The case of the Douglas orphans’ seized cotton

Union troops in the South often confiscated cotton and other goods belonging to Confederates, in order to support the Northern war effort. In one case, they took Mississippi cotton to which a Unionist family had a claim – cotton said to belong  to the orphaned sons of Senator Stephen Douglas (1813-1861). Initially, Confederate troops were deemed to blame, but when they found that United States forces had seized the cotton, the Senators’ surviving sons fought a long battle for compensation.

Stephen Douglas married Martha Martin in 1847. His new father-in-law, Colonel Robert Martin, offered the rising politician a wedding gift – a 3,000 acre plantation in southern Mississippi’s Lawrence County, on the Pearl river, producing mostly cotton and abundantly stocked with enslaved laborers. Douglas begged off, saying that as a Northerner he wasn’t familiar with managing slave property. Douglas presumably also considered the political backlash if he became a slaveholder.[i]

Colonel Martin instead left the Lawrence County plantation to Martha. This implicated Stephen in slavery through his family. However, he could truthfully say that he didn’t own any slaves, since under Mississippi’s enlightened statutes, wives could own separate property, though Colonel Martin’s will also let Douglas keep some profits from his wife’s plantation. Douglas indignantly defended his honor and his family’s privacy when Senator Benjamin Wade was rude enough to mention Douglas’ slavery interests.[ii]

When Martha died in 1853, the plantation went to the children: Robert Martin Douglas (b. 1849) and Stephen Arnold Dougas, Jr. (b. 1850). The Senator was appointed his sons’ guardian.[iii]

In 1857, the Lawrence County plantation wasn’t running enough of a profit to suit the Senator, so he made a deal with the wealthy Baton Rouge, Louisiana merchant and landholder James McHatton. With judicial permission – which he needed since he was acting on behalf of the true owners, his sons – the Senator sold off his Lawrence County land and moved the Lawrence plantation’s reluctant enslaved laborers north to Washington County, to a Mississippi plantation near the Mississippi river – and less than a hundred miles north of Vicksburg, a geographical detail which would prove significant. McHatton owned the land, and with Senator Douglas contributing the enslaved laborers, the pair agreed to form a plantation, from which Douglas would get a majority of the profits – since his slaves were considered to have  provided most of the value to the enterprise.[iv]

Robert and Stephen, Jr. would later claim that McHatton’s plantation consisted of “new lands, very rich, and, until then, uncultivated,” that it was one of the best plantations in Mississippi, and that but for the Civil War, it would have netted its owners “an enormous fortune.” Though the Senator’s young sons were supposedly the owners of the Douglas plantations, they later claimed (regarding he Pearl River plantation – and the same seemed to apply to the Washington County plantation) that they never saw a dime of the profits – it all went to  meet their dad’s current expenses.[v]

As a Senator and perennial Presidential candidate, Douglas considered it necessary to spend money, lots of it, to keep up his political profile and viability. Douglas attempted to support his lavish lifestyle by relying on two income streams – his Chicago real-estate investments and the profits from his sons’ plantation.[vi]

Late in 1856, Senator Douglas had remarried, to Adele Cutts, a beautiful woman related to Dolley Madison, though Adele’s branch of the family was fairly poor. Devoted to her new husband, Adele helped him promote his career and the couple’s prominence with parties and entertainments, elaborate clothes, a masquerade costume, and attendance at the theater.[vii]

While providing the labor necessary to support elaborate Washington entertainments, those whom the Douglas family held in slavery did not seem to be faring well. In 1859, A Mississippi businessman urgently wrote Mary Martin, Senator Douglas’ former mother-in-law, to warn that the enslaved Douglas laborers were ill-nourished and badly clothed, and that many of them would soon die in the absence of better management. Douglas went down to the plantation to see for  himself, professing to Adele that the reports of ill-treatment were unfounded. Still, he modified the partnership agreement to specify that the enslaved laborers would be clothed and fed, and treated based on “the customs and usages of the best regulated plantations under the most kind and humane masters.”[viii]

While Senator Douglas may not have provided his minor sons the plantation profits to which the law entitled them, he reportedly gave them a piece of advice which was later commemorated in stone. Shortly before his sudden death on June 3, 1861 – he had in his last days been preaching to his fellow-countrymen about the need to repress the rebellion – he is said to have imparted to Adele a parting instruction for his sons – “Tell my Children to obey the Laws and uphold the Constitution.” At least this is the version of his remarks recorded at the base of his gigantic monument in Chicago. Regarding the plantation, McHatton seemed to have been mismanaging it – in 1860, he claimed to a financially-desperate Douglas to be experiencing low cotton prices during a high point in the cotton economy’s antebellum prosperity. McHatton even tried, illegally, to sell the property, but didn’t succeed, fortunately for Robert and Stephen, Jr. In a May 11 letter to Douglas, presumably sent across the military lines, McHatton said people in the area were denouncing Douglas for his Unionism. But the property was neither sold nor confiscated under Confederate authority.[ix]

After the Senator’s unexpected death, Adele showed that despite helping Douglas spend her stepsons’ money, she did not have the spirit of a wicked stepmother. On the contrary, entrusted with the case of Robert and Stephen, Jr., the childless Adele arranged for her stepsons to be educated in Washington at Gonzaga Seminary and at Georgetown. Stephen, Jr., wrote Adele from Georgetown (about troops and military rumors). Adele, a Catholic, influenced the Senators’ sons and descendants to adopt her religion.[x]

In early 1863, Brigadier Thomas Edwin Greenfield (“T. E. G.”) Ransom commanded the Second Brigade, which was fighting its way through Mississippi on the way to Vicksburg. General Grant called Ransom “a most gallant and intelligent volunteer officer.” Ransom frequently had to order his veteran troops not to plunder civilians.[xi] But official seizures of rebel property, for the benefit of the Union treasury, didn’t constitute plundering, and Ransom was happy to engage in it.

Some troops from the Eleventh Illinois, part of the Second Brigade and the regiment where Ransom had started his Civil War career, came to the Douglas/McHatton plantation. The soldiers of the Eleventh had encountered Senator Douglas when he saw them off at the beginning of the war. The enslaved laborers, however, avowed that their last sight of the late Senator had been quite some time ago. Private George D. Carrington of the 11th Illinois recorded in his diary how a group of soldiers from his regiment stacked wet bales of cotton as a defense against a possible Confederate attack.[xii]

Witnesses, black and white, from the Douglas/McHatton plantation and nearby plantations would recall Ransom’s arrival at the plantation, his troops’ use of cotton bales as defensive walls, and most significantly, Ransom’s soldiers’ massive seizures of Douglas/McHatton cotton for shipment north. The cotton had been “hidden” in anticipation of the federal raid, in order to preserve it for the Douglas sons. McHatton would swear that the place of concealment was a closely guarded secret. Yet so many other witnesses would testify to the “hiding” of the cotton that it seems to have been an open secret, and someone – perhaps an enslaved laborer – apparently tipped off Ransom’s forces about the cotton’s place of “concealment.” James S. Dodds, who had been designated by the Senator on the eve of the war to manage the McHatton/Douglas plantation, and who had stayed on at the plantation after secession, averred that Ransom’s troops had taken or destroyed “1,685 bales of cotton, carried away or destroyed on or about the 4th day of May, 1868, 93 head of mules, 63 head of cattle, 292 head of hogs, 3 fine horses, all taken away on transports or destroyed on or about the same date.” Dobbs’ dates were wrong – private Carrington and the local witnesses establish a March, not a May timeframe. Ransom supervised the hauling off of most of the cotton by local blacks to his ships, to be sent North, though some cotton was destroyed or used in the makeshift fortifications which Carrington’s diary described.[xiii]

As recounted by Dodds, Ransom said he had known Senator Douglas, and that he (Ransom) would make out a receipt for the seized Douglas cotton. In his second affidavit, Dodds recalled that Ransom appointed a day to meet Dodds and provide the receipt, but on the very day when that appointment was to occur, Ransom left – presumably called away by military necessity.[xiv]

General Ransom soon led his command in dangerously exposed positions in the siege of Vicksburg, where raising one’s head out of Union trenches, however briefly, was an invitation to death. Recalling Ransom’s courage before the walls of Vicksburg, General Sherman would call Ransom “of the kind of whom heroes are made.”[xv] Ransom died in 1864.

General Grant, commanding the Vicksburg campaign, received an inaccurate account of the fate of the Douglas cotton. He wanted the Douglas sons to get the proceeds of this cotton, but when he sent a scouting party to the Douglas/McHatton plantation, Grant heard back that the Confederates had burned the cotton. Grant considered selling some seized Confederate cotton to make up for the supposed destruction of the Douglas cotton, and gave orders to this effect as late as December 1864, orders which were never carried out.[xvi]

After the war, Adele married Union officer Robert Williams, and started a new family.[xvii] It was understandable, then, that she did not keep up with the case of her stepsons’ cotton, mistakenly supposed to have been taken by Confederates. Robert and Stephen, Jr., who had not been of military age during the war, came to the age of majority (21) while the statute of limitations (for seeking compensation for Union-seized cotton) ran out.

President Grant felt friendship for the sons of the late Senator Douglas, and made Robert Martin Douglas a personal secretary, a position Robert held in the early 1870s. It was while Robert was serving in this role that he and Stephen, Jr. (or their lawyer and Adele’s relative, war hero James Madison Cutts), discovered that their lost cotton had not been seized by Confederates, but by Union troops. This raised hopes for compensation, if Congress could be persuaded to set aside the statute of limitations to let the claim be pressed.[xviii]

Witnesses to General Ransom’s seizure of the cotton were gathered. One of these numerous witnesses may have had a financial conflict of interest. James McHatton was now living in Cuba, and had declared bankruptcy in the United States. According to McHatton biographer Robert Christopher Poister, the financially-strapped McHatton signed a deal with the Douglas brothers shortly before his death in 1872. This deal would give McHatton a fifth  of any award the Douglases ultimately got for the cotton. In the shadow of death, McHatton made an affidavit supporting the Douglas’s claims while generously saying that he was voluntarily giving up any share in the rights to the cotton. McHatton also got affidavits from witnesses who presumably would not share in the loot, including Dobbs.[xix]

McHatton’s widow Eliza, from Virginia, added an affidavit of her own. I don’t know if she had been promised her husband’s share of any settlement, but in any case, she backed up her husband’s account. She lived a lot longer than her husband, long enough to write her memoirs. There, she recorded that in Cuba, she and her husband derived a side-benefit from corresponding with Robert Douglas about the cotton claim. Robert’s correspondence came from the Grant White House, marked as belonging to Grant’s assistant. The McHattons displayed these envelopes prominently for the benefit of Cuban visitors, to let them draw conclusions about the McHattons’ clout with the highest U. S. authorities.[xx]

The remaining, less-biased witnesses confirmed the essential points of the claim – that it was Union troops, not Confederates, who seized the cotton, and that most of it was not destroyed or used in makeshift fortifications, but shipped North for sale.[xxi]

A committee under North Carolina Democratic Senator Augustus Summerfield Merrimon made a report on the Douglas claim on April 1, 1874. “If the testimony is to be believed, (and the committee now see no room to disbelieve it,) more than 1,000 bales of cotton belonging to the petitioners were taken aboard the transports.” The Committee looked at Treasury Department records. There were difficulties in the evidence, however, including possibly competing claims, so the Committee did not feel it could immediately recommend compensation. But it recommended that Congress refer the case to the Court of Claims, letting the Douglas brothers press their claim even after the statute of limitations had expired. The committee confined itself to the cotton claims, refusing to open up the possibility of compensation for seized corn and other property.[xxii]

On June 22, 1874, President Grant signed the committee’s bill into law. The case concerning the “cotton seized in March, 1863” was to be referred to the Court of Claims. On the same day, the President nominated Robert M. Douglas to be the United States Marshal for western North Carolina. In a visit to Greensboro two days later, Grant attended the wedding of Robert Douglas to Jessie Dick, in Greensboro – the happy couple embarked on a honeymoon before Robert had to come and take on the duties of his new post.[xxiii]

Of Grant’s two “wedding presents,” the Court of Claims case proceeded slowly, while Robert Douglas’ marshalship included the exciting task of tracking  down moonshiners – one of whom,  Lewis Redmond, killed one of Douglas’ deputies.[xxiv]

Merrimon’s committee had predicted that the Douglas brothers “may yet continue in court for a long while,” and so it proved with the Court of Claims. It was just about five years after the referral of the case to them – at the beginning of January 1879 – that the judges finally reached their decision. They accepted the Douglas’ basic narrative of events, and accepted that the cotton had remained the property of the Douglases and not forfeited as enemy property – Senator Douglas’ appointment of Dodds just before the war somehow seemed to satisfy the requirements of the law of nations and the confiscation acts so as to preserve the Douglas’ claim. The Court awarded $58,419.20 to the brothers.[xxv]

Like Dickens’ fictional case of Jarndyce v Jarndyce, the cotton litigation was so protracted and expensive that it’s not clear if it brought a great benefit to the brothers. We might also refer to Pyrrhus’ victory, and to running to stay in place in Looking-Glass World. A biographer of Senator Douglas, Frank E. Stevens, said that the litigation “ate up the greater part of the recovery in fees and costs,” so that the money awarded by the court may have been mainly good for paying expenses in that very case. This didn’t abate Robert’s idealism – at the turn of the century, Robert M. Douglas became a Republican justice of the North Carolina Supreme Court, where he opposed the resurgent Democrats and (with a colleague) was unsuccessfully impeached by those Democrats.[xxvi]

Under Section 4 of the Fourteenth Amendment, the government can’t pay “any claim for the loss or emancipation of any slave.” Yet though the Douglas brothers couldn’t have won a claim based on the loss of their enslaved laborers, they won a claim for the cotton these laborers produced. But it’s not clear that this victory benefited them greatly in the end.


[i] Anita Watkins Clinton, “Stephen Arnold Douglas – His Mississippi Experience,” The Journal of Mississippi History, vol L, No. 2 (June 1988), 56, 58; Frank E. Stevens, “Life of Stephen Arnold Douglas,” Journal of the Illinois State Historical Society (1908-1984), Vol. 16, No. ¾, Oct., 1923 – Jan., 1924, pp. 274-673, at 641.

[ii] Clinton, 58-59; Stevens, 641-45.

[iii] Martin H. Quitt, Stephen A. Douglas and Antebellum Democracy (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2012), 188; Clinton, 70-72.

[iv] Robert Christopher Poister, The Business of Exile: The Money and Memory of a “Confederate” Family in Cuba (MA Thesis, University of Georgia, 2012), 25-27; Clinton, 71-76; Stevens, 645.

[v] Claim of Rob’t M. and Stephen A. Douglas (Washington: Powell and Ginck, 1872), 6-7; Clinton, 84-85, 87. These statements against the Senator were part of the ultimately-unsuccessful litigation by the Douglas sons in Mississippi in which they attempted to regain the Pearl River plantation.

[vi] Clinton, 70-73.

[vii] Cokie Roberts, Capital Dames: the Civil War and the Women of Washington 1848-1868 (New York: Harper, 2015), 15-16, 35, 38-40, 47, 70-71, 75-76; Mrs. Roger A. Pryor, Reminiscences of Peace and War (New York: MacMillan, 1904, 1905, 1908), 33, 34, 75, 98; Marie Perpetua Hayes, “Adele Cutts, Second Wife of Stephen A. Douglas,” The Catholic Historical Review, Vol. 31, No. 2 (Jul., 1945), pp. 180-191, at 183.

[viii] Clinton, 79; Quitt, 191.

[ix] Robert W. Johannsen, Stephen A. Douglas (New York: Oxford University Press, 1973), 870-72; photo of Douglas tomb,; Poister, 32-34. For mistaken claims that the Confederates seized the property during the war, see below.

[x] Hayes, 185-87; Roberts, 111.

[xi] Jim Huffstodt, Hard Dying Men: The Story of General W. H. L. Wallace, General T. E. G. Ransom ,and their “Old Eleventh” Illinois in the American Civil War (1861-1865) (Bowie, MD: Heritage Books, 1991), 130, 138, 141.

[xii] Huffstodt, 130, 304n6

[xiii] Claim of Rob’t M. and Stephen A. Douglas contains affidavits from numerous individuals, including three affidavits from Dodds taken in Cuba in 1871 and 1872, an affidavit from James McHatton, and the testimonies of many local residents who were around in early 1863 when the cotton was seized. See below, and see also the problems with McHatton’s testimony.

[xiv] Claim of Rob’t M. and Stephen A. Douglas, pp. n14-15, 22-24.

[xv] Huffstodt, 148-59.

[xvi] Claim of Rob’t M. and Stephen A. Douglas, 9-10.

[xvii] Hayes, 190-91.

[xviii] Robert Dick Douglas, Jr., The Best 90 Years of My Life (Greensboro, NC: Battleground Printing and Publishing, 2003), 251-53 (the author says Grant credited Senator  Douglas with getting Grant to turn down a Confederate command!); “Douglas, Robert Martin,”; Robert M. Douglas, “Reminiscences of President Grant,” The Youth’s Companion, Dec 19, 1912; 86, 51; Claim of Rob’t M. and Stephen A. Douglas; Bing G. Spitler, Hero of the Republic: The Biography of Triple Medal of Honor Winner J. Madison Cutts, Jr. (Shippensburg, PA: Burd Street Press, 2001).

[xix] Poister, 60, 72-73; Claim of Rob’t M. and Stephen A. Douglas, 12, 34.

[xx] Claim of Rob’t M. and Stephen A. Douglas, 34-36; Eliza McHatton-Ripley, From Flag to Flag: A Woman’s Adventures and Experiences in the South During the War, in Mexico, and in Cuba (New York: D. Appleton and Company, 1889), 206-07.

[xxi] Claim of Rob’t M. and Stephen A. Douglas and attached affidavits.

[xxii] Report on petition of Robert M. and Stephen A. Douglas, April 1, 1874, Senate documents, Volume 1, Volume 268; “Merrimon, Augustus Summerfield,” Biographical Dictionary of the United States Congress 1774-Present,

[xxiii] 18 Stat. Law, 1606, cited in Douglas’s Case, Court of Claims, December term 1878, 1-13, at 2; Wilmington Journal, June 24, 1874 (the paper referred to Douglas as “Robert M. Marshal,” presumably reflecting some confusion between Douglas’ name and title); “Washington,” West Jersey Pioneer (Bridgeton, NJ), June 26, 1874; “Personal,” National Republican, June 26, 1874, p. 1; “Coming South,” The Orangeburg News, p. 6, June 20, 1874.

[xxiv] John Preston Arthur, Western North Carolina: A History (From 1730 to 1913) (Raleigh: Edward Buncombe chapter, Daughters of the American Revolution, 1913), 304.

[xxv] Senate committee report, 4; Douglas’s Case, Court of Claims, December term, 1878, 1-13; The Democrat (Charlotte, NC), January 3, 1879, p. 2.

[xxvi] Stevens, 645; “Douglas, Robert Martin,”

1 Response to The case of the Douglas orphans’ seized cotton

  1. Eliza McHatton was not an ardent secessionist. After the war, she enjoyed her trips to see friends in New York and Connecticut. She donated a boa constrictor, a snake then unknown in the U.S. to the New York zoo. She also appreciated her one invitation to a breakfast at the White House, issued by one U.S. Grant, former Yankee general.

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