__________________________________In my last three posts, I have attempted to give the reader some idea of events elsewhere in 1868 influencing the decision on Mississippi’s acceptance back in the Union. With this post, I return to where The Committee of Five Comes Alive... ended. As of that post, the committee of five, an outgrowth of the Black and Tan Convention that had framed a progressive “reconstruction” constitution subsequently rejected by the people of Mississippi (10 July 1868), had appointed a committee of sixteen, on which James Lusk Alcorn represented the state’s first congressional district. The purpose of the committee of sixteen was to go to Washington and lay a memorial before Congress requesting redress in the wake of the rejection of both the constitution and Republican ticket at the polls.
Mississippi’s committee of sixteen arrived in Washington in December of 1868, shortly after the opening of the 40th Congress’ third session. Before the Reconstruction Committee, the chairman of the committee of five, W. H. Gibbs, now representing Mississippi’s fifth congressional district on the committee of sixteen, repeated his conversation with Gillem regarding the committee’s proposed investigation into the July election and the general’s refusal to conduct (further) inquiry. Gibbs told Congress he had a right to make arrangements for the election and appoint commissioners at the polls—I’m not sure of Gibbs’ point here, unless prior to Gibbs’ testimony, Gillem had pointed out to the Reconstruction Committee that he had allowed the committee of five such liberties before the election—exceeding the requirements set forth in the Reconstruction Acts—and therefore the committee of five had no valid reason for complaining about the army’s conduct during the election. Gibbs further told the Reconstruction Committee that a large number of members elected to the legislature in July would be unable to take the oath required by the Reconstruction Acts. For weeks after, the committee of sixteen continued to badger the Reconstruction Committee to ignore General Gillem’s report and either declare Mississippi’s propose constitution ratified or revive the convention.
On 16 December 1868, William Sharkey, the old-line Whig who had opposed secession and served as Mississippi’s provisional governor immediately after the war and who had been elected Senator along with Alcorn back in ’65 when Southern representatives had been denied their seats in Congress, and against whom not even a whisper of disloyalty could be lodged, testified to the Reconstruction Committee that the election had been as fair an election as he’d ever seen, and that many Negroes had voluntarily voted with the Democrats. The feelings between the races were good, he thought, and though the Freedman did want his right to vote, he did not wish to deny the vote to whites. Sharkey told the Reconstruction Committee that the constitution had been fairly defeated and if another were submitted, with the proscriptive clauses removed it would be ratified. It was the whole-scale proscription of white Confederates from the polling booth that was the cause of the constitution’s rejection, not the admittedly unpopular inclusion of Negro suffrage. This same point was made in Georgia. [Truth is, that point was being made across the South.]
When Gillem made his appearance before the Reconstruction Committee, he reiterated the precautions he’d taken to ensure a fair election and that he had investigated every reported violation made before and during the election. In response to an accusation that both sheriffs and soldiers had electioneered against the constitution, he stated that most of the sheriffs were “loyal” men appointed by him or his predecessor, General Ord, and there were not twenty soldiers who had enlisted from Mississippi. In other words, the soldiers in Mississippi were Northern men and if they voted against the constitution, which he said they had a right to do, it was because they, too, found it obnoxious. If the constitution had been framed, he reiterated, according to the Reconstruction Acts, it would have been adopted. Remember, the Reconstruction Acts denied the right of ex-Confederates to ever hold office—unless, of course, the individual became a turncoat and supported Reconstruction—but did not deny the vote to such individuals into perpetuity. This proposed state constitution did.
The Republican “engine” in the state maintained that General Gillem’s administration had not taken the Reconstruction Act of ’67 in the spirit it had been intended. Since Gillem hadn’t orchestrated a Republican victory, they were probably right. There’s getting into the “spirit” of tyranny and then there’s being the spirit of tyranny. The general stated the Republican opposition came from (1) disgruntled individuals who had failed to get appointments they sought, (2) those he would not allow to enter upon their duties because they could not give requisite bonds, and (3) those whose schemes of plunder he thwarted.
J. W. C. Watson from Marshall County, Mississippi and that county’s representative at both the 1865 and 1868 Constitutional Conventions told the Reconstruction Committee that he had finally resigned from the 1868 convention when the majority of delegates managed to force the proscriptive clauses into the constitution. Based on those clauses, he campaigned against the constitution. He frankly admitted that the people were opposed to Negro suffrage, but were willing to live with it, but not the disfranchisement of the white voter on top of it.
Wheeling, dealing, dickering, and bickering, as well as testimony continued through the winter months of 1869. Then March ushered in a new administration along with spring—sounds poetically hopeful doesn’t it? It didn’t prove to be. I’ll elaborate next time.
Thanks for reading,