Monday, February 17, 2014

James Lusk Alcorn’s Role in Secession

     This post is the second in a series correcting historical errors that I have discovered in my work. Divulging the embarrassing finds are, I humbly propose, to my credit because they show that I continue to research and grow as an amateur historian. As my time on this planet wanes, I intend to focus my study on the history of the Southern states from their earliest exploration by Europeans through colonization, the Revolution, the Confederacy, and beyond. Okay, studying the present is pretty convoluted. Yoda was wrong. It’s not the future that’s hard to see because it’s “always in motion.” It’s the present, which is a darn cyclone, but I digress.

Following up on my February 10, 2014 post, the next misspeak I’d like to set right is that regarding James Lusk Alcorn in the introductory “Historical Note” to my novel Wolf Dawson. This historical suspense, replete with romance, mystery, and its touch of the paranormal, is set near the close of Congressional Reconstruction in Mississippi. To give the reader a perspective of the setting, I provided a brief outline of the conditions in post-war Mississippi. I wrote the paragraph below in respect to the 1873 gubernatorial election pitting two Republican candidates against each other, Adelbert Ames, ex-brevet General U.S. Army and Maine native who’d never stepped foot in Mississippi before the war, and Mississippian J. L. Alcorn. In the second full paragraph on “page ix,” I stated:

“J.L. Alcorn, the man Ames defeated, was a Mississippian. He was intimately familiar with Southern politics in general and Mississippi politics in particular. Since the arrival of Federal troops during the war, this man who had passionately supported and voted for secession had accepted reconstruction and urged white Mississippians to embrace the Negro. He warned that otherwise the Negro electorate would fall under the influence of corrupt Republicans.” 

Most of what I say is correct—at least as the record shows—but there is a misrepresentation—that being the implication Alcorn was a zealot on the subject of  secession. James Lusk Alcorn was a Whig, as ardent, according to Hodding Carter (The Angry Scar) as Henry Clay himself. Kentucky-born of hard-working common folk, Alcorn attended one year at Cumberland College, taught school in Jackson, Arkansas, and in 1838, became a member of the Kentucky bar. Between 1839 and 1843 he served as a Livingston County, Kentucky deputy sheriff from where he resigned and served one term as a member of the Kentucky legislature. In 1844, he migrated to Mississippi’s Coahoma County where he practiced law and established a small plantation, dubbed Mound Place, on the Yazoo Pass. In time he became a very wealthy cotton planter with land holdings of 12,000 acres.  

Two years after coming to Mississippi he was elected to the state legislature on the Whig ticket. He was always a Union man and ardent anti-secessionist. On 7 January 1861, a hundred delegates gathered at the capitol building in Jackson to vote on secession. William Barry, a secessionist from Lowndes County, defeated Alcorn to become president of the convention. Barry then appointed a committee of fifteen to draft an ordinance of secession. L. Q. C. Lamar chaired the committee—and he just happened to have brought the draft of a proposed ordinance of secession with him. Judge J. S. Yerger (like Alcorn, a Unionist Whig) proposed approaching the North for concessions [in return for shelving secession] and thereby wait before taking a vote. When the committee voted down Yerger’s proposal, Alcorn proposed waiting until Georgia, Florida, Alabama and Louisiana voted to secede, then follow them out. Alcorn’s proposal was also voted down at which point Walter Brooke requested the vote be taken to the people in a referendum to be scheduled for 2 February. This proposal was also voted down, but a proposal to have the people vote on the ordinance as part of the state elections in the fall was floated by some on the committee—a proposal not formally voted down. War intervened and that vote never took place. 

In The Angry Scar, Carter states there were four committee votes against and eleven votes in favor of secession (Lamar’s Ordinance of Secession). The convention approved the committee’s vote and as Coahoma’s representative to the convention, Alcorn, as well as Yerger (Washington County) and Brooke (one of two representatives from Warren County) signed the Ordinance of Secession on 9 January 1861 along with ninety-five other county representatives. Regarding that decision, I quote Alcorn from Hodding Carter’s The Angry Scar:
“I have thought that a different course...should have been adopted and to that end I have labored and spoken,” Alcorn told the convention. “But the die is cast—the Rubicon is crossed—and I enlist in the army that marches to Rome.”  

And he did (join the army, I mean). Actually, his avowed proclamation above is a double entendre. Ultimately, he “served” both armies, to the detriment of the reputed “initial” commitment he made above and to the benefit of both the “Union” and himself once Grant and Sherman started stomping around, first plundering, then burning the state. But I would argue that his “first” loyalty was fomented as a Whig and that his subsequent two-faced double-cross when the going got tough (or the advantages became clear) was such a Whig thing to do. 

But I will grudgingly submit that there was more to Alcorn than greed and self-aggrandizement—even though that “more to” in reference to the State was to his own good—and believe me, he saw it. Vis-à-vis the likes of Adelbert Ames I can bring myself to side with the man. On that, there’s more to come. 

Thanks for reading. 






  1. Read this one, hoping to see a piece on Missouri!

  2. Karen--are you from MO? I was born at St. Mary's Hospital in KC a generation ago--probably in a different facility now, but I think the hospital still exists. My dad was in KC going to school on the GI Bill.

    Used to be that some of my fellow Southerners would tell me I was born a Yankee, and I have to explain--No, one of those stars on that Battle Flag belongs to Missouri.


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