Richest woman in the South saves fortune from Union and Rebel armies

Adelicia Acklen

Adelicia Hayes Franklin Acklen Cheatham 1817- 1887

Nashville, Tennessee, July 12, 1866: Millionairess Adelicia Acklen, 49, who built and lives on the elegant Belmont Estate southwest of downtown, high on a hill overlooking the city, is now able to reveal how she cleverly manipulated both Union and Confederate officers during the last year of the Civil War to save much of her considerable fortune from the ravages of war. She did it through planning, cunning, and persuasion.

Everyone who knows the formidable Mrs. Acklen knows that beyond the shadow of a doubt her strongest attribute, other than her beauty, is her persuasion. Her youngest sister has always said, “Adelicia could talk a bird out of a tree.” She is intimidated by no one—not royalty, not presidents, nor captains of industry and certainly not by men in blue uniforms or grey uniforms armed with guns and a lot of brass insignias on their shoulders.

At this terrible time, when many one-time wealthy Southern plantation owners are destitute, dead, or miserable, Mrs. Acklen has become one of the richest women, not just in the South but likely in the entire United States. Here’s how she did it:

Adelicia married her husband, Joseph Acklen, in 1849. Her second marriage and his first. Adelicia’s first husband, who was 28 years her senior, died in 1846, leaving her a fortune to add to her own, including five plantations in Louisiana—the largest of which was Angola. All located where the Red River flows into the Mississippi. Prime cotton growing country.

Her new husband, Joseph Acklen, proved to be an adept manager of her businesses and plantations. Their wealth increased tremendously until the Civil War broke out in 1861. Mr. Acklen immediately went to Angola to live virtually full time during the war to protect—as best he could—Adelicia’s plantation buildings and equipment, some 1500 slaves, and the growing of some 6,000 bales of cotton each year.

In September, 1863, however, Mr. Acklen died, possibly from malaria or pneumonia. The Confederates had already taken all the mules, wagons, and personal property from Angola. Now, they were threatening to burn Adelicia’s remaining 2,800 bales of cotton to keep the bales from falling into Union hands. Because of war, those cotton bales were her last major marketable asset in the world. If she lost that cotton, she would lose her fortune. Adelicia was not going to let that happen.

On New Year’s Day, 1864, armed with an iron will, a risky plan, and her cousin, Sarah Carter, Adelicia embarked on the 750 mile treacherous river journey from Nashville to Angola, through three southern states in the midst war, to get what she knew was rightfully hers. Upon arrival at Angola, she was told Confederate General Leonidas Polk, cousin of former US President James K. Polk, who had attended Adelicia’s wedding to Acklen, was issuing orders to burn her cotton. Adelicia dispatched Sarah on the 150 mile trip to negotiate with Gen. Polk at his headquarters, while she protected Angola. Sarah was forced to alter her route many times because of blazing battles.  Ultimately, though, General Polk issued the order to allow Adelicia to remove her cotton. Under protection of Confederate guards!

Adelicia, then, negotiated with Confederate troops to find her some mules and wagons to haul the cotton to the Mississippi River a few miles away. Yankee gunboats were patrolling the river near Angola. Adelicia learned a Union Admiral was inspecting those gunships. She went to the Admiral immediately to negotiate using one of his gunships to take her cotton to New Orleans.  Unbelievably, the Union Admiral agreed to do it! So with war-rickety borrowed wagons, guarded by Rebel soldiers, and with war all around her, Adelicia loaded her cotton on a Yankee gunship and headed to New Orleans, where the cotton was loaded on another ship bound for New York City. This entire negotiation took eight tense months. She, eventually, sold her cotton bales to the Rothschild family in Europe for $2 million dollars.  Shrewdly though, Adelicia waited until after the war to return to America. She has returned, now, to Nashville from a year’s stay with her family in Europe, where she got her $2 million.

Belmont Mansion, Nashville, TN

Adelicia Acklen's Belmont Estate in Nashville became a part of Belmont University.

Update

In today’s dollars, her cotton sales price would be about $20 million dollars. Adelicia married again and continued to amass an even greater fortune. She was truly the richest woman in the South.

In 1885, for mysterious reasons, she moved to the Washington DC area and built another mansion. She died of pneumonia in 1887 at age 70, while on a shopping trip to New York City to buy furniture for her new mansion in Washington. Her Belmont Mansion and estate eventually became a part of Belmont University. The mansion has been restored and is open to the public. Adelicia Hayes Franklin Acklen Cheatham, a remarkably resourceful woman and an interesting part of our Southern Memories.

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