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,


  1. I recently came accross your blog and have been reading along. I thought I would leave my first comment. I dont know what to say except that I have enjoyed reading. Nice blog. I will keep visiting this blog very often.
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  2. It sounds as though, besides the dislike between Alcorn and Jeff Davis, that Alcorn was not a military man and had no idea how to effectively command regiments of men. I mean, I wonder who trained his raw recruits? I doubt if he would have known how.

  3. It seems the gratification of his own ego was uppermost in Alcorn's mind, above the welfare of the Confederacy, and even above the welfare and morale of his own troops. Under Joseph E. Johnston, after months of abuse under Bragg, Tennessee troops (regular army) were fat and healthy and ready to fight. Wonder how Alcorn fed his troops if he didn't impinge on the supplies of the civilians, who greatly admired him? Did his troops starve, as did Bragg's, and thus become ill?


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