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.




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