Tuesday, March 22, 2016

Adelbert Ames and Preliminary Preparation for Choosing a New Constitution and a New Government for Mississippi, Sans Mistakes

This post is number thirty-six in a historical series discussing Mississippi’s Whig/Republican governor and senator, James Alcorn, following the War Between the States and continues the “saga” resulting from the Democratic victory over the Republican progressive constitution framed during the Black & Tan Convention in the winter/spring of 1868. As of my last post the issue of Mississippi’s returning to the Union had been returned, euphemistically speaking, to the people of Mississippi. For earlier posts in this Alcorn-driven series, (best read in sequence from oldest to most recent), start with 17 February, 24 March, 16 April, 17 July, 24 July, 18 September, 9 October, 23 October, 5 November, 22 November, 15 December, 29 December 2014, 13 January, 24 January, 9 February, 24 February, 9 March, 31 March, 8 May, 10 June, 30 June, 3 August, 30 August , 13 September, 27 September, 11 October, 25 October 2015, 8 November25 November14 December, 27 December 201518 January1 February20 February,  and 7 March 2016.

The title of this post begs the question what mistakes? 

It wasn’t what the Republicans had done since the late fall of 1867, but what they’d failed to do. Obviously, too many Mississippi taxpayers, (those would be the one’s still believing in their Founders and the Republic those men forged), had managed to vote. As a result, they’d defeated the progressive constitution in which they’d played no part in framing, indeed had wanted no part in framing, as well as the Republican ticket made up of interlopers who did not represent them. They’d voted to keep what they had on all fronts and if that meant continued martial law, so be it. Much has rightfully been made of the Radical’s proscription clauses, denying the vote of the Confederates into perpetuity. In return for a separate vote on those obnoxious clauses, the democratic leadership apparently agreed to a second vote on the equally obnoxious constitution—a risky proposition because it would be a truly rigged vote next time around—tilted in favor of the Radicals, and there is no way they couldn’t have known it.  

President Ulysses S. Grant assumed the presidency on 4 March 1869. Andrew Johnson, who had supported General Gillem’s efforts to keep the Radical Republicans in Mississippi functioning within the framework of the Reconstruction Acts (notorious in their own right), was out. So, therefore, was Gillem, who—and we might should consider he was happy to go—was reportedly relieved because he refused to serve the political ends of the Republican party. Gillem was reassigned to California and the reigns of the Fourth Military District passed to the man General McDowell, during his interim assignment  as District Commander in the June 1868, had made provisional governor upon removing the duly-elected Humphreys from office. A native of Maine, Ames was 33 years old when McDowell made him provisional governor in the summer of 1868. An 1861 graduate of West Point, he won the Congressional Medal of Honor during the war and earned the rank of brevet-general in the United States Army. He had never held a civil office. He was Benjamin Butler’s son-in-law and a prudish New Englander who kept the Sabbath and deemed himself a champion of Freedmen’s rights—and apparently it didn’t matter who else’s rights got in the way. There’s only one explanation, in my opinion, for that kind of noble attitude and it’s not self-sacrificing. Ames quickly conformed to the realization of what the Freedmen (or the Freedmen’s votes) could do for him. But that is yet to be.

Ames assumed command of the Fourth Military District in March 1869. Though dismayed by the rolling of General Gillem, the people of Mississippi weren’t overly concerned with the assignment of Ames as district commander. The removal of Humphreys and his family from the governor’s mansion early in the summer aside, Ames’ governorship hadn’t given cause for alarm (but Gillem was there). Still the provisional governor when he assumed command of the Fourth Military District, Ames moved the district headquarters from Vicksburg to Jackson, affording him easy access to both offices. Given he was both district commander and provisional governor, there were few limitations on his power, and years later, following the revolt that sent him scampering out of the state, Ames admitted such to George Boutwell during the Boutwell hearings in 1876. He stated in the hearings that his power as military governor gave him supremacy in Mississippi and he allowed no law (including a Federal one) to stand in his way when he felt that it was a hindrance to the execution of his policy. He said it, which tells me he believed it, and perceived no wrong. The man was, in my humble opinion, a self-righteous ass. His civil control included rights of persons and property; tax assessment, collection, and disbursement; and he apportioned representation in the legislature. Keep in mind that during the interim he was provisional governor and commander of the Fourth Military District Mississippi had no legislature, and he alone decided how the state’s treasury was spent.

Most importantly for the purposes of this post, he controlled the elections through the appointment of registrars, judges, and inspectors and by prescribing the time, place, and manner of holding the elections—all the things the Committee of Five had granted themselves during the Black and Tan Constitutional Convention and which General Gillem had repeatedly thwarted. With Gillem gone and Ames in, the Committee of Five had gotten what it wanted—so, you see, the Committee of Sixteen had been quite successful, behind the scenes, during its sojourn to Washington that past winter. Not only that, but on February 16, 1869, just a few weeks before Grant’s inauguration, Congress had issued a joint resolution declaring all persons who couldn’t take the oath of 2 July 1862 (Iron-clad oath) were to be removed from civil office in Mississippi and the vacancies filled by loyal citizens chosen by the district commander. Now, long before this (the 16 February mandate was just a reiteration of an earlier requirement in the first Reconstruction Act of 1867), Gillem had gone on record stating there were not enough qualified men in the state to fill those positions, and he’d left the incumbents in. As of March 26, 1869, Ames started making assignments to civil positions throughout the state. He had the same problem Gillem had finding qualified people to assume the positions, but unlike Gillem, he didn’t let that slow him down. He removed nearly all the state officers and hundreds of county and local officers. Ames appointed 60 new sheriffs, 172 circuit and probate judges, 3 criminal judges, 16 prosecuting attorneys, 70 county treasurers, 120 circuit and probate clerks, 60 county assessors, 50 mayors, 220 aldermen, 385 justices of the peace, 165 constables, 370 members to various boards of police (that’s the county supervisors, y’all)...and on and on. You get my drift. And here’s a biggy—more than 300 election registrars.

As regards the individuals who Ames put into the civil positions, James Garner in Reconstruction in Mississippi gives him the benefit of the doubt, quoting Ames as admitting he probably did take some “bad advice.” Garner actually met Ames in the course of writing his book on Reconstruction. Ames told Garner he did the best he could and filled the positions with freedmen (most illiterate) and strangers from the North. Of the few competent men put in county positions, some had never even stepped foot in the county prior and none were accepted by the locals. This had everything to do with a firm belief in “home rule.” He could have always done what Gillem had done—ignored Congress and left qualified men in their positions—after all, Mr. Arrogance wasn’t going to let anything hinder the execution of his policy.

Of the 25 appointees who became the most prominent Republican politicians in the state, not one had ever held prior public office. Eight were Negro and all but four of the whites were Northerners. One Northerner would become governor, one a U.S. Senator, one lieutenant governor, two justices of the supreme court, and two representatives to Congress. No, what Ames did and what Congress did was in pursuit of their own goals. The good of Mississippi, her taxpayers, or even her non-taxpayers didn’t matter. Ames’ actions increased animosity within the state, laid a corrupt and extravagant government on an already downtrodden people, participated in and fomented fraudulent elections, and ultimately instigated violence and revolution.  

The Republican Pilot admitted that Ames had probably erred in a number of his assignments, but he’d rectify them in time; however, this conflicted with Ames’ readiness to interfere in civil matters and protect the criminal activities of those he put in office. Case in point being that of the probate judge and sheriff in Rankin County who were convicted of official crimes and sent to jail. The governor sent troops to forcibly open the jail, remove the prisoners, escort them under guard to the courthouse, open court, then gave them the opportunity to depart the state, which they did in short order. My assessment of Ames’ reasoning: 

Oh, my Northern friends, I set you up and you blew it. Well, now, let me get you out of here before things get worse.  

I do wonder if what they stole was ever recovered or they managed to get out with it. This particular case had the added feature of the case of Professor Highgate, a Negro teacher in Madison County and an ex-Union soldier who dared fault the governor in his actions down in Rankin County. This caused him to be arrested and made to stand on a barrel, gagged, with hands tied behind his back from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. (There were no New England stocks in Mississippi). There’s lots more on the petty and arbitrary actions Ames took against the citizens of Mississippi—or wherever they came from—who dared to criticize him or the Republican Party. The military commanders of the posts at Jackson, Vicksburg, Corinth, Natchez, Lauderdale (County), and Grenada were forbidden by Ames to obey any writ of habeas corpus issued by a “Federal” court for release of prisoners in their custody [Ha, he could appoint the state and local judges, but he couldn’t get his own men in those Federal positions. That must have been particularly galling for the petty autocrat.] The Jackson Clarion stated the reason for this order was to prevent testing legality of arbitrary arrests by military authorities. The Clarion was a Democratic paper, but let’s face it, there had to be a reason, and I can’t see it being a good one, for such an order being given to his commanders protecting Ames’ sole right to suspend habeas corpus.  

He apparently did stay out of criminal court unless Freedmen/Northerners were involved, as victim or accused. Here I’d like to share a case put forward by Judge Simrall regarding these military tribunals under the Reconstruction Acts and the issuing of arbitrary punishments not in accordance with state law. The incident dealt with the beating up of a school teacher at a Negro school. It’s not clear if the teacher was black or white. He was definitely male. The bullies apparently wanted the password to the local Loyal League and roughed up the individual pretty good. Under state law, this was a misdemeanor, but under the military tribunal, they were tried for a “conspiracy to commit murder” and sentenced to one year’s imprisonment. Judge Simrall took it to the U.S. district judge arguing that the Reconstruction Acts did not suspend state law and the military tribunals were constituted for those cases involving Freedmen and Northerners where it was perceived they would not receive a fair trial. This arbitrarily accusing the criminals of conspiracy to commit murder with an equally arbitrary punishment was in violation of the Reconstruction Acts. The Federal judge agreed and from that point on the military tribunals ensured justice in accordance with Mississippi law. 

Hmmm...well, the folks were learning how bad martial law really could be.

Now, the deck stacked in his favor, Alcorn prepares to run for governor. Next time and thanks for reading,




  1. OMG. Ames was acting like Lincoln, and showed a good grasp of Lincoln's way of thought regarding Constitutional rights of people under his "rule".

    1. It was endemic within the administration in Washington at the time. Martial law is not a good thing, especially then, when there was no legitimate reason for it. The South was stable and secure when Congress passed the Reconstruction Acts. The only "control" lacking was Radical Republican control of the state governments and that's what they insisted on having. Martial law was the way to get it.


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