James L. Alcorn

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James L. Alcorn
United States Senator
from Mississippi
In office
December 1, 1871 – March 3, 1877
Preceded by Hiram R. Revels
Succeeded by Lucius Q. C. Lamar
28th Governor of Mississippi
In office
March 10, 1870 – November 30, 1871
Lieutenant Ridgley C. Powers
Preceded by Adelbert Ames
Succeeded by Ridgley C. Powers
Member of the Mississippi Senate
In office
Member of the Mississippi House of Representatives
In office
1846, 1856–1857
Member of the Kentucky House of Representatives
In office
Personal details
Born James Lusk Alcorn
(1816-11-04)November 4, 1816
Golconda, Illinois Territory
Died December 19, 1894(1894-12-19) (aged 78)
Friars Point, Mississippi
Political party Whig, Republican
Alma mater Cumberland College
Profession Politician, lawyer
Military service
Allegiance  Confederate States
Service/branch  Mississippi militia in Confederate Army service
Rank Confederate States of America General-collar.svg Brigadier general
Unit Mississippi militia
Battles/wars American Civil War

James Lusk Alcorn (November 4, 1816 – December 19, 1894) was a prominent American political figure in Mississippi during the 19th century. He was a leading Southern white Republican during Reconstruction in Mississippi, where he served as governor and U.S. Senator. A moderate Republican, he had a bitter rivalry with Radical Republican "carpetbagger" Adelbert Ames, who defeated him in the 1873 Mississippi gubernatorial race. He briefly served as a brigadier general of Mississippi state troops at times in Confederate army service during the early part of the American Civil War. Among the Confederate generals who joined the post-Civil War Republican Party, only James Longstreet had been of higher rank.

Early life and career[edit]

Alcorn was born near Golconda in the Territory of Illinois to James Alcorn and Hanna Lusk, a Scots-Irish family. He attended Cumberland College in Kentucky and served as deputy sheriff of Livingston County, Kentucky, from 1839 to 1844. He was admitted to the Kentucky bar in 1838 and for six years practiced law in Salem, Kentucky. He served in the Kentucky House of Representatives in 1843 before moving to Mississippi in 1844.

Alcorn set up a law office in Coahoma County.[1] As his law practice flourished and his property holdings in the Mississippi Delta increased, he became a wealthy man. In 1850 he built a three-story house at his Mound Place Plantation in Coahoma County where he resided with his family. By 1860, he owned nearly a hundred slaves and held lands valued at a quarter of a million dollars. Alcorn served in the Mississippi House of Representatives and Mississippi Senate during the 1840s and 1850s being one of the leaders of the Whigs in the state. In the Mississippi legislature Alcorn pushed for construction of levees to protect Delta counties from flooding. Due to his efforts, in 1858 the Levee District was established.[2] He ran for Congress in 1856 but was defeated.

As a delegate to the special Mississippi convention of 1851 called by Democratic Governor John A. Quitman, who was angered by the Compromise of 1850 and wanted to advocate the course of secession,[3] Alcorn joined the Mississippi Unionists helping to thwart that attempt. Like many other Whig planters, Alcorn opposed secession, pleading with the secessionists to reflect for a moment on the realities of national balance of power. He foretold a horrific picture of a beaten South, "when the northern soldier would tread her cotton fields, when the slave should be made free and the proud Southerner stricken to the dust in his presence."[4] However, in January 1861, at the Mississippi state convention he joined the secessionists and was elected to the Committee of Fifteen to prepare Ordinance of Secession.[5]

Civil War[edit]

When secession was declared, Alcorn although born in the free, pro-Union state of Illinois, cast his lot with the Confederacy and was appointed as a brigadier general of the Mississippi state militia. During the American Civil War, he was in uniform for about eighteen months of inconspicuous field service, mainly in raising troops and in garrison duty. After resignation of several major generals of the Mississippi state troops, including Jefferson Davis, Earl Van Dorm, and Charles Clark, Alcorn became eligible for promotion in rank, but was passed over for promotion since his political foe John J. Pettus was the governor of Mississippi.

In the beginning of the Civil War he was ordered to proceed with his troops to central Kentucky; then he was stationed at Fort Donelson, Tennessee. In October 1861 Alcorn raised three regiments of sixty-days militia troops in Mississippi and led his brigade to Camp Beauregard, Kentucky, where he served under General Leonidas Polk. His field service ended after his brigade was disbanded in January 1862. Alcorn was taken prisoner in Arkansas in 1862, was paroled later in the year, and returned to his Mound Place Plantation. In 1863, he was elected to the Mississippi state legislature where he joined critics of Jefferson Davies.[6]

During the war, Alcorn spent a fortune on raising and supplying troops. Additionally, in 1863 his plantation was raided by General Leonard Ross' troops during the Yazoo Pass Expedition of the Vicksburg Campaign.[7][8] However, he managed to preserve part of his wealth during the war by trading cotton with the North.[9] In November 1863, Alcorn wrote to his wife: "I have been very busy hiding & selling my cotton. I have sold in all one hundred & eleven bales, I have now here ten thousand Dollars in paper (Green backs) and one thousand Dollars in Gold."[10] After the war, he was estimated to be among the fifty wealthiest men in the New South.

Alcorn lost two sons, Major James Lusk Alcorn, Jr., and Henry "Hal" Alcorn, to the war. James committed suicide in 1879 after returning home from the war partially deaf and a drunk (most likely due to what today would be diagnosed as PTSD). An inscription on the monument at the family cemetery attributes James' death to the "insane war of rebellion" (apparently Alcorn's words). Seventeen-year-old Henry ran away during the war to join the military against his father's wishes, fell sick, was left behind and captured. He was held in Camp Chase and made to Richmond after the surrender. Some family friends tried to help him get home, but he died on the way of typhoid fever.

Postbellum career[edit]

Senator James L. Alcorn

He was elected to the U.S. Senate in 1865, but, like all Southerners, was not allowed to take a seat as Congress was considering Reconstruction. He supported suffrage for freedmen and endorsed the Fourteenth Amendment. Alcorn became the leader of the scalawags, who comprised about a fourth of the Republican Party officials in the state, in coalition with "carpetbaggers", African-Americans who had been free before the outbreak of the Civil War and freedmen. Mississippi had a majority of African-Americans, the overwhelming majority of whom were freedmen. They had no desire to vote for the Democratic Party, which would not have welcomed them anyway and which had carried the 1868 elections by intimidation and violence against blacks to prevent them from voting.

Thus the vast majority of votes for Republican candidates came from African-Americans even though most of the Republican state office holders were whites. In 1869, James Alcorn was elected by the Republicans as governor in 1869, serving, as Governor of Mississippi from 1870 to 1871. As a modernizer, he appointed many like-minded former Whigs, some of them now Democrats. He strongly supported education, including public schools for all, and a new college exclusively for blacks, now known as Alcorn State University. He maneuvered to make his ally, Hiram Revels, its president. Irritated at his patronage policy, many Republicans opposed Alcorn. They were concerned as well at the limits to his attendance to African American interests. His hostility to a state civil rights bill was well known; so was his unwillingness to appoint black local officers where a white alternative could be found. One complained that Alcorn's policy was to see "the old civilization of the South modernized" rather than lead a total political, social and economic revolution.[11]

Alcorn resigned the governorship to become a U.S. Senator (1871–1877), replacing his ally Hiram Revels, the first African American senator. Senator Alcorn urged the removal of the political disabilities of white southerners and rejected Republican proposals to end segregation in hotels, restaurants, and railroad cars by federal legislation;[12] he denounced the federal cotton tax as robbery,[13] and defended separate schools for both races in Mississippi. Although a former slaveholder, he characterized slavery as "a cancer upon the body of the Nation" and expressed the gratification which he and many other Southerners felt over its destruction.[14]

Alcorn's estrangement from Senator Adelbert Ames, his northern-born colleague, deepened in 1871, as African-Americans became convinced that the former governor was not taking the problem of white terrorism seriously enough; and, in fact, Alcorn resisted Federal action to suppress the Ku Klux Klan, contending that state authorities were sufficient to handle the task. By 1873 the quarrel had deepened into an intense animosity. Both men ran for governor. Ames was supported by the Radicals and most African Americans, while Alcorn won the votes of conservative whites and most of the scalawags. Ames won by a vote of 69,870 to 50,490. Alcorn withdrew from active politics in the state, emerging to assail the new governor as incapable and an enemy of the people of Mississippi. This was not true, but then, neither was Ames' view of Alcorn as an insincere and possibly corrupt man. When a second African-American Senator, Blanche K. Bruce, was elected in 1874, Alcorn refused to follow the customary procedure of introducing his new colleague to the Senate. In 1875, when Reconstruction was fighting for its life against a campaign of violence from the Democrats, Alcorn emerged, only to lead a white force against black Republicans at Friar's Point. The aftermath led to at least five black people being killed.

Alcorn's grave in Coahoma County, Mississippi

During the Reconstruction period, Alcorn was an advocate of modernizing the South. Although a believer in white supremacy, he supported civil and political rights for African-Americans. In a letter to his wife (Amelia Alcorn, née Glover, of Rosemount Plantation in southern Alabama), he states that white Southerners must make African Americans their friend or the path ahead will be "red with blood and damp with tears."[15][16] Alcorn was the founder of the Mississippi levee system, and was instrumental in their rebuilding after the Civil War.

After his retirement from politics, he was active in levee affairs and was a delegate to the Mississippian constitutional convention of 1890, in which he supported the black disenfranchisement clause that the state's Democrats had introduced the new constitution. He was twice married: in 1839 to Mary C. Stewart of Kentucky, who died in 1849; and in 1850 to Amelia Walton Glover of Alabama. In his later life, Alcorn practiced law in Friars Point, Mississippi, and lived quietly at his home, Eagle's Nest, in Coahoma County, until his death and interment in the family cemetery in 1894.[17] Alcorn had a statue made of himself and after his death it was put on his grave.


Alcorn County, Mississippi, is named in his honor, as is Alcorn State University, an Historically Black College and University (HBCU) in the country and the first black land grant university.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Pereyra, Lillian A. James Lusk Alcorn, Persistent Whig, Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1966, p. 19.
  2. ^ Mississippi Levee Board: History
  3. ^ Clay Williams. The Road to War (1846–1860). Mississippi History Now, Mississippi Historical Society.
  4. ^ James L. Roark. Masters without Slaves: Southern Planters in the Civil War and Reconstruction, 1977, New York: W. W. Norton, 1977, p. 3.
  5. ^ Proceedings of the Mississippi State Convention, Held January 7th to 26th, A. D. 1861. Including the Ordinances, as Finally Adopted, Important Speeches, and a List of Members, Showing the Postoffice, Profession, Nativity, Politics, Age, Religious Preference, and Social Relations of Each, by J. L. Power, convention reporter. Mississippi, 1861.
  6. ^ Allardice, Bruce S. More Generals in Gray, A Companion Volume to Generals in Gray. Baton Rouge: University of Louisiana Press, 1995, p. 17.
  7. ^ Miller, Mary Carol (2010). Lost Mansions of Mississippi: Volume II. University Press of Mississippi. p. 116. ISBN 9781604737875. 
  8. ^ Dumas, David (2012). Yazoo Pass Expedition, a Driving Tour Guide. AuthorHouse. p. 22. ISBN 9781477275351. 
  9. ^ Woodman, Harold D. King Cotton & His Retainers: Financing & Marketing the Cotton Crop of the South, 1800–1925. Lexington, University of Kentucky Press, 1968, p. 219.
  10. ^ Robinson, Armstead L. Bitter Fruits of Bondage: The Demise of Slavery and the Collapse of the Confederacy, 1861–1865. Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2005, p. 126.
  11. ^ Quoted in Eric Foner. (1988) Reconstruction: America's Unfinished Revolution, 1863–1877, p. 298.
  12. ^ See Congressional Globe, 42 Cong., 2 Sess., pp. 246–47
  13. ^ See Congressional Globe, 42 Cong., 2 Sess., pp. 2730–33
  14. ^ See Congressional Globe, 42 Cong., 2 Sess., pp. 3424
  15. ^ Lives of Mississippi Authors, 1817–1967. p. 7. ISBN 9781617034183. Retrieved September 14, 2015. 
  16. ^ Kennedy, Stetson (1995). After Appomattox: How the South Won the War. p. 28. ISBN 9780813013411. Retrieved September 14, 2015. We must make the Negro our friend. We can do this if we will. Should we make him our enemy under the prompting of the Yankees, whose aim is to force us to recognize him on a basis of equality, then our path lies through a way red with blood and damp with tears. 
  17. ^ Riley, Franklin Lafayette. Publications of the Mississippi Historical Society, Volume 6.


External links[edit]

Political offices
Preceded by
Adelbert Ames
Governor of Mississippi
March 10, 1870 – November 30, 1871
Succeeded by
Ridgley C. Powers
United States Senate
Preceded by
Hiram R. Revels
U.S. Senator (Class 2) from Mississippi
March 4, 1871 – March 3, 1877
Served alongside: Adelbert Ames, Henry R. Pease and Blanche K. Bruce
Succeeded by
Lucius Q. C. Lamar