An Executive Order Signed by President Abraham Lincoln in December 1864, Permitting the Export of Cotton from the South

Also signed by Gen. Stephen Hurlbut, Commander of the department of the Gulf in Louisiana and the South

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President Lincoln saw getting cotton to Europe as a foreign policy goal, and as a way to build a bridge between the economies of North and South and ease the path toward reconstruction


He orders approval of a lucrative cotton sale contract granted to Moses N. Twiss, an Illinois official from...

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An Executive Order Signed by President Abraham Lincoln in December 1864, Permitting the Export of Cotton from the South

Also signed by Gen. Stephen Hurlbut, Commander of the department of the Gulf in Louisiana and the South

President Lincoln saw getting cotton to Europe as a foreign policy goal, and as a way to build a bridge between the economies of North and South and ease the path toward reconstruction


He orders approval of a lucrative cotton sale contract granted to Moses N. Twiss, an Illinois official from a town Lincoln visited as a lawyer riding the legal circuit


The document also contains a safe conduct order signed by Maj. Gen. Stephen A. Hurlbut, in command of the Department of the Gulf, from whence the cotton would travel



In 1831, the twenty-two-year-old Abraham Lincoln came to New Salem, Illinois, to live. In 1832, although he had lived in New Salem for less than a year, he was encouraged by his new neighbors to run for the state legislature. He did so but lost. But in 1834 he again ran for the state legislature and this time won office as a state representative. Before he began his term of office, he began the study of law with the help of John Todd Stuart, who was a state representative from the same district. Stuart’s law office was located in Springfield about twenty miles from New Salem and Lincoln often visited there. At this time the Illinois state capital was located in Vandalia, a small town that had been created in 1820 specifically for the purpose of being the state capital. Lincoln began his first term on December 1, 1834, and soon became familiar with those in government and business in that town. He also quickly learned about the legislative process and how to draft bills. In 1836 he was reelected to the state legislature and served a central Illinois district that had seven state representatives and two state senators. These legislators were dubbed the “Long Nine,” due to their average height being six feet, and included David Davis, who President Lincoln would name to the Supreme Court. They supported internal improvements to the state and moving the state capital from Vandalia to the more centrally located Springfield. Lincoln was reelected to a third term in the state legislature in 1838. He was now a recognized leader of the Whig Party, and saw the capital moved from Vandalia to Springfield. In 1840 he was reelected to a fourth consecutive term in the legislature, and the next year married Mary Todd.

At this time Lincoln became familiar with the Twiss family. Willard Twiss was the clerk of the county commissioners court in Bond County, Illinois, when Lincoln was riding the circuit. In 1858, one of the legendary debates between Lincoln and Stephen A. Douglas took place in Greenville in Bond County. According to the Abraham Lincoln Papers, in 1834, soon after his arrival in Vandalia, Lincoln and his fellow legislators considered and passed “An Act for the Relief of Willard Twiss.” Moses N. Twiss lived in Clinton, Illinois, a place Lincoln frequented when he argued cases while on that circuit for his legal practice. This Twiss was appointed notary in Illinois in 1863, according to the Journal of the Senate of Illinois. The paths of Lincoln and Twiss would cross in 1864.

President Abraham Lincoln Deals With the Cotton Trade

With the blockade of the Confederacy in 1861, goods in control of the South ceased to be able to leave for northern ports for overseas markets. The South’s chief export was cotton, and a shortage of cotton developed in manufacturing hubs in Great Britain and France. The British were then the world’s manufacturing powerhouse, with their mills creating clothing for the world. The shortage of cotton increased its value to unheard of amounts. In August 1862, Congress authorized the taking of property, including cotton, belonging to civil and military officers of the Confederacy, or to any persons who had given aid and comfort to the rebellion. As Federal lines were extended, more and more plantations came under Union control, including buildings, livestock, and especially cotton. These were often either found without a visible owner, or were owned by Confederate sympathizers; and this property was escheated to the U.S. government, to use or allow others to use as it decided.

Also in 1962, the Federal government created a system of permits (or contracts with authorization), administered by the Treasury, that allowed loyal owners of cotton to sell it. Lincoln wanted such a system to prevent any trader or group of traders from monopolizing the trade; he insisted that the trade be open to all loyal citizens. To insure that the trade was open and fair, a Treasury agent had to investigate the loyalty of the applicant (and whether the applicant truly owned or controlled cotton in the South) before granting a contract or approving a permit. The Treasury agents often followed in the wake of the armies, and sometimes went ahead of them. Competing with government agents were a virtual army of private northern businessmen, all seeking to get their hands on this cotton, lawful or not. Although the permitting system seemed well designed, its integrity depended upon the honesty and diligence of the Treasury agents. The agents needed to be pillars of rectitude to withstand the blandishments and bribes of prospective traders. Seeing an opportunity, prominent administration officials, politicians, and businessmen lobbied to have their associates appointed Treasury agents, and, in return for these political favors, agents no doubt displayed favoritism in approving some contracts or permits or in granting approval rapidly. President Lincoln saw getting cotton to Europe, and the foreign policy gains that would flow from it, as his main aim. His policy regarding Treasury Agent authorized requests was to approve them if possible. Something else was on Lincoln’s mind late in the war. He felt the resumption of this trade as an important war aim. Historian Gabor Boritt makes the argument that his use of a policy allowing, under strict controls, cross-border trade in cotton, allowed him to build a bridge between the economies of North and South and ease the path toward reconstruction.

Some agents, including perhaps the most notable one, Hanson Alexander Risley, a friend of Secretary of State William Seward, were less than vigorous in enforcing the regulations, often not checking whether prospective traders actually controlled or yet owned cotton in the South. Many of the license seekers chose to misrepresent their ownership or control, preferring to get the permit and then find cotton “to own or control.” But in any case, by late 1864, the property in Federal hands or potentially so was large, and in anticipation of the end of the war, the markets began to discount the value of cotton. So there developed a race against time. Risley vetted Lincoln’s friend from Illinois, Leonard Swett, who received three permits/contracts in December 1864 for a combined 150,000 bales of cotton. These covered cotton in every state of the Confederacy except Virginia and North Carolina. Risley also vetted Robert Hill, brother of Lincoln’s bodyguard, Ward Hill Lamon of Illinois, who received permits for a total of 50,000 bales of cotton, also widely scattered throughout the Confederacy. New York’s kingmaker Thurlow Weed, whom Lincoln needed as an ally, also vouched for some prospective traders. During a three month period at the end of 1864 and beginning of 1865, the enthusiastic Risley issued permits/contracts to traders covering over 900,000 bales of cotton. Men suggested by the President himself, or recommended him or Thurlow Weed, controlled the vast majority of these bales. Lincoln seems to have approved most if not all of the requests made by his associates.

Considering his predilection for Illinois license seekers, Lincoln himself may have been the source of the recommendation of Illinoian Moses N. Twiss. The contract application was signed by Risley, and read: “I, H.A. Risley, agent for the purchase of products of insurrectionary states, on behalf of the government of the United States, at Norfolk, Virginia, do hereby certify that I have agreed to purchase from M.N. Twiss of Illinois 2500 bales of cotton, which products it is represented are or will be at points on or near the National Military lines in the parishes of Madison, Tenses, and those north in the state of Louisiana, on or before the first day of May 1865, and which he stipulates will be delivered to me, unless he is prevented from so doing by the authority of the United States.

“I therefore request safe conduct for the said M.N. Twiss, and his means of transportation of said products from the points where the same are or may be located in Memphis, Tennessee, where the products so transported are to be delivered to George H. Ellery under the stipulation referred to above and pursuant to regulations prescribed by the Secretary of the Treasury.” It is signed “H.A. Risley” as special agent. George H. Ellery was the U. S. Purchasing Agent for the Department of the Mississippi, headquartered in Memphis, Tennessee.

Lincoln approved the application and contract, and the document in which he did so was also a safe conduct pass to go South and get and transport the cotton. Document Signed as President, Executive Mansion, Washington, D.C., November 29, 1864. “An authorized agent of the Treasury Department having with the approval of the Secretary of the Treasury, contracted for the cotton above mentioned, and the party having agreed to sell and deliver the same to such agent, It is ordered, that the cotton 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 an officer of the Government, and Commanders of Military departments, districts, posts and detachments, naval stations, gun-boats, flotillas, and fleets, will observe this order and give the said M. N. Twiss, his agents and transports, free and unmolested passage for the purpose of getting the said Cotton or any part thereof through the lines, excepting 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 fulfillment of said contract with the agent of the Government.” Signed in full, “Abraham Lincoln”, showing the President saw this as an official document rather than a letter.

Records of the U.S. Senate confirm this, showing that Moses N. Twiss gained a contract for 5,000 bales of cotton from Risley on November 29, 1864.

Maj. Gen. Stephen A. Hurlbut commanded the 4th Division of the Army of the Tennessee at Shiloh and Corinth, after which he commanded the XVI Corps. In 1864, he was placed in command of the Department of the Gulf, which meant that cotton flowing up the Mississippi River from New Orleans came under his jurisdiction. He endorsed this document, ordering that safe conduct be afforded to those acting under the contract approved in this document.

This is a great rarity, and just our third such Executive Order signed by Abraham Lincoln in all these decades. Moreover, a search of public sale records going back forty years reveals no comparable executive orders. Neither are cotton sales authorizations under the Treasury signed by Lincoln, in any form, common.

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