Thursday, October 23, 2014

James Lusk Alcorn, Out of the Delta and on to the Capital, Wherever That Might Have Been

This post is number eight in a historical review of Mississippi’s Union Whig/Republican governor and senator during Reconstruction. See my earlier posts, best read in sequence from oldest to most recent, from 17 February 2014, 16 April 2014, 24 March 2014, 17 July 2014, 24 July 2014, 18 September 2014, and 9 October.


During the summer and fall of 1863, there was movement afoot for Mississippi to make a separate peace with the United States Government. Yes, the going had finally gotten real tough. By that time Vicksburg had fallen and Yankees occupied the state capitol at Jackson or what they’d left of it after two successive burnings. Today traces of phosphorus used to carry out the deed can still be found in the city’s soil. And y’all thought the likes of napalm was a twentieth-century atrocity.

Despite the fact that fire-eating secessionist governor John J. Pettus, considered Alcorn persona non grata, Alcorn was not among those supporting the peace party—neither were the majority of people in the state even though many felt Richmond had abandoned them. Alcorn might not care for Jeff Davis and the controlling Democratic Party, but he didn’t believe Mississippi was wrong to have seceded, just foolish in having done so. A fool-hearted endeavor exacerbated by misplaced priorities and Richmond’s prosecution of the war.

The Democrats’ falling out of favor opened the door to ex-Whigs in the state elections scheduled for October. Though not a candidate for the legislature, Alcorn was out and about in Coahoma County that late summer/early fall making speeches and later writing to his wife in Alabama that his speeches had been well received, and he thought he’d receive a number of votes. He even expressed some concern over the possibility of being elected. He was not on the ballot that 5 October, but the people of Coahoma County voted to send him to the capital anyway. (Why don’t we do things like that today?) This was his seventh time to represent his county in the state legislature, then sitting at Columbus in Lowndes County in the eastern part of the state.

This was the legislature that saw the inauguration of former Confederate general Charles Clark as governor. Politically a long-time Whig and adherent to Henry Clay, Clark became a Democrat in 1860. Despite his Whig background, Clark had no dreams for a Reconstructed Union much less anything positive to say about the concept, nor did other ex-Whigs now finding favor, including Alcorn. All proved determined to carry on the fight. This legislature did manage to unseat Democrat James Phelan as senator to the Confederate Congress and replace him with J. W. C. Watson, a Whig.

Alcorn was a candidate for speaker, but though he failed to get the necessary votes he was appointed to several committees, the most important being ‘ways and means.’ It’s a stretch in my opinion, but one might say that for the first time in Mississippi history the Whigs had come to power, albeit, as an unorganized party.

In November, Alcorn was invited to address the legislature on the state of the country. What he had to say was well received—but remember, he was speaking to a different audience, at least in part, than the one he’d addressed in 1862 (see my 18 September post below); and in December he served in the absent speaker’s stead during a short-term session.

The legislature would not meet again till the late summer of 1864 at which time he would again address the body, this time expressing the folly of the South’s making the war over slavery and emphasizing Lincoln’s having “out generaled” Jeff Davis in the field of diplomacy. Well, up North there were plenty of folks—not Copperheads, either—whose feathers had been ruffled by Lincoln’s “having made the war  about slavery” with the Emancipation Proclamation.

All my life I’ve heard it said the war was about slavery, the century and a half-old argument that what the North did was for the common good and for a higher purpose—to free the slaves and to hold the nation together, because without the United States, united and free and set upon a course of  “democracy” for all mankind, the world would have sunk into a dark abyss from which it apparently would have never pulled itself out. Personally, I don’t even think that a separate United States and Confederacy either one would have sunk into an abyss, much less taken the rest of the enlightened world with it, but that’s neither here nor there. We’ll never know what might have been. Certainly with the outcome, the South sank and vis-à-vis the surge of northern industry has remained mired. So, I can’t help but question the argument that the South’s decision to secede was to protect slavery. Oh yes, I agree that slavery was integral to what the South was protecting, which translates into its very role within the nation.
Slavery in the South, at least in 1860, was still safe. The slavery issue dealt less with the threat of forced abolition than with the extension of slavery. The North’s determination that slavery not be extended into the territories, and thereby any future states, had nothing to do with freeing a people already enslaved and everything to do with ensuring there’d be no additional slave-state votes in Congress to thwart whatever big-government initiative the North concocted. As more and more free states were added to the equation, Southern influence would dwindle—ain’t no getting around it, folks; that’s what was happening, by design, and both sections knew it. The potential for sectional strife was obvious as early as the ratification of the Constitution (and even before), but was blatant by 1820 and the Missouri Compromise. That is when—and I know it’s 20/20 hindsight—the South should have told Henry Clay to go smoke his hemp, then left the Union. The South’s economy, rightly or wrongly, was dependent on slavery and had been for a century and a half before the Revolution. It came with the nation and everyone agreed to it, otherwise the South could have gone its own way from the beginning. Does anyone ever question why the North agreed to it? There had to have been a reason, but I’ll save my opinions on that for another post.

Along with slavery came state rights and the 10th Amendment. Jump forward to 1820, 1830, 1850, and consider that to prohibit Southerners access, with their property, into the new territories, which they too shed their blood to acquire for the United States, was not in keeping with the spirit of the pact. Yes, I know there were compromises during those years and promises made that were not kept, but my point is, why were compromises needed to begin with? I am also aware of the argument that the Founders believed from the git-go that slavery would fade away, because in a short space of time there would be no reason for it. The attempts I’ve seen to substantiate they actually believed that are shoddy and pertain more to the “Northern” Founders than “Southern” ones. Then came the cotton gin and King Cotton and that “belief” was forgotten. Tell me, what was supposed to happen? Northern industry and manufacturing was going to grow behind the largess of Southern agriculture, and when the time was right, the South would industrialize and become like the North? Oh goody. Sounds more like a weak attempt to vindicate both the Founders and Lincoln’s War of Aggression, and that is exactly what it is. Then there was that other fly in the ointment—the South didn’t want to be like the North.

I just reviewed Mississippi's Articles of Secession, and my interpretation remains the same as it did the last several times I’ve read it: In the North’s zeal to neutralize slave power, Northern threats led to Southern secession. It was the secession that led to a war of aggression that accomplished in a much shorter time span (and at the cost of over, now I believe the estimate is in excess of 800,000 men, not counting the loss of thousands of Southern civilians of both races and sexes), what a Northern-controlled Congress would have eventually taken a few more decades to accomplish—nullification of the Southern vote. That was the true objective.

I’d like to draw your attention to articles 12 and 13 against the Federal Union:  

It seeks not to elevate or to support the slave, but to destroy his present condition without providing a better. 

I plan to elaborate more on the lofty “stated” Reconstruction goals of the radical Republicans such as William D. Kelly in future blogs, but they tie right into making the South like the North, under Northern “entrepreneurship,” of course. 

It has invaded a State, and invested with the honors of martyrdom the wretch whose purpose was to apply flames to our dwellings, and the weapons of destruction to our lives. 

This, of course, is a reference to John Brown. Yes, the political leadership gave lip service to condemning the raid, but the North made a hero of that psychopath (If you’re not already aware, check Brown’s record in Kansas). And what of the men who financed him? Ah, that’s an interesting shadow group. What was their fate? What role did they play during and after the war, because they certainly played a role in starting it? A case can be made for saying the first shot of the Civil War was not fired at Fort Sumter in April of 1861, but at Harper’s Ferry in October of 1859.

A person blinded with self-righteous prejudice might be seeing the love of perpetual slavery when reading Mississippi’s Articles of Secession, but that’s not what the document is. It is a list of grievances against the Federal Union that had threatened the Southern way of life since the birth of the nation: 

It has given indubitable evidence of its design to ruin our agriculture, to prostrate our industrial pursuits and to destroy our social system. 

It knows no relenting or hesitation in its purposes; it stops not in its march of aggression, and leaves us no room to hope for cessation or for pause. 

Indeed, there was no end in sight—not within the Union. So I do not agree with Alcorn’s statement that the South “made” the war about slavery, though by drawing a parallel between his statement and the Articles of Secession, I’m probably taking him out of context. I imagine his faulting Davis was more in frustration with how Davis handled international opinion on slavery contrasted with how Lincoln exploited it. Alcorn continued by saying the higher purpose of the war was state rights, which I believe is clear in the Articles of Secession and there’s no shortage of contemporary Southern writings that support that. Certainly the Scots-Irish author of the lyrics to The Bonnie Blue Flag saw it that way. Harry Macarthy’s focus wasn’t African slavery, but the slavery of the South to tyranny. Eighty years before, the Scots-Irish played an important role in winning American independence from such a tyrant. In 1861, the Southern ones hadn’t forgotten what that meant.

 Meanwhile, Lincoln and his cabinet, along with their Congress—with men dying, hate rampant, the opposition muzzled, and the job market soaring—have the North committed to righteous conquest. Now they can publicly state with little fallout that emancipation serves a higher purpose...than what? State rights? No, indeed. Rather, they elevated it higher than the Constitution itself—the very soul of the Republic. Maybe they should have founded a church. But, alas, a church was not what they wanted. What they wanted was unencumbered, free-sway for an industrialized nation. All they had to do was destroy the encumbrance.

Supposedly, Alcorn argues, Lincoln’s “smoke and mirror” tactic regarding the ending of slavery in the United States convinced Britain and France not to support the South. Actually, both those nations, not needing more problems, prudently sat back and waited to see how things went. Once the North opted for war (which was a forgone conclusion), time was not on the South’s side.

I believe, with the end in sight, Alcorn is paving the way for some ancillary use of slavery, but I’ll have more on that in my next post. Climbing up on my soapbox has drawn this post out. Look for another article on Alcorn shortly and thanks for reading. 


Thursday, October 9, 2014

James Lusk Alcorn, Wartime in the Delta, Part 2: Was Alcorn a Double Agent?

This is post seven on James Alcorn and continues the story of his wartime activities in the Yazoo-Mississippi Delta. See earlier posts for 17 February 2014, 16 April 2014, 24 March 2014, 17 July 2014, 24 July 2014, and 18 September 2014. The sequence is best if kept in that order, but the first post on his “activities in the Delta” is my last one of 18 September 2014.

By June of 1862, the Union army controlled the Mississippi River as far south as Vicksburg and had established a headquarters at Helena, Arkansas across the river from Mound Place, Alcorn’s plantation home. Helena was also the home of Alcorn’s cousin, James Miles. Alcorn wrote Governor Pettus highlighting a number of local disasters occurring at the time, noting Yankees among the floods, cotton burnings, and hog cholera. I should note here that during the course of the long, miserable war, no one side had complete control of any territory in the Yazoo-Mississippi Delta for very long, towns, farms, and inhabitants continually at the mercy of warring armies and the elements. Privations and abuses grew as did windows of opportunity for survival and personal gain for men on both sides.

During the summer of 1862, Federal officers started taking cotton in return for claims payable by the United States government to be honored after the war if the owners could prove their loyalty to the Union. That would be nigh impossible even if the owners had been loyal. On the other side, the Confederacy would destroy the cotton rather than allow it to fall into Federal hands. Needless to say “privations and abuses” ran rampant through the cotton planters. So did need and opportunity. In addition to thieving Yankees and desperate Confederates, there were the smugglers, and many a Delta planter sold his cotton to these opportunists who found markets in primarily Federally occupied territory. Yes, the cotton went into Yankee hands, but a goodly portion of the lucrative trade went to the planter before the cotton even left the secreted quay.

Alcorn’s first encounter with the enemy occurred in August 1862 when he and two neighbors ran into Union soldiers on the Yazoo Pass. The Mississippians were arrested and taken across the river to Helena. Alcorn was released a few days later and allowed to go to his cousin’s (James Miles’) home. Following this arrest, Alcorn sent his wife Amelia and their children to the relative safety of Amelia’s family home in Greene County, Alabama.

Over the next few years, correspondence between him and his wife indicate he was determined to provide for his family and that she take nothing from her parents. After the war, he wrote her, he’d make a larger fortune than ever—and he’d been a wealthy man at the start of the conflict.

In early September of ’62, we again find Alcorn at the headquarters of the Union military governor in Helena protesting the issuance of emancipation papers in the case of some of his runaway slaves, a violation of his rights as a citizen of Mississippi and in violation of U. S. law. Alcorn claimed the value of those slaves to be $35,000. Information (probably the census) states that Alcorn owned 93 slaves in 1860. There’s no number given as to how many he’s claiming to have run away.

For those of you who have not studied the self-inflicted difficulties the Union army was having dealing with the contraband (liberated Negro slaves) created by its havoc, suffice it to say a number of Union commanders acted unilaterally in granting freedom to the people they were overrunning, and Washington had yet to formulate a plan to deal with these folks whose livelihood had been destroyed. Given the lack of definitive guidance under which the Union commanders were operating, Alcorn’s presumption that the Union invaders had overstepped their legal authority—even in the minds of their own leaders back in D.C.—is not farfetched. There’s no known record as to whether he got his people back, nor is there a record as to whether they did or did not want to come back. The Union army housed those displaced people in crowded, filthy “refugee” camps, and the liberated slave may have viewed his first look at liberty with disdain and preferred the autonomous little plantation hamlet, rife with family, friends, neighbors, and a shanty that was, at least, his own, known to history as the plantation’s slave quarter.  

Alcorn was arrested again in November of 1862, but on this occasion, he writes his wife, he made the acquaintance of the “higher officers” in Helena and tells her he had “a pleasant” time of it. The Yankees returned his horse and treated him with “marked respect.” Hmmm—maybe Polk should have tried that. The mutual respect continued, and he states that the Federal officers referred to him as “old Chef Sesh,” but though his new, shall we say, associates tried to convince him to swear an oath of allegiance to the Union, he refused.

By the years 1863-1864 Alcorn was sending Amelia wagon trains from Coahoma County loaded with corn, coffee, and sugar (all scarce), goods he’d obtained in Memphis or Helena. In one letter, he tells her he is sending her $470.00 in Confederate script and $2350. From the context of the letter, it’s not unfair to assume that $2350 was in gold. This was hidden in a fruit can. Minga, his overseer, directed the wagon train and carried the money. Alcorn further instructed Amelia to pay her bills with the Confederate money and save the gold. He did buy some land in Greene County for her to live on, and he instructed her to grow cotton, not corn for food as the Confederate government suggested. Based on these farming instructions and his adamant desire she not depend on her parents for anything, I’m assuming Alcorn sent his slaves to Alabama with her—those that had not escaped or been kidnapped by the Yankees, I mean. That letter was written in early 1863. Alcorn argued that the war would be over within a year and cotton would be worth plenty. Alcorn wasn’t suffering financial hardship. 

In February 1863, General C. C. Washburn, USA, and his staff occupied Mound Place. This is the same time period that Alcorn was sending money and well-appointed wagon trains to Amelia in Alabama. Almost seven years later, Washburn publicly commended Alcorn regarding his relationship with the Federals on his plantation without casting any doubt as to his loyalty to the South. That timely compliment was reported in the Friar Point Weekly Delta on November 3, 1869. Gubernatorial elections were scheduled for the end of November that year, and Alcorn was running on the Republican ticket (he won—but more on that in a later post). Naturally he’d have wanted any little tidbit indicative of possible betrayal to the South cleared up, so you can take Washburn’s comment for whatever it was worth to either side.

I intend to go into Alcorn’s activity during Reconstruction during which I believe he strategically aligned himself with a hated enemy in order to better position himself for the good of the state and the interests of her people, which would have included himself. The same might be said for his relationship with the Union hierarchy in Helena and later at Mound Place. As stated above, upon first contact with the enemy, he’d sent his family away. His father-in-law was a staunch democrat and passionate secessionist, but there is nothing to be gleaned from that. His wanting his wife and kids out of harm’s way is reasonable.

Following their departure, he made repeated trips to the Union headquarters in Helena—one might glean something from that. Then in early 1863, General Washburn moved right into Mound Place (granted, Alcorn would not have had much say), reconnoitering the Friar Point region and the Yazoo Pass through which General Grant hoped to send gunboats (and eventually did) into the Coldwater-Yazoo River system as part of his siege of Vicksburg. There is, however, a bothersome Federal report on record in the files of the Department of the Tennessee dated 4 February 1863 which quotes Alcorn as saying “There would be no difficulty in reaching the Yazoo River with boats of medium size.”

Ah, but in Alcorn’s defense, he kept a diary of the names and types of Union boats in the Yazoo Pass and estimated the number of men they carried. At least once he gave this information to Confederate scouts and entertained Captain A. H. Forest and his men who were blockading the pass downstream as fast as the Federals cleared it up. A double agent? Known or unknown? Who knows, but there may well have been more to his relationship with those Federals than meets the eye, and Alcorn might very well have been playing a risky, even dangerous, game. Whatever Alcorn’s intrigues, they have been lost to time and probably hostile politics—Alcorn’s subsequent actions during Reconstruction offended a greater number of Mississippians than did his questionable activities during the war. He did cite in a personal letter that the Confederacy sent a spy to watch him. The spy, according to Alcorn, was not very good, because he was captured.

I have no more information as to what this “spy” was doing, but if he was there to check up on Alcorn either the Confederacy had cause to distrust Alcorn, or if he had some other purpose, than Alcorn was suffering with a guilty conscience. Of further note: In regards to the information Alcorn was passing to either side, some information proved more valuable than the other—that’s how the double agent thing works, right—pass garbage to get good? Well, Grant took Vicksburg.

Okay, to say Alcorn’s treachery led to that is really speculative, but that’s not my point. How valuable that information regarding gunboats in the Yazoo Pass  proved to Grant, I don’t know, and whether or not the man could have figured it out on his own I still don’t know. I doubt it was an inspirational thought on the part of Alcorn—“Hey, why don’t y’all move gunboats down the Yazoo-Coldwater system.” My guess is the idea struck the Yankees first, and they simply asked—can we get boats through? The point is Alcorn passed that information to an enemy who was robbing, raping, and plundering his own people, a people he claimed to support and even helped propel into secession with his vote. To this Southerner, that one liner in the archives of the Army of Tennessee highlights a despicable act and a man of questionable character. I consider I could be wrong on both counts, but I just can’t get past it.

Washburn’s staff moved into the house, and his troops took over the slave quarters (another indication the slaves might have been sent to Alabama with Amelia—of course, it’s possible they were all sitting over in Helena (and maybe wishing they were in Alabama).

The officers were respectful of Alcorn’s property within the walls, but outside the troops killed his stock, rolled his wagons into the pass, stole his food and supplies, and tore down and burned his fences. I have no way of knowing how much of this destruction was permeated by Washburn’s troops or if the damage was inflicted by the “operators” on/in support of those passing gunboats. My “reasoning” tells me Washburn could have kept his troops in line, unless, of course, the destruction was by design, and that cannot be ruled out.

By the fall of 1863 the state is struggling as is its Democratic party. More and more people are speaking ill of Jeff Davis, and Alcorn remains a popular Whig influence from Coahoma County. In his favor, he is on record for having supported the South with secession and now for opposing the Democratic regime that appears to be leading it to disaster. The time is right to reenter the political arena.
More to come, and thanks for reading,