Abraham Lincoln and Cotton

Abraham Lincoln and Cotton


Cotton was a scandal in the Civil War. By the war’s conclusion, cotton had become as annoying to the President Abraham Lincoln as the boll weevil was to cotton growers. On the night he was assassinated, Mr. Lincoln met former Massachusetts Congressman George Ashmun at the White House shortly before the Lincolns left to go to Ford’s theater. Ashmun had a client who had a claim against the government regarding cotton he owned. Mr. Lincoln was in a good mood that day, but according to artist Francis B. Carpenter, ” Mr. Lincoln replied with considerable warmth of manner, “I have done with ‘commissions.’ I believe they are contrivances to cheat the Government out of every pound of cotton they can lay their hands on.” Mr Ashmun’s face flushed, and he replied that he hoped the President meant no personal imputation. Mr. Lincoln saw that he had wounded his friend, and he instantly replied: “You did not understand me, Ashmun. I did not mean what you inferred. I take it all back.” Subsequently President Lincoln said: “I apologize to you, Ashmun.”1 Mr. Lincoln gave Ashmum an appointment and a note: “Allow Mr. Ashmun and friend to come in at 9 A.M. to-morrow.” By then, Mr. Lincoln was dead.

Ashmun had served with Mr. Lincoln in Congress in the late 1840s. Like many acquaintances of President Lincoln, he was trying to cash in on that friendship in the lucrative cotton trade. In February 1864 Ashmun had attempted to arrange for permits to trade in cotton along the Mississippi. He was being thwarted by the Treasury Department. He wrote General Nathaniel Banks, a fellow Massachusetts Republican: “This very matter of the granting of permits by Mr. Salmon P. Chase to bring cotton into our lines, in contravention of his own published regulations, may prove the spark for an explosion at any moment. It only needs to get the proofs that he has done so; and they are likely to be forthcoming in due season.”2

Cotton posed possibilities and problems in both North and South. It also disrupted economies on two continents. Before the war, the export of cotton from the South was used to finance the importation into the region of food from the Midwest and manufactured products from the Northeast. Historian Edna Green Medford wrote: “The cotton picked by shackled black hands fueled the textile mills of New England and kept the factory worker employed just as surely as it enriched the southern planter.”3 The Confederates made an important strategic blunder at the beginning of the war when they embargoed the export of cotton — at a time when there was already a glut of cotton in England awaiting manufacture. Northern manufacturers and merchants meanwhile were as worried about the impact of the Civil War on their cotton industry as were planters in the South. Lincoln scholar F. Lauriston Bullard wrote: “For prosperity Massachusetts depended almost as much on cotton as did South Carolina and Mississippi. Charles Francis Adams, our great Civil War Minister to England, put into print the conviction that ‘under the guise of loyalty to the Union and the Constitution, social and business Boston by degrees became in its heart, and almost avowedly, a proslavery community, and it so remained until 1861,’ and ‘even when there was hardly a family in the city which did not count father, brother, son, or husband, in the field, talk as treasonable as it was idle was daily and hourly heard in the fashionable club house of Beacon Street.'”4

Although the Civil War disrupted the American economy, it opened new avenues of profit for the sharp-eyed and quick acting. Historical writer Matthew Josephson wrote: “Behind the army lines there were lucrative tasks to be done in short order. Bankers and investors must raise a million dollars a day in money for the war government; food and produce must be multiplied; woolen cloth must be manufactured in place of cotton; rivers of pork must flow from Chicago; the new free land so the West must be opened up quickly for productive use; the iron trade must be developed for wartime needs; railroads, which quickly proved their great usefulness in the immediate war area for troop movements, must be extended across the continent to unify the country; coal and minerals of all sorts must be dug from the earth; innumerable oil wells must be opened; farm machines must be fabricated to replaced million men in arms; in short all the demands must be satisfied for the huge national market closed off by the protective tariffs of 1862 and 1864.”5

In the South, meanwhile, the economy and the war effort depended on cotton. Lincoln scholar Charles Segal wrote that southerners expected Britain’s need for cotton to be a key factor in the conflict: “One Southerner put it this way to newspaperman William Howard Russell: ‘We know John Bull very well. He will make a great fuss about non-interference at first, but when he begins to want cotton he’ll come off his perch.’ This doctrine of ‘cotton is king,’ Russell observed, was ‘the fixed idea’ everywhere in the South.”6 Britain was indeed concerned about its supply but did not act as expeditiously as the South expected to enforce its economic interests.

Cotton preoccupied the Union government as well. “With the commencement of hostilities, raw cotton assumed enormous proportions as a definite factor in the war plans and strategy of the Commander in Chief,” wrote historian Thomas H. O’Connor. “For one thing…cotton was to be a frightening and continuing threat to the diplomatic stability and international security of the United States government. The fact of war, and the subsequent shutdown of cotton exports, drove nations like England and France into virtual hysteria as they threatened intervention, and even war, unless the North met their demands. And with good reason. Britain, the greatest industrial nation in the world, whose largest industry was cotton textiles, was importing from three-quarters to five-sixths of her cotton supply from the South, and depended upon this to keep over half a million workers employed.”7

Clearly, Confederate leaders thought cotton was their trump card in the war with the Union and they sought at the outset of the Civil War to starve both the North and Europe of southern cotton. Charles Francis Adams, Jr. wrote that B. C. Yancey wrote his brother “W. L. Yancey not to go to Europe as the diplomatic representative of the Confederacy, relying solely on the efficacy of cotton to produce all desired results and, while so doing, pointed out that in Great Britain Richard Cobden and John Bright would certainly oppose the recognition of ‘a slaveholders’ Confederacy.’ Cobden and Bright, he asserted, were the leaders of the laboring classes, and to the views and wishes of the laboring classes Her Majesty’s government always in end paid deep respect. Jefferson Davis, on the other hand, had rested the whole foreign policy, and as a result the domestic fate, of the Confederacy, on the absolute commercial, and consequently the political, supremacy of cotton. The demand for it would prove irresistible, and so compel European intervention. Six months was the period allotted, in which it was to assert it supremacy.”8

The international cotton market did not react as quickly as predicted while Confederate cotton production quickly encountered other problems. The demands of war limited the South’s ability to handle the cultivation and marketing of cotton. Southern agriculture was encouraged to shift from the production of cotton to the production of food products that it had previously imported from other regions of the country. One of the early acts of the Confederate Congress in May 1861 was to block further sales of cotton to the Union. Meanwhile, cotton production in the South dropped precipitously. Historian Thomas H. O’Connor wrote: “Confident of eventual and inevitable recognition, the Confederacy tried in every way to demonstrate the power and influence of King Cotton. Through correspondence and commissioners she constantly painted for European nations the awful picture of bankruptcy, depression, and even revolution which might result if her cotton were not received. Planters announced that they would produce no more cotton; brokers and merchants at the seaports publicly declared that they would refuse to handle or ship cotton.”9

Cotton would prove to be the South’s only effective form of currency and capital. Confederate leaders, however, attempted to push the export of cotton to England and France only after the Union blockade of the South had become more effective and the price of cotton had jumped dramatically in England — encouraging those who had cotton to speculate in it rather than manufacture it. Historian James M. McPherson wrote: “The American South had furnished three-quarters of the cotton for the textile industries that were leading sectors in the economies of both countries, especially Britain. In 1861, key officials in Britain and France believed that the North could never reestablish control over 750,000 square miles of territory defended by a determined and courageous people.” 10 Too late, Confederate leaders discovered that in starving the world market of cotton, they had starved the Confederacy of needed capital. Confederate ships were subsequently encouraged to run the Union blockade with cotton shipments bound for Europe.

George P. Floyd owned slaves and had extensive Confederate contacts during the Civil War. He wrote: “During the Civil War the people in the Confederate States, hemmed in as they were through the blockade by land and sea, were obliged to depend on their own resources. They had no factories of any kind, no foundries, no powder-mills, tanneries, or cotton-mills. They had worlds of cotton, but no means of manufacturing it. The extremes to which the Southern population was forced during the war, the sufferings, deprivations, and sacrifices they endured, have never been half told. Yet all the while they were surrounded by millions and upon millions of wealth which they were unable to utilize. Bales of cotton innumerable were stored away in every nook and corner of the Confederacy. It was estimated that during 1864 there was cotton enough in the Confederacy, if it were sold at the market price then ruling in the North, to pay one half of the whole war debt of the North. From the commencement of hostilities the Confederate government imposed a war tax on all the cotton raised in the Confederacy. This percentage of the crop, pressed into bales marked ‘C.S.A.,’ was stored in warehouses throughout the Confederacy.”

When the Federals captured cotton, it was sold at auction, and the proceeds were deposited in the United States Treasury, subject to the decision of the Court of Claims. In December, 1864, about forty thousand bales were captured by General Sherman at Savannah, Georgia, and sent to New York to be sold at auction. The proceeds of this sale, amounting to many millions of dollars, went into the United States Treasury.”11

The trade in cotton was tempting — especially when legal. Albert Bushnell Hart, biographer of Treasury Secretary Salmon P. Chase, wrote: “By the first confiscation act, August, 1861, the President was authorized to seize any property used in promoting insurrection; but it proved difficult to get legal proof against such property, and hence the act, in its practical application, had to do principally with slaves. A second act of July 17, 1862, authorized the taking of property belonging to civil and military officers of the Confederacy, or to any persons who had given aid and comfort to the rebellion. In both cases some kind of legal proceeding was necessary for condemnation; but as Federal lines were extended, plantations, buildings, live stock, and especially cotton, were often found without a visible owner; and since this property was expected to come into the Treasury, it fell within the jurisdiction of Secretary [Salmon P.] Chase. By a series of orders, approved by the President, he made provision for the collection, sale, and record of such property; and in order to manage this immense business he was authorized to appoint a special body of Treasury agents, who followed close behind the armies, and sometimes went ahead of them.”12

In February 1863, Lewis B. Parsons wrote Postmaster General Montgomery Blair his insightful recommendations about how the cotton trade should be handled in the Mississippi Valley in order to expedite the sale and discourage the hoarding of cotton. The Parsons letter was shared with President Lincoln: “The result of my observations and conversations with those best able to judge correctly fully confirms me in the correctness of the ground assumed and presented by you to the Cabinet when I last saw you, and it is a matter of surprise to all our nonspeculating Officers here that nothing has been done by the Government to correct these great and palpably existing evils and to take the direct control of so important a subject. The objects of such interference being:

First. To prevent the demoralization of the Army, the wrongs constantly committed by unprincipled cotton speculators, and the introduction of Contraband of war.
Second. To obtain Cotton for commerce.
Third. As the rebellion has advanced the price of cotton, to secure such advance to the Government to go towards defraying the expenses of the war.
There are other minor objects, but these are the leading ones. — The means proposed are:
First. Declare that all the Cotton between the Gulf and the Ohio River belongs either to the Government or the producer, and that no one can move the Cotton from those limits except the Government.
Second. Fix upon a price to be paid for Cotton at certain points — say for example at Memphis fifteen (15) cents — and a like sum at other adjacent places, less the cost of transportation to Memphis, and pay that in Government funds to all who will voluntarily sell.
Third. Declare that unless Cotton is voluntarily brought out for sale it will be seized and not paid for.
Fourth. Ship all Cotton to certain points — say that from the Tennessee, Cumberland, and Mississippi above Vicksburgh (till the river is open to New Orleans) to Cairo and then sell it at public vendue on a certain day in each week, giving everybody an opportunity to purchase.
Fifth. Keep accurate accounts of all purchases and remit same with nett proceeds weekly to the Treasury Department.
That something should promptly be done on this subject by the Government, I do not think admits of a doubt in the minds of those here best advised, and most capable of judging correctly and honestly. As to the details of the mode of doing it there might be a variety of opinions, but all agree on the main point viz: that Government must assume the ownership or control of all Cotton not in the hands of the producer, and that no other parties must be allowed to transport the article beyond the prescribed limits. That of itself puts an end to most of the existing evils. There is then no longer any temptation to the Officers of the Army to swerve from their duty to obtain unjust gain. The temptations to the unprincipled speculator to introduce contraband of war is then also almost equally removed, as he ceases to get his pay in cotton at such temptingly low rates. The idea that free trade should always go wherever the flag goes is as I think an error. When the authority of the Government and laws is fully restored this will do, but not till then; and I think all well advised persons will tell you that an endless amount of rascality is the result of opening trade to Memphis and Helena, with no corresponding good. The fact is the people at and below Memphis are generally unmitigated rebels, and all the efforts to moderate their madness by the allurements of trade have been entirely unsuccessful. Experience shows that the inconvenience and sufferings from lack of trade have a much better tendency. The only way is to crush the rebellion by the force of our arms and till that is done it is useless to try and coax the people into loyalty with the prospects of an abundance of Coffee and Salt.
How much Cotton will be brought out under this plan might be a question, but if the amount is not large the wrong prevented will be an ample compensation for the effort. If some such plan is not adopted I should say; then open the trade entirely and let any and everybody come in and purchase cotton, and not confine the business to the few fortunate enough to get permits subject to the charge of favoritism and to be a source of annoyance to our commanding Generals.
I know I but express the earnest wish of our leading Officers when I say that something decisive should be promptly done, and that all the temporary plans have been so far worse than failures. I venture the opinion that you could not more gratify such Officers as Generals Grant, Sherman, McClernand, Steel, Morgan, than to shut out all cotton sharpers who are a source of ceaseless trouble and interruption to their pressing official duties. The Treasury or War Departments can certainly find some proper man to put in charge and try the plan; and surely the business could not be worse managed than at present. A little experience would no doubt suggest improvements As I told you in W. I do not wish nor would I willingly consent in anyway to be connected with it. On the contrary, I desire and hope soon to be transfered to the Army in the field and get out of the Quarter-Masters Department and all like service.13

With time, the cotton trade was somewhat institutionalized by the Lincoln Administration. Historian Philip Van Doren Stern wrote: “Cotton and tobacco were the chief commercial assets of the Confederacy. Trading in the North in these materials was not always contraband; much of it was legal under the Captured and Abandoned Property Act of March 3, 1863. As defined by the United States Government, ‘captured’ property meant any goods taken by force of arms which were not of a military nature, such as cotton or tobacco. ‘Abandoned’ property was defined as anything belonging to a person who was absent while ‘aiding or encouraging the rebellion.’ The Treasury Department was authorized to handle trading in all seized property, and special Treasury agents were appointed to issue trading permits to individuals or companies. In charge of this large corps of men was Hanson A. Risley, Supervising Special Agent of the Treasury Department, whose rulings soon became law on all such permits, although each one had to be personally approved and signed by the President.”14

By early 1862, the Union blockade of the South began to have a real impact on English workers. Historian Ephraim Douglass Adams wrote that some manufacturers may have made some short-term profits, but “from October, 1861, more and more operatives were thrown out of employment. As their little savings disappeared they were put upon public poor relief or upon private charity for subsistence. The governmental statistics do not cover, accurately, the relief offered by private charity, but those of public aid well indicate the loss of wage-earning opportunity. In the so-called “Distressed Districts” of Lancashire and the adjoining counties it appears that poor relief was given to 48,000 persons in normal times, out of a total population of 2,300,000. In the first week of November, 1861, it was 61,207, and for the first week of December, 71,593; thereafter mounting steadily until March, 1862, when a temporary peak of 113,000 was reached. From March until the first week in June there was a slight decrease; but from the second week of June poor relief resumed an upward trend, increasing rapidly until December, 1862, when it reached its highest point of 284,418. In this same first week of December private relief, now thoroughly organized in a great national effort, was extended to 236,000 people, making a grand total at high tide of distress of over 550,000 persons, if private relief was not extended to those receiving public funds. But of this differentiation there is no surety — indeed there are evidences of much duplication of effort in certain districts. In general, however, these statistics do exhibit the great lack of employment in a one-industry district heretofore enjoying unusual prosperity.”15

The Lincoln Administration could not afford to starve Europe of cotton. Historian David P. Crook wrote: “Seward’s policy in 1862 was to hold out hopes that friendly negotiations with the north would issue in limited access to cotton through captured ports. A string of northern victories in the first six months of the year, together with the development of a Union ironclad navy, were exploited to soften European nerve for interventionism.”16 Nevertheless, the Union blockade of the South wreaked havoc in England. English workers were generally more supportive, however of Union policies than were English political leaders and merchants. Charles Francis Adams, Jr., son of the American minister to England during the Civil War, wrote: “The extraordinary feature in the situation was the patience of the victims; and the organs of the Confederacy noted with ill-suppressed dismay the absence of ‘political demonstrations, to urge upon a neglectful government its duty towards it suffering subjects and to enforce at once the rules of international law and the rights of an injured and innocent population.'”17 The plight of the cotton workers excited worldwide charity — including three shiploads of food from New York City in the winter of 1862-1863.

In December 1862 President Lincoln was moved by the petition from the workingmen of Manchester. They supported his emancipation proclamation despite the terrible effects of the cotton shortage on their own livelihoods. Production of cotton in India and Egypt had failed to fill the massive needs of British textile manufacturing. “As citizens of Manchester, assembled at the Free-Trade Hall, we beg to express our fraternal sentiments toward you and your country. We rejoice in your greatness as an outgrowth of England, whose blood and language you share, whose orderly and legal freedom you have applied to new circumstances, over a region immeasurably greater than our own. We honor your Free States, as a singularly happy abode for the working millions where industry is honored.” They wrote: “Since we have discerned, however, that the victory of the free north, in the war which has so sorely distressed us as well as afflicted you, will strike off the fetters of the slave, you have attracted our warm and earnest sympathy. We joyfully honor you, as the President, and the Congress with you, for many decisive steps toward practically exemplifying your belief in the words of your great founders: ‘All men are created free and equal.'”18

President Lincoln responded several weeks later: “I have the honor to acknowledge the receipt of the address and resolutions which you sent to me on the eve of the new year.” He concluded: “I know and deeply deplore the sufferings which the workingmen at Manchester and in all Europe are called to endure in this crisis. It has been often and studiously represented that the attempt to overthrow this government, which was built upon the foundation of human rights, and to substitute for it one which should rest exclusively on the basis of human slavery, was likely to obtain the favor of Europe. Through the actions of our disloyal citizens the workingmen of Europe have been subjected to a severe trial, for the purpose of forcing their sanction to that attempt. Under these circumstances, I cannot but regard your decisive utterance upon the question as an instance of sublime Christian heroism which has not been surpassed in any age or in any country. It is, indeed, an energetic and reinspiring assurance of the inherent power of truth and of ultimate and universal triumph of justice, humanity, and freedom. I do not doubt that the sentiments you have expressed will be sustained by your great nation, and, on the other hand, I have no hesitation in assuring you that they will excite admiration, esteem, and the most reciprocal feelings of friendship among the American people. I hail this interchange of sentiment, therefore, as an augury that, whatever else may happen, whatever misfortune may befall your country or my own, the peace and friendship which now exist between the two nations will be, as it shall be my desire to make the, perpetual.”19

Mr. Lincoln’s involvement with the problems with cotton trading increased in the final two years of the war. In June 1863, President Lincoln wrote Illinois friend William Kellogg, who sought a trading permit for a former Illinois state legislator:

“I have received, and read, your pencil note. I think you do not know how embarrassing your request is — Few things are so troublesome to the government as the fierceness with which the profits of trading in cotten [sic] are sought — The temptation is so great that nearly every body wishes to be in it; and when in, the question of profit controls all, regardless of whether the cotten seller is loyal or rebel, or whether he is paid in corn-meal or gun-powder — The officers of the army, in numerous instances, are believed to connive and share the profits, and thus the army itself is diverted from fighting the rebels to speculating in cotten; and steam-boats and wagons in the pay of the government, are set to gathering and carrying cotten, and the soldiers to loading cotten-trains and guarding them — The matter deeply affects the Treasury and War Departments, and has been discussed again and again in the Cabinet — What can, and what can not be done, has, for the time been settled, and it seems to me I can not safely break over it. I know it is thought that one case is not much, but how can I favor one and deny another — One case can not be kept a secret — The authority given would be utterly ineffectual until it is shown; and when shown, every body knows of it. The administration would do for you as much as for any other man; and I personally would do some more than for most others; but really I can not involve myself and the Government as this would do.”20

The problems caused by cotton were manifold. On the one hand, the Lincoln Administration wanted to starve the Confederate government of funds from the sale of cotton. Purchases of cotton by northern agents were often thought to benefit the Confederate government. Furthermore, the cotton trade was the cause of much aggravation and corruption for Union commanders. Yet, cotton was needed for the domestic textile industry and to keep European mills running; Confederate commanders sought to destroy it rather than let it fall into Union hands. General Generals Sherman and Ulysses S. Grant were harsh critics of the cotton trade. Historian William B. Hesseltine wrote: “Believing that the Government should handle the cotton, Grant had vigorous condemnation for men whose ‘patriotism is measured by dollars and cents,’ but his posts swarmed with speculators.”21 Historian William C. Davis wrote: ‘Cotton was indeed king [in the Memphis area where Grant had his headquarters in late 1862. One observer noted that ‘scarcely a day passes that hundreds of our ‘country cousins’ do not come with the article, which they are might willing to part with at prices ranging from thirty-five to sixty cents’ a pound, more than triple the staple’s prewar price. The correspondent of the St. Louis Missouri Republican reported in July that the railroad cars near Memphis groaned with bales of cotton being transported to the North. According to official statistics, more than one hundred cars filled with the staple went north during the first few months of the Federal occupation.”22 Grant scholar John Y. Simon wrote: “While Grant was never a political general in the sense of intriguing for higher rank and political office, or seeking to influence national policy, he was aware of the political consequences of military affairs and sought to avoid embarrassing the Lincoln administration. Since he was conducting a war of attrition, the regulations governing trade with occupied enemy areas offended him, for they permitted valuable military supplies to trickle into the Confederacy. He made his position clear to Lincoln — then allowed the President to set policy.”23

Grant biographer Brooks D. Simpson wrote: “Cotton traders drove him to distraction. He ordered General James McPherson to exclude all civilians from his lines; to another general Grant remarked that it would be fine by him if cotton speculators risked the same treatment accorded to soldiers or civilians who crossed the picket line — being shot — adding that they ‘are more damaging than the small pox or any other epidemic. Noting the rising number of resignations on the grounds of disability, he speculated that their true ailment might be called ‘cotton on the brain.'”24 Grant biographer William S. McFeeley wrote: “Grant was fed up with the cotton speculators and the greedy suppliers of goods to his armies, but rather than attack the entire voracious horde, which included an astonishing assortment of entrepreneurs — among them Charles A. Dana and Roscoe Conkling, for example — Grant singled out the Jews.” 25 Irritated with the illicit trade around Memphis, General Grant issued General Order No. 11 in December 1862. Historian Bruce Catton wrote: “What touched Grant off about the cotton trade, apparently, was an alliance made by his father, Jesse Grant, a shrewd little leather merchant who had business dealings in Ohio and Illinois and who possessed both an unerring eye for the main chance and a total lack of understanding of the standards which ought to guide the father of a major general.”

Jesse appears to have formed connections with some cotton dealers, and he took them down to see the general. Grant was highly cordial, until he discovered what his father’s friends really what was special consideration in the matter of getting permits to buy and ship cotton. In their corrupt innocence they had supposed that the fix was in when they went to headquarters with the commanding general’s father. These dealers happened to be Jewish, and when Grant’s wrath exploded — he sent his father and his father’s friends back to Ohio on the next train — it left him with a hot resentment that broke out a few days later in the form of this order expelling all Jews from the department.”26

Under pressure from northern Jews, President Lincoln ordered Grant’s orders reversed in January 1863.. General William T. Sherman shared Grant’s anger over the impact of cotton politics on military operations. Nevertheless, shortly after he captured Savannah, General Sherman wired President Lincoln in December 1864: “I beg to present you as a Christmas gift the city of Savannah, with one hundred and fifty guns and plenty of ammunition; also about 25,000 bales of cotton.” The President’s reply was less concise. It began: “Many, many, thanks for your Christmas-gift — the capture of Savannah.”27 Cotton and emancipated slaves caused headaches for Sherman, however. In January 1865, Sherman wrote General Henry W. Halleck about complaints regarding the thousands of former slaves who thronged to his army. He argued that too much attention was paid to them: “Neither cotton, the negro, nor any single interest or class should govern us.”28

Where cotton was concerned, President Lincoln and General Grant had different objectives. President Lincoln sought to use cotton as a political and economic card in the conflict. Friend Ward Hill Lamon recalled: “I am not aware that there was ever a serious discord or misunderstanding between Mr. Lincoln and General Grant, except on a single occasion. From the commencement of the struggle, Lincoln’s policy was to break the backbone of the Confederacy by depriving it of its principal means of subsistence.”29 Not all Union officers took the same attitude as Grant toward the cotton trade. When General John A. Dix took over command at Norfolk in 1862, he wanted to open the port to trade, including that in cotton, despite the existing blockade of Confederate commerce, which was enforced by the U.S. Navy. Admiral Samuel Lee opposed his efforts, but on November 12, 1862, President Lincoln issued orders that allowed trade to officially be conducted.

Not all military commanders were so scrupulous. In 1863, General Stephen Hurlbut took over command in Memphis, Despite orders from General Grant, Hurlbut had no qualms about facilitating the cotton trade and profiting from it. Some Union officers, like Hurlbut, undoubtedly benefited from the cotton trade. Other officers, like General Samuel Curtis, were unjustly charged by political opponents with benefiting from the trade. Curtis defended himself in a letter to President Lincoln regarding his command in Arkansas: “When I arrived at Helena, I allowed everybody to engage in the trade of the country, but soon found my camp infested with spies, secessionists and traitors, dealers in cotton. I therefore changed my course, and allowed none to trade but those whom I licensed. This excluded a great number who were exasperated, and threatened vengeance. I knew some of them to be rogues, and sneaking secessionists; others were wealthy speculators whom I did not know, and who could not give satisfactory reference. Those who were excluded immediately proclaimed that I only licensed those with whom I was in partnership. I licensed all that I thought safe to allow to go through my lines — probably a hundred, and was in ship with no one directly or indirectly. Negroes claimed cotton which they had saved from the rebel fires. Their masters generally admitted this, and I allowed them to sell. They did so and in many cases I made rogues take back bad money and give them good. I told the negroes who would be safe to sell to, and who would not. I did the same for white people. I adjusted differences between parties who claimed lots of cotton, and who came to seek my protection; and by this means, a thousand poor negroes, whose masters had run away, got means to which they were justly entitled, and have been saved from starvation. The charge that I was speculating in cotton did not prevent me from doing just what I thought was right and proper, and I never should have responded to that charge, if it had not taken this form. I have lived too long, and have filled too many private and public places without reproach, to be afraid of lies, invented by rebel sympathizers, and exasperated knaves generally. I do not shrink from any and all fair scrutiny; I can explain any special act of mine to the satisfaction of any honest man. Conflicts with the rebels in the centre of the most violent population of the South were incident to my campaign and unavoidable. I had to deal severely with wealth and intelligence in the heart of secession. In such a conflict, instead of support, I had some around me who were willing to avail themselves of falsehood to destroy me.”30 Hurlbut protested too much.

Most Union generals usually disliked the cotton trade and sought to halt it. Although it strained domestic relations, Mr. Lincoln sought to use the cotton trade as one element of his reconstruction policy as the war moved toward its conclusion. One of the administration’s difficulties was that authority over cotton in war-torn areas was split between the War and Treasury departments. General Benjamin F. Butler and his brother were widely suspected of enriching themselves through the cotton trade in Louisiana. Historian Ludwell H. Johnson wrote that Butler’s “name became almost a synonym for contraband trade, with all its undertones of corruption and treason. Wherever Butler was, whether New Orleans or Norfolk business boomed, and much of it was in the hands of his friends and relatives.”31 Historian Albert Bushnell Hart wrote: “The most profitable trade was in cotton and sugar. Cotton inside the Confederate lines was worth not more than ten cents in specie, but once on its way North or abroad it was worth seventy cents and upward. The temptation was too strong to be resisted. George S. Denison, collector of revenue, Chase’s confidential and upright representative in New Orleans, wrote him letter after letter about the trade across the border, which was going on under his own eyes, but which he could not check because it was authorized by the general in command. General Butler professed indignation, and promised amendment; but Mr. Denison reported — what everybody in New Orleans suspected — that the brother of the general was profiting by this unwarrantable trade, and that the general winked at it.”32 Butler defended his brother but wrote Secretary Chase, who had heard that “Colonel Butler’s gains amount to between one and two million dollars,” that “no appearance of evil shall exist to rob me of the fair earnings of a devotion of life and fortune to the service of my country. I have therefore asked Colonel Butler to close up his business and go away from New Orleans, so as to leave me entirely untrammeled to deal with the infernal brood of slandering speculators who have maligned me because I will not allow them to plunder the government.”33 Butler’s successor, General Nathaniel S. Banks, sought to regulate and encourage cotton’s flow through New Orleans through a variety of schemes, varying in success.

There was a profit to be made and those with political connections sought to take economic advantage — even Chase’s son-in-law, Rhode Island Senator William Sprague, sought to profit. Historian Allen G. Bogue wrote: “During the late stages of the war, the potential profits in extracting cotton from the southern states attracted many. Congressmen vouched for the loyalty of individuals intent on engaging in this trade and former Congressman Samuel L. Casey of Kentucky and Philip B. Fouke and William Kellogg of Illinois rose to the bait as well….By June of 1863 Kellogg was involved in a scheme that entailed having an associate sell ‘ordinary articles of commerce at Helena, Arkansas — not ‘contraband of war’ and to buy of loyal men cotton & other productions. Trade in the southern regions was under the oversight of the secretary of the treasury, and Lincoln sent Kellogg to him with an endorsement: ‘I wish him obliged so far as you can consistently do it.’ Chase read the note, listened to the proposition, and responded, ‘It cannot be done Sir,’ and Kellogg reported, ‘An iceburg [sic] would be as a furnace compared to your Sec of the Treasury.'”34

As the Union army moved into the South, the opportunities to seize and sell cotton increased. Mr. Lincoln was assailed by friends and family anxious to get a permit to ship and sell their cotton. Even Lincoln aide William O. Stoddard was not averse to profiting from the war. He wrote in a November 1864 newspaper article: “The host of cotton speculators, allured by the seeming promise of opening trade, will return home with empty pockets, and really they are to be pitied, for they have acted in good faith, relying on Government representations.”35 Among those Illinois friends who sought cotton permits were attorney Leonard Swett and the brother of U.S. Marshal Ward Hill Lamon, Robert Lamon. Lincoln scholar Robert S. Eckley wrote that in “1863 and 1864, Swett speculated in the stock market without marked success, handled some legal business in Washington, and attempted to obtain cotton trading authorization, which was slow in coming. Finally, in early 1865, he went to Memphis to trade cotton where his law partner, William Orme, was a Supervising Special Agent for the Treasury.”36

A more persistent petitioner for presidential favors was Mr. Lincoln’s longtime friend, Orville H. Browning. Browning often seemed to presume on their friendship in bringing visitors to meet the President. Senator Browning had many conversations with President Lincoln. Historian Matthew Pinsker wrote: “On Wednesday, June 18 1862 he sent a carriage to the local residence of Senator Orville H. Browning…The new senator decided to bring along some important government contractors for this unexpected private meeting with the president. Before heading out to the country, he stopped at Willard’s Hotel and convinced New York retail giant Alexander T. Stewart and his close friend Judge Henry Hilton to join him.”37 On July 25, 1862, Browning wrote in his diary after a visit to the White House: “In speaking of our foreign relations he said England wanted us to permit her to get $50,000,000 worth of Cotton from the South and that the matter was being considered, but that we could not let the cotton out without letting its value in, and in this way we would never succeed in crippling them much in their resources.”38

After losing a reelection bid for the Senate in 1862 and effectively losing out for an “Illinois seat” on the U.S. Supreme Court, Browning’s attention at the end of the war was turned more toward clients and commerce than principle and patriotism. Senator Browning wrote in his diary on December 14, 1863: “Up early and went to Willard’s Hotel to breakfast with Dr L W Brown. After breakfast went with him to the Presidents to try and get Henry Warfield, a lad of 18 years old, a rebel Prisoner at Camp Douglas, and a brother in law of Dr Brown, committed to the custody of the Dr — Got a preliminary order which was finally completed after passing thro several offices to the Commissary of prisoners. The President told me his sister in law, Mrs. Helm was in the house, but he did not wish it known. She wished an order for the protection of some Cotton she had at Jackson, Mississippi. He thought she ought to have it, but he was afraid he would be censured if he did so.”39

On January 19, 1864, Secretary of the Navy Gideon Welles noted that Cabinet meeting was devoted to the cotton trade: “At the Cabinet to-day the President read letters from certain Louisiana planters and from General Banks and others, urging the admission of cotton within our lines. He also read the rough draft of a letter prepared by himself, designating New Orleans and Baton Rouge as depots for cotton to be brought thither, sold for ‘greenbacks,’ etc., etc. It had been submitted to Chase and Stanton previously, who both indorsed and perhaps advised, if they did not first suggest, it. Seward and Blair thought it might operate well. Stanton and General Grant was opposed to action in his command, but as Banks favored it, he thought it might be well to let the matter go forward as the President proposed. I suggested that the effect would be good to open the whole country west of the Mississippi above New Orleans. But the President said it might disturb General Grant.”40

Meanwhile, Browning persisted, but even Browning, with nearly three decades of friendship with Mr. Lincoln, sometimes overreached in his requests. He wrote in his diary on February 6, 1864: “At night went to see the President on behalf of Mrs Fitz, a loyal widow of Mississippi owning a cotton plantation there, and from whom the U S Army had taken all her slaves amounting to 47, and 10,000 bushels of corn — She is now a refugee in St Louis, reduced to indigence. She asks no compensation for her slaves, but wishes the government to give her a sufficient number of negroes out of those accumulated upon its hands to work her farm the ensuing season, and enable her to raise a crop of cotton, she to pay them out of the proceeds the same wages which the government pays those it employs. I made the proposition to the President thinking it reasonable and just, and worthy at least of being considered. He became very much excited, and did not discuss the proposition at all, but said with great vehemence he had rather take a rope and hang himself than to do it. That there were a great many poor women who had never had any property at all who were suffering as much as Mrs Fitz — that her condition was a necessary consequence of the rebellion, and that the government could not make good the losses occasioned by rebels. I reminded him that she was loyal, and that her property had been taken from her by her own government, and was now being used by it, and I thought it a case eminently proper for some sort of remuneration, and her demand reasonable, and certainly entitled to respectful consideration. He replied that she had lost no property — that her slaves were free when they were taken, and that she was entitled to no compensation.” Browning added: “I called his attention to the fact that a portion of her slaves, at least, had been taken in 1862, before his proclamation, and put upon our gun boats, when he replied in a very excited manner that he had rather throw up, than to do what was asked, and would not do anything about it. I left him in no very good humor.41

Lincoln biographer Carl Sandburg called this incident the only recorded “open rebuff from the President” to Browning. Sandburg wrote: “On the President’s request Browning left with him overnight a paper requiring the President’s signature, which would authorize William Butler to bring out cotton form the South and sell it North. On the Banks Red River expedition Butler had lost his cotton and the money invested, but was going to try again. Permits for such trading were scarce. Lincoln again accommodated an old friend. ‘Finished Mr. Butlers business,’ noted Browning, ‘by getting permit to bring out cotton signed by Secy of Treasury and the President.'”42

Meanwhile, cotton became an important political issue within the Republican Party. On February 27, 1864 Missouri Congressman Frank Blair delivered a speech on the House floor in which he denounced the cotton trade in general and Secretary of the Treasury Salmon P. Chase’s administration of it in the Mississippi Valley. Blair charged: ‘A more profligate administration of the Treasury Department never existed under any Government,” and he proceeded to detail how political appointees ran the system for their private benefit through trading permits and “trade stores.” He contended that “the practice of taking bribes on the part of these Treasury agents for permits to trade, and for conniving at violations of law, is so common that it has almost ceased to attract attention or excite comment. It is the most corrupting and demoralizing system that ever was invented, and has become a public scandal.”43

The problems and possibilities of the cotton trade continued as a presidential preoccupation throughout the summer. John Hay wrote in his diary on July 1, 1864: “The President yesterday told me he had a plan for relieving us to a certain extent financially: for the Government to take into its own hands the whole cotton trade and buy all that is offered; take it to New York, sell for gold, & buy up its own greenbacks. Assistant Treasury Secretary George Harrington talked somewhat the same doctrine to me last night.”44 At the end of July, President Lincoln wrote to General Edward R. S. Canby, whom Historian Ludwell H. Johnson described as “an implacable enemy of cotton speculators.” 45 Canby was then commanding at New Orleans, was advised by the President: “Frequent complaints are made to me that persons endeavoring to bring in cotton in strict accordance with the trade regulations of the Treasury Department, are frustrated by seizures of District Attorneys, Marshals, Provost-Marshals and others, on various pretences, all looking to black-mail, and spoils, one way and another. I wish, if you can find time, you would look into this matter within your Department, and finding these abuses to exist, break them up, if in your power, so that fair dealing under the regulations, can proceed. The printed Regulations, no doubt, are accessible to you. If you find the abuses existing, and yet beyond your power, please report to me somewhat particularly upon the facts.”46

Trade in cotton could not be divorced from President Lincoln’s plans for reconstruction. Historian William C. Davis wrote: “Southerners like A. J. Hamilton and Michael Hahn told the president that the reestablishment of the cotton trade would influence misguided rebels to renew their allegiance to the Union in order to exchange their valuable crop for goods and specie. Hahn, who would soon become governor of Louisiana, wrote the president the benefits of the trade. If the traffic were fostered, Hahn declared, ‘the Federal treasury will reap an immense benefit, the markets of the North and the world will receive a large supply of cotton, and the people here will become satisfied that the rebellion is at an end.”47

Historian Ludwell H. Johnson wrote: “The grimy bales of cotton lying in sheds and barns along the rivers of Louisiana were a long way from Pennsylvania Avenue, but even Lincoln could not escape the forces conjured up by their mere existence. This was nothing new. Incredible pressure was brought to bear upon him on many occasions to give special trading privileges to favored individuals. Sometimes he yielded; other times he refused, even when so powerful a man as Governor William Dennison of Ohio interceded for a friend. Sometimes the President simply was duped. There was, for example, the case of John A. Stevenson. Stevenson, a loyal Confederate, had borrowed a large amount of cotton from the Louisiana State Bank, of which he was a director. The cotton was deep in the interior of the Trans-Mississippi Department. Stevenson proposed to exchange it for a like amount of Confederate-owned cotton that was then in the valley of the Ouachita River, a tributary of the Red, and very much exposed to capture.”48 Lincoln scholar F. Lauriston Bullard wrote: “Conditions in the West hindered the enforcement of the regulations, which would in any case have been ineffective, and favored the development of what today would be called a huge Black Market. The greatest centre for the trade was Orleans. Here for speculators was a chance for ‘big money.'”49

There were economic as well as political reasons for President Lincoln’s cotton policies. Historian Gabor Boritt argued: “The good Whig Lincoln saw commerce as a glue that bound the Union together. Throughout the war he showed much more leniency toward trade across hostile lines than did Congress, not to mention the military. Immediately after the firing on Sumter.” According to Boritt, “As Lincoln shifted the tactics of his peace work in 1863, cotton came to play an increasing role in his thinking. He tried to be careful, recognizing inherent dangers in his policy, fearing an atmosphere where ‘profit controls all,’ even the army. Nonetheless by early 1864 he prepared a careful program with the aid of Chase, and others, that invited Southern planters, for three years unable to freely market their cotton, to take the oath of allegiance and sell their product to government agents for twenty-five percent of its market value. They were to receive the rest of their purchase price after the war, provided they had remained loyal to the United States.”50 Historian William C. Davis wrote: “Boritt exaggerates the importance of economic assumptions in Lincoln’s reconstruction policy. Though aware that ‘pecuniary greed’ played an important role in human affairs, Lincoln overwhelmingly perceived of loyalty to the Union in political terms.”51

But, neither historian exaggerates the attention that President Lincoln devoted to the cotton trade as the Lincoln Administration struggled to adjust its policies to get cotton out of the South without helping the Confederacy. A month after writing Canby, Mr. Lincoln wrote a blanket memorandum: “Any person or persons engaged in bringing out Cotton, in strict conformity with authority given by W. P. Fessenden, Secretary of the U.S. Treasury, must not be hindered by the War, Navy, or any other Department of the Government, or any person engaged under any of said Departments.”52 A few days earlier, Mr. Lincoln received a communication from Rufus K. Williams: “I have seen Hon Secty Treas William P. Fessenden proposed that Dr W. A. Turner my son-in-law, a devoted political friend of yours, should be appointed special agent to purchase this 1200 bales of Cotton, that an order be issued to Genl Shearman [sic], according to his own suggestions by Telegraph of 17th Inst, to transport it to Nashville. That it be sold at Nashville and liberal freights be retained by the Government, and if desired three fourths of the proceeds be invested in Government Securities. This is strictly within the 8 Sect of Act of July 1864.” He added: “It is important that it be done at once, if at all.”53

Mr. Lincoln sought to clarify his orders more than four months later on December 12, 1864, writing Canby, “I do not wish either cotton or new State Government to take precedence of the military, while the necessity for the military remains; but there is a strong public reason for treating each with so much favor as may not be substantially detrimental to the military.54 Canby wrote to President a month later:

“As frequent complaints are made that military institutions have embarrassed the trade with insurrectionary districts, I think it proper to state for the information of your Excellency that since the promulgation of the War Department Order safe conducts for the importation of products have been granted at the rate, at present prices, of more than $2,000000 per day, involving, if the products contracted for are delivered, the exportation of supplies at the rate of nearly three quarters of a million per day, and that special licenses have already come under my observation, amounting to more than $50.000.000.
These estimates are based on the prices paid by the purchasing Agents — twenty five per cent less than the New York prices — and do not include several hundred certificates given by the purchasing agents which have not yet been presented for safe conducts.
Many of the persons engaged in this trade are very reasonable but a majority of them will not be satisfied with any concession short of an absolute cessation of hostilities or a complete surrender of all control of military operations.”55

Cotton disturbed cabinet members as well as generals. At the August 16, 1864 cabinet meeting, a dispute erupted over captured cotton. Navy Secretary Welles wrote: “At the Cabinet-meeting to-day Mr. Seward inquired of me in relation to some captured cotton claimed by the French. I told him I had no recollection of it, but, if a naval capture, it had been sent to the courts for adjudication. This, he said, would not answer his purpose. If they had no business to capture it, the French would not be satisfied. I remarked that neither would the courts, who, and not the State or Navy Departments, had exclusive jurisdiction and control of the matter; it was for the judiciary to decide whether the capture was good prize, and whether, if not good prize, there was probable cause, and to award damages if there had been a flagrant wrong committed.

As Mr. Seward has no knowledge of admiralty or maritime law or of prize proceedings, I was not displeased that Mr. Edward Bates took up the matter and inquired by what authority he or the Executive Department of the government attempted to interfere with a matter that was in court. Seward attempted to reply, but the Attorney-General was so clearly right, and Seward was so conscious of his inability to controvert the law officer, that he flew into a violent rage and traversed the room, said the Attorney-General had better undertake to administer the State Department, that he wanted to keep off a war, he had kept off wars, but he could not do it he was to be thwarted and denied information. I told him he would have all the information we had on the subject, but it was not less clear that until the judicial remedies were exhausted there should not be Executive interference, no resort to diplomacy or negotiations.
It was to me a painful exhibition of want of common intelligence as to his duties. He evidently supposes that his position is one of unlimited and unrestrained power, that he can override the courts and control and direct their action, that a case of prize he can interfere with and withdraw if he pleases. All his conversation exhibited such utter ignorance of his own duties and those of the court in these matters that one could scarcely credit it as possible. But it has been so through his whose administration of the State Department.56

A Cabinet meeting on September 9, 1864, was again devoted to the trade in cotton. Attorney General Edward Bates, who was a stickler for procedure, wrote in his diary: “In C.C. today, Mr. William P. Fessenden produced his plan for getting out cotton, under the late act of Congress.”

His plan seemed to me well enough, if confined to his own Statutory duties, i.e. the appointment and instruction of agents to purchase cotton, at certain points within our lines. But he embarrassed himself by trying also to regulate the method of getting the cotton in, ready to be bought — That is outside his province, and can only be controlled by the President as commander in chief.
“I stated the intrinsic difficulty of carrying on war and trade, against and with the same people, at the same time. But, that difficulty overcome, I thought the measure might be made effectual, to a considerable extent, by refusing permits to all of our people, to go into the enemy country, to get cotton — as leading to corrupt speculation and odious monopoly — and allowing all cotton to be brought in to our military posts, asking no questions, to be forwarded to the Treasury agents, to be bought and paid for under the act.”
“And the Prest: directed the Secy. of the Treasury to try his…hand, in drawing up the details of such an intercourse.”
“This discussion (if an informal, disjointed conversation can be called discussion) convinced me, more than ever, of the evil tendency of times like these, in removing the land marks of power, and breaking down the barriers which ought to [stand.] between the different authorities.”57

Secretary Welles wrote of the same meeting: “The regulations of Mr. Fessenden are tainted with Chase’s schemes and errors, and belong to the same school of monopoly permits and favoritism. They met with little favor, however. The President objected at the threshold to that part of the plan which threw upon him the odium, and labor, and responsibility of selecting the agents who were to proceed within the Rebel Lines. Both he and Mr. Fessenden, however, started with the assumption, and as a settled fact, that the cotton within the Rebel lines must be sought for and brought out, — trading on the part of the government with the enemy. The only difference between them was whether it should be by a few selected agents specially permitted, or whether it should be open to all who wished to trade with the Rebels. Mr. Fessenden’s plan was the first, the President’s was the last. All gave a preference to the President’s plan, or view of opening the traffic to all if to any.”58

On September 27, Welles complained again in his diary about Seward’s interference in the cotton trade: “Received mail from Admiral David Farragut. Among his dispatches one confidential, inclosing a letter from General Canby, who had received singular order signed by the President, directing that one A. J. Hamilton should be permitted to export cotton from Sabine Pass, Galveston, etc., himself, and that Hamilton’s written order should be a permit for others to export. As General Canby, to whom this document was directed, has no control over the squadron, he had inclosed the President’s order to Admiral Farragut. The Admiral had transmitted it to the senior officer off Galveston, and communicated copies of the whole correspondence to me, remarking that it would lead to immense swindling.

“I submitted this extraordinary document to the President, and remarked as I did so, that in the discussions that had taken place on this subject on two or three occasions within the last six weeks, and since this order (dated, I think, the 9th of August) was issued, no allusion had been made to it, that it conflicted with the blockade which the Department was obliged to enforce, and that I was surprised on receiving the information. The President seemed embarrassed but said he believed it was all right. ‘How right’ I inquired. He said it was one of Seward’s arrangements, that he guessed would come out well enough; but evidently did not himself know, or, if he knew, was unwilling or unable to explain.”
“This is another specimen of the maladministration and improper interference of the Secretary of State. Commencing with the first expedition sent out to supply Sumter, which he took measures to defeat, there has been on his part a constant succession of wrong acts, impertinent intrigues in the affairs of other Departments, blunders and worse than blunders, that disgrace the Administration. There is unmistakable rascality in this cotton order. New York Republican leader Thurlow Weed was here about the time it was issued, and it will not surprise me if the has an interest in it.”
“Seward thinks to keep his own name out of the transaction. The President has been made to believe that the order was essential; the Secretary of State has so presented the subject to him that he probably thought it a duty. There are times when I can hardly persuade myself that the President’s natural sagacity has been so duped, but his confidence in Seward is great, although he must know him to be, I will not say a trickster, because of his position and our association, but over-cunning to be strictly honest. And when I say this, I do not apply to him dishonesty in money transactions when dealing with men, or the government perhaps but political cheating, deceiving, wrong administration. He knows this scheme to bring out cotton was a fraud, and hence, instead of coming directly to me, who have charge of the blockade, or bringing the question before the Cabinet in a frank and honorable manner, there is this secret, roundabout proceeding, so characteristic of the Secretary of State.”59

Attorney General Edward Bates complained of the same order after the September 30 cabinet meeting: “Mr. Welles shewed me a strange order of the Prest to authorize Mr. Hamilton, of Texas to bring out cotton, from certain ports in Texas, and send it to a govt. agent at New Orleans Mr. Welles thinks that it amounts to an abrogation of the blockade, and tells me that his commanding officer, on that coast, says he will not regard the order. He also tells me that Fessenden declares that he does not recognize the order!!”

“It gives me pain to see so many instances of Mr. Seward’s extreme looseness in practical politics, and his utter disregard of the forms and the plain requirements of the law. He is constantly getting the President into trouble, and unsettling the best established policies of the…Government.”
“It was he that procured the Prest’s cotton order, in favor of Hamilton; and nobody knows what fortunes some of his friends and proteges will make out of it. Mr. Welles mentioned the matter, complainingly, to the Prest., who said he rec[k]oned it was all right; it had been arranged by S[eward}!”60

Cotton even got mixed up with missions to arrange promote peace negotiations. On Christmas eve, 1864, former Senator Browning went to the White House to push for permission for General James Washington Singleton, an Illinois attorney who was an acquaintance of Mr. Lincoln, to engage in cotton buying in Richmond. Three days later on December 27, Browning again met with President Lincoln: “President sent for me and I went there. He wished to talk to me about Singleton going through the lines to Richmond to buy cotton, and about releasing Mrs Symingtons Son who is a prisoner at Fort Lafayette.”61 Singleton was a strange beneficiary of presidential favor or a quasi-peace mission. He was a Quincy attorney like Browning, Singleton had been transformed from a Clay Whig in the 1840s to a Douglas Democrat in the 1850s to an incendiary Copperhead Democrat in the Civil War. Browning met with President Lincoln on January 5 and wrote in his diary: ” I had previously talked with him about permitting Singleton to go South to buy Cotton, tobacco and a scheme out of which he, Singleton, Judge James Hughes of the Court of Claims, Senator Edwin D. Morgan myself and some others hope to make some money, and do the Country some service. He wished to see me upon this subject now. We talked it all over, and before leaving him he gave me two cards of Singleton to pass our lines with ordinary baggage, and go South.

He gave me a history of two of the half sisters of Mrs. Lincoln who are rebels. Mrs. Helm and Mrs. White and wish some of us to see Mrs. Helm, and make some arrangement with her about 600 bales of cotton she claims to have somewhere in the South.”62

In October 1864, Emilie Todd Helm had visited the White House and laid her case out to Mr. Lincoln. Lincoln scholar William Townsend wrote that Emilie “owned cotton in the south which she desperately needed to get out — not only to save it from probable destruction by Union troops but to dispose of it for the maintenance of herself and her three small, fatherless children. Emilie had strongly urged and finally demanded that her brother-in-law permit her to do this, but Lincoln with pain in his deep-set eyes sadly shook his head. Traffic in the cotton of that doomed region was rapidly becoming a public scandal. Already he was being severely criticized for issuing passes to persons of undoubted loyalty who speculated outrageously in that commodity.”63

When she returned to Kentucky, Emilie sent a bitter letter to her brother-in-law in which she blamed him for all her troubles and again demanded help getting her cotton out of the South: “Upon arriving at Lexington, after my long tedious unproductive and sorrowful visit to you, I found my Mother stretched upon a sick bed, made sick by the harrowing and shocking death of your Brother in law, and my half Brother Levi Todd — He died from utter want and destitution as a letter sent to Sister Mary by Kitty gives particulars, another sad victim to the powers of more favored relations — With such a sad, such a dreadful lesson, I again beg and plead attention and consideration to my petition to be permitted to ship my cotton and be allowed a pass to go South to attend to it — My necessities are such that I am compelled to urge it — The last money I have in the world I used to make the unfruitful Appeal to you. You cannot urge that you do not know them for I have told you of them. I have been a quiet citizen and request only the right which humanity and Justice always give to Widows and Orphans. I also would remind you that your Minnie bullets have made us what we are & I feel I have that additional claim upon you — ” Emilie ended her letter: “If you think I give way to excess of feeling, I beg you will make some excuse for a woman almost crazed with misfortune– “64 Mary Todd Lincoln never forgave Emilie’s impertinence. There is no known reply to Emilie, but eventually President Lincoln authorized military authorities to allow her cotton to be transported and sold. She wrote former Postmaster General Montgomery in January 1865: “I was in Washington in October and Mr Lincoln then promised to give me his assistance at some future time.”65

President Lincoln was sympathetic to Emilie but not to Martha Todd White, another stepsister who had been discovered trying to smuggle contraband to the South on a visit to Washington in the spring of 1864. In March 1865, Martha wrote President Lincoln from the nearby Willard’s Hotel in Washington:”I am desirous of seeing you as I came in for a permit from U S Govt to get out some cotton 30000 bales. If you are able to see me notify me to the hour earliest suited to your convenience as the Cotton is remote from Mobile & to be destroyed unless this is hurried through & I communicate the result of my trips — The permit will have to be irrespective of all military authority as Gen Edward Canby only a few weeks threw asside [sic] a permit of that kind & rendered null the trade, ‘protection is to all Neutral Vessels bearing upon Mobile fully guaranteed.'” 66 Lincoln scholar Lowell H. Harrison wrote that President “Lincoln refused the request but gave her a pass that allowed her to return South.”67

On January 5, 1865, President Lincoln issued a pass for Robert E. Coxe to pass through Union lines with cotton: “An authorized agent of the Treasury Department having, with the approval of the Secretary of the Treasury, contracted for the cotton and other products above mentioned, and the party having agreed to sell and deliver the same to such agent. It is ordered that the cotton and other products, moving in compliance with, and for fulfillment of said contract, and being transported to said agent, or under his direction, shall be free from seizure or detention by any officer of the government, and, commandants of military Departments, districts, posts and detachments, naval stations, gun boats, flotilla’s and floats fleets will observe this order, and give the said Robert E Coxe, his agents and transports, free and unmolested passage for the purpose of getting the said cotton or any part thereof through the lines, other than blockaded lines, and safe conduct within our lines while the same is moving in strict compliance with the regulations of the Secretary of the Treasury, and for fulfilment of said contract with the agent of the government.”68 Coxe was still trying to get his cotton north four months later.

On February 9, Browning met again with President Lincoln. Two days earlier, Mr. Lincoln had written a letter to General Grant for Singleton: “Gen. Singleton, who bears you this claims that, he already has arrangements made if you consent to bring a large amount of Southern produce through your lines. For its bearing on our finances I would be glad for this to be done if it can be without injuriously disturbing your military operations, or supplying the enemy. I wish you to be judge and master on these points. Please see and hear him fully, and decide whether anything, and if anything, what can be done in the premises.”69 Historian Philip Van Doren Stern noted that the addition of “if you consent” to the letter by President Lincoln provided an option for General Grant which he proceeded to use. Grant disliked cotton permits and soon had reason to distrust Singleton. He asked Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton for a general order stopping cotton permits and a specific order to revoke the one that had been given Singleton, whom he believed involved in trading bacon for tobacco.70 Historian Gabor Boritt argued: “The Chief Magistrate’s delusion concerning the peacemaking properties of the Southern staple was akin to the widespread American faith of antebellum days that cotton was king. No doubt many profit-minded souls played on his delusion without sharing his patriotic motives.”71

On February 10, 1865, General Grant himself came to Washington. Grant had a strong supporter in his antipathy to cotton permits in his own congressional sponsor, Illinois Congressman Elihu B. Washburne. President Lincoln’s longtime friend, Congressman Washburne, agreed with Grant on the evils of the cotton trade. A congressional committee Washburne headed had investigated cotton trade and introduced legislation to shut off the trade. Lincoln friend Ward Hill Lamon recalled that Washburne “from the outset was opposed to any contraband traffic with the Confederates. Lincoln had given permits and passes through the lines to two person, – Mr. Joseph Mattox, of Maryland, and General [James] Singleton, of Illinois, – to enable them to bring cotton and other Southern products from Virginia. Washburne heard of it, called immediately on Mr. Lincoln, and after remonstrating with him on the impropriety of such a demarche, threatened to have General Grant countermand the permits if they were not revoked. Naturally, both became excited. Lincoln declared that he did not believe General Grant would take upon himself the responsibility of such an act. ‘I will show you, sir, I will show you whether Grant will do it or not,’ responded Mr. Washburne as he abruptly withdrew.”72

On March 8, Grant wrote Secretary of War of War Edwin M. Stanton asking Singleton’s permits be revoked and that he be ordered out of Richmond. Stern wrote: “On March 10, when Washburne went to City Point to present a medal to Grant, Browning could not have suspected the hidden purpose of his visit. Many years later Ward Lamon revealed the real motive. According to Lamon, when Washburne heard that Lincoln had given Singleton a pass and Treasury trading permits, he ‘called immediately on Mr. Lincoln, and after remonstrating with him on the impropriety of such a demarche, threatened to have General Grant countermand the permits if they were not revoked. Naturally, both became excited. Lincoln declared that he did not believe General Grant would take upon himself the responsibility of such an act. ‘I will show you, sir, I will show you whether Grant will do it or not,’ responded Mr. Washburne as he abruptly withdrew.”73 Ward Hill Lamon wrote: “Under all the circumstances it was a source of exultation to Mr. Washburne and his friends, and of corresponding surprise and mortification to the President.” Mr. Lincoln was particularly taken aback because Grant had once issued a cotton trading permit to his own father, but he didn’t reverse the general. He later said: “It made me feel my insignificance keenly at the moment; but if my friends Washburne, Senator Henry Wilson, and others derive pleasure from so unworthy a victory over me, I leave them to its full enjoyment.” However, Lamon suggested that “there was little cordiality between the President and Messrs. Washburne and Wilson afterwards.”74 Browning still pressed, however, meeting with President Lincoln on March 11 to discuss Singleton’s commercial schemes.

Around this time, one-time Lincoln legal client George P. Floyd also sought President Lincoln’s help. Floyd’s case was even less worthy than Singleton’s because Floyd had spent most of the Civil War in the South cooperating with the Confederate government. “In December, 1864, I concluded to quit the Confederate States. I left Montgomery, Alabama, December 15, going from Charleston, South Carolina, to Nassau on the blockade-runner Arrow, thence to New York on a regular steamer.”

“Since I had left a considerable amount of perishable property in the South, I was anxious to get protection papers from the Federal government, to save it when the Federals should capture Montgomery. Armed with letters of recommendation from Governor John A. Andrew of Massachusetts, Governor Joe Gilmore of New Hampshire, and a very strong personal letters from General Ben Prentiss (whom, together with his staff, I had befriended while they were prisoners of war in Selma, Alabama, in 1863), I proceeded to Washington.”75

With some difficulty, Floyd got an audience from the President — and after he recognized Floyd, an invitation to tea with Mr. Lincoln , former Senator Orville H. Browning, Secretary of War Stanton, and Treasury Secretary Fessenden. “My mail and other contracts with the Confederate government during the war had enabled me to keep behind the scenes and observe some of the workings and tricks of the misguided officials who sailed the water-logged Confederate craft into rough and ragged rocks, to shipwreck and destruction.”

“I was enabled to give Mr. Lincoln some information of which he had never dreamed in regard to the Confederacy. Before I left Montgomery, in December, I had procured a list of all the cotton in eight warehouses in the city, and a list of many of its claimants. In the eight warehouses were stored one hundred and twenty-eight thousand bales of cotton, subject to the order of the various claimants. Twenty-three thousand bales of that cotton were the property of the Confederate States government and marked ‘C.S.A.’ The balance, one hundred and five thousand bales, belonged to different persons, fifteen hundred bales of it being my own. At that time cotton was selling in New York and New Orleans at about eighty cents a pound. If the twenty-three thousand bales of Confederate cotton could be captured or saved, it would be worth — eleven and a half million pounds at eight cents — $9,200,000, which would go into the United States Treasury as confiscated property. The balance, one hundred and five thousand bales, fifty-two and a half million pounds, would have sold for $42,000,000. I laid a plan before Mr. Lincoln and Secretary Fessenden to save the cotton in Montgomery. They both favored my plan and at once proceeded to give me every facility to prosecute it successfully. My idea appealed especially to Mr. Lincoln, who had always been in favor of drawing all the cotton out of the Confederacy.”76

Floyd was empowered to implement his proposal and made his way back to Montgomery where he was to save the warehoused cotton for Union use. He reached the city in early April 1865: “The Confederates had decided to evacuate the city without a fight. A number of gentlemen, who owned a large portion of the cotton stored in the warehouses, formed a deputation to wait upon General Beaufort. I joined them, and we used every argument to persuade the general to leave the warehouses intact when the city was evacuated, offering to account to him for the net proceeds of two thousand bales of cotton.” General Beaufort first seemed to acquiesce and then reversed course. “At twelve o’clock that night he ordered the torch applied to every cotton warehouse. In spite of all we could do, the eight warehouses, containing one hundred and twenty-eight thousand bales of cotton, worth $51,200,000 in good money, went up in smoke, without a cent of insurance, doing no one a particle of good. In many cases the cotton was all that the owners had saved out of the wreckage of the war. Men who had always lived in affluence, and who had never known what want was, were reduced to abject poverty by that cruel, uncalled-for, wanton act.”77

Secretary of the Navy Gideon Welles opposed these efforts, writing in his diary: “The capture and destruction of a large amount of tobacco at Fredericksburg has created quite a commotion. It was a matter in which many were implicated. Several have called on me to get permission to pass the blockade or have a gunboat to convoy them. One or more have brought a qualified pass from the President. Colonel Joseph Segar, the last of them, was very importunate. I told him, as I have all others, that I should not yield in this matter; that I was opposed on principle to the whole scheme of special permits to trade and had been from the time that Chase commenced it; that I was no believer in the policy of trading with public enemies, carrying on war and peace at the same time. Chase was the first to breach and introduce this corrupting and demoralizing scheme, and I have no doubt he expected to make political capital by it. His course in this matter does much to impair my confidence in him. It was one of many not over scrupulous intrigues. Fessenden followed in the footsteps of Chase, not from any corrupt motives, nor for any political or personal aspirations, but in order to help him in financial matters. He had a superficial idea that cotton would help him get gold, — that they must get cotton to promote trade and equalize exchange.”78

On April 11, three days before Mr. Lincoln’s murder, the cabinet again met on cotton: Welles wrote that Treasury “Secretary Hugh McCulloch is embarrassed how to dispose of the Savannah capture. I am afraid of replevin and other troubles. Told him I thought it an error that the Rebel cotton had not been brought forward and sold in parcels of accumulating public and private in such quantity as to attract the vultures.”79


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