The Clinton Home Front: 1861
By Walter Howell
The Civil War in 1861 was a distant struggle to the people of Clinton, but the impact of the war was felt immediately. The Confederate government declared an embargo on the shipment of cotton to outside markets, while the Union government declared a blockade on shipping from ports controlled by the Confederates. In little time there was a shortage of manufactured products in the South, and Clintonians had to adapt to the circumstances.
Cotton was the major crop for Clinton planters. Because the embargo was difficult to enforce by the government in Richmond, planters in Clinton and Mississippi continued to grow and sell cotton. The loss of the port of New Orleans in 1862 closed the major outlet to foreign customers, so planters then placed their efforts on growing food crops. Cotton dropped to about 20 percent of the total crop.
Clinton experienced other consequences of the war. I. N. Urner, president of Mississippi
College, wrote to the parents of students at the college that any students who were minors had to have permission from their parents or guardian to join the military. So many enlisted at the beginning of the war that the college closed in the spring of 1862. The Central Female Institute, headed by Rev. Walter Hillman, was the only school in the state to operate throughout the war.
Clinton had a number of foreign laborers at the start of the war, but many volunteered for the Confederate army. There were 14 foreign-born volunteers in the Mississippi College Rifles. Most were Irish laborers brought to Mississippi to work on river levees and railroad construction, as slaves were considered too valuable for this sometimes dangerous work.
Slaves remained under the control of their owners during the first year of the war. It was only after federal soldiers were on Mississippi soil that slaves began to run away from farms, in small numbers in 1862 and en masse in 1863 when Clinton became a war zone.
Slavery was important to those Clinton planters who grew cotton, though the vast majority of Clintonians did not own slaves. One large plantation-owning family, with over one thousand acres in cultivation, owned more than 150 slaves. Most Clinton planters, whose farming operations were done on half sections (360 acres) of land, owned twenty-five or less slaves.
Unionist sentiment in Clinton and Hinds County at the start of the war is seldom mentioned, but it existed. Clinton and Hinds County voters had consistently voted for Whig candidates on the county, state and national levels throughout the pre-war period. Southern Whigs were Unionists. They supported slavery and believed there was no reason to disrupt the union with other states. Once fire-eater Democrats in Mississippi gained control of state government, Union sentiment was silenced. There were fifteen Unionist delegates to the Secessionist Convention in Jackson in January 1861. None were from Hinds County.
Mississippi’s reasons for seceding were made clear in the Ordinance of Secession: the election of Abraham Lincoln placed the federal government in anti-slavery hands, and only secession could save Mississippi from the loss of slavery property worth over two billion dollars.