Sunday, February 10, 2013

February 10, 1863: The Union trade in Southern cotton

U.S.S. Conestoga

In early 1862, Union forces under Ulysses S. Grant dealt the COnfederacy a crippling blow when they seized control of the upper Mississippi River, the Cumberland River, and the Tennessee River during the campaign against Forts Henry and Donelson. As a result of this campaign, all Confederate river boat traffic was effectively driven from these rivers. Southern planters along these river no longer had any way to move their cotton to market. The Confederate railroads couldn't transport large quantities of bulky cargo overland--the cotton trade had always been carried on over the South's many navigable rivers.

With those rivers in Union hands, control over the South's cotton trade likewise came under Union control. That control was enforced by the Union forces controlling the river. Traders that wanted to buy cotton had to obtain licenses. Planters who wanted to sell to northern traders had to swear loyalty oaths (which they probably didn't mean) to the Union.

Union military officers, and the commanders of Union gunboats in particular, were often called upon to enforce the regulation of the cotton trade between the North and areas of the occupied South. On this day, 150 years ago, Lieutenant Commander Thomas O. Selfridge wrote to Acting Rear Admiral David Dixon Porter asking for advice as to how to treat one of these would be cotton traders.
Off White River, February 10, 1863.

SIR: Since I ordered the return of the trading steamer Evansville to Helena there has been a Mr. Lacy, of Memphis, here with a license from Mr. Yeatman and an old permit from yourself, dated Cairo, December 2, 1862.

His object was to purchase and ship from this point a large amount of cotton.

In the absence of specific instructions, and believing that it is not your wish that speculators, many of whom have but the cloak of loyalty, and none of whom would shoulder a musket for their country, should reap the enormous profits of a trade opened by those who have exposed themselves to dangers and hardships, I have steadily refused any permission to ship cotton from this part of the river.

I have given all these individuals to understand that I shall recognize no licenses or papers of any kind unless accompanied with your written permit.

I shall be pleased to know if my course in this matter is approved of.

The rebels, I learned to-day, have stationed a force of about three regiments on the Arkansas, about 2 miles above the Cut-off. Their camp is some distance back from the river bank.

Very respectfully, your obedient servant,


Acting Admiral D.D. PORTER,
Commanding Mississippi Squadron.

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