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Guide to the Thomas F. Mason Letters on the Cotton Trade

MSN/CW 5111


Collection Summary

Title: Thomas F. Mason Letters on the Cotton Trade
Dates: 1863-1864
Collection No.: MSN/CW 5111
Creator: Mason, Thomas F. (Thomas Fales), 1815-1899
Extent: 4 folders; 0.1 linear feet.
Language: Collection material in English
Repository: University of Notre Dame. Hesburgh Libraries, Department of Special Collections. 102 Hesburgh Library, Notre Dame, IN 46556
Abstract: Four manuscript letters addressed to New York investor Thomas F. Mason, discussing the cotton trade conducted by northern merchants with Confederate held areas along the Mississippi River during the American Civil War.

Selected Search Terms

American Civil War, letters and diaries.
Cotton trade--United States--History--19th century.
Mississippi River--History--Civil War, 1861-1865.
Businessmen--United States--Correspondence, reminiscences, etc.

Administrative Information

Restrictions: There are no access restrictions on this collection

Preferred Citation: [Identification of item], Thomas F. Mason Letters on the Cotton Trade, [Collection and folder no.], Rare Books and Special Collections, Hesburgh Libraries of Notre Dame.

Acquisition and Processing Note: The journals were purchased by the Hesburgh Libraries in July 2017, from Michael Brown of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Arranged and described 2017, by Yang Wu. Finding aid 2018, by Yang Wu.

Biographical Note

Thomas Fales Mason (1815-1899) was a native of Swansea, Bristol County, Massachusetts, who worked in trade before joining the copper rush to Michigan's Upper Peninsula, where he made a fortune. In the 1850s he bought and developed the great Quincy Mine near Hancock, and from 1858 was president of the Quincy Mining Company, with interests throughout the region. In 1860 he moved his financial base to New York, and long remained one of the city's prominent businessmen.

Scope and Content Note

Each of the four business letters in this group is addressed to Thomas F. Mason. Their content pertains to the trade in cotton and other commodities conducted "between the lines" during the American Civil War. While blockading the seacoasts of the Confederacy to limit international trade, President Lincoln established a system in which government licensed traders might purchase cotton in the occupied South. This was designed to bring cotton to northern textile manufacturers and to foster "Unionism" among southerners by engaging them in trade with the North; all "loyal citizens" of the Union were eligible to take part. In order to minimize southern gains from the trade, the Lincoln administration devised a new policy under the Purchasing Act of 1864, which required licensed traders to sell all their cotton to Treasury Department officials at three-quarters of the market price.

In practice, this system was plagued by corruption and cronyism. Prominent northern capitalists often used their political connections to obtain permits, and so monopolized the trade. Military commanders in occupied areas of the South confiscated cotton in areas under their jurisdiction, declaring these goods to be their own "prizes of war." Treasury agents who purchased cotton under the system set up in 1864 often manipulated the rules of trade for their own gain and favored merchants willing to bribe them. Though between-the-lines trade was meant to foster loyalty to the Union, it had the effect of boosting the Confederate economy by introducing badly needed goods to a South stifling under the shortages caused by the international blockade.

The first three letters in this group were written to Mason by an unidentified representative of J. T. Whiting & Co., a Detroit-based merchant shipping company formed in 1860 to transport goods to and from the mining towns on Lake Superior. Whether the letters were written by owner John Tallman Whiting himself is not clear. Mason utilized Whiting's steamers to carry his copper on the lakes, and as these letters show, the two were jointly involved in the Mississippi River cotton trade as well, investing in the cargos of chartered vessels that travelled south from Memphis with goods and cash and returned north with cotton.

The letters show the uncertainties of the trade, with cotton purchased from Confederate areas sometimes seized by greedy military officers, and between-the-lines commerce disrupted by Treasury officials and senior military commanders to benefit their own interests. Ships involved in the trade were also vulnerable to Confederate fire, as indicated by the destruction of "Allen Collier," one the vessels run by Whiting. The letters also indicate the great profits from the trade, and show that Whiting and Mason had powerful allies in the northern government and military who used their influence to obtain them trading permits and overcome obstruction by other officials and officers.

Arrangement Note

The four letters are arranged chronologically.

Container List

  • Letter: J. T. Whiting & Co. Detroit, Michigan, to Thomas F. Mason, n.p., 1863 October 22. Folder 1 (MSN/CW 5111-1).
    ALS; 2 pages on one sheet, with docketing.
    The author describes recent telegrams from S. E. Walbridge, who is coordinating the sale and transportation of goods for him, requesting that 200 barrels of salt be sent to Memphis and mentioning a shipment of 52 bales of cotton north. He also notes a request from Mr. Tennant, a business partner in Memphis, for $50,000 to be sent immediately for purchases of cotton. The author concludes that business is good and expects to make a handsome profit once Whiting's ships receive permits to trade in the South.
    • Letter: J. T. Whiting & Co. Detroit, Michigan, to Thomas F. Mason, n.p., 1863 November 25. Folder 2 (MSN/CW 5111-2).
      ALS; 2 pages on two sheets.
      The author notes that in recent days trade has been disrupted by administrative difficulties, but mentions that an ally in Washington is trying to secure a more liberal and comprehensive permit for his activities. He also writes that Allen Collier, a steamer in whose cargo Mason and Whiting hold a one-sixth share, has been destroyed. Still, cotton purchasing along the Mississippi continues and sales of small quantities of cotton have been profitable.
      • Letter: J. T. Whiting & Co. Detroit, Michigan, to Thomas F. Mason, n.p., 1863 December 30. Folder 3 (MSN/CW 5111-3).
        ALS; 2 pages on one folded sheet, with docketing.
        On his return from Memphis, the author informs Mason of recent activities on the Mississippi, and the status of his vessels. He speaks in particular of Belfast's arrival in Memphis from downriver, with 120 bales of cotton for immediate sale. Another 256 bales had been seized by Union navy officers at the White River in Arkansas; this necessitated a stop in Cairo, Illinois, to obtain a release from Rear Admiral David D. Porter.  
        • Letter: George H. Ellery to Thomas F. Mason, n.p., 1864 December 4. Folder 4 (MSN/CW 5111-4).
          ALS; 1 page on one sheet, with docketing.
          At the time of writing George S. Ellery was purchasing agent for the U.S. Cotton Agency at Memphis. Ellery enquires about the receipt of an earlier letter, and comments favorably on newly implemented War Department legislation that will curtail the corrupt interference of "newspaper political generals" with the cotton trade.