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During October, 1807, the trial of Aaron Burr in Richmond came to a close.1 Although partisans of the administration had failed to win a conviction, they had succeeded in so clouding his reputation that he would never again enjoy wide public esteem. Wilkinson had helped them. With the flimsy evidence that he possessed, few could have done better; certainly none but the clever and thick-skinned could have done equally well. For rendering an archenemy innocuous, Jefferson now had to acknowledge a debt to Wilkinson, who, in turn, was in great need of executive support, especially since his performance as chief witness for the prosecution had thrown long shadows on his own honesty and honorable intentions.
Some had thought Wilkinson guilty of misprision of treason. Among these was John Randolph of Roanoke. As foreman of the Burr grand jury he and six others of the sixteen members were eager to press charges against the General.2 Randolph went so far as to call him a rogue, peculator, and would‑be murderer. These were hard words, and Wilkinson was no weakling. Army regulations did not forbid him to demand satisfaction from a civilian in the conventional way.3 He hastened to send Randolph a challenge, only to meet with a refusal, contemptuous and direct:
"In you, sir, I recognize no right to hold me accountable for my public or private opinion of your character that would not subject me an equal claim from Colonel Burr or Sergeant Dunbaugh. I cannot descend to your level. This is my final answer."4
On December 31, 1807, six days after sending this answer, John p241 Randolph rose in the House and asked an investigation of the report that Wilkinson had corruptly received money from Spain while an officer of the United States Army. In support of his resolution he presented copies of several incriminating letters: one was from Carondelet to Tomás Portel concerning $9,645 sent to the General in 1796; another of the same year was from Wilkinson to Gayoso de Lemos, enjoining "greater secrecy and caution" in all their mutual concerns. To these were added suspicious paragraphs from the correspondence of Thomas Power.5
Daniel Clark had supplied most of the information. Though an ally of Randolph, an enemy of the administration, he did not care to testify unless compelled by the House. His own life was soiled with licentious adventures, and he knew that Wilkinson, once his anger flamed, would retail them glibly to all who might be inveigled to listen. He had no relish for what he and Randolph had started; both knew that only a stalwart offensive would save them from the Jeffersonian headhunters with whom Wilkinson was allied. On the 2nd of January, two days after the resolution for an investigation had been proposed, Clark wrote to Power asking for documents that would help the prosecution. A week later, in great ferment of mind, he repeated the request, importuning Power for more data and beseeching him to see Vidal, Gayoso's former secretary, Stephen Minor, one-time agent of Spain, and others before they had opportunity to manufacture evidence for Wilkinson. He feared the storm that threatened to break upon his "poor devoted" head; even then there was talk of expelling him from the House.6 Though arousing hostility and suspicion, he had not yet submitted convincing proof of corruption; the best that he could do for the time being was to give a written account of Wilkinson's Louisiana transactions as he personally knew them. This he did in a letter to the House on the 11th of January.7 It hurt the cause of Wilkinson but disclosed to him the main line of attack. Until the receipt of the letters from the Southwest, Clark would supply no further evidence for the muckrakers.
Meanwhile Wilkinson would have destroyed their leader; for the second time he sent John Randolph a challenge. With it went a taunting invitation to rise to the level of a gentleman and accept; there was also added the blustering declaration that solely because p242 he was a Congressman had he escaped being caned like a common rogue.8 Randolph made no reply; he ignored also Wilkinson's scurrilous handbills scattered in the District of Columbia:
"Hector unmasked: in justice to my character, I denounce John Randolph, M. C., to the world as a prevaricating, base, calumniating scoundrel, poltroon and coward."9
On conspicuous street corners and in the lobbies of Capital's taverns, many stayed their steps to read these ugly words. From then on, posting became a fashion among those who would settle their quarrel with a duel.10 Not a few Congressman secretly rejoiced that their colleague had been so thoroughly vilified; they could easily recall the insulting epithets that he had frequently applied to them. They gloated that he could not satisfactorily explain his refusal to fight. Wilkinson was willing to let matters ride, though he perhaps would have preferred an opportunity to kill John Randolph. By his death a wrangle would be ended; many of the followers of Jefferson would breathe with relief. This result was not impossible, for Wilkinson could handle his weapons well.
If Randolph was disturbed by imputations of cowardice, he gave no hint; only when he appeared to have been cleverly thwarted, did he display moments of exasperation. On January 2, Jefferson submitted the whole matter to a court of inquiry, which Wilkinson had astutely requested in order to place his case in the hands of some of his comrades in arms. They would be loath, thought he, to convict one of their own number on the equivocal evidence that an avowed enemy of their profession planned to employ. The detail for the court consisted of three members — Colonel Henry Burbeck, Colonel Thomas H. Cushing, and Lieutenant-Colonel Jonathan Williams.11 They were all Wilkinson's juniors in rank, and at least one of them, Cushing, had been his stanch friend for many years. They could perceive that their careers might be made easier if Wilkinson were exonerated and retained as head of the Army; they knew also what troubles they would make for themselves if they recommended that the General be tried. Meeting as a court on January 15, 1808, they continued in session for nearly six months.
p243 John Randolph did not believe this tribunal sufficient; he continued his vindictive efforts to bring the General to book. At his instigation, the President was asked on January 13, 1808, to make an investigation of Wilkinson's conduct and to furnish the House with all available information concerning citizens who were suspected at any time of trying to dismember the Union or of federal officers corruptly receiving money from the agents of a foreign government. A week later he complied with the request in part by turning over copies or extracts of a few letters that Miró, Gayoso de Lemos, Ellicott, and Carondelet had written between 1789 and 1798, all bearing upon Wilkinson's intrigues. Jefferson admitted that pertinent papers were not available, explaining that some had been burned in the War Office fire of 1800 and that others were private or could not be found on account of the faulty filing systems.12 Such evasions were not surprising. For who could expect faithful Democratic-Republicans to search successfully for documents that would embarrass their party and their chief?
Nevertheless, with a pretense of effort they did manage to unearth a few more documents within a fortnight. One was a letter that Clark had written to the Secretary of War in 1803 telling of the West's wavering allegiance when the navigation of the Mississippi was at stake. In proof of the tale he had then enclosed several letters from Carondelet.13 By 1808 their significance had passed: the United States had purchased Louisiana, and Wilkinson possessed evidence to establish his innocence.
On April 25, 1808, Clark submitted more damning proof of Wilkinson's guilt. It consisted of six original letters to and from Power revealing the General's receipt of money from the Spaniards in 1796. This correspondence, though not conclusive proof of guilt, was more than enough to generate doubts of his honor and honesty. The last day of the first session of the Tenth Congress being at hand, time did not allow a proper consideration of the letters; they were merely ordered printed and sent to the President.14 Not until the 7th of November would its members reassemble. Most of them rode away to their homes; they had no desire to spend the dog days in the newly made Capital.
Wilkinson preferred to remain in order to improve his political p244 position and to plead his cause before the court of inquiry. From February 24 to June 25, 1808, he appeared as his own invincible advocate, writing and delivering his defense and sustaining it with fifty-five imposing exhibits.15 Few could surpass him in the manufacture and presentation of evidence; none could easily withstand his vigorous cross-examination. Randolph and Clark did not appear before the court. They hated the Army, and their evidence was secondary and could be readily obtained from the President. On July 4, 1808, the court made public its findings completely exonerating Wilkinson. It declared that no evidence had been discovered that he had corruptly received a pension or money from Spain, and that, on the contrary, he had behaved "with honour to himself and fidelity to his country."16 With this turn of good fortune Wilkinson could count on no further investigation until Congress should meet in the fall.
He was now free to apply himself to other matters of official concern. By the act of April 12, 1808, the Army had been increased by five regiments of infantry, and one each of riflemen, artillerists, and light dragoons.17 As a result, armories had to be enlarged, new depots established, additional officers appointed, and men recruited, organized, equipped, and trained. Feeling the imminence of war, the militia insisted on federal aid. Money was not always available; only advice could be dealt out in any quantity. Wilkinson wrote many a letter, travelled many a mile to carry out the program of defense that he and the administration had adopted.
Though diligent in his work, Wilkinson was not averse to pleasure. He often went to Baltimore, where he had many friends. Women were not least among them. He frequently "inhaled" the perfume from an "all aimableº Mademoiselle," a certain "Mrs. T."18 A rumor went the rounds that he was going to marry her — "an unlicensed, indelicate report." The General was deeply embarrassed because he thought that she might suspect him as the author of the tale.19 With all his faults he was not the kind to boast of female conquests. Though not unwilling to marry again, he seemed to think the time inopportune. Within a few months his affection became more generalized; he wrote of several women who were the subject of his "matins and vespers."20 p245 They did not resent his attention; he was a high-ranking officer who bore his years with ease and passed gayly among them with a romantic flourish. He treated them as if he were a knight-errant in the days of tournaments and castles.
In his relations with men, he was also frequently governed by artificial rules of conduct. Although less than a year had passed since John Randolph had refused to meet him on the "field of honor," he did not hesitate to seek the same method of redress with another one of his enemies during the autumn of 1808. The person concerned was none other than Robert G. Harper, who had once been a Representative from South Carolina and was soon to be a Senator from Maryland. He was blamed for advising Clark to furnish Congress with papers incriminating Wilkinson. In spite of the fact that dueling was expressly forbidden between those who were in the Army, Major Bissell carried a challenge from "the Commander in Chief of the army, to Capt. R. G. Harper, commanding a company of Volunteer Artillery."21 On refusing "the only admissible atonement," Harper was posted as follows in a column of the National Intelligencer of November 4, 1808:
"To those who know Capt. H. G. Harper, it is unnecessary to say he is a swindler and an alien to honor, but to the whole world it may be necessary to proclaim him for a coward because he has been a bully; and thus to place him below the consideration of every man, who values the character of a gentleman.
Regulations forbade commissioned officers either to send or to accept challenges among themselves. Disobedience was subject to the penalty of being cashiered.22 Nevertheless, Wilkinson did as he chose, making his own rules of conduct just as he designed the pattern of his uniform. At this time dueling was not publicly condemned, and Wilkinson knew that he could rely on a measure of popular support. Apparently neither President Jefferson, whose caucus dinners he attended, nor Vice President George Clinton, with whom he was quartered, exerted pressure to make him refrain from trying to fight it out with Harper. Henry Dearborn, Secretary of War, knew of p246 the wrangle and did not interpose his authority;23 he was going out of office soon, and had no desire to stir up trouble. There was a rumor that Wilkinson would succeed him.
Jefferson seem to have had other plans for the General. The President, afraid that the Spanish-American colonies would fall into the hands of France or England, looked covetously to the acquisition of the Floridas by the United States. Probably with his knowledge, Wilkinson wrote on August 25, 1808, to Folch, Spanish Governor of the Floridas, suggesting that a convention with the United States would be better than the "galling restraint" that the Emperor of France might exercise. On September 15 he wrote again, recommending to Folch that "your own superior understanding should direct the course you ought to pursue" in the eventuality of Napoleon's success. With this as a prelude Wilkinson could make the administration's policy clearer when he went to the Southwest and was able to talk with the Governor in person.24
Until his departure from the East he was busy supervising the Army and laying plans for the enforcement of the embargo along the northern frontier. But he was not detained by duties alone; he wanted to be near by when the second session of the Tenth Congress met, so that he might be in better position to rout any of his enemies who planned the promotion of another investigation.25 It is significant that they refrained from doing so until he left the Capital in the early days of 1809 for a theater where open hostilities were threatening.
Ever since the summer of 1807, when the Chesapeake had suffered twenty-one casualties from the Leopard's gunfire, the United States had been on the point of war with Great Britain. In retaliation for that outrage British war vessels had been ordered out of her waters, and her citizens prohibited from intercourse with them. Nevertheless, impressment continued. Still eager to avoid war, Jefferson believed that Great Britain could not afford to lose United States trade, and so the embargo was evolved. Enacted on December 22, 1807, and strengthened by succeeding acts, it continued for over a year.26 During its operation, the shipment of goods from the United States became almost impossible. Although inhabitants of the West Indies p247 paid from thirty to forty dollars per barrel27 for flour, and Canadians yearned for beef from the valley of the Hudson, Great Britain continued her high-handed practices, seizing sailors with equivocal records whenever opportunity offered.
Americans whose livelihood depended on ocean trade could see no virtue in measures of negative defense; they preferred to take their chances as neutrals winning large but precarious profits. On the other hand, western hotheads burned with the idea of invading Canada; they coveted its great domain and longed to separate the Indians from their scheming British friends. Planters of rice, cotton, and tobacco believed that their interests had been crucified through a spineless policy; open belligerence might, at least, save their self-respect and perhaps wring consideration from England.
Thus did the winter of 1808‑1809 prove disappointing to Jefferson and his followers. He had failed to counter the cunning of England and France, and he had neither a united people nor an adequate military force to support his endeavors. Through a species of unwarranted economy the Army had been reduced to an authorized strength of 3,350 men;28 even fewer were actually in the ranks to defend some 7,000,000 people scattered along a frontier •from 9,250 to 11,955 miles in extent.29 It is true, legislation had been enacted on April 12, 1808, providing for an increase of eight temporary regiments — but these could not be recruited and given a semblance of training in less than a year. The dawdling Dearborn, as Secretary of War, had not the temper to inspire and expand what he and the President had demoralized and almost wholly destroyed.
While harried with these problems, Jefferson heard rumors that Great Britain was assembling troops in Canada to send to the West Indies, whence an attack might be launched against Louisiana.30 Such an operation would tend to neutralize any offensive that the United States might make on the northern frontier. To oppose a British movement of this sort, Wilkinson received orders on the 2nd of December to prepare for the concentration of about 2,000 troops at New Orleans. From the Atlantic seaboard, the Ohio, and the upper reaches of the Mississippi they were to come. Some of them would be seasoned p248 veterans, others raw recruits; and Wilkinson's mission was to dispose them in such a manner that "New Orleans and its dependencies would be "effectively defended."31
As usual, Wilkinson had a few axes to grind, and he was in no particular hurry to leave until he had obtained several favors from Dearborn, who was soon to retire. The General met with marked success; he claims for commutation of quarters and sixteen rations per day while at Natchitochesº and New Orleans during Burr's conspiracy were officially approved. Both were entirely illegal according to the law of March 16,º 1802.32 Similar allowances were to be his in the future, but this ruling had better color of legality because of the recent act of April 12, 1808.33 As additional proof of friendship, the General was given permission to draw six months' advance pay, a sizable sum only half of what he had requested.34 He was also allowed, in spite of the embargo, to put aboard ship fifty barrels of flour and twelve of apples.35 Such merchandise was readily salable in Cuba and would have the twofold virtue of affording the General a handsome personal profit while at the same time it smoothed the way for Jefferson's overtures to the Spaniards.
It was not until January 24 that he started south in the schooner Wolf, accompanied by his staff and the American consul at Havana, a city that they expected to visit before reaching New Orleans.36 At every port of call he was the central figure in an expensive pageant. A showman par excellence, he revelled in the publicity that was eagerly accorded whenever he stepped ashore. All the way down the Atlantic seaboard, salutes, dinners, and crowds did honor to his coming. When the Wolf sailed from Annapolis on January 25 the booming of seventeen guns announced the departure of the distinguished passenger. Four days later, at Norfolk, the people turned out as if Washington had returned to them. A great dinner was held with a hundred guests, and to him they drank a flattering toast: "May the brilliance of his achievements be such as to secure him the confidence and support of his present enemies."37 Unfortunately both his reputation and his p249 friends were to dwindle. A truer but less appropriate prophecy was his own offering: "The New World governed by itself and independent of the Old."38 On his mission, the toast was rather patriotic than diplomatic. The Spanish grandees at Havana evidently read the Baltimore Whig and were not pleased to learn that the approaching envoy harbored sentiments hostile to them.
When he came to Charleston it was still winter, although the sun often shone warm and bright along the waters of the Ashley and the Cooper. Few of the near-by planters were then visiting in the city; most of them remained on their own broad acres stretching away to the sea. They liked to enjoy the healthful season and their country houses, which beckoned invitingly at the end of stately avenues of cedar or oak; they had to be present when their negroes were starting spring planting of rice and cotton. Slaves were their instruments of toil, the hall-mark of their prosperity. Whether entertaining in their own homes or sitting in the sanctity of St. Michael's, these rich and often able planters prescribed the amenities of life for those of Carolinian origin. None might safely tell them that slavery, like Wilkinson's mock-heroics and gorgeous manners, was an anachronism; it had entered so long into their economy that they believed it would forever prevail. They hated those who would challenge their erroneous reasoning, just as they despised the crude or ungrateful who found flaws in their gracious hospitality; but they opened their doors wide to those whose lineage was acceptable and whose politics were approved. Wilkinson was one of these. He had long known their kind; Charleston and Charleston manners were to him the Maryland of his boyhood days.
When the schooner came up the Bay on the 17th of February, the wharves were thronged with crowds in hearty welcome. A few days later he was the guest of honor at a large public dinner at which Wade Hampton and other distinguished persons were present. Eighteen scheduled toasts were offered and drunk, not counting several voluntary ones highly flattering to Wilkinson and his hosts.39 The General delighted in these tokens of esteem; he refused to worry because storms were raging outside the harbor, demurrage was mounting, and a tale was making its way back to Washington that he had called the new Secretary of War a "black-mouthed Federalist."40
p250 After about a week's the army Wilkinson and his staff took passage on the brig Hornet to which his apples, flour, and other supplies had been carefully transhipped. In company with the sloop Centurion they set sail for Havana, arriving there on the 23rd of March. As Jefferson's minister without passport or portfolio, he was to inform the officials of Spain that the United States sympathized with her struggle for independence and hated to see any of her American possessions fall into the hands of England or France. He voiced official regret that the embargo was proving a hardship to the Spaniards and declared that neither it nor the troop concentration at New Orleans was designed for their injury. Only in case West Florida was used as a hostile base would a movement be made to capture it. Such was his message, embodied in an unsigned statement to Someruelos, who as the Captain-General of Cuba, was not deeply impressed.41
On the 2nd of April, Wilkinson departed for Pensacola, where he hoped to see Governor Folch and fill his ears with a similar story of good will. Since the Spanish governor had impolitely taken to the woods, his visitor had no alternative to travelling on to New Orleans.42 By the 13th of April he was still •one hundred miles from the city. Six days later he was there43 — back in familiar haunts where cronies and enemies were equally abundant.
Some of the "swinish multitude" made sport of his coming, describing it in this wise:
"Sound the trumpet, beat the drum,
Tweedle dee and tweedle dum,
Gird your armour cap-a‑pie,
Tweedle dum and tweedle dee.
"Sweet was the song sung on Monday evening, when it was announced by a herald from headquarters, that his Serene Highness, the Grand Pensioner de Godoy, was approaching the city and that he was to make his triumphal entry yesterday. Great preparations were made for the reception of the grand pensioner. Field Marshall Possum kept a watchful vigil the whole night. Next morning he ordered his military coach and 'with solemn step and slow' he moved to meet his serene highness — in his train were found the alguacil mayor, and a long list of dependents and retainers. It is to be lamented that our sovereign p251 lord, King Solomon [Governor Claiborne of Louisiana Territory] is settling an affair of honour at Point Coupee, between the parish judge and the parish priest, and could not attend to welcome his serene highness. The army was drawn up in dread array. The military officers paraded — but, alas, there was no militia; carts and mules were still; Kentucky's hardy sons stood wondering in amaze, and asked with an inquiring look 'is this the man who wished to separate the western from the eastern states and sell our country to Godoy?' For once the luckless wights were doomed to disappointment — his serene highness did not make his appearance. The malicious say he was drunk.
"This day as his serene highness approached the city, he was met by a vast conccourse of boys, mulattoes, and negroes, who welcomed him with loud and repeated acclamation; and the condescension of his supreme highness was astonishing in returning the salute. When his serene highness entered the city, the bells they rung
"The pensioner is come,
and the drums re-echoed the joyful tidings. How grand the spectacle! What terror did it carry to the hearts of traitors!
"When his serene highness reached the mansion prepared for his reception, his first care was to call his conscience keeper and go to confession. His next was to convoke his privy council to devise means of future operations."44
And of course there was to be a superb dinner; pounds and pounds of beef and ham and vegetables, with plenty of pickles and condiments. Yes, there were also provided bottles, barrels, and pipes of whisky and wine, and enough cigars to provide every person in New Orleans with one. But as the chronicler went on to say, there were no capers provided; the Pensioner meant to cut plenty of them himself.45
Doubtless Wilkinson was not the best choice, but some one had to come and try to bring order out of existing chaos. Already about 2,000 troops had straggled into this "graveyard of the Old South," settling down almost wherever they chose and bringing with them an p252 overmastering desire for women and liquor.46 In days of idleness they soon found opportunity to obtain both. The recently appointed officers, generally ignorant and often indifferent, were not the type to save the enlisted personnel by the exercise of sane control and the imposition of healthful tasks. In consequence soldiers careened along the streets, revelling in acts of deviltry and utterly forgetting the intolerable climate and their own personal hardships.47 Hospitals were soon filled. By the 16th of April five hundred and fifty-three were sick — almost one-third of the whole command.48 For the care of these peace-time casualties only two surgeons and two mates were available, and one of the former was confined to his bed.49 Hospital stores were soon exhausted of the stock remedies for chills and fevers.
New Orleans was no place for the army to remain if it was to be saved from dissolution. Rent and commodity prices were soaring in the city. Many of its leading characters, feeling that their day of vengeance had come, baited the General with ridicule and sneers. Nevertheless, he seemed in no hurry to remove the army elsewhere until the rainy season had abated, although the Secretary of War had directed him to do in a letter of the 30th of April. He found excuse for delay by declaring that he did not receive it until a month and a half later.50 Other reasons may have caused his inertia. He was loath to be away from the pleasing companionship of friends. Here lived Celestine Laveau Trudeau, whom he was to marry within less than a year. He had to dispose of some personal merchandise acquired in Havana and some flour that he had shipped contrary to the embargo. Both were guarded by a company of soldiers and housed in a building costing the government $1,800 a year.51 Of course, he was not reluctant to interview and entertain Folch, who reached New Orleans on the 28th of April.52 The Governor felt that Bonaparte would triumph and West Florida would fall to the United States. So Wilkinson reported, advising his superiors to send an agent to arrange details for the province's p253 surrender — an act that might be hastened by a monetary gift to its officials.53 Very naturally, he offered to handle the financial arrangements.
Thus the days slipped by, and search for a new camp site was unreasonably delayed. Not until the 29th of May did Wilkinson believe that he had found one suitable for his purposes, •twelve miles below New Orleans and near a settlement of about sixty persons called Terre aux Boeufs. It was situated on the left bank of the Mississippi, at a point where the river makes a great bend, commonly known as English Turn.54
Wilkinson later endeavored to justify his selection by quoting the unimpressive opinion of others concerning its salubrity.55 By the change expenses were cut, but only at the cost of great discomfort and disgust. Slight strategic advantages were obtained, and the Secretary of War had good reason for belief that his orders had been ignored.
Fitting the place for a camp was a task of great labor, particularly in the hot, sultry days of midsummer. A part of the land was covered with heavy grasses, and here and there were gnarled live oaks with spreading, moss-grown branches; the rest was swampy, tropical jungle — willows, cypress, palmettos, brambles. On June 9 Major Pike arrived at Terre aux Boeufs — the selfsame Pike who had blazed a way to the Colorado mountains and who was soon to find his Valhalla beneath the parapets of York. With him were five hundred men, who went to work redeeming the wilderness and kept at it with varying industry until •about thirty acres were cleared. A rumor circulated that the owner was being paid high for his land and having it improved in the bargain — a story easily believed by those who had long hours of irksome fatigue.56
The work of clearing finished, that of drainage began. The camp site lay •three feet below the ordinary level of the river, which was only •fifty-five yards distant when the waters rose. Hence, the men were quickly making the dirt fly for a huge ditch and numerous laterals to furnish the principal drainage. Tents were laid out in parallel lines •about eight hundred yards long. On the sides of the p254 main ditch, where the ground was higher, sentinels walked post and learned the fundamentals of guard duty.57
For those who were able to get about, little time remained after routine police and training of the day had ended. What leisure there was, necessarily had to be spent in camp. Getting to New Orleans was not easy. Once soldiers succeeded, they found little in the city for dirty, half-naked bankrupts; consequently they stayed with their kind. In foul weather they found refuge in tents that held a half-dozen apiece; sick and well all kenneled together. Here and there they lay, filthy men in filthy straw. Often rain descended in torrents, coming through well worn tents as through a sieve; nor did improvised wooden floors wholly protect from the rising water or the mud that followed after. When the river was in full flood during July, the drainage ditches, filled with sewage, overflowed and littered the camp with foulness. Flies were everywhere. Sick men neglected all rules of sanitation.58 When rains ceased and clouds blew away, the grounds steamed and stank under the scorching sun. Nor was there relief from the heat until evening, when leaves began to rustle with the breath of the sea.
When the weather permitted, soldiers found it more to their liking to loiter about beneath the palmetto arbors along the company street. Here they could gossip with the convalescents. Here, too, they could wash down their rancid pork and sour bread with muddy river water or experience for a moment the warming glow of their daily gill of whisky. Toward evening they gathered wretchedly in little groups around the •smudge fires in the hope of getting relief from the mosquitoes — a privilege denied to their weakened companions, whose piteous outcries were so often heard from the near-by tents.59
Only the sick in hospital were provided with mosquito bars; the cost of them for others could not be met by an unpaid soldier or a saving Secretary of War. At a later day even stables and hen-houses in this locality were protected with screening.60 As a cheaper substitute, a curtain was made for tent entrances; it proved of little value, for sick men were constantly going and p255 coming during the night. When the wind blew from the wrong direction, mosquitoes swarmed in fabulous numbers. With them came a nauseating odor. Men had been carelessly buried near by and lay under a few scant inches of loam.61
Sickness had become so general that at times some organizations had only five or ten men fit for duty. Improvised hospitals could not receive all who needed help; many of the sick remained in their own company tents and were attended by their well-wishing but ignorant comrades. Medicines were insufficient and not of the right kind. Patients received little attention; there were too many for the few surgeons and mates, who were often seriously sick like the rest. Several civilian physicians were employed, and even a line officer, with a local knowledge of medicine, was drafted for hospital service. Efforts to salvage those stricken with fever and bowel complaints were not successful. From June 10 to September 14, 1809, 127 died and 18 deserted.62
Doubtless sickness and mortality might have been sensibly diminished had there been adequate and proper supplies, particularly rations.63 Sometimes the flour was moldy and looked like brimstone, was full of worms and bugs. Not infrequently pork was rusty, and beef not fit to be issued. Whisky was probably as good as the red-nosed might care for, but it proved no helpful panacea to men already broken by divers diseases. So bad did the rations become that Wilkinson went out and purchased one hundred barrels of flour and a small amount of fresh beef.64
Besides the inherent difficulties in buying good rations in the open market, there was another reason why Wilkinson did not care to do so; he was in evident collusion with the contractor, James Morrison, who had sent him eleven horses as an apparent reimbursement for official helpfulness. In a letter of July 28, 1809, Morrison revealed their unbecoming connection:
"You know whether the contract is profitable depends on the commander-in‑chief.
. . . . . . . . . . . . . .
"Should I visit New Orleans in winding up my contract will make such arrangements on this head as will no doubt be satisfactory to p256 you. On this head don't have a moment's uneasiness. Be as serviceable to me as you can, where you are, keeping the public in view, and it may be in my power to be in some way serviceable to you.
. . . . . . . . . . . . . .
"Should a part [of the flour] become unfit for use, I have directed them [his agents] to purchase and mix with sweet flour so as to make it palatable. Don't I pray you order an examination unless in the last resort."65
Morrison believed that Wilkinson was dependable, and that his contract would be profitable; hence he wanted to be awarded another at a letting on October 25. In this way he worded his request for aid:
"Will you oblige me, by giving your opinion on the price which you conceive the Ration will be furnished at each post, calculating on a moderate profit — write briefly and without reserve marking the letter Private."66
Until a better system was devised, corruption would continue and soldiers would be poorly fed. Supplying by contract was a fertile field of graft. New components of the ration were needed, such as coffee, sugar, and vegetables. Poorly sheltered and hard-worked men in a semitropical climate could not exist on food which was often worse than that given slaves on the same plantations. Even dull-witted masters knew that good slaves were costly and had to be cared for; Congressmen still believed that efficient soldiers were cheap and could be easily obtained.
Supplies other than rations were subject to a similar uncertainty. Most of them were forwarded to or purchased by a military agent, who was something of a department quartermaster enjoying a civilian status but appointed by the War Department and subject to its control.67 In theory, he was presumed to secure what the commanding general requisitioned; in reality, he was hamstrung by regulations and a recurrent lack of funds. Consequently, even strategic movements might depend on whether he and the contractor could properly function. When supplies were bad, they might be condemned and others bought in a local market. If such purchases could be made, the price was usually exorbitant.
This defective supply system grew worse when the administration p257 lost confidence in Wilkinson and made unreasonable efforts to economize. On April 26, 1808, Henry Dearborn, Secretary of War, had written to Abraham D. Abrahams, military agent at New Orleans, that "Fifty dollars, is the highest sum to be allowed, in any case not previously authorized, except in extraordinary circumstances."68 And the Secretary, of course, sat in final judgment on just what constituted "extraordinary circumstances." He tried also to determine what should be bought of a routine kind. In a left of August 20 he graciously allowed the purchase of a reasonable supply of mosquito nets.69 On December 12, $10,000 was sent to the military agent for contingencies of the Army, such as quarters, transportation, and camp equipage. Not a dollar of this amount was to be spent "except for articles actually received, or for services performed."70 Wilkinson remonstrated, declaring that he could not always state specifically for what he drew money before a purchase was made.71
In March, 1809, a Dr. William Eustis stepped into Dearborn's shoes. They were somewhat oversize, but he kept their toes pointed in the same direction as his economical predecessor had done. With Abrahams' resignation before him, Eustis gave the office of military agent to Andrew McCulloch on the 4th of May. The letter appointing him hazarded another scheme for saving. The organization quartermasters were to make no expenditures except what were "absolutely necessary without his particular direction."72 These orders lasted longer than the Scotchman, for on the 6th of August he was gathered to his fathers. Nevertheless, he had lived long enough to commit a grievous sin; he had purchased high-priced chickens, eggs, wine, etc. for the sick in hospital. For his action a reprimand was written, but it arrived too late; only the surgeon, his accomplice, was alive and could recall having done inadmissible things.73 Major Pike was finally induced to take over the office as a sort of "pinch hitter." With the military chest empty and drafts in high disfavor, he had to make preparations for moving the army one hundred leagues up the river to the neighborhood of Fort Adams and Natchez.74
p258 Wilkinson had at last determined to move the army thither as he had been ordered to do on April 30 and June 22. He could no longer evade or procrastinate; Eustis was obdurate; officers and men were eager for the change. On July 12 they had been on the point of mutiny, rebellious because of their misery and egged on, as Wilkinson said, by Clark and his adherents.75 Once tranquillity had returned, the General was still bedeviled by an increasing number of resignations and requests for furloughs.76 His own nephew, Captain Clement C. Biddle, of the Dragoons, went on leave and sent in his resignation afterwards.77 In spite of these conditions Wilkinson wanted the troops to remain where they were; by doing so, they would enable him to avoid public admission of error in selecting Terre aux Boeufs. After ignoring War Department orders he had nothing to show for his disobedience except a demoralized and bedridden army that was a constant drain upon the public purse. He hated to see the Secretary's judgment vindicated when his own had so miserably failed. In consequence, he consistently tried to make Terre aux Boeufs appear better than it actually was and endeavored to show that the movement up the river was wholly undesirable, giving it only a perfunctory support.
On September 20 the movement of the Natchez actually began — nearly three months after the order of June 22. Instead of going in small units at regular intervals, all the fifteen hundred were crowded on a few wretched boats at one time. Only the very worst cases were left behind in a New Orleans hospital. Wilkinson complained that it could handle no more and made little effort to enlarge facilities. Convalescents were put on board with others in worse condition; those who were in fair health marched overland as best they could. Wilkinson himself felt too unwell to make the journey and remained in New Orleans.
The pay of the enlisted personnel was from two to six months in arrears. A private then earned only five dollars a month.79 The p259 paymaster, hidebound and dyspeptic, did not consider it part of regulations to go to Terre aux Boeufs and pay them there, although Wilkinson requested him to do so and had provided facilities for him to do so. When the troops stayed over three days at New Orleans, Major Backus said the General was against payment for fear that many would desert.80 Several organizations managed to circumvent fatuity and red tape and got their dues.
A few hospital stores were distributed haphazardly to the boats. No money was available to defray contingent expenses.81 Purchases had to be made, and money drawn for them afterwards. If they could, sick and well alike subsisted on poor flour, salt pork, and indifferent whisky.
It was a dismal pageant of incompetence that moved slowly northward over the great waste of dingy water. About fifteen hundred wards of a newly founded republic were playing the leading rôle — hired automatons about whom nobody very much cared. When rain came down in torrents over the helpless on the crowded decks, there was only a blanket to protect them from the deluge. This, too, was their only protection in the evenings when their vitality was low and the autumn winds blew cool. When the sun hung low over the cypresses and pines along the western bank, the boats drew in to shore, and camp was pitched for the night. Here was prepared the last and only hot meal of the day. Here, too, was made ready the burial of those who had died since morning. The company commander collected a few trinkets for the next of kin and then had the body wrapped in a blanket and covered with a few feet of soil and turf. Nothing much marked their passing, only a change in the morning report and high lush grass soon growing from where the hospital orderlies had laid them. When the sun rose and the men gathered themselves out of the mud of their bivouac, the burial squad again made the rounds to gather up what was left of the boyish recruits and worn-out veterans who had gone that night on their last great adventure; and once again scenes of the day before would be enacted.82
Stops were made as the boats progressed up the river. On October 3, Point Coupee was reached, and here a hospital was established and upward of one hundred of the worst cases were left. No public p260 funds being available for the purchase of necessities for these unfortunates, the officers raised one hundred dollars among themselves. The money was left with the surgeon that he might buy vegetables and fowls to supplement their revolting diet.83 A few of those left behind lived, but most of them died. At Fort Adams, on the 17th, one hundred and twenty officers and privates were landed and put under the care of a single officer, one Dr. Thurston. Of these and fourteen others who were subsequently left there, one-half soon died.84
Finally, during the last days of October, the rest of the woe-begone army reached Natchez — the hoped-for El Dorado of health. They still had •six miles to go before they came to Fort Washington. Here Colonel Cushing, as a commanding officer, had made little or no preparation to shelter them. When once settled, the troops were better off than before. Now they could get a few vegetables, new clothing, and a little money. The coolness of autumn, too, was bracing. But nearly all still carried within them germs of pestilence; and so it was that many were merely to glimpse the better country they were destined never to enjoy. From February, 1809, to January, 1810, inclusive, losses aggregated over 1,000 out of about 2,036 men.85 The army had passed through worse days than those of dreadful battle.
Wilkinson was not with the first contingents that reached Natchez. He was sick and lingered for a time in New Orleans, where Army business offered a plausible reason for him to remain behind. Perhaps he was also delayed by the charms of Celestine Trudeau, daughter of the Surveyor-General of Louisiana and cousin of the wife of Governor Claiborne. To leave her and lead a bedridden army to a distant station might demonstrate strength of character; but by that very act he would give tacit approval to War Department orders after he had continuously maintained that the troops should remain at Terre aux Boeufs, where they had lately improved slightly in health and might find conditions more tolerable during the approaching winter.
By November, Wilkinson had regained much of his customary p261 strength and was able to ascend the Mississippi to rejoin his command. About this time that he arrived in Natchez, Captain Winfield Scott returned from an extended leave that he had been enjoying since June.86 Though immature and voluble, Scott possessed marked confidence and ability. Without the experience but with the rank of much older officers, he was an object of envy to ambitious subalterns, while to some of his seniors he appeared little short of an upstart, who needed to be disciplined. For several years he had held a low opinion of Wilkinson, and since joining the Army he had not refrained from openly expressing it in scandalous language. Wilkinson, on his part, always resented criticism and was nettled because of Scott's secret correspondence with Eustis.87 On reaching Natchez in November, Scott found that certain soldiers of his company had complained, during his absence, that they had never been paid for September and October of the year before. A court of inquiry was quickly instituted in December to investigate the complaint, and before long regular charges were preferred. A general court-martial, beginning Scott's trial on January 10, 1810, found him guilty of two specifications: withholding pay from his men, and publicly proclaiming Wilkinson a traitor, liar, and scoundrel.88
Rightfully enough the court could not exonerate Scott for what he had done. He had been intrusted with the pay his men for September and October, 1808, and yet he had made no settlement with some of them until thirteen or fourteen months later. Perhaps he did have to pay scattered debts for his soldiers, but there was a balance due them, and this they very much needed during their wretched stay at Terre aux Boeufs. Distributing a few dollars might have relieved the misery of some, possibly saved the lives of a few. Taking advantage of sick and ignorant recruits cannot be excused on the ground that he was an inexperienced officer without a knowledge of Army routine. The Army had no intricate ritual for being honest. Giving another person his money is sheer simplicity; the difficulty consists in doing so after it has been spent.
Neither does uncontrolled railing at Wilkinson redound to Scott's credit. He tried to escape punishment for such tavern slander by p262 declaring that the General was not his commanding officer when the opprobrious remarks were alleged to have been made between December 1, 1809, and January 1, 1810. His contention may have been true, for Wilkinson was relieved by Hampton on the 19th of December. Nevertheless, Scott must bear the reproach of being a maliciously blatant young officer uncontrolled by the rules of decent restraint. The extenuating circumstances that he offered in his defense were not altogether convincing; the members of the court sentenced him to the loss of "all rank, pay, and emoluments" for a year. Later they recommended, although unsuccessfully, that nine months of the sentence be remitted.89
During the trial Wilkinson was an interested observer. He was also busy with Brigadier-General Hampton, who had arrived there on the 14th of December. On the 16th he wrote a letter of about thirty-three hundred words to his successor, fully describing the disposition, condition, and mission of the scattered detachments of the Army on the lower Mississippi.90 It was more than a routine paper; it showed a definite desire to help. Hampton, never slow in returning a courtesy or an insult, kept friendly with Wilkinson, who continued at Natchez until he had recovered his health and collected data that might be useful on his prospective visit to the Capital.
By the end of February, Wilkinson was as healthy as ever and was ready to start down the Mississippi. After a five-day trip in a twenty-oared barge, he and his staff reached New Orleans on the 2nd of March and were duly received with a "federal salute."91 He came in full dignity and glory and was bent upon a matter of very personal concern. His fiancée was awaiting him. On Monday the 5th, he and Celestine Laveau Trudeau were married in St. Mary's Chapel of the Ursulines.92 Protestants and Catholics, looking on, wondered at the wedding; she was in her twenties and he was fifty-two. On the other hand, she was noted for her charm and moved easily in the circles where Wilkinson, still vigorous and interesting, had many friends. A short ecstatic honeymoon of a few days, and he was once more upon his way. Bidding his wife farewell, he took ship, and soon afterwards p263 was travelling through the deep blue waters of the Gulf on his way to Washington.
On April 16, 1810, Wilkinson, reaching Baltimore, hastened on to Washington, where two investigations concerning him were pending in the House of Representatives. Always opposing expenditures for the Army and continually criticizing its personnel, John Randolph of Roanoke seldom failed to single out Wilkinson as a target for unbridled invective. Daniel Clark was his principal fetch-and‑carry helper in this business of muckraking and abuse. These two, with their allies, were not at all affected by the fact that a military court of inquiry, meeting in 1808, had cleared Wilkinson of any misconduct as an officer. Possessing a fairly intimate knowledge of the General's dubious transactions in the neighborhood of New Orleans, Clark had not failed to tell about them in various anti-administration papers. During the summer of 1809, he had gone so far as to have a book published called "Proofs of the Corruption of General James Wilkinson and His Connexion with Aaron Burr." According to current gossip, Clark had spent freely to collect the information that its three hundred and forty-nine pages contained; he had given lands and negroes liberally to those who had supplied the evidence that he wanted.93 Although in a spirit of vindictive hate, the book has letters and documents of a kind that made Wilkinson wince and made many doubt his integrity.
Before long the House of Representatives took action. On April 4, 1810, a resolution was passed for an inquiry into Wilkinson's conduct. It was to ascertain if he had received money corruptly from Spanish agents and had been an accomplice of Burr or others for the purpose of injuring Spain or dismembering the Union. William Butler, from South Carolina, was appointed chairman of a committee with four others to round out the inquiry. Congress was to adjourn on the 1st of May, and they could accomplish very little in this short time. However, they did collect a good deal of information, which they turned over to the House without expressing an opinion respecting the guilt or innocence of Wilkinson.94
Simultaneously the enemies of Wilkinson and the administration had launched another attack from a different quarter. On March 13, 1810, they secured the appointment of a committee to find out the p264 causes of the Army's great mortality near New Orleans. On April 27, its chairman, Thomas Newton, a Representative from Virginia, submitted a report with numerous letters and depositions. According to its conclusions, deaths had come from the fact that the troops were green, fatigue details excessive, provisions unwholesome, and hospital stores, tentage, and mosquito nets inadequate; besides, the climate was unhealthy, the camp-site undesirable, and proper sanitation almost impracticable.95 As one reads the gloomy pages of the report, the unsuitability of Terre aux Boeufs and administrative incompetence bulk largest in the somber background.
With the adjournment of the second session of the Eleventh Congress on the 1st of May, Wilkinson felt relieved; he now had a breathing spell to perfect his plans for bringing confusion on those whom he believed to be plotting his ruin. Politicians who thought Wilkinson would surrender his "injured honor" without a fight made a false reckoning. On June 24, he asked the President for a court of inquiry. Denied this request, he then asked that fourteen officers of the Army be ordered to Washington to testify in his behalf at the office of the Inspector-General. Again he was denied. Not to be outdone, and that all might know how "scurvilly" he had been treated, he began writing a sketch of his life in order to correct the views of his "deluded countrymen."96
To many Democratic-Republicans he was an embarrassing incubus of which they heartily wished to be rid. Open to attack from many angles, he always defended himself with extraordinary skill, caring little how others were affected as long as his own cause was well served. To a party that stood for frugality in government expenditures, Wilkinson exemplified the opposite extreme. During the summer of 1809 he had drawn $1,454.40 for rations, a sum not authorized by any provision of law. Although entitled to official transportation for himself, he used it for a great superfluity of flour, apples, horses, and household effects that he might use or sell at his journey's end. When Jefferson had wanted some "off the record" work done in diplomacy, he called in Wilkinson and furnished him with secret service money for which no expense vouchers were required. In 1807, $2,500 was given him for this purpose. Thus Wilkinson seemed forever enjoying more p265 than his legal pay and perquisites, much to the discomfiture of William Simmons, accountant of the War Department. The General would have disturbed any bookkeeper; to Simmons, mediocre and hostile, he was a perennial nuisance. Simmons retaliated by telling glibly of Wilkinson's shortcomings and holding up his pay whenever opportunity offered.97
Wilkinson needed all the money that he could lay his hands on in 1810; he had to win friends and collect evidence to frustrate the efforts of his persistent enemies. When the Eleventh Congress reassembled on the 3rd of December, his career was brought again under fire from the same quarters as before. Ezekiel Bacon, a Representative from Massachusetts, supplanted William Butler as chairman of the committee investigating Wilkinson's relations with Burr and Spaniards; Thomas Newton continued as head of the other one concerned with troop mortality at New Orleans. The General was allowed to attend the hearings of both committees and offer what evidence he chose. He made good use of the privilege; for, once his relations with the Spaniards were clearly disclosed, his career as an Army officer would cease. He therefore spent most of his time and energy in trying to convince Bacon and his colleagues of his innocence; with the other group of muckrakers he was not so anxiously concerned.98
On February 26, both committees reported. They had been investigating since the 19th of December. Bacon's fellow workers had reached no conclusions; all of their voluminous data were ordered transmitted to the President. Newton's report, except for one member, was the same that he and the others had made during the previous April. William Crawford, of Pennsylvania, dissented; he stated that Terre aux Boeufs was not one of the causes of great mortality and Wilkinson had not disobeyed by moving troops thither. This lack of unanimity provoked discussion and prevented the report from being sent on to Madison; it remained to yellow in the archives of the House.99
After the adjournment of Congress on the 3rd of March, Eustis suggested that Wilkinson return to New Orleans and await the pleasure p266 of its members when they convened in December. This suggestion was hateful to the General; rather "bare my bosom to the fire of a platoon," he angrily replied. He did not expect to remain in equivocal degradation; he would clear himself once and for all. Madison, too, wanted political enemies to cease using Wilkinson as a stalking horse for partisan purposes; they were embarrassing an already harassed administration. A court-martial would forestall further investigation. On the 1st of June, Wilkinson was ordered to appear before one. On July 7, 1811, he was furnished with a copy of the charges and told that his trial would occur in September at Frederick-Town, Maryland. His chief regret was that it would not begin earlier.100
He had been working hard and had collected a mass of evidence that he confidently believed would deliver him from the snares of his enemies. A good deal of it was contained in a book of some two hundred and thirty-five pages that he had finished about the first of May. It was called the "Memoirs of General Wilkinson," but its subtitle is more suggestive: "Burr's Conspiracy Exposed and General Wilkinson Vindicated Against the Slanders of his enemies on that Important Occasion." Though not a finished brief completely proving the General's innocence, it contains enough to generate more than a reasonable doubt that he was in collusion with Burr. It is marred by his turgid eloquence and tiresome bombast; it is disjointed, unorganized, and pedantic, unredeemed by humor and sometimes damned by wilful deception. Few men of equal ability would have written worse; few could have used the same material to better personal advantage. As his own lawyer, he was peerless. Always convinced of his innocence and confident of victory, he asked and gave no quarter. In fact, none of his contemporaries surpassed him as a vivid and deluded crusader for a questionable cause. This peculiar talent of his was soon to undergo an acid test.
In the late summer of 1811 the people in Frederick-Town, Maryland, were all agog over the court-martial soon to be held there. Eight years before, they had gossiped with interest about Colonel Thomas Butler, who was being tried because he had refused to cut his hair in the manner that Army orders prescribed. Some of his partisans had overlooked how belligerent and cantankerous he was; they had considered him only as an aged Revolutionary hero whom the commanding p267 general of the Army wanted to persecute. They now saw the tables turned, a sort of avenging justice at work. Wilkinson was coming to town to defend himself against charges more numerous than those Butler might have formulated in the days of his deepest bitterness.
Frederick-Town was a suitable place for such trials. It lay on one of the main highways to the West and was only •fifty miles from Washington. Distinguished travelers might find hearty welcome at the red brick, stone-trimmed houses of the more affluent planters. The passing stranger could obtain comfortable accommodations at the "Golden Lamb,"101 a well known tavern over which a certain Mrs. Kimball ably presided. She furnished good fare and attracted bright company, and many a couple crossed her threshold to make merry at routs and balls. Once in a while a gay troupe of dancers came for a day or two to demonstrate their grace and skill to those who were worldly-minded. The delights of earthly things were highly valued by the near-by planters. On the rich and rolling acres of the neighborhood, they spent an easy and attractive life cultivating the soil with the help of many slaves.
Hence, not a few of the emigrants from eastern Maryland had halted on their trek to the West, establishing themselves permanently in Frederick-Town. One of these was Roger Brooke Taney, coming from Calvert County, where he and James Wilkinson had grown up as boys. Unlike many others, Taney's main interests were professional, and within a few years he had established an enviable reputation as a lawyer throughout the state. When the Burr trial occurred, he had expressed disapproval of the part Wilkinson had played in it. Later, he had changed his mind and, believing the General a persecuted victim deserving assistance, he had agreed to become the chief lawyer for the defense in the court-martial at Frederick-Town. John Hanson Thomas, of marked legal ability, joined him as colleague. These two could be depended upon to break up the well directed attack of the prosecution under the leadership of the judge-advocate, Walter Jones, who had pleaded many a case before the federal Supreme Court.102
On the 4th of September the court opened. In addition to the president, Brigadier-General Peter Gansevoort, it was composed of p268 eleven officers ranging from major to colonel. When Wilkinson appeared he was in all the fine feather of Army regalia. Always a splendid showman, he surrendered his sword with melodramatic gesture, dubbing it, as he did so, "the untarnished companion of my thigh for forty years." With laconic reply Gansevoort accepted the sword and straightway proceeded to try the defendant upon a staggering list of eight charges and twenty-five specifications.103
From a portrait by St. Memin in The St. Memin Collection of Portraits, p33 of plates.
In casting these into form, the prosecution had overlooked few of Wilkinson's shortcomings since 1787, when he had first drifted down the Mississippi to begin his backstairs intrigues with the agents of Spain. The first fifteen specifications declared that he had received pension money at different times in varying amounts from the Spaniards and that he had been engaged with them in treasonable projects; the next three asserted that he had been an accomplice of Burr in western conspiracy; the last seven charged him with offenses committed during the two years of 1805 and 1809: disobedience, neglect of duty, and the misuse and waste of public money and supplies.104
In endeavoring to make a good case against Wilkinson the prosecution had overreached itself. Since Burr had been acquitted in 1807 no reason existed for trying Wilkinson as an accomplice four years later; it was even less pertinent to arraign him for having received a pension from Spain in 1789, before he had been commissioned in the Army. In spite of the fact that sixteen or more years had elapsed since any one had seriously worked to seduce Kentucky from the Union, Wilkinson now found himself charged with complicity in this very plot. Thus ten of the twenty-five specifications might well have been outlawed. Wilkinson did not remonstrate; he longed to end being annually investigated; he wanted to silence his accusers forever on whatever complaints they had. A few meaningless ones made no difference to him; the important part of his case rested on the remaining fifteen specifications.
If once Wilkinson were proved guilty of disobedience of orders and neglect of his troops at New Orleans, he might expect to be cashiered. Therefore, he tried to excuse his flouting of orders to move northward to higher ground by declaring that they allowed liberal interpretation.105 As commanding general he should have been allowed p269 a reasonable latitude; but the War Department scarcely expected him to use it to bring disgrace on himself and ruin to an army. When he was finally compelled to move his troops to the neighborhood of Natchez, many of them suffered and died because he observed the letter rather than the spirit of the orders. He seemed to want the movement made to fail because it was Eustis' plan, not his own. He employed a contemptible device; he pleaded that he could have done no better with the orders that he had received. By the use of this subterfuge, he showed conclusively that he was not of the stuff from which great generals are made. That the court did not find him guilty of some of the specifications relating to this phase of his conduct may be ascribed to a deep-seated antipathy against the administration, to a lack of evidence now available, and to extenuating circumstances created by a dull-witted and parsimonious Secretary of War.
Very different reasons explain why Wilkinson was not convicted of being a pensioner of Spain while an officer of the Army. He knew that one authenticated receipt of such tainted money would have ended his career in the service and made him useless as a secret agent of Spain. Thus his two great sources of revenue would have simultaneously ceased. Wilkinson could least afford to lose this part of his case. Sparing neither himself nor his purse, he endeavored to disprove the eight specifications relating to his receipt of money from the Spanish governors at New Orleans. Fortunately for him, Miró, Gayoso, Carondelet, and Casa Calvo either were dead or had no desire to furnish incriminating evidence. That which was supplied came, according to Wilkinson, from a choice lot of stalwart knaves: Power was "utterly lost to probity and principle," Daniel Clark was a colorless wretch of cunning, treachery, and falsehood, and Andrew Ellicott was a profligate lover of washerwomen. Others of the prosecution were assailed with similar bitterness. Although they were not nearly so bad as he painted them, there was enough truth in his statements to throw doubt on the evidence they offered and to bring into question the motives that induced them to give it.
For his own part Wilkinson denied receiving any money as a pension; he said it represented balances remaining from tobacco sales in which he and Miró had been secretly engaged at New Orleans. This was an old explanation. Wilkinson now strengthened it by introducing a professed balance sheet that was the work of Philip p270 Nolan, who had been killed in Texas in 1801. Since no convincing evidence was produced to prove its entries erroneous, it proved a strong point in the General's system of defense. As introduced into court, it is given below:
General Wilkinson in Account with Don E. M.
|1790||June 2,||To Cash paid Philip Nolan —||$ 1800|
|1792||Aug. 4,||To do. remitted by Lacassan —||4000|
|1794||July 29,||To do. remitted by Owen —||6000|
|To do. paid insurance 12½ per cent||750|
|To do. remitted by J. E. Collins||6350|
|1796||Jan. 4,||To do. paid Philip Nolan per receipt||9000|
To balance due J. W.
By net proceeds of 235 hogshead of Tobacco condemned in the year 1790 by Arietta, and passed in the year 1791 by Brion —
By so much recovered for loss sustained on the cargo of the boat Speedwell —
By so much sent by H. Owen, insured —
|Balance due James Wilkinson||$ 2095|
|New Orleans, January 4, 1796.|
(Errors excepted) for Don E. M.
The fictitious transcript of New Orleans transactions was not fabricated in January, 1796, as dated but in the latter part of the same year when Nolan was visiting Wilkinson in Kentucky. The General was then greatly disturbed lest the truth of his Spanish connection be made public. While in this state of mind he was preparing to go to Philadelphia, the temporary Capital, with the avowed object of keeping down the military establishment, disgracing his commander, and getting for himself the command of the Army. Ruled by motives so unbecoming, he realized keenly that he himself must appear with clean hands before the seats of the mighty; consequently he wrote the following to Carondelet, the Spanish Governor at New Orleans:
"If I am questioned by Washington on my arrival at Philadelphia, p271 I will avow a mercantile connection with New Orleans since 88 and in which I still remain interested and on this ground I will account for the money received by La C. [La Cassagne], O. [Owens], Col. [Collins] & Ca [Carondelet] but I will deny receiving a dollar by Power and I will add that a balance is still due me. To circumstantiate this assertion I will cause the faithful Philip Nolan now with me to make an account in form with a letter of advice dated at New Orleans last autumn a copy of which he will deposite with Gilberto when he returns."107
Thus were old transactions to hide the pension money relayed to Wilkinson by the hand of La Cassagne, Owens, Collins, and Nolan. Although Power had played a rôle like the other four, no corresponding entry was to be made for him in this conspiracy of bookkeeping. He knew too much and was known too well. As a subject of Spain and messenger of the Spanish Governor of Louisiana, he had three times been employed on trips to Wilkinson before 1798; and these, according to current belief, had objects of sinister import to the Union. Wanting to keep him "out of view," Wilkinson might well deny receiving a dollar from him. Even in this period of mud-spattered diplomacy, an aspiring brigadier could ill afford to have mysterious doings with Power and his master Carondelet. Nevertheless, Wilkinson in his avid reach for gain, was willing to continue working in the shadow of suspicion; for his account contemplated an outstanding balance of approximately $2,000, which was obviously designed to clothe a subsequent remittance in honest raiment.
In a word, Wilkinson, by resurrecting an old business, devised a financial statement that, once filed with Gilbert Leonard, the Spanish treasurer, could be readily referred to as a prime means of vindication. Well did it serve its purpose; it is identical with the one that the General flaunted before the court as a convincing badge of innocence.
Happily for Wilkinson the papers that held the truth of his double-dealings were kept safely in the custody of the Spanish officials, who had ample reasons for silence in 1811. Long before his trial Miró, Carondelet, and Gayoso had been gathered to their fathers, and even the magnificent field of their efforts had been transferred from the service of empire. Only since the opening of the archives in Spain have the ghosts of the past come forth to tell the real story of what p272 happened. In Seville is found a yellowed sheet, apparently Wilkinson's true bill for services. The officers, sitting a judge at Frederick-Town, knew it not; therefore no opprobrium can rest upon them for their verdict of innocence; only on the defendant must rest an added burden of guilt. The account, showing Wilkinson's receipts and services, is as follows:
Statement of Wilkinson's Account to
Pension from 1st January 89 to 1st January 96
to so much advanced by advice of Carondelet & Gayoso to retard, disjoint and defeat the mediated irruption of General Clark in La.
|Received from Miró||7000|
|Received from Carondelet by La Cassagne||4000|
|Received from Carondelet by Collins||6000|
Of the taken credited
|L C has paid||2600|
|Collins has paid||2500|
the balance is disipated [sic] or fraudulently applyd [sic]
A true account upon honour W.108
The account is in Spanish and English, and the two are alike except for a few unimportant variations. Naturally Wilkinson did not write out this incriminating document or sign it in full, especially since he was then under a heavy cloud of suspicion and had implored his Spanish friends neither to write nor even to mention his name.109 Clearly his account was handled in the same way as some of his letters when they required great secrecy and the use of a code. In such cases, decoded copies are found in the handwriting of the Spanish secretary; and are usually filed, though not always, with the originals. On this hypothesis, the account might easily appear as it does.
The various items that compose the account dissipate the suspicion that it is the work of Spanish officials who were attempting to hide unwarranted disbursements. Wilkinson admitted, at one time or another, receiving the three amounts that total the $17,000 with which the Spanish government is credited. He obtained the sum p273 of $7,000 only after writing various letters to Miró begging for a loan of $10,000 to strengthen his credit and fortune.110 The variation in the Collins entries of some $350 may have had its origin in the cost of transporting the money. The difference would mean nothing to the General in the fictitious statement that he prepared for the gullible, but it might arouse the inquiries of the critical who believed that Collins had set out with $6,350. On the contrary, in a bona fide account prepared for his own paymasters, Wilkinson was not the type of man to lean backward with generosity and assume what appears to be the cost of delivering the money of his own pension. The La Cassagne sum of $4,000 is identical in both the Nolan and Wilkinson statements and requires no special comment.
By striking a balance between the debits and credits of the Wilkinson account the interesting figure of $5,640 is found. It is significant that Carondelet informed Wilkinson in 1797, "You ought to depend upon an annual bounty of four thousand dollars, which shall be delivered at your order and to the person you may indicate."111 This increase of $2,000 in Wilkinson's pension may have been effective from January 1, 1796. If so, and his account was accepted as correct, the amount due to him would have been $9,640 by the end of the year 1796. According to Power, this is the amount which he turned over to Nolan at Louisville, and from which $640 was deducted at Frankfort for bringing the money from New Orleans.112 Wilkinson publicly denied ever receiving money from Power, although he did admit that Nolan obtained $9,000 for him at New Orleans on January 4, 1796. If the General's pension was not increased, the $9,640 may have represented the sum of the annual payment amounts of it for 1796 and 1797 plus the balance of $5,640.
Thus did Wilkinson very cleverly try to circumvent the indictment that he was an agent of Spain. He showed uncommon vigor and persistence in presenting different phases of his defense. He had spent a good deal of money and effort in the gathering of evidence, and he was determined that the court should miss none of it. For five or six days he was engaged in merely summing up his side of the story. And of course the judge-advocate had one of a different strain that he wanted to tell. Witnesses, too, had sometimes been p274 delayed, and when they appeared their testimony was long. In consequence, the trial lasted four months; not until Christmas Day did it adjourn. Although no verdict was disclosed, many surmised that it was favorable to Wilkinson because all the members "very politely waited upon" him in a body shortly after adjournment.113 The proceedings went immediately to Madison, and for six weeks the conscientious President occupied himself with a laborious consideration of their six hundred pages. A "most colossal paper," he termed it wearily; the minutes and printed testimony seemed endless.114 On February 14, 1812, he somewhat ruefully approved the findings of "Not guilty" on all charges and specifications, observing that there were instances of misconduct both by the accused and by members of the court during the trial. But neither he nor any one else could change what twelve men in all honesty had decided. The explanation of the verdict lies largely in the fact that some of the evidence now available was then lacking, and that Wilkinson, Taney, and Thomas had shown themselves more than a match for Walter Jones and his federal assistants.
At last a favorable turn in Wilkinson's career had come. For over four years he had been living under a cloud of suspicion. His activities against Burr during 1806 and 1807 had cost him dear; in them he had laid bare the weaknesses of his own character. From then on he was periodically badgered with official investigations. His persistent enemies were not even deterred by the verdict of the court of inquiry that met in 1808 and completely exonerated him from any dishonorable dealings with the Spaniards. Next year they had seized upon his wretched failure as commander of the army at New Orleans, reviving old charges and drawing up a long list of new ones. Using two committees of the House of Representatives as their vehicles of attack, they still fell short of their objective. In spite of their mass of evidence damaging to the General, they could not bring him to trial. Doing so was a prerogative of the President alone. Finally yielding to pressure, Madison had directed Eustis to issue orders for a court-martial. Wilkinson had duly appeared before it. By the end of February, 1812, he could complacently read its findings acquitting him in every particular.
p275 Wilkinson was now in a position of advantage. Personal and political enemies had done their worst and failed. They could not revive their efforts and make their old standardized attacks; such methods would be hailed as persecution and recoil on their own heads. War was imminent, and those like Wilkinson who had a knowledge of military science would be sought by their country. For him a great opportunity was already in the making. If he could only use it with distinction and success, his fellow citizens would quickly forget his dubious acts and compete with one another in maudlin adulation.
1 Wandell and Minnigerode, Aaron Burr, II, 220.
2 McCaleb, The Aaron Burr Conspiracy, 235.
3 Callan, The Military Laws of the United States, 135, 140.
4 Bruce, John Randolph of Roanoke, I, 314.
5 Annals of Congress, 1807‑1808, I, 1258‑1262.
6 Clark to Power, Jan. 2, 11, 1808, Gansevoort Papers, N. Y. Public Library.
7 Annals of Congress, 1807‑1808, I, 1387‑1391.
9 Bruce, John Randolph of Roanoke, I, 315.
11 Memoirs, II, 10‑11.
12 Annals of Congress, 180, II, 1459, 2726‑2745.
13 Ibid., 2745.
14 Ibid., 2794‑2802.
15 Amer. State Papers, Miscel., II, 124‑126.
16 Memoirs, II, 12‑13.
18 Graves to Wilkinson, May 26, 1808, Wilkinson Papers, Vol. III, Chicago Hist. Soc.
19 To McPherson, July 18, 1808, Ibid.
20 To Smith, Nov. 2, 1808, Darlington Papers.
21 National Intelligencer, Nov. 4, 1808; Callan, The Military Laws of the United States, 140.
22 Callan, The Military Laws of the United States, 140.
23 To Smith, Nov. 2, 1808, Darlington Papers; to Dearborn, Oct. 28, 1808, Wilkinson Papers, L. C.
24 To Folch, Aug. 25, Sept. 15, 1808, and Mar. 8, Apr. 9, 1809, A. G. I., Seville, Papeles de Cuba, leg. 2375.
25 To Cushing, Nov. 7, 1809, Cushing Papers.
26 Channing, A History of the United States, IV, 379‑378.
27 Galpin, "The American Grain Trade Under the Embargo of 1808," in Journal of Economic and Business History, Nov., 1929, p75.
28 "Returns of Military Force in 1807," Amer. State Papers, Mil. Aff., I, 222‑223.
29 Calhoun to House of Representatives, Dec. 14, 1818, Amer. State Papers, Mil. Aff. I, 791.
30 Wilkinson to Cushing, Nov. 22, 1808, Cushing Papers.
31 Dearborn to Wilkinson, Dec. 2, 1808, Memoirs, II, 324‑343.
32 Dearborn to Wilkinson, Jan. 4, 1809, Wilkinson Papers, Vol. III, Chicago Hist. Soc.; Callan, op. cit., 141‑149.
33 Callan, op. cit., 200‑203.
34 Dearborn to Wilkinson, Jan. 6, 1809, Wilkinson Papers, Vol. III, Chicago Hist. Soc.
36 Baltimore Whig, Jan. 25, 1809.
37 Baltimore Whig, Jan. 30, Feb. 6, 14, 1809.
38 Cox, op. cit., 222.
39 Baltimore Whig, Mar. 6, 21, 25, 1809.
40 Cox, op. cit., 223.
41 Ibid., 223‑224.
42 To Folch, Apr. 9, 1809, A. G. I., Seville, Papeles de Cuba, leg. 2375.
43 Memoirs, II, 345‑346.
44 Federal Republican and Commercial Gazette (Baltimore), May 30, 1809, quoted from Pensioner's Mirror (New Orleans), Apr. 20, 1809.
46 Wilkinson, Memoirs, II, 345‑346.
47 Deposition of Peter, in Amer. State Papers, Mil. Aff., I, 282, and deposition of Dale in Wilkinson, Memoirs, II, App. CXI.
48 Memoirs, II, App. CIII.
49 Ibid., 347.
50 Ibid., 379.
51 "Memorandum for Eustis," Monroe Papers, N. Y. Public Library.
52 Cox, op. cit., 234.
53 Ibid., 234‑235.
54 To Eustis, May 29, 1809, in Memoirs, II, 358‑361.
55 Ibid., App. CIX, and Claiborne to Wilkinson, July 28, 1809, W. D., A. G. O., O. R.
56 Deposition of Darrington, in Amer. State Papers, Mil. Aff., I, 282‑284; deposition of Parker, Ibid., 284‑286; deposition of Delassize, Ibid., 294.
57 Testimony of Backus, in Wilkinson, Memoirs, II, App. CVIII; deposition of Ball, in Amer. State Papers, Mil, Aff., I, 278.
58 Testimony of Backus, in Memoirs, II, App. CVIII.
59 Deposition of Darrington, in Amer. State Papers, Mil. Aff., I, 283.
61 "Police Officer's Report," July 12, 1809, in Memoirs, II, App. CVII.
62 Ibid., 373, and Amer. State Papers, Mil. Aff., I, 278‑290.
63 Amer. State Papers, loc. cit.
64 Memoirs, II, 501, 507.
65 Morrison to Wilkinson, July 28, 1809, Wilkinson Papers, Vol. III, Chicago Hist. Soc., and Wilkinson to Eustis, W. D., A. G. O., O. R.
66 Morrison to Wilkinson, July 28, 1809, Wilkinson Papers, Vol. III, Chicago Hist. Soc.
67 Act of Mar. 16, 1802, Sec. 17, in Callan, Military Laws of the United States, 146.
68 Dearborn to Abrahams, Apr. 26, 1808, in Wilkinson, Memoirs, II, 433‑434.
69 Smith to Abrahams, Aug. 20, 1808, Ibid., 435.
70 Dearborn to Abrahams, Dec. 12, 1808, Ibid., 436‑437.
71 To Eustis, May 29, 1809, Wilkinson Papers, Vol. III, Chicago Hist. Soc.
72 Eustis to McCulloch, May 4, 1809, Amer. State Papers, Mil. Aff., I, 276.
73 Eustis to McCulloch, Eustis to Spencer, Aug. 10, 1809, in Wilkinson, Memoirs, II, 451‑452; list of expenditures, Amer. State Papers, Mil. Aff. I, 277.
74 Wilkinson, Memoirs, II, 468.
75 To Eustis, July 17, 1809, Wilkinson Papers, Vol. III, Chicago Hist. Soc.
76 To Eustis, Aug. 27, 1809, W. D., A. G. O., O. R.
77 Biddle to Wilkinson, July 19, 1809, Ibid.
78 Depositions of Backus, Darrington, Ninian Pinkney, Chrystie, in Amer. State Papers, Mil. Aff., I, 280‑290, and Memoirs, II, 418‑421.
79 Act of Mar. 16, 1802, Sec. 4, in Callan, op. cit., 143.
80 Deposition of Backus, Amer. State Papers, Mil. Aff., I, 280; Memoirs, II, 422‑424.
81 To Eustis, July 31, 1809, Wilkinson Papers, Vol. III, Chicago Hist. Soc., and Deposition of Backus, Amer. State Papers, Mil. Aff., I, 281.
82 Deposition of Darrington, Amer. State Papers, Mil. Aff., I, 283.
83 Deposition of Darrington, loc. cit.; Interrogations to Williams, Ibid., 288; Deposition of Backus, Ibid., 281.
84 Deposition of Preble, Amer. State Papers, Mil. Aff., I, 275.
85 Wilkinson gives losses, including desertions, from Feb., 1809, to Jan. 10, 1810, inclusive as 931 (Memoirs, II, 373). To these are to be added 68 deaths at Fort Adams (deposition of Preble, Amer. State Papers, Mil. Aff., I, 283) and certainly some at Point Coupée where more than 100 sick were left (deposition of Darrington, Ibid., 283).
86 Wilkinson, Memoirs, I, 802.
87 To Eustis, Nov. 15, 1809, Wilkinson Papers, Vol. III, Chicago Hist. Soc.
88 A copy of the record of Scott's trial is in W. D., A. G. O., O. R. For comments on it see Wilkinson, Memoirs, I, 796‑813; Scott, Autobiography, I, 37‑40; Elliott, Winfield Scott, 30.
89 Mansfield, Life of General Scott, 27‑28.
90 To Hampton, Dec. 16, 1809, W. D., A. G. O., O. R.
91 Louisiana Gazette, Mar. 6, 1810, and Memoirs, I, 479‑480.
92 Hay, "Some Reflections on the Career of General James Wilkinson," in Miss. Valley Historical Review, XXI, 487.
93 Ibid., 484.
94 Amer. State Papers, Miscel., II, 79‑129.
95 Amer. State Papers, Mil. Aff., I, 268‑295.
96 To Eustis, July 14, 1810, Madison Papers, Vol. XXXIX; Eustis to Madison, July 16, 1810, Ibid.; Wilkinson to Gansevoort, Aug. 24, 1810, Gansevoort Papers.
97 Depositions of William Simmons, Apr. 13, 1810, in Amer. State Papers, Miscel., II, 113‑144.
98 Journal of the House, 11th Congress, 450, 455, 578‑582; Memoirs, II, 15‑24.
99 Report of William Crawford, Wilkinson Papers, Vol. III, Chicago Hist. Soc.; Wilkinson to Madison, Apr. 20, 1811, Madison Papers, Vol. XLII.
100 Memoirs, II, 30‑40.
101 Scharf, History of Western Maryland, I, 490‑491.
102 Steiner, Life of Roger Brooke Taney, 66‑67.
103 Federal Gazette (Frederick-Town, Md.), Sept. 7, and 17, 1811; Swift, Memoirs, 96.
104 Wilkinson, Memoirs, II, 35‑40.
105 Ibid., 347‑368.
106 Ibid., 119.
107 To Carondelet, Sept. 22, 1796, A. G. I., Seville, Papeles de Cuba, leg. 2375.
108 Document 163, Ibid.
109 To Carondelet, Sept. 22, 1796, Ibid.
110 To Miró, Apr. 29, May 2, June 20, 1790, and to Gayoso, May 4, 1790, Ibid.
111 Carondelet to Wilkinson, Apr. 20, 1797, Ibid.
112 Deposition of Thomas Power, Mar. 18, 1809, Amer. State Papers, Miscel., II, 87.
113 Niles' Weekly Register, Jan. 4, 1812.
114 Madison to Jefferson, Feb. 7, 1812, in Letters and Other Writings of James Madison (Worthington ed.), II, 525‑526.
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