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,




1 comment:

  1. I agree that his comment to the Yankees about the Yazoo Pass is a condemnation of the loyalty Alcorn claimed to have for the Confederacy (except for his open disloyalty to Jeff Davis), as is his ability to send so much to his wife while the population at large was starving.


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