Wednesday, April 16, 2014

James Lusk Alcorn’s Role in the War Between the States, The Early Years

This post constitutes the third in a series dealing with James Lusk Alcorn, Mississippi Whig, Union Whig, and Republican Reconstruction governor/U.S. senator from Mississippi. An ardent Whig who rose to power and wealth during the decades leading up to the War Between the States, Alcorn successfully thwarted the forces of secession in 1850 and argued passionately against secession in January 1861, succumbing to the tide only when secessionist sentiment had become so strong he knew there was no way to curb it. During the fateful roll call vote at the Mississippi State House in Jackson on 9 January 1861, he finally capitulated and to the jubilant hurrahs of gallery observers, he cast his lot with Dixie and signed the Mississippi Ordinance of Secession. All but one of his fellow Union Whigs, John W. Wood, followed suit. Wood proved to be the lone dissenter of all the delegates. 

Almost immediately, the Secession Convention offered Alcorn a commission of Brigadier General with a post on the State Military Board, and believing the position merited political capital in case war ensued, he declined a seat in the Southern Congress at Montgomery and accepted the commission. Major General Jefferson Davis headed Mississippi’s military board. Alcorn’s fellow brigadiers included Earl Van Dorn, Charles Clark, and C. H. Mott. All these men, with the exception of Alcorn, had served in the Mexican War. 

Alcorn took his position to heart. He, along with Van Dorn, believed war was imminent; however, it appears, they were the only two on the board to believe the state’s number one priority, while the winter of ’61 waned, was war preparedness.  Davis’ tenure as head of the board, of course, was short-lived, for he left to become the Confederacy’s only president. Van Dorn, Clark, and Mott left shortly thereafter to accept commissions in the Confederate Army. From the moment of his capitulation to the forces of secession and his “crossing the Rubicon” speech, Alcorn coveted a commission in the regular army, but his request to Richmond was met with silence.  

Worse, with the departure of his four fellow board members, Alcorn should have been promoted to head Mississippi’s State Military Board. Instead, Governor Pettus appointed Reuben Davis to the senior slot. It was Reuben Davis, a man who was, or would become, a friend, who dissuaded Alcorn from resigning his commission and returning to his Yazoo Pass plantation home. Alcorn is on record for reviewing recruits in Corinth during this early period.  

Throughout the war, at times more vehemently than at others, particularly after his worse fears of invasion had been realized, Alcorn argued that we should go out and meet the enemy, not wait until the enemy was on Mississippi soil. He had no qualms about voicing this strategy with his initially unconcerned leaders. In addition to being snubbed for head of the State Military Board, Alcorn’s attempts to raise and outfit individual units under his own command were rebuffed. One such request was returned by President Davis’ Secretary of War, L. P. Walker, annotated “No Brigades auth.” [auth.=authorized] It is fairly easy for the uninitiated such as me to make a wild-ass guess as to what was happening here—one of two things or a combination of both.  

(1) James Alcorn’s lack of military experience, compounded with his political opposition to military hero and former U.S. Secretary of War, Jeff Davis, determined Alcorn to be a military officer of unknown quality, and/or  (2) the Confederate government might have considered independent units under the command of aggressive, autonomous leadership as the metaphorical loose cannon, particularly egregious to a man convinced that by announcing to the enemy “we only wish to be left alone” that he would ensure the enemy would indeed leave us alone. Certainly Jeff Davis would not have relished the likes of James Alcorn charging up the Mississippi Valley, untested saber raised high and glinting in the sun. 

You know, ever since I was a kid (and I am not a young woman), I’ve looked at maps of Mississippi highlighting Yankee incursions into the state during 1863-1864. And ever since I was that kid I’ve noted there sure were a lot of Yankees running around loose and unconstrained by their own seniors, much less the Confederate Army. Okay, perhaps I’m being too kind to those U.S. military seniors given that the behavior of their men was a matter of policy, but that’s another story. The point I’m trying to make is that the barbarous behavior of the Union Army was not countered in the manner to which I believe they deserved while a Confederate army of 30,000 men remained holed up and starving in Vicksburg. And please don’t, “oh duh” me. I know this observation is not original. My point is that even to a child a hundred years after the fact, it was obvious something was missing in our grand strategy. I don’t know how far up the Mississippi valley Alcorn (and he wasn’t the only man using his head back then, either) may have gotten before he was stopped; certainly his effort should have been directed, but I do think his grand strategy was right—and the best part is that it wasn’t twenty-twenty hindsight. It was foresight. 

More on Alcorn and the war years in my next post. Thanks for reading.






1 comment:

  1. Sounds like Alcorn wasn't all bad and should have been allowed to muster some soldiers. Mississippi would at least have had more "boots on the ground".


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