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,

Thursday, July 17, 2014

James Lusk Alcorn’s Combat Service, Part One

This post is my fourth on James Lusk Alcorn, Mississippi Whig, Union Whig and Republican Reconstruction governor/U.S. senator from Mississippi. See earlier posts on 17 February 2014, 24 March 2014, and 16 April 2014.

When last I left Alcorn in the late summer of 1861, Fort Sumter had fallen and war had commenced in the east. To the north, Union and Confederate forces were jockeying for Kentucky and preening for a war that would ultimately sweep down the Ohio-Mississippi Valley into Mississippi itself. In Mississippi, Reuben Davis, head of Mississippi’s State Military Board had just persuaded Alcorn not to resign his commission or position on the board.

Temper cooled and feelings soothed, Alcorn approached Wiley P. Harris, the state’s premier jurist and at the time Alcorn approached him, a representative to the Provisional Congress of the Confederate States. Alcorn requested Harris intercede for him with the Confederate government allowing him to raise and arm a regiment to serve under the Confederate army (CSA). Secretary of War, L. P. Walker agreed to the request.

 At this point, given that Alcorn would be drawing his men from the state, he approached Governor John Pettus to bless the plan. The “fire-eater” Pettus balked, since the regiment Alcorn proposed would take men and officers from state control (theoretically, 1000 men and 34 officers). Alcorn subsequently tried to convince Pettus that he could cut a deal with the Confederate army that, should the regiment be required in support of the state, it would be freed up to do so. Yeah, really, on a cold day in hell and even that’s presuming the CSA wasn’t using it at the time. But it was for naught. Pettus wasn’t buying any bridges that day, either. Now I don’t know if that sort of dickering actually occurred in other instances (in this case, Pettus stood between, and the Confederate army was never broached), but I can tell you from my own military experience that once you’ve turned something over to Washington (in this case it would have been Richmond), you’ve lost it for good.

Regiment or not, the war must go on. On 3 September 1861, Confederate General Leonidas Polk invaded western Kentucky and established his headquarters at Columbus. Not to be outdone, General U.S. Grant crossed the Ohio into the northern part of that state and took Paducah and Smithville. Given this potential threat to Mississippi, Brigadier General J. L. Alcorn returned to military service, establishing his headquarters in Iuka, Mississippi (northeast corner of the state) where he immediately began the arduous task of arming and provisioning two regiments of raw recruits. That would be 2,000 men and 68 officers, right? Theoretically speaking.

So, let’s take a closer look at this. Alcorn volunteered to arm and provision, with his own money, one regiment for Confederate service, but Pettus refused to allow it. Now, state aid coming grudgingly, Alcorn is up in Iuka desperately trying to get two state regiments armed and supplied. It’s as if Governor Pettus is saying, “I’m not gonna take care of them, but you can’t have them.”

Okay, I understand that Governor Pettus’ point was who would command those forces, the state governor or the Confederate army. Given how things turned out.... Okay, the push-pull between the Southern states and Richmond is well known and this particular event is not a shining star pinned in the column for “state support to the central government.” It wouldn’t be so dark a mark if Pettus had at least supported Alcorn in provisioning those troops, but it doesn’t appear that he was particularly forthcoming.

In mid-September, an aide to General Albert S. Johnston, Commander, CSA West, arrived Iuka with orders from the general to support his advance into Kentucky. Four days later, Alcorn found himself and his troops in Russellville, Kentucky, and sending telegrams to Pettus begging for provisions before he became an “impediment” to the Confederate army. Now, I’m no rocket scientist, but I imagine Pettus is sitting back in Jackson thinking that if the Confederate army is going to abscond with Mississippi’s troops, the Confederate army can damn well supply and feed them. Don’t get me wrong, I do not agree with this attitude, if indeed it was the case, but I can see it happening.

In the brief interval between his arrival in Russellville and his subsequent move to Hopkinsville, Kentucky, seat of Christian County, where Union and Confederate loyalties were sharply divided, Alcorn experienced glimpses of the “enemy” and a small skirmish, which could have been something as insignificant as shots fired at and by partisans and everybody missed. Once in Hopkinsville, General Simon B. Buckner (who in a few months would be thrown the keys to the rapidly retreating commanding officers of Fort Donelson, which he promptly turned over to General Grant) gave Alcorn full jurisdiction of the town with the understanding that his forces were to be self-sustaining. In other words, “the Confederate Army isn’t feeding you”. Guess that answered that question, didn’t it, Governor Pettus?

The record is not clear as to how Alcorn kept his men fed, however, he does not appear to have robbed the local citizenry. Alcorn was considered a good occupier. The ladies loved him, and one must assume it would have been primarily women, children, and old men present—the town’s finest young men already in the uniforms of one side or the other. Okay, the very finest were in gray, but my point is, the people in the town were a vulnerable lot, and Alcorn did right by them.

Alcorn’s duties ended in mid-October when, his troops suffering with a measles epidemic, General Buckner ordered him to report on enemy movements east of Hopkinsville and to send support to Fort Donelson in Tennessee. On the first order, General Alcorn complied effectively, however, in regards to the second, his men sick with measles, he was unable to send reinforcements to Fort Donelson. Additionally, the reader should note that his two regiments had been ordered to Donelson. He had not. Apparently, the CSA had presumed to take these Mississippi troops into the regular army, but not Alcorn. This was a sticking point for Alcorn and did nothing to improve his regard for Jefferson Davis. His command nominally in the hands of the Confederate army and he in limbo, he wrote General Buckner requesting to be relieved effective 27 October 1861. As per his request, Brigadier General Lloyd Tilghman arrived in Hopkinsville on the date requested to find two regiments of raw recruits, not yet mustered into the Confederate army, and sick with measles.

General Tilghman, confronted with the dire situation in Hopkinsville as well as Alcorn’s murky and untenable position in the chain of command, went to bat for him (I know it’s an anachronism for this point in history, but it works well). General Tilghman reported to Colonel W. W. Mackall (General Johnston’s Chief of Staff) that Alcorn should be retained in Confederate service along with his troops. (Again, I’m reading between the lines here, but I’m assuming that with his first orders to move from Iuka to Russellville, Kentucky, Alcorn fell under Confederate command. Why his position wasn’t clear to him I do not know, but his remarks indicate he blamed that on the Confederate army. Certainly the decision to muster the troops into Confederate service, but leave their general behind clearly stated Alcorn’s services were no longer required by the Confederate army. But why? Failure to comply with Buckner’s request for reinforcements to Donelson certainly could have influenced the decision, depending on when it was made.)
Another source states that Generals Polk and Johnston also petitioned Richmond to retain Alcorn. If this is true, either the official correspondence did not survive or there never was any such “official” request forwarded up the chain. That doesn’t mean they didn’t petition on his behalf, but rather that the petition was not official, which tells a tale in itself. In other words: “We’re for you, but we don’t want to be on paper as being for you in the face of someone who dislikes you as much as does our commander-in-chief”, or something to that effect.

Politics probably was in play here. In December 1861, President Davis wrote to Wiley P. Harris in response to a different request that the Confederacy was no longer engaged in the “partisan warfare” that had taken place during the summer and fall of 1861, but that Federal forces were now being led “by men of military education and experience in war.” By implication, I take that to mean President Davis figured we should do likewise. Giving justification to that analysis would be the subject of a whole other study—I mean...really? If that wasn’t a crock, the Confederacy wouldn’t have had Nathan Bedford Forrest would it? I think what Davis’ statement to Harris “on a different request” clearly states is that Alcorn wasn’t the only person in Mississippi—and probably the whole South—suffering this stonewalling. And another thought: If such individuals could afford to recruit and outfit their own regiments (and Alcorn could), perhaps he should have just done what Forrest did and gone out and formed one up vice asking permission. But then, I don’t think Nathan Bedford Forrest was too politic, whereas I’d be willing to bet the political advantages and disadvantages on such matters weighed heavy on Alcorn’s mind. He would have wanted to work within Mississippi’s system in order to buy political collateral for the future.

I’d hoped to complete Alcorn’s military service in one post, but related tangents have made this article longer than I intended. I’ll finish up his military career (not the war years, but his “military” role in the conflict) next week. Comments, particularly enlightening ones on the conflicts between the Confederacy and her states, would be of particular interest. Thanks for reading.