Ask Rufus: The night the cotton burned. Or did it?

November 30, 2013 11:44:49 PM

Rufus Ward - [email protected]


There was a huge fire at Columbus on the night of Nov. 25, 1865. It destroyed the former Confederate Arsenal Building, which is southeast of the old Marble Works. The building had been taken over by the occupying Federal troops and was being used to store property seized as having belonged to the Confederate government. Accounts of the fire appeared in newspapers across the country. The article in the Columbia, S.C., Daily Phoenix titled "Destruction of Government Cotton" was typical. 


On Dec. 7, under a dateline of Mobile, Dec. 1, the paper reported: "The Times has reliable information that 4,000 bales of government cotton was destroyed by fire, at Columbus, Mississippi, on the 25th of November. It was the work of incendiary. Loss about $1,000,000." But did that cotton really burn? For a story of corruption had already begun to emerge. 


At the end of the Civil War the U.S. government claimed all property that had belonged to the former Confederate government. In Columbus the Confederate arsenal complex buildings became U.S. property. A Confederate wooden hospital building was also seized and was turned into Union Academy, a school for newly freed slaves. In addition, cotton owned by, or pledged as security, to the Confederacy was seized even if located on private property. Court records in Lowndes County even show lawsuits filed by the Confederacy to collect money continued to be prosecuted with the U.S. assuming the legal status of the Confederate government. 


As one would imagine if all cotton owned by the Confederate government was to be seized, even if in private hands, a problem of owner identification arose. Often where large quantities of cotton were in storage it was seized by Federal authorities even when evidence of it being owned by the Confederacy was lacking.  


By June 1865 "cotton confiscation" had begun. In Artesia, 187 bales of cotton were seized. In Mayhew, 160 bales were taken. Federal troops were sent to Tibbee to seize cotton stored there and in Columbus some 200 bales were confiscated from James Sykes alone. Sykes protested the seizure of cotton he claimed he owned and into the 1880s pressed a claim for illegal confiscation of private property. All he ever received was a receipt from the U.S. Treasury Department for 200 bales of cotton. 


That was just the start of possible problems with alleged fraud. In November 1865, newspaper reports out of Columbus told of "$80,000 being collected by a Government agent, and but $6,000 accounted for...the stealing mania is rampart." Allegations of theft and fraud were not just around Columbus. In a Dec. 11, 1865, article the Norfolk (Va.) Post reported: "Ten thousand bales of cotton have been stolen along the Mobile and Ohio Railroad; from four to five thousand at Columbus, Mississippi, from five to ten thousand at Macon, Georgia, and smaller amounts at other points." The article concluded by saying that "Government officers are now investigating the matter." 


The Daily Ohio Statesman of Columbus, Ohio, reported that an investigation revealed that in Columbus, U.S. soldiers were openly allowed to steal cotton and would even detail a guard of soldiers to protect their stolen cotton from other cotton thieves. The article further stated that Harrison Johnson, who though a Columbus resident had been pro-Union during the war, was the Federal agent handling cotton confiscation. Johnson had seized for the U.S. government almost 6,000 bales of cotton. 


Accused of wrong doing, Johnson was arrested in the fall of 1865 and the cotton removed to the former Confederate arsenal building in Columbus. After a few days it was determined that the charges were false and he was released. But the cotton was kept at the arsenal building and not returned to his custody. U.S. soldiers were placed at the building to guard the building and its contents. 


At 8:30 p.m. on Saturday, Nov. 25, 1865, the 300 foot long brick arsenal building was discovered to be on fire with flames "issuing from all sides of the building at once." The building was totally destroyed and federal agents in charge of the cotton -- the same ones who had arrested Johnson -- reported that the more than 4,000 bales of cotton within it were completely burned up. 


The New York Times quoted a Mobile newspaper as saying: "We learn that the cotton and building were guarded by United States soldiers, and how it could have been set on fire, so as to be enveloped in flames in all parts of the extensive building at the same time, is a mystery yet to be solved." Columbus Civil War historian Gary Lancaster in researching the fire found allegations that the only remains of cotton bales found in the building after the fire were stacks of smoldering bales in front of each window. Evidence of cotton bales, though stacks of bales tend to smolder and burn slowly, was not to be found anywhere else in the building. 


There were stories that prior to the fire the cotton had already been spirited away to be sold with only about 200 bales left in the building. An account of the fire was included in a January 1866, Columbus, Ohio, newspaper article titled "Cotton Stealing." The ruins of the arsenal building were pulled down and the bricks re-used around town. The brick wall around the Pratt Thomas House on South Side was constructed using the arsenal's bricks.  


Thanks to Gary Lancaster for providing background information on this story.

Rufus Ward is a Columbus native a local historian. E-mail your questions about local history to Rufus at [email protected]