Saturday, November 22, 2014

James Lusk Alcorn, The Dawn of Reconstruction

This post is number ten 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, 16 April, 24 March, 17 July, 24 July, 18 September, 9 October, 18 October, and 5 November 2014.

This article brings me to the period of history that initiated my interest in James Lusk Alcorn and is the setting for a number of my novels. “Reconstruction” is a term that has left a bad taste in the mouths of generations of white Southerners along with the epithet scalawag, which taints the name J. L. Alcorn to this day. After years of study, I see everything in a clearer, if not brighter light. If anything the taste of Reconstruction is fouler than ever. As a child I adhered to the simplistic approach that it was a period when a bunch of greedy, corrupt Northern opportunists and politicians, protected by the Yankee army, came South to plunder the spoils of war. Not much more to it than that. Later the “noble” ideas of civil rights for the Negro—a natural adjunct of his emancipation—seeped in. That noble idea translated, and rightly so, to Negro enfranchisement, which coupled with the disfranchisement of Southern whites, put in place a constituency designed to keep the Republican party in power for as long as it was able to hold the white South at bay. Both are true, simple concepts designed to get the blood of any self-respecting white Southerner boiling. These concepts would later be used to keep in place a constituency of a different sort—but this group, at least, was our own.

Putting aside the propaganda and ulterior motives of later generations of Southern demagogues, the tyranny and malfeasance of Reconstruction that ran rampant across the South, for over a decade in some places, were merely tools that apologists euphemistically refer to as the failure of a benign experiment in political and social awakening. My take on the apologists—smoke and mirrors in an attempt to create a faux truth from a lie.

Reconstruction was the realization of a pact loosely drawn by morally corrupt, self-righteous leaders, social, economic and political, to “Reconstruct” the South into what they thought it should be (socially) to serve their needs (economic/political)—needs reflected in the manifest destiny of the United States. The plan was not drafted with the South’s defeat in 1865. It was on the drawing table and set for necessary alterations by the 1850s. The South, its future clear within the “Union”, opted out. No war, no violence, just “you go your way and we’ll go ours”. But with its secession, the South had presented those Northern “architects” of what the United States was really meant to be with the opportunity to carry out the plan. It took some work to bring the rest of the North in line under the concepts of “Union” and “liberty and justice for all”, but ‘architects’ such as those always seem to achieve their ruthless goals. Hence a horrific war that took so many American lives, wasted the South, and destroyed the Founders’ Republic. Reconstruction was not an adjunct to the war. Reconstruction was the reason for the war.

But while research has hardened my frustration for those who view the South’s meager “victory” during Reconstruction as one of white Southerners against the defenseless and oppressed, my view of Alcorn is now more appreciative. In my opinion the term scalawag fits him less than simply noting what he was, a pragmatic Southern Whig who struggled to do what was necessary to return his Mississippi of old to its rightful place in the Union—given the terms demanded by a hate-filled victor.

It would never happen, of course, not for Mississippi nor the rest of the South. As stated above, Reconstruction did not refer to reconstructing the physical infrastructure of the devastated South. In fact, Congress (in which there was no Southern representation early on, an unconstitutional omission it later “corrected” by the introduction of Republican puppets as the Southern taxpayers’ representatives) and the powerful Northern constituents (industrialists, social engineers) that it represented went to great lengths to ensure the South’s recovery would be both slow and painful. Indeed, a case can be made that many of those people opposed recovery at all. Loyal Americans lived in the North—they’d saved the “Union” after all (Republic be damned)—and anything that would rise from the ashes of the South would be North-like in appearance and to the benefit of the North. I would like to make my point using an early example from Alcorn’s own history:

Thanks to his dealings with the occupying forces during the war, Alcorn returned to Coahoma county in the summer of 1865 with his lands intact and a supply of gold with which to rebuild. In the fall, the Union army released his home at Friar’s Point, and it is here that he brought Amelia and his children vice returning to Mound Place on the Yazoo Pass. Friar’s Point became the seat of operations for his post-war activities. He returned to his law practice and operated his plantations, acquiring new property east and south of his original holdings.

Long a Delta planter dependent on the rich alluvial land born of centuries of Mississippi River floods, Alcorn had spent his entire life in Mississippi focused on levees to control the “Father of Waters.” The river giveth, but it also taketh away—in a heartbeat. His determination to construct an adequate levee system meant constant battle with both the state and the counties making up the Delta—and interior counties that didn’t really care if the Delta flooded or not. In the early fifties, he’d become president of the Superior Board of Levee Commissioners created to coordinate all levee activity among the concerned counties. In 1861 he threw up his hands in defeat (apparently the players never, ever, all agreed) and resigned as president of the board. Disunion was on the nation by then, war followed, but Alcorn’s interest in levee construction never abated. As many of you Civil War buffs know, Grant did extensive damage to the existing levees—just one of the peacetime projects in need of real “reconstruction.”

In August of 1865, a state convention (this one blessed by President Johnson—see my 5 November 2014 post) appointed Alcorn as one of three commissioners to go to Washington to enlist Federal aid to rebuild the levees and/or find private investors. Since the state convention forbade the commissioners from pledging state funds in repaying the loans, private investors were not enthused. Needless to say, the thirty-ninth Congress was downright hostile. Regardless of Congressional sentiment, Alcorn was an optimistic Whig at heart, so it was the Federal government where he focused his hopes for support by depicting Mississippi River levees in terms of “national” interests.

In the summer of 1866, opportunity knocked when Congress began debate on a revenue bill. In 1863, when there’d been no representation of the cotton states in Congress, that body passed a law placing a 3¢ tax per pound on raw cotton. Now, the Southern states still not represented, it proposed to increase this tax to 5¢. It just so happened that at this time the U.S. District Court of Northern Mississippi was in session and contained a goodly number of the Delta’s lawyer-planters. Alcorn was one. This group took advantage of the session to hold a protest meeting against the proposed “cotton tax”. The district judge adjourned court so the protesters could hold their meeting, which Alcorn dominated. He nominated and secured the election of his friend and fellow Whig, C. D. Fontaine, as chairman and proposed a set of resolutions to be set before Congress.

One argument urged planters, in view of the tax’ probable passage, to plow up unpromising stands of cotton and plant corn since the state wouldn’t have funds to buy food from the North and West that winter anyway. That argument was countered by one that emphasized the value of cotton as wealth for the entire nation, which made it an instrument in foreign affairs. The Northern blockade during the war had forced the traditional European markets for Southern cotton to supplement their purchases of raw cotton from elsewhere. Indeed, Britain was encouraging the cultivation of cotton in her colonial possessions. Cotton, the counterargument concluded, provided the South purchase power to buy Northern goods. Southern commercial credit was based on cotton; therefore, the well-being of all Southerners, black and white, was dependent on it. A committee was appointed (Alcorn was a member) to write and present a memorial to Congress protesting the cotton tax and arguing for why it should not be.

Before the petition was drafted, the New York Chamber of Commerce memorialized Congress against the increase to 5¢, stating that taxation without representation was tyranny; the tax, at least in spirit, was unconstitutional; and the increase “lacked an impartiality which was calculated to provoke hostility at the South.” Congress, it argued, should be producing legislation to inspire the Southern people to hope for better days instead of continuing to beat them down. The tax was not removed, but was decreased to 2.5¢ per pound as of 1867.

In his annual report for the year 1867-1868, Secretary of the Treasury, Hugh McCulloch recommended repeal of the tax as a measure to restore the productive power of the Southern states as soon as possible. (Note that McCulloch was a free-market fella and perceived opponent to the “American System.”) He stated: “Even in their deplorable condition, more than two-thirds of our exports last year [1866] consisted of their products, and it is the crop of the present year [1867], small though it is, that is to save us from the ruinous indebtedness to Europe.” Don’t jump to the conclusion that this was support for the South—think of it as, “we need to jump start our new colony’s economy so we can pay the national debt we created by waging the war to destroy the South.”

Just for the record, here’s Mississippi’s share of the cotton tax, paid when the state was not represented in Congress: 

1866—3¢ per pound— $756,289.00

1867—2.5¢ per pound—$4,640,664.00

1868—2.5¢ per pound—$3,521,702.00

                For a total of—$8,918,655.00 

Between 1863-1868 when the tax was repealed, the Southern states paid $68,072,385.00 in cotton tax, all during a period when they were not represented in Congress.

Regarding Mississippi’s burden, note that the cotton crops of both 1866 and 1867 were near failures; the amount of the cotton tax paid in those years was 6 and 8 times state expenditures; and the tax was estimated to represent one quarter the value of the crops (remember that the tax was based on the weight of the cotton, not the market price).

Now, let’s go back a bit to Mississippi. That half-cent reduction in the cotton tax disarmed the 1866 planter protest, but Alcorn was not done with the tyrannical cotton tax. Now he put on his “Whig” hat and on 18 December 1866 presented a petition to both houses of Congress, which bore his name alone. In it, he cited his life-long activities with the levees in Mississippi; he highlighted the potential of the Yazoo-Mississippi Delta—to include tax revenue; and he emphasized the threat of foreign cotton production to the U.S. cotton industry (I’d be willing to bet that Congress was preoccupied with U.S. industry—maybe even the cotton industry—but not in the South.).

Then he came to the crux of his address: The people of the South considered the cotton tax not only a grievance, but a wrong. If it had to be enforced he said, mitigate its existence by using that tax on the South for the South. In the case of Mississippi, Arkansas, and Louisiana, spend the revenue on the levees to protect the alluvial cotton lands subject to flood. [Recall that such use of national subsidies for internal improvements was integral to the Whig platform.] The national government was being generous with subsidies to the North and West, particularly regarding railroad construction. Alcorn’s argument was to give the devastated South her share of her contribution (goodness knows she needed it).

Congress did not respond.

Point made.  

Thanks for reading, and more to come, Charlsie



Wednesday, November 5, 2014

James Lusk Alcorn, Waking up from the Nightmare and Preparing for the Dark Days Ahead

This post is number nine in a historical review of Mississippi’s Union Whig/Republican governor and senator during Reconstruction. See my earlier posts, best read in sequence, oldest to most recent, from 17 February, 16 April, 24 March, 17 July, 24 July, 18 September, 9 October, and 23 October 2014.

One last point regarding Alcorn’s expressed disappointment with what he perceived as Jefferson Davis’ bungling of the slavery issue in the face of international opinion—I’m not clear on what exactly Alcorn would have had him do. The South was facing off against a western world expressing a desire to be rid of the institution. Determined as the South was to preserve it, how could the man have done anything but “bungle” the issue? The Confederacy should have been seeking alliances in places that still respected the institution—Africa for instance.

Okay, I am being facetious. The Confederacy needed money and arms—she needed a European ally and in the end none were forthcoming. I have no doubt the Lincoln administration and his Secretary of State  “Henry” Seward played a significant role in that and the agreement they reached, particularly in the case of Britain, had little to do with any common abhorrence to slavery outside the sphere of abolitionists. It’s my opinion that Alcorn’s expression of disappointment in Davis’ efforts actually represented what we refer to today as  “smoke and mirrors”.

During the spring of 1864 Alcorn made a lengthy visit to General Napoleon Buford (that would be United States Army) in Helena, Arkansas during which he reviewed Negro troops and visited two Negro schools, all of which he described in glowing terms. These visits could possibly be construed as reconnoiters and may represent Alcorn’s tentative acceptance of things to come and prepare him, and with his leadership the state and the South, to deal with emancipation. That’s just a guess on my part, but there can be no doubt he was doing some cogitating on the subjects of slavery and emancipation.

Several months later, during the fall 1864 legislative session, he suggested that the Confederacy submit the slavery question to international appeal during which an international agency would study Southern slavery for twenty years and if not convinced at the end of that period that Southern slavery was not best for all concerned than the South could fight the entire world.

Yeah, the man was up to something. Maybe he was simply providing a smart-ass (excuse my use of the vernacular) response to something someone said that he considered stupid. But trying to prove to the world that Southern slavery was kinder and gentler than anything that had come before was like spitting in to the wind. Personally, I’d say the argument was true, but I’m admittedly prejudice and let’s face it, our institution being kindler and gentler than anything that had come before really isn’t saying a lot. Shoot, I heard it stated a couple of years ago that North Carolina considered its slavery kinder and gentler than that of the Deep South where slaves were worked to death. I wrote a blog on that subject, which I considered both an offense and a monumental joke.

My point is that in a world poisoned on the word “slavery” one is not going to find folks jumping at the opportunity to serve on such a tribunal. The people (read nations) who would have given Negro slavery an honest appraisal were the very ones who brought it to the New World. They’d coined the very euphemisms and arguments used to justify the humaneness of African slavery, then within a couple of centuries had turned those arguments on their head to condemn it. Alcorn was not stupid. He was a slave owner and knew the institution was not the monster abolitionists portrayed it to be, but it definitely had shortcomings, particularly for people determined to convince the rest of the world it believed its own propaganda.

It was also in the fall of 1864 that Alcorn, still registered on the Commissions of State Troops, assumed the rank of colonel and a thirty-day stint, at Governor Charles Clarke’s request, to organize militia troops to prevent the escape of deserters and Negroes in Coahoma, Bolivar, and Washington Counties (all in the Yazoo-Mississippi Delta). The fact that a Mississippi legislator, serving as a colonel of militia in the Delta apparently near side by side with a U.S. Army general (Alcorn’s friend Buford from Helena) is testimony to the instability of the area. Apparently by the early winter of 1865, Federal forces had gained the upper hand. Buford was freeing Negroes and promising them justice against their former masters and requiring whites to seek permission before buying supplies and selling their cotton—both of which required a loyalty oath. Alcorn apparently bypassed that loyalty requirement by continuing to sell to smugglers (that was probably more profitable anyway, if riskier). He did have to request Buford’s permission to remain on his land, with the promise that he behave himself. The local Negroes were to report on any misconduct.

Within the Federal lines, civil courts reopened, and Alcorn started practicing law again. In early February, the Mississippi legislature met in Columbus and sat until March, but Alcorn did not put in an appearance until a month later at which time he made a speech stating that the entire world was against slavery and that the state legislature as well as the Confederate Congress should make an immediate declaration that all slaves would be free after twenty years. Hmmm—guess he’d tabled that “international tribunal” idea.

Yes, I’m sure he’d heard of the Emancipation Proclamation. He had a plan—turned out to be of no value, but there was a method to the man’s madness—but before going there, I want to note that, indirectly, Alcorn gave two sons to the Confederacy. His eldest, Milton, served as a member of a Mississippi unit, which was brought into the regular army. He was captured in 1863, released, and finally mustered out of service at war’s end as a major in Featherston’s Brigade, 1st Mississippi Regiment. He returned home an alcoholic and committed suicide soon after conflict’s end. In January 1865, Henry, Alcorn’s younger son by his first marriage, joined the Confederate Army against his father’s wishes. He no sooner arrived at his first duty station in Murfreesboro, Tennessee, than he contracted typhoid, was left behind by his unit, taken prisoner, escaped from a camp in Ohio and made his way to Richmond where he was taken under the wing of members of the Confederate Congress, which had just adjourned. These folks had him en-route home when he unexpectedly died. 

In his diary, Alcorn indicates shock at Lincoln’s assassination and the fervent hope that the deed was the act of one individual. “I can’t think that any Southerner of character would be willing to turn assassin or become the accomplice of such.” I like the part about “become the accomplice of such.” Prescient or anxious? Either, but more likely there was plenty of speculation early on as to who was behind the murder of Lincoln.

With war’s end, there was naught to do but transfer the struggle back to the political arena. To paraphrase his attitude: We said we were out, they said we were in, and by force they won. Now we must yield and take the oath to support and defend the Constitution and elect our representatives. (Just between you, me, and the fence post the Constitution was going to take a lot of defending, and we lost there, too. The people of the United States lost their republic during Reconstruction.) The “peaceful” means to protect our way of life had been “proven” wrong by force of arms, not by the Constitution.

Governor Clarke called for a meeting of the state legislature in May 1865 in Jackson. It was the governor’s intention to call for a convention to repeal the ordinance of secession and hasten Mississippi’s reentry into the Union. The legislature met, not as a legislature, but in Governor Clarke’s words as a committee of public safety and it did so under the looming shadow of martial law. Having gotten wind of the meeting, President Johnson directed General E. R. Canby, Department of Mississippi, to arrest and imprison any member of the Confederate or state government that attempted to “legislate.” Apparently, the recognition between a legislative body and a committee of public safety was murky—or in the eyes of the beholder. Canby sent his guidance to Brevet Brigadier General E. D. Osband in Jackson, who reported back that the “so-called” legislature met on the 20th of May, the same day he’d received the dispatch from Canby. He’d found the legislature on the brink of adjourning and decided not to interfere since they claimed not to be “legislating.”

Osband reported the group had passed three acts: To call for a convention (I assume to repeal the ordinance of secession), to send three commissioners to Washington to ascertain from President Johnson what Mississippi needed to do to re-enter the Union, and to deplore Lincoln’s assassination. Upon adjournment of the legislature, Osband informed Governor Clarke he could not recognize the civil government of Mississippi, and he took custody of the public books, papers, property, and the executive mansion. Governor Clarke surrendered all under protest, but no force was required. Two days later, Osband arrested Clarke under orders from President Johnson. A witness to the arrest left the following record of Governor Clarke’s reaction [recall that General Clarke had been seriously wounded at both Shilo and Baton Rouge]: “The old soldier, when informed of the purpose of the officer, straightened his mangled limbs as best he could, and with great difficulty mounted his crutches, and with a look of defiance said: ‘General Osband, I denounce before high heaven and the civilized world this unparalleled act of tyranny and usurpation. I am the duly and constitutionally elected governor of the state of Mississippi, and would resist, if in my power, to the last extremity the enforcement of your order. I only yield obedience, as I have no power to resist.’”

Mississippi was now without a state government of any kind. Governor Clarke’s actions and those of the legislators on the surface must appear futile, but their haste to do “something” might well reflect a last desperate attempt to beat the Radicals to the finish line. But alas, Andrew Johnson, for whatever reason, jumped in their way. Alcorn opposed the idea of any sort of convention to bring the state back into alignment with the Union—he wanted Mississippi back in the Union immediately where not only she but also slavery were both protected by the Constitution. Once back in the safety of the fold, Alcorn hoped to use the abolition of slavery within the state to win concessions from the North. That was probably at the root of what, at first blush, appeared to be his delusional recommendations regarding the handling of the slavery issue across the South and his fault-finding with Davis’ handling of international opinion.

Of course, the Republicans realized all this, hence the rabid insistence on the states passing the Thirteenth amendment and eventually the Fourteenth amendment (the latter unconstitutional on every level) before the Southern states were allowed back into the Union—oxymoronic since the War was predicated on the argument the Southern states could not leave the Union to begin with. The North not only shredded the Constitution, they added insult to injury by desecrating it.

I have no way of knowing if Alcorn really believed such a tactic would work, but nothing ventured, nothing gained, and there wasn’t much else left to venture. Perhaps he thought moderate Republicans would be able to control the Radicals. At the time, the slobbering maddogs had yet to gain control. But it was just that—only a matter of time. All efforts proved worthless.

With the adjournment of the “safety committee,” the legislators took one glimpse at the bayonets outside the statehouse door and quickly disbursed—unlike the governor, they wouldn’t fall under Canby and Osband’s net.

From Jackson, Alcorn traveled east to Eutaw, Alabama and Amelia still ensconced with her family. On July 4, 1865, he returned to Mound Place to begin again. His politics aligned with the pre-Civil War principles of (Southern) Wiggery, which alienated him from the radicals on both sides, but then he’d always been alienated from them—he must, actually, have felt pretty darn lonely. Now he would begin the arduous task of establishing a position from where he could lead a “reconstructed” Mississippi back into the Union. It would prove a long, hard row to hoe.

Thanks for reading,