counties (all in the Yazoo-Mississippi Delta). The fact that a Mississippi legislator, serving as a colonel of militia in the Delta apparently near side by side with a U.S. Army general (Alcorn’s friend Buford from Helena) is testimony to the instability of the area. Apparently by the early winter of 1865, Federal forces had gained the upper hand. Buford was freeing Negroes and promising them justice against their former masters and requiring whites to seek permission before buying supplies and selling their cotton—both of which required a loyalty oath. Alcorn apparently bypassed that loyalty requirement by continuing to sell to smugglers (that was probably more profitable anyway, if riskier). He did have to request Buford’s permission to remain on his land, with the promise that he behave himself. The local Negroes were to report on any misconduct.

Within the Federal lines, civil courts reopened, and Alcorn started practicing law again. In early February, the Mississippi legislature met in Columbus and sat until March, but Alcorn did not put in an appearance until a month later at which time he made a speech stating that the entire world was against slavery and that the state legislature as well as the Confederate Congress should make an immediate declaration that all slaves would be free after twenty years. Hmmm—guess he’d tabled that “international tribunal” idea.

Yes, I’m sure he’d heard of the Emancipation Proclamation. He had a plan—turned out to be of no value, but there was a method to the man’s madness—but before going there, I want to note that, indirectly, Alcorn gave two sons to the Confederacy. His eldest, Milton, served as a member of a Mississippi unit, which was brought into the regular army. He was captured in 1863, released, and finally mustered out of service at war’s end as a major in Featherston’s Brigade, 1st Mississippi Regiment. He returned home an alcoholic and committed suicide soon after conflict’s end. In January 1865, Henry, Alcorn’s younger son by his first marriage, joined the Confederate Army against his father’s wishes. He no sooner arrived at his first duty station in Murfreesboro, Tennessee, than he contracted typhoid, was left behind by his unit, taken prisoner, escaped from a camp in Ohio and made his way to Richmond where he was taken under the wing of members of the Confederate Congress, which had just adjourned. These folks had him en-route home when he unexpectedly died. 

In his diary, Alcorn indicates shock at Lincoln’s assassination and the fervent hope that the deed was the act of one individual. “I can’t think that any Southerner of character would be willing to turn assassin or become the accomplice of such.” I like the part about “become the accomplice of such.” Prescient or anxious? Either, but more likely there was plenty of speculation early on as to who was behind the murder of Lincoln.

With war’s end, there was naught to do but transfer the struggle back to the political arena. To paraphrase his attitude: We said we were out, they said we were in, and by force they won. Now we must yield and take the oath to support and defend the Constitution and elect our representatives. (Just between you, me, and the fence post the Constitution was going to take a lot of defending, and we lost there, too. The people of the United States lost their republic during Reconstruction.) The “peaceful” means to protect our way of life had been “proven” wrong by force of arms, not by the Constitution.

Governor Clarke called for a meeting of the state legislature in May 1865 in Jackson. It was the governor’s intention to call for a convention to repeal the ordinance of secession and hasten Mississippi’s reentry into the Union. The legislature met, not as a legislature, but in Governor Clarke’s words as a committee of public safety and it did so under the looming shadow of martial law. Having gotten wind of the meeting, President Johnson directed General E. R. Canby, Department of Mississippi, to arrest and imprison any member of the Confederate or state government that attempted to “legislate.” Apparently, the recognition between a legislative body and a committee of public safety was murky—or in the eyes of the beholder. Canby sent his guidance to Brevet Brigadier General E. D. Osband in Jackson, who reported back that the “so-called” legislature met on the 20th of May, the same day he’d received the dispatch from Canby. He’d found the legislature on the brink of adjourning and decided not to interfere since they claimed not to be “legislating.”

Osband reported the group had passed three acts: To call for a convention (I assume to repeal the ordinance of secession), to send three commissioners to Washington to ascertain from President Johnson what Mississippi needed to do to re-enter the Union, and to deplore Lincoln’s assassination. Upon adjournment of the legislature, Osband informed Governor Clarke he could not recognize the civil government of Mississippi, and he took custody of the public books, papers, property, and the executive mansion. Governor Clarke surrendered all under protest, but no force was required. Two days later, Osband arrested Clarke under orders from President Johnson. A witness to the arrest left the following record of Governor Clarke’s reaction [recall that General Clarke had been seriously wounded at both Shilo and Baton Rouge]: “The old soldier, when informed of the purpose of the officer, straightened his mangled limbs as best he could, and with great difficulty mounted his crutches, and with a look of defiance said: ‘General Osband, I denounce before high heaven and the civilized world this unparalleled act of tyranny and usurpation. I am the duly and constitutionally elected governor of the state of Mississippi, and would resist, if in my power, to the last extremity the enforcement of your order. I only yield obedience, as I have no power to resist.’”

Mississippi was now without a state government of any kind. Governor Clarke’s actions and those of the legislators on the surface must appear futile, but their haste to do “something” might well reflect a last desperate attempt to beat the Radicals to the finish line. But alas, Andrew Johnson, for whatever reason, jumped in their way. Alcorn opposed the idea of any sort of convention to bring the state back into alignment with the Union—he wanted Mississippi back in the Union immediately where not only she but also slavery were both protected by the Constitution. Once back in the safety of the fold, Alcorn hoped to use the abolition of slavery within the state to win concessions from the North. That was probably at the root of what, at first blush, appeared to be his delusional recommendations regarding the handling of the slavery issue across the South and his fault-finding with Davis’ handling of international opinion.

Of course, the Republicans realized all this, hence the rabid insistence on the states passing the Thirteenth amendment and eventually the Fourteenth amendment (the latter unconstitutional on every level) before the Southern states were allowed back into the Union—oxymoronic since the War was predicated on the argument the Southern states could not leave the Union to begin with. The North not only shredded the Constitution, they added insult to injury by desecrating it.

I have no way of knowing if Alcorn really believed such a tactic would work, but nothing ventured, nothing gained, and there wasn’t much else left to venture. Perhaps he thought moderate Republicans would be able to control the Radicals. At the time, the slobbering maddogs had yet to gain control. But it was just that—only a matter of time. All efforts proved worthless.

With the adjournment of the “safety committee,” the legislators took one glimpse at the bayonets outside the statehouse door and quickly disbursed—unlike the governor, they wouldn’t fall under Canby and Osband’s net.

From Jackson, Alcorn traveled east to Eutaw, Alabama and Amelia still ensconced with her family. On July 4, 1865, he returned to Mound Place to begin again. His politics aligned with the pre-Civil War principles of (Southern) Wiggery, which alienated him from the radicals on both sides, but then he’d always been alienated from them—he must, actually, have felt pretty darn lonely. Now he would begin the arduous task of establishing a position from where he could lead a “reconstructed” Mississippi back into the Union. It would prove a long, hard row to hoe.

Thanks for reading,





Thursday, October 23, 2014

James Lusk Alcorn, Out of the Delta and on to the Capital, Wherever That Might Have Been

This post is number eight in a historical review of Mississippi’s Union Whig/Republican governor and senator during Reconstruction. See my earlier posts, best read in sequence from oldest to most recent, from 17 February 2014, 16 April 2014, 24 March 2014, 17 July 2014, 24 July 2014, 18 September 2014, and 9 October.


During the summer and fall of 1863, there was movement afoot for Mississippi to make a separate peace with the United States Government. Yes, the going had finally gotten real tough. By that time Vicksburg had fallen and Yankees occupied the state capitol at Jackson or what they’d left of it after two successive burnings. Today traces of phosphorus used to carry out the deed can still be found in the city’s soil. And y’all thought the likes of napalm was a twentieth-century atrocity.

Despite the fact that fire-eating secessionist governor John J. Pettus, considered Alcorn persona non grata, Alcorn was not among those supporting the peace party—neither were the majority of people in the state even though many felt Richmond had abandoned them. Alcorn might not care for Jeff Davis and the controlling Democratic Party, but he didn’t believe Mississippi was wrong to have seceded, just foolish in having done so. A fool-hearted endeavor exacerbated by misplaced priorities and Richmond’s prosecution of the war.

The Democrats’ falling out of favor opened the door to ex-Whigs in the state elections scheduled for October. Though not a candidate for the legislature, Alcorn was out and about in Coahoma County that late summer/early fall making speeches and later writing to his wife in Alabama that his speeches had been well received, and he thought he’d receive a number of votes. He even expressed some concern over the possibility of being elected. He was not on the ballot that 5 October, but the people of Coahoma County voted to send him to the capital anyway. (Why don’t we do things like that today?) This was his seventh time to represent his county in the state legislature, then sitting at Columbus in Lowndes County in the eastern part of the state.

This was the legislature that saw the inauguration of former Confederate general Charles Clark as governor. Politically a long-time Whig and adherent to Henry Clay, Clark became a Democrat in 1860. Despite his Whig background, Clark had no dreams for a Reconstructed Union much less anything positive to say about the concept, nor did other ex-Whigs now finding favor, including Alcorn. All proved determined to carry on the fight. This legislature did manage to unseat Democrat James Phelan as senator to the Confederate Congress and replace him with J. W. C. Watson, a Whig.

Alcorn was a candidate for speaker, but though he failed to get the necessary votes he was appointed to several committees, the most important being ‘ways and means.’ It’s a stretch in my opinion, but one might say that for the first time in Mississippi history the Whigs had come to power, albeit, as an unorganized party.

In November, Alcorn was invited to address the legislature on the state of the country. What he had to say was well received—but remember, he was speaking to a different audience, at least in part, than the one he’d addressed in 1862 (see my 18 September post below); and in December he served in the absent speaker’s stead during a short-term session.

The legislature would not meet again till the late summer of 1864 at which time he would again address the body, this time expressing the folly of the South’s making the war over slavery and emphasizing Lincoln’s having “out generaled” Jeff Davis in the field of diplomacy. Well, up North there were plenty of folks—not Copperheads, either—whose feathers had been ruffled by Lincoln’s “having made the war  about slavery” with the Emancipation Proclamation.

All my life I’ve heard it said the war was about slavery, the century and a half-old argument that what the North did was for the common good and for a higher purpose—to free the slaves and to hold the nation together, because without the United States, united and free and set upon a course of  “democracy” for all mankind, the world would have sunk into a dark abyss from which it apparently would have never pulled itself out. Personally, I don’t even think that a separate United States and Confederacy either one would have sunk into an abyss, much less taken the rest of the enlightened world with it, but that’s neither here nor there. We’ll never know what might have been. Certainly with the outcome, the South sank and vis-à-vis the surge of northern industry has remained mired. So, I can’t help but question the argument that the South’s decision to secede was to protect slavery. Oh yes, I agree that slavery was integral to what the South was protecting, which translates into its very role within the nation.
Slavery in the South, at least in 1860, was still safe. The slavery issue dealt less with the threat of forced abolition than with the extension of slavery. The North’s determination that slavery not be extended into the territories, and thereby any future states, had nothing to do with freeing a people already enslaved and everything to do with ensuring there’d be no additional slave-state votes in Congress to thwart whatever big-government initiative the North concocted. As more and more free states were added to the equation, Southern influence would dwindle—ain’t no getting around it, folks; that’s what was happening, by design, and both sections knew it. The potential for sectional strife was obvious as early as the ratification of the Constitution (and even before), but was blatant by 1820 and the Missouri Compromise. That is when—and I know it’s 20/20 hindsight—the South should have told Henry Clay to go smoke his hemp, then left the Union. The South’s economy, rightly or wrongly, was dependent on slavery and had been for a century and a half before the Revolution. It came with the nation and everyone agreed to it, otherwise the South could have gone its own way from the beginning. Does anyone ever question why the North agreed to it? There had to have been a reason, but I’ll save my opinions on that for another post.

Along with slavery came state rights and the 10th Amendment. Jump forward to 1820, 1830, 1850, and consider that to prohibit Southerners access, with their property, into the new territories, which they too shed their blood to acquire for the United States, was not in keeping with the spirit of the pact. Yes, I know there were compromises during those years and promises made that were not kept, but my point is, why were compromises needed to begin with? I am also aware of the argument that the Founders believed from the git-go that slavery would fade away, because in a short space of time there would be no reason for it. The attempts I’ve seen to substantiate they actually believed that are shoddy and pertain more to the “Northern” Founders than “Southern” ones. Then came the cotton gin and King Cotton and that “belief” was forgotten. Tell me, what was supposed to happen? Northern industry and manufacturing was going to grow behind the largess of Southern agriculture, and when the time was right, the South would industrialize and become like the North? Oh goody. Sounds more like a weak attempt to vindicate both the Founders and Lincoln’s War of Aggression, and that is exactly what it is. Then there was that other fly in the ointment—the South didn’t want to be like the North.

I just reviewed Mississippi's Articles of Secession, and my interpretation remains the same as it did the last several times I’ve read it: In the North’s zeal to neutralize slave power, Northern threats led to Southern secession. It was the secession that led to a war of aggression that accomplished in a much shorter time span (and at the cost of over, now I believe the estimate is in excess of 800,000 men, not counting the loss of thousands of Southern civilians of both races and sexes), what a Northern-controlled Congress would have eventually taken a few more decades to accomplish—nullification of the Southern vote. That was the true objective.

I’d like to draw your attention to articles 12 and 13 against the Federal Union:  

It seeks not to elevate or to support the slave, but to destroy his present condition without providing a better. 

I plan to elaborate more on the lofty “stated” Reconstruction goals of the radical Republicans such as William D. Kelly in future blogs, but they tie right into making the South like the North, under Northern “entrepreneurship,” of course. 

It has invaded a State, and invested with the honors of martyrdom the wretch whose purpose was to apply flames to our dwellings, and the weapons of destruction to our lives. 

This, of course, is a reference to John Brown. Yes, the political leadership gave lip service to condemning the raid, but the North made a hero of that psychopath (If you’re not already aware, check Brown’s record in Kansas). And what of the men who financed him? Ah, that’s an interesting shadow group. What was their fate? What role did they play during and after the war, because they certainly played a role in starting it? A case can be made for saying the first shot of the Civil War was not fired at Fort Sumter in April of 1861, but at Harper’s Ferry in October of 1859.

A person blinded with self-righteous prejudice might be seeing the love of perpetual slavery when reading Mississippi’s Articles of Secession, but that’s not what the document is. It is a list of grievances against the Federal Union that had threatened the Southern way of life since the birth of the nation: 

It has given indubitable evidence of its design to ruin our agriculture, to prostrate our industrial pursuits and to destroy our social system. 

It knows no relenting or hesitation in its purposes; it stops not in its march of aggression, and leaves us no room to hope for cessation or for pause. 

Indeed, there was no end in sight—not within the Union. So I do not agree with Alcorn’s statement that the South “made” the war about slavery, though by drawing a parallel between his statement and the Articles of Secession, I’m probably taking him out of context. I imagine his faulting Davis was more in frustration with how Davis handled international opinion on slavery contrasted with how Lincoln exploited it. Alcorn continued by saying the higher purpose of the war was state rights, which I believe is clear in the Articles of Secession and there’s no shortage of contemporary Southern writings that support that. Certainly the Scots-Irish author of the lyrics to The Bonnie Blue Flag saw it that way. Harry Macarthy’s focus wasn’t African slavery, but the slavery of the South to tyranny. Eighty years before, the Scots-Irish played an important role in winning American independence from such a tyrant. In 1861, the Southern ones hadn’t forgotten what that meant.

 Meanwhile, Lincoln and his cabinet, along with their Congress—with men dying, hate rampant, the opposition muzzled, and the job market soaring—have the North committed to righteous conquest. Now they can publicly state with little fallout that emancipation serves a higher purpose...than what? State rights? No, indeed. Rather, they elevated it higher than the Constitution itself—the very soul of the Republic. Maybe they should have founded a church. But, alas, a church was not what they wanted. What they wanted was unencumbered, free-sway for an industrialized nation. All they had to do was destroy the encumbrance.

Supposedly, Alcorn argues, Lincoln’s “smoke and mirror” tactic regarding the ending of slavery in the United States convinced Britain and France not to support the South. Actually, both those nations, not needing more problems, prudently sat back and waited to see how things went. Once the North opted for war (which was a forgone conclusion), time was not on the South’s side.

I believe, with the end in sight, Alcorn is paving the way for some ancillary use of slavery, but I’ll have more on that in my next post. Climbing up on my soapbox has drawn this post out. Look for another article on Alcorn shortly and thanks for reading. 


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,