Thursday, September 18, 2014

James Lusk Alcorn’s Wartime Activities Back Home in the Mississippi Delta

Here I pick up the thread of James L. Alcorn, Union Whig, secessionist, and future Republican Reconstruction governor of Mississippi. This is my sixth post on the man, and it introduces his wartime activities from the close of his brief, inglorious military career in Kentucky in the fall-winter of 1861-1862 through the Union occupation of his Yazoo Pass plantation home in the winter of 1863. For those of you who have not followed previous posts, the thread starts with a post on 17 February 14, and continues on 24 March, 16 April, 17 July, and 24 July.
 Alcorn returned to Mississippi in the winter of 1862 no longer harboring delusions of a role in the Confederate government or its army. Before retiring from military service, he recorded his enmity of the Democratic Party controlling the central government in Richmond, and its leader (Jeff Davis), not only in letters to his wife, but also when addressing his troops. This could not have been a morale booster to a bunch of men who voluntarily sat through sixty days of rain, snow, and measles for God and country. They probably had their own opinion of army life—and maybe even their fearless leader and native son—but their immediate senior, just my opinion now, needs to keep a stiff upper lip and not pass the blame for that misadventure in Kentucky onto someone else, even if it does fall to someone else (see my 24 July 2014 post). In spite of 150 years of Yankee argument to the contrary, Confederate soldiers were neither stupid nor misguided, at least no stupider and misguided than any other “defeated” group and many a victor. Alcorn’s action outlines his frustration and lack of discretion and reflects somewhat on his ability to sacrifice for a cause that would require unflinching dedication to achieve. It’s only my opinion, but Alcorn displayed disillusion long before the going really got tough.  

Though he’d cast aside his aspirations within the central government, he was still in a position to participate in state affairs. Upon his return from Kentucky, he was invited to address the state house of representatives in Jackson. In an editorial written in the pro-Democratic, secessionist newspaper Mississippian, the address exemplified a man of “despotic character”. Alcorn advocated abolishing the Confederate Constitution (patterned on that same U.S. Constitution, which, of course, the South and not the North honored), muzzling the press, and establishing a dictatorship (I’m reasonably confident those last words were penned by the editor of the paper and not spoken publicly by Alcorn). Alcorn advocated the Whig tradition of a strong central government capable of decisive action. But a strong central government was (and is) anathema to state rights advocates.

Alcorn’s thoughts on crisis management, frankly, mirrored the same tyrannical views of the Whig turned Republican president in Washington, and talk about a double standard, Alcorn described Jefferson Davis as a “corrupt tyrant who disgraces the head of government by his low jealousies and constitutional timidity.” I take the term “constitutional timidity” to imply a healthy respect for the constitution—in this case the Confederate Constitution. One must consider that Alcorn admired Lincoln’s lack of respect for the U.S. Constitution, but I do believe blatant disregard for the document by the North was one of the South’s motivations for secession.

By March of 1863, Alcorn was expressing thorough disgust at the resistance (or lack thereof) to Yankee gunboats moving through the Yazoo Pass and the plundering of his plantation home by Union soldiers while Davis protected Richmond and allowed Yankees to ravage the lower Mississippi Valley. In his defense, Davis did successfully defend his capitol right up till near the end, and he managed to kill a lot of Yankees doing so. I’ve heard it stated over the eons of my life that perhaps a change in capitols on the part of the Confederacy would have been a smart move, but that’s a thought for another post. The point is, war came early to Mississippi and men such as Alcorn blamed the debacle on Davis’ misguided priorities. No doubt Alcorn’s perspective would have been different had he been part of the Confederate government, but I can’t see his thoughts on Davis being any different if he’d been a bona fide Confederate general trying to cope with the situation in the west.

Alcorn didn’t blame Jefferson Davis for Mississippi’s secession—he wasn’t even at the secession convention—he was in Washington representing the state in the U.S. Senate. Alcorn was at the secession convention, and he voted in favor. Alcorn believed Mississippi had a right to secede and was justified in doing so, though he did doubt the prudence of the act—correctly surmising that his ex-Whig associates in Washington had no more respect for the Constitution than he did and would opt for war.

What he blamed Davis for was the prosecution of the war—that and protecting Richmond, while the west and the Mississippi River were lost. [Ah, yes, defense might be the stronger position in battle, but it “ain’t no way” to win a war. That’s just me talking].

In the fall of 1863, Mississippi elected former Confederate general Charles Clark governor. General Clark had been severely wounded at the Battle of Baton Rouge, taken prisoner, and later released. Some might say his fighting days were over. Personally, I’d say he never stopped fighting, God bless him. In the years leading up to the war, Clark had represented Bolivar County in the state house on the Whig ticket, and Alcorn had served with him on the state military board immediately following secession.

In the same election that sent Whig-turned-Democrat Clark to the gubernatorial office, Alcorn was elected to the legislature and helped Mississippi resist the invasion. By this time, there were folks within the state clamoring for a separate negotiated peace with the Union. Their clamor was louder than their support apparently because Clark won with little opposition. Despite his rapport with Governor Clark, Alcorn never lessened his hostility for the Democratic-controlled Confederate government.

Another note about this election, which kept in place leaders determined to “carry on” and sent Alcorn back to the state house: It was held in the fall of 1863. Vicksburg had fallen and Jackson had been burned twice (the second time, July 1863, to the ground). But before all that, in the late winter of ’63, Grant’s forays into the hinterlands of Mississippi north of Vicksburg had brought Union troops to Alcorn’s plantation home, Mounds Place. But Alcorn’s involvement with Union officers predated even that and was more extensive than tossing the gauntlet at Lew Wallace and inviting him to come on down to Fort Beauregard and joust. [Again, see my 24 July 2014 post].

The plot thickens.  

More in my next post and thanks for reading,