Short URL for this page:
During the early days of the Revolution many officers who had fought in European wars took passage across the Atlantic and entered the service of the Colonies. They came from France, Ireland, Poland, and Prussia, egged on by a hope of glory and a desire to recoup their dwindling fortunes. A few of them, like Lafayette and Steuben, rendered distinguished service; the great majority did not measure up to the high rank that they usually demanded and Congress supinely granted. Of these professional soldiers Thomas Conway was exceptionally objectionable. He became an American brigadier-general in May, 1777, shortly after his arrival from France, where he had served eighteen years in the French Army. He was a reputed expert in the handling of infantry — a quality that he soon failed to demonstrate at the battles of Brandywine and Germantown during September and October. Even so, and in spite of Washington's resolute opposition, Congress promoted him to the grade of major-general on December 14. Heartened by the support that politicians had apparently given he tried to get Washington relieved and Gates placed in supreme command. This attempt, known as the "Conway Cabal," proved abortive; it resulted in the confusion of the conspirators and the enhanced reputation of Washington. The affair might have ended differently if Wilkinson had failed to disclose it to Colonel McWilliams when both of them were at Reading in the quarters of Lord Stirling, during October, 1777. In this way the earl learned that Conway had written to Gates: "Heaven has determined to save your country, or a weak General [Washington] and bad counsellors would have ruined it."1 Ere long Washington was acquainted with these very words by a letter from Stirling.
p48 Apparently Gates was not aware until the 3rd of December that some of his private correspondence was becoming common knowledge. At this time he received a note at Albany from Thomas Mifflin informing him: "An extract from General Conway's letter to you has been procured, and sent to headquarters. . . . General Washington enclosed it to General Conway without remark . . . take care of your generosity and frank disposition; they cannot injure yourself, but may injure some of your best friends."2
Possessed of this disturbing information, Gates immediately sat down and wrote a letter to Conway, both as a reply to one received and as a direct attempt to find out more about what Mifflin had written. After expressing the hope that Conway's resignation, if offered, would not be accepted and warning him that "military discipline" among a free people is not easily obtained, Gates closed the letter with a significant "P. S." stating that "extracts from your letters" have been conveyed to Washington, occasioning "an eclaircissement in which you acted with all the dignity of a virtuous soldier. I entreat you, dear General, to let me know which of the letters was copied off. It is of the greatest importance, that I should detect the person who has been guilty of that act of infidelity."3
With the identity of the culprit unknown, investigation continued. On the very day that Wilkinson arrived in Albany, December 8, 1777, Gates talked with him about the person suspected as author of the "eclaircissement"; namely, Colonel Alexander Hamilton, who had visited him early in November to get reinforcements for Washington's army. While the staff was out, as Gates said, Colonel Hamilton was "left alone an hour in this room, during which time, he took Conway's letter out of that closet, and copied it, and the copy has been furnished to Washington." Wilkinson tried to dissuade his general from this belief, suggesting instead that Colonel Troup, one of the aides-de‑camp, might inadvertently have given Hamilton the substance of the letter. Gates persisted, declaring that both the thief and the receiver would be disgraced.
Thus Wilkinson tells this part of the story, calling on the "Searcher of all Hearts" to witness its truth. He adds that he felt no personal solicitude about the matter, because Gates had "read the letter publicly in his presence" and he himself "had never spoken of it with evil p49 intentions, or at all, except when mentioned to him."4 Feeling so about the letter, Wilkinson strangely refrained from telling his share in the disclosure. The fault appears greater in view of the fact that he described Gates later as one who easily pardoned. More unbecoming was his effort to throw upon another the responsibility for revealing a staff secret that he himself, when talkative from liquor, had told at Reading. He was soon to learn that the truth would ultimately leak out, and when it did his suggestion of Troup's guilt would prove another reason for increasing the anger of Gates.
For a few weeks no new development occurred in the thickening plot; Wilkinson was beyond the range of news and intrigue. In compliance with orders he went on an inspection tour, visiting Fort Schuyler and other places, travelling as far as Oneida Castle. By the first of February he had completed his work and was back in Albany.5 Gates was not there. He had received notification of appointment as President of the Board of War and had left for York to begin his new duties. Wilkinson planned to hasten to the very same place; he had just received a letter announcing his election as the Board's secretary. On February 3, he wrote to the President of Congress accepting the position, but intimating that he preferred to serve his country in a different capacity.6 Apparently Gates and Wilkinson would soon be working together as harmoniously as ever before.
The outcome was to be far otherwise. On the 5th of February, Wilkinson received a most disturbing letter from Lord Stirling. He wanted to know if Conway had written to Gates, "Heaven surely is determined to save the American cause, or a weak General and bad councils had long since lost it, or words to that effect."7 According to Stirling this was what Wilkinson had once stated to be in the letter; but, according to Conway, Wilkinson had subsequently denied it in the presence of several officers at White Marsh.8 Stirling now wanted the truth about the alleged denial and a copy of the bedevilling letter. It took a fine piece of effrontery to ask Wilkinson to convict himself by his own evidence and to aggravate his original offense by sending p50 a copy of the private correspondence of his general to one who designed to use it for embarrassing purposes.
In answer Wilkinson declared that he could not recall all that he had said while Stirling's guest; in respect to Conway's questions, he had replied to them dubiously. There was no need of straining one's veracity; Conway himself had declared that the charges he made had been justified. Stirling could not extract much satisfaction out of this part of the letter; he must have derived less out of the remainder:
"I can scarce credit my senses, when I read the paragraph in which you request an extract from a private letter, which had fallen under my observation. I may have been indiscreet, my Lord, but be assured I am not dishonourable."9
Soon after making this spirited reply, Wilkinson left Albany for York. Travelling by way of Reading, he reached Lancaster on the 21st of February. Next day, hoping to benefit his cause, he sent Congress copies of the letters that had passed between himself and Stirling.10 By means of them the earl was revealed as being loyal to Washington but opprobriously stupid in dealing with a brilliant young aide who had let out a secret that he now wanted to hide — one had unwittingly delivered up his general, the other had premeditatedly betrayed his guest.
In the meanwhile Gates had learned that Wilkinson was responsible for the original disclosure of Conway's letter. He did not hesitate to abuse his former aide in the "grossest language." Thirty-eight years afterward Wilkinson describes his immediate reaction:
". . . although my feelings and affections were outraged, my resolution was not appalled, I remembered the injunction of a dying father, I worshipped honor as the jewel of my soul, and did not pause for the course to be pursued; but I owed it to disparity of years and rank, to former connexion, and the affection of my breast, to drain the cup of conciliation, and seek an explanation, which I believed the exposition of my correspondence with Lord Stirling would produce, as it ought to have done; because it acquitted me of sinister intention, and stamped the report of his Lordship to Washington, with palpable falsehood."11
Wilkinson belonged to Don Quixote's school of thought. There p51 were many of his type in the Army, but only a few of them were equally lurid in expressing themselves or so ready to expose their persons to prove their questioned honor. He was young, wholly without humor, and supremely confident. Thus far he had been brilliantly triumphant; hence he saw no need to abandon those rules of conduct that he erroneously believed to be the keystone of his dazzling career.
In his boyish arrogance he wrote to Gates on February 22, arraigning him in these melodramatic words:
"Sir, in spite of every consideration, you have wounded my honor, and must make acknowledgement or satisfaction for the injury. . . .
"In consideration of your past connexion, I descend to that explanation with you, which I should have denied any other man."
Continuing, he held Lord Stirling up to infamy and marked him out for punishment:
"The inclosed letters unmask the villain and evince my innocence. My Lord shall bleed for his conduct, but it is proper I first see you."12
To this audacious letter from a former aide whose beard had scarcely begun to grow, Gates replied on the following day, quoting extracts from one that he had lately received from Washington. They were to the effect that Conway's disloyal remarks had been communicated to Washington by Lord Stirling, and the earl had learned of them from his own aide, McWilliams, the very one to whom Wilkinson had actually told them when at Reading in October. With this information, Gates then made Wilkinson appear more contemptible than ever by declaring:
"I am astonished if you really gave McWilliams such information how you could intimate to me, that it was possible Colonel Troup had conversed with Colonel Hamilton upon the subject of General Conway's letter."13
Wilkinson was now being pilloried for an act not originally serious, but which he had agitated by continued dissimulation and efforts to throw blame upon a friend who was totally innocent. In the hope of escape he had led himself into measures of deception, only to find himself held up to the public as an unfaithful subordinate. In this dilemma his judgment proved more immature than at any time before; he seemed to think that a display of physical prowess would exonerate him from previous errors and a lack of moral courage. In keeping p52 with the thought, he sent Gates the following note by Lieutenant-Colonel Burgess Ball of the Virginia Line on February 23, 1778:
Although commissioned officers were forbidden to engage in duels with their companions in arms, many did so. If any were killed, their deaths might be attributed by the attending surgeons to natural causes: cholera, heart-failure, and the like. For obvious reasons, challenges sent from junior to high-ranking officers were frequently ignored. Field officers could not afford the time or risk to meet every disgruntled subaltern who wanted to salve his pride by taking a shot at his commander. Washington fought no duels, and he advised Greene against yielding to challenges. Putnam had his own original way of bringing the artificial fashion into disrepute. Once he went out to meet his antagonist with his time-worn musket chock-full of slugs. On sight of him, he began firing without form or ceremony. Immediately "Old Put" was the only one left on the "field of honor." On another occasion Putnam agreed to meet a paroled British officer. At the rendezvous the officer was requested to give proof of his valor by sitting beside Putnam on a barrel to which a slow fuse was attached. As it burned nearer and nearer, the swashbuckling Britisher visioned himself being blown to eternity; unable to sit longer, he moved to safe distance. Putnam then remarked, he need not hurry — the barrel was filled only with onions.15
Gates had no saving sense of humor like the doughty Connecticut patriot; he agreed to meet Wilkinson for a duel at eight o'clock on the morning of the 24th of February. Pistols were the weapons agreed upon. When Wilkinson was in his quarters preparing to leave for the rendezvous, he learned that Gates was near by and wanted to see him. The two met in an adjacent street, where Wilkinson was received with tender embarrassment. Together they walked along in silence until beyond the buildings of York. Then Gates burst into tears, took him by the hand, and feelingly avowed:
"I injure you, it is impossible, I should as soon think of injuring p53 my child . . . besides there was no cause for injuring you, as Conway acknowledged his letter, and has since said much harder things to Washington's face."16
At this time Gates was about fifty and Wilkinson something over twenty. Although Gates showed kindness of heart on various occasions, one wonders if he actually made such humiliating efforts to conciliate. The story is Wilkinson's, written ten years after the death of Gates, whose memory was perhaps more cherished by a few manumitted slaves than by all of his countrymen. Apparently Gates did not think the duel of enough importance for him to leave an account of his own.
At this turn of events, Wilkinson was both satisfied and flattered. He arranged with Gates to resume his duties as secretary for the Board of War for a few days and then take a short leave to settle matters with Lord Stirling at Valley Forge. He did not get there as quickly as one might have expected. Ann Biddle was at Lancaster, and here "a fortnight flitted away like a vision of the morn."17 Only a single shadow darkened his path. A certain Dr. Craik on Washington's staff told him how deeply a number of senior officers resented his recent promotion. All along Wilkinson had known that several had strenuously opposed raising him to the grade of brigadier-general; he had thought of them only as "hardy old fools" moved by envy and ambition.18 Now he could not entirely ignore them; they might make his prospective visit to Valley Forge embarrassing when he was eager to impress Washington favorably. He could see that, as secretary of the Board of War, his higher rank was not essential; the main thing was that Congress had paid him a signal honor, the token of which was of little consequence to one who was already a colonel and only turning twenty-one. He might easily give up his brevet; he therefore sent in a letter resigning it on March 3, 1778.
About two weeks later Wilkinson reached Valley Forge. Although in a mood to send Lord Stirling a "perempty message," he yielded to the better counsels of Colonel Moylan and Colonel Clement Biddle, his future brother-in‑law. Acting on their advice, he dispatched a note on March 18 requesting a statement that the information about Conway's letter was merely a piece of conversation "passed in a private p54 company during a convivial Hour." Lord Stirling immediately complied. He also went on to say that he had never mentioned the remarks imputed to Conway until lately when a certain gentleman asserted openly that Wilkinson had denied ever telling them; thereupon he had written to Wilkinson for an explanation, only to get no reply.19 Wilkinson's letter of February 4 may not have come into his hands; it may have never been posted, it may have been lost along the way. On the other hand, the copy that Wilkinson sent to Congress on February 22 was received on the following day.20
As the matter now stood Wilkinson had deceived Gates, and Stirling had deceived Wilkinson. Yet each had reason for forbearance, and harmony had been temporarily restored between them. Gates had also settled his difficulties with Washington, but only after showing himself more untruthful than either of the other two.
In an unskillful effort to save himself and Conway, Gates had declared that the alleged statement was "in word as well as substance a wicked forgery." When informed that it had come into circulation through Wilkinson, Gates wanted him punished for committing a crime of the first magnitude," one that "involves with it the consequences of positive treason." In this strain he wrote to Washington on January 23, nearly a month before he and Wilkinson went out to fight but embraced instead.21 In reply Washington ignored Wilkinson's "heinous" offense. He suggested that Conway should employ his "rich treasures of knowledge and experience" to better purpose; he declared him a man "capable of all the malignity of detraction, and all the meanness of intrigue, to gratify the absurd resentment of disappointed vanity, or answer the purposes of personal aggrandisement and promote the interest of faction." If a person like this had been guilty of only a harmless letter, why, he sensibly asked, was it not immediately exhibited?22
The question was too hard for Gates. And in face of so withering a denunciation of the miserable Conway he thought it best to give over the attempt to defend him further. He showed his willingness to place all responsibility on Conway when he replied:
"I heartily dislike controversy even upon my own account and much more in a matter wherein I was only accidentally concerned."23
p55 With Gates's further assurance that he had no offensive views in the matter, Washington expressed a willingness "to bury the incident in silence, and, as far as future events will permit, oblivion."24 The exchange of letters then ceased, and the two resumed their former relations. Incidentally Conway gave up the ways of conspiracy. He became contrite and asked pardon as well as he could after John Cadwalader, an ardent supporter of Washington, had shot him in the mouth during a duel on February 22, 1778.
Nor was the story yet complete. While at Valley Forge as a dinner guest at Headquarters, Wilkinson was allowed to read the correspondence that had passed between Washington and Gates. Learning in this way what Gates thought of him before the day of their reconciliation, Wilkinson became abusive of both him and Conway in conversation with the commander-in‑chief. He knew that sooner or later stories would be carried back to those whom his remarks concerned; then Gates's recently forgiving attitude might turn to vindictive hate. Evidently it would be no longer prudent to retain his place at the elbow of the man whose powers of retaliation might prove too potent to combat successfully. To Henry Laurens, President of Congress, Wilkinson dispatched this unbecoming letter on March 29:
"While I make my acknowledgements to Congress for the appointment of secretary to the board of war and ordinance, I am sorry I should be constrained to resign that office; but after the act of treachery and falsehood in which I have detected Major-General Gates, the president of that board, it is impossible for me to reconcile it to my honor to serve with him."25
Wilkinson could never control his fluency. His pen never wavered, however erroneous his judgment might be. The ease with which he talked and wrote, joined with hasty decisions and a comic-opera sense of honor, had led him into one error after another. The only thing he could do was to escape service under a man whom he had publicly abused. If he did not do so, Gates might part company with him in a more embarrassing way.26 As events turned out Congress accepted p56 his resignation but directed that his letter be returned as "improper to remain" upon its files.27
After resigning, Wilkinson had no regular employment in the Army until he became clothier-general on July 25, 1779.28 He doubtless hated to be put on the shelf. In this dreary period of the Revolution, few opportunities for distinction existed, especially for one whose rank was high, and who had lately lost a great deal of public confidence. The British were reorganizing their forces, and the Americans were waiting until French aid should lend strength to their weakening cause. On June 18, 1778, the British evacuated Philadelphia. Washington pursued them, fought the battle of Monmouth, was defeated, and became inactive at White Plains. Tories and Indians lay waste the fruitful Wyoming Valley of Pennsylvania, and in November the luckless farmers of central New York were treated to another dreadful visitation of Iroquois torch and tomahawk. Not until months later did Sullivan come and reach new levels of cruelty and destruction in his punishment of the Indians. In other sections the war continued to drag indecisively on. In one of these operations did Wilkinson share — perhaps because those who might have given him employment had plenty of assistants whom they could wholly trust.
Although Benedict Arnold was in charge of the military defenses of Philadelphia, Wilkinson could expect nothing from him because of their open rupture during the Burgoyne campaign. At this time Arnold was setting the pace for unbecoming extravagance, lavishly entertaining alike both his Whig friends and those who had received British officers before Sir William Howe had left the city with his Knights of the Blended Rose and the Burning Mount. Continental money was daily diminishing in value, and those who possessed it spent with reckless abandon. At one dinner the bill for pastry alone was reputed to be $3,888; at another, the guests had the choice of one hundred and sixty dishes. Those whose incomes were small felt the pinch of penury. Timothy Pickering, secretary of the Board of War, said it was impossible to live on his salary of $14,000. It could not have gone far when his indifferent house cost $4,000 a year, $1,600 was asked for a suit of clothes, forty dollars for a hat, and twenty-five dollars for a pair of shoes. At about the same time flour sold around ninety-five dollars p57 a hundredweight, and butter ranged from two to three dollars a pound.29
The poor suffered greatly. Wilkinson was a member of a committee from the Middle Ward to help raise money to relieve their distress. Like many others, he must have found living difficult, although he seems to have had a little income from his family and may have added to it by doing odd jobs for his future father-in‑law, John Biddle, or other Philadelphia patriots who returned home and resumed their commercial activities. Never idle, he was assiduous in his courting, availed himself of the opportunity to become a Mason, and took part in the social affairs of his friends.
During the summer of 1778 Wilkinson went to bear witness for his former commander, General St. Clair, who was brought to trial in the "New Dining Room near Baron De Kalb's quarters" at White Plains, New York, on charges covering neglect of duty, cowardice, treachery, shamefully abandoning Ticonderoga, etc. Gates came and offered testimony for him on the 29th of August. Wilkinson turned up at about the same time.30 Within a few days the smoldering hatred between the two burst into flame. Apparently "the hero of Saratoga" made remarks reflecting upon Wilkinson's conduct at the duel at York during the previous February. Highly incensed, Wilkinson sent him a challenge, which was duly accepted. Colonel Tadeusz Kosciuszko acted as a second for Gates; John Barker Church, son-in‑law of General Schuyler, did the same for Wilkinson. According to agreement, the principals met near Harrison, Westchester County, New York, on September 4, 1778. At the first order to fire Gates's pistol flashed in the pan, Wilkinson fired in the air; at the second, will fired, Gates refused to do so; at the third, Wilkinson again fired, again Gates's pistol flashed in the pan. Thrice Gates had posed as a target without making any efforts to defend himself. "Honor" was satisfied, the seconds interposed, and the principals shook hands. Gates declared Wilkinson had "behaved as a gentleman" at York, and a paper to that effect was signed by Kosciuszko and given to Church. Asking for it long enough to make a copy, Kosciuszko refused to return it until Church had furnished Gates with a similar statement signed by Wilkinson. Next day they all assembled at St. Clair's headquarters p58 to settle this new cause of dispute. Here Wilkinson said he would not prostitute his honor by giving Gates a certificate of gentlemanly conduct; on the contrary, he called him a rascal and a coward, and challenged him to another bout with arms. Gates ignored his abuse and paid no attention to his request for a certificate, duel, or anything else. There the matter stood. The principals were as badly off as ever; they had gained nothing except in mutual hatred.
To have witnesses for St. Clair's defense turn out to be comic opera performers lent new interest to the drab round of court-martial proceedings. The end was not yet. Both Kosciuszko and Church took up the wrangle where their principals had left off. It concerned the bedevilling certificate. Daily their anger grew. When summoned to give testimony for St. Clair, they had scarcely entered the courtroom before they made for each other with sword and pistol. Some one yelled for the guard. When it came tumbling in Church made for his horse and rode away like the wind; he was determined not to be taken in hand as a civilian for disturbing an army tribunal. Kosciuszko did not pursue; he gloated on his fanciful victory, making much of the ignominious flight of his enemy.31
A long time had elapsed since any one had come and stirred up as much trouble in camp as Wilkinson had done. Oddly enough, it seemed not premeditated; it was just a result of his flamboyant and thoughtless manner. In the real business for which the Court had summoned him, he showed ability and judgment. On September 7, he appeared as a witness for St. Clair. He endeavored to show that the General had taken pains to learn of the British as they advanced, and that when once the decision had been made to abandon Ticonderoga, the retreat had been managed with energy and intelligence. On September 29 St. Clair was acquitted of all charges "with the highest honour."32 His chief fault was ignored — that he had delayed the evacuation until part of his force was taken and most of his supplies were lost. The authors of the charges fashioned them to conform with the opinion of the public, who overestimated the importance of Ticonderoga and believed that it should have been held. Obviously the prosecution could not center its case against St. Clair on his delay in doing what politicians had demanded should not be done p59 under any circumstances; it had to concentrate on other things that would stifle the popular outcry although they might not be susceptible of proof.
Shortly after St. Clair's court-martial, that of General Schuyler occurred. Though Wilkinson was Schuyler's friend, his service had not been so long and intimate with him as with St. Clair. Perhaps his testimony was not needed at this second trial; acquittal seemed to be a foregone conclusion. Presumably he would have been a witness for Schuyler if requested, no matter how eager he was to return to Philadelphia and be with his betrothed, Ann Biddle.
She was the daughter of John Biddle, a well known and respected business man of Philadelphia. For a long time he had kept the Indian King hostelry on Market Street, where he bore an enviable reputation for the care of travelers. His tavern was an orderly one, without liquor after eleven at night. If a guest desired even more quiet, the obliging host sometimes tried to find a place for him in a private house.33 He was a courteous, kindly Quaker who, marrying Sarah Owen on March 3, 1736, lived happily with her until her death thirty-seven years later.34 Although fighting was against his creed and he had prospered when England ruled the Colonies, he espoused the Revolutionary cause and gave both money and service to its support. His two sons, Owen and Clement, made similar decisions. Clement, born May 10, 1740, served at Trenton, Princeton, Valley Forge, Brandywine, and Germantown, and acted as commissary-general of forage under General Greene.35 Owen, three years older, was for a time one of his deputies in the forage department and served as a member of the Board of War, but was more interested in religion and natural philosophy. Scarcely were the British out of Philadelphia before he and David Rittenhouse, the celebrated astronomer and mathematician, were peering through a telescope at an eclipse of the sun. After the war, Owen became deeply penitent for having borne arms and humbly asked to be restored to the fellowship of Friends.36 While he wrestled with problems of religion, his eldest sister Sarah turned to worldly things and people. She lived for nearly fifty years and married three times, her third husband being Rudolph Tellier, a Swiss of social prominence and charm. Lydia, the youngest of the p60 five children, was attractive like her sister but died before any of the others — seven years after she had become the wife of Dr. James Hutchinson in 1779. He married again, continuing a career of unusual distinction until he gave up his own life for the sake of others during the great epidemic of yellow fever in 1794. Even after the passing of Lydia, the Biddles, especially Ann, held the doctor in affectionate regard.37
Ann possessed her share of the family's strength of mind and character. She was an engaging, sprightly Quakeress who could easily arouse in others "a courting distemper." Just when she first stirred Wilkinson with her bright glances and pleasing ways, records do not reveal. It may have been when both were in their teens and he was studying "physic and surgery" in Philadelphia. From then on he visited the city whenever opportunity offered. Maids like her were rarely found. Accustomed to associating with people of ability and means, she had their good manners and character, easily making friends wherever her footsteps turned. In later years many paid tribute to her loveliness. In her youth her hair and eyebrows were dark and abundant, her features attractively cut, and her figure slender and gracefully formed. Well educated for a woman of her time and enjoying acknowledged position, it was very natural that she should become the fiancée of a brilliant and aggressive young man who moved in the same social circles and subscribed to the political faith of her father and brothers. Always active and strenuous in the pursuit of what he wished to possess, Wilkinson quickened his courtship after resigning from the Board of War, and on November 12, 1778,38 the two were married in Christ Church, Philadelphia.
Ann had chosen one of the "world's people" for her husband, and her family had violated the rulings of the Quakers; therefore the ceremony was performed in a church whose faith Wilkinson and his relatives favored. It had been built before the French and Indian War through the efforts of many distinguished people. Afterwards, several additions modified its general plan. Franklin and others made possible a steeple and a chime of eight bells that rang in pleasing tones on days of piety. Within, the kindly rector preached to his congregation from a wineglass pulpit, his vestments and the chancel flooded with light that entered through a beautiful Palladian window p61 cut in the rear wall. Only a few hundred of the faithful could find room within the nave and balcony. Even if they were wont to listen intently to this able, godly man, at times some must have glanced thoughtfully at the graceful columns, elliptical arches, and harmonious blending of Greek designs that gave beauty to the holy place.39 It was befitting that here the charming Ann Biddle should make her vows upon her marriage day. Records do not reveal who sat with friendly interest and saw the ceremony through; maybe most of the Biddles, the amiable Dr. Hutchinson, a few army friends, and some of Wilkinson's relatives from the Patuxent.
Major-General James Wilkinson
from a miniature by Gilbert Stuart.
Mrs. Ann Biddle Wilkinson
Courtesy of the owner,
Miniature owned by
Just where the newly wedded pair immediately established themselves is not certain; temporarily they lived in Philadelphia, possibly with Ann's father, who seemed to think well of his recently acquired son-in‑law, and who perhaps furnished him with some kind of employment. At odd times, Wilkinson widened the range of his acquaintance, attended Blue Lodge No. 2 of the Masons,40 and cultivated his cronies in the Army. Ann joined him in social pleasures. To her must be attributed a good deal of the popularity that he enjoyed. She seemed not to be greatly disturbed at being read out of Friends' Meeting on December 25, 1778, because she had been married contrary to "the good Order" of their discipline.41 This Christmas Day token of godly displeasure might have been taken more deeply to heart if her father and brothers had not already transgressed the Quakers' rules of conduct.
Such a program of life did not satisfy Wilkinson, always restless to take a personal part in the most absorbing events of the day. To him the Army offered the most popular and extensive source of agreeable and remunerative work. Once in uniform, he had never been content out of it. He therefore maintained his contacts with the service, hoping that his discreditable connection with the Conway Cabal would be forgotten, and that a position might be found where he could exercise his old-time rank in a position of commensurate importance. He did not seek aid from Benedict Arnold, his former commander, who was then in military control of the city; in fact, he offered to furnish Joseph Reed, President of Pennsylvania, with evidence of the General's dishonesty.42 He turned rather to Greene, St. Clair, p62 and Washington for a sympathetic consideration of his cause. His efforts were, of course, strongly supported by the Biddles and his own influential connections in Maryland.
On July 25, 1779, Wilkinson enthusiastically accepted the position of Clothier-General, which had been offered him the day before.43 His predecessor, James Mease, had been eager to retire as early as September 19, 1778, in order to escape an investigation of his alleged incompetence and dishonesty. Mease and Arnold, after the retaking of Philadelphia, had collected clothing from loyalists and patriots alike, often without paying for it, and had then disposed of what they wished for private gain. Congress took no immediate steps to accept the resignation of the Clothier-General or bring him to trial, although soldiers could not leave hospitals or perform their routine duties because they had so little to wear. While the army was thus suffering, civilians, in general, were comfortably clad.44
By the following summer of 1779 Congress was ready to make a change. Peter Wikoff and Persifer Frazer were in turn offered the position and declined; because one, perhaps both, felt that the annual salary of $5,000 in depreciated currency was wholly inadequate.45 Wilkinson, as third choice, declared that nobody except himself would take over the work.46 He might have added that he was only too happy to be back in the Army with its lengthened horizon of opportunity.
His new duties were enough to challenge his ability and zeal. He acted under the direction of the Board of War, of which Timothy Pickering was then president. Sometimes it made purchases and called on him to act as distributing agent; on other occasions, Wilkinson bought on his own account after Congress had examined his estimates and approved of what contracts should be executed. In addition, different states were called upon for supplies, in each of which a deputy clothier was stationed to collect and care for what it would furnish. The amount and kind from this source were not satisfactory; the states were much more concerned in looking after their own local troops than in contributing to a general fund that had been dubiously administered. More than once agents of the Clothier-General p63 found themselves bidding against representatives from the states for identical supplies. No matter how variegated the garments, shoes, blankets, etc., acquired through this triple-headed system, Wilkinson was expected to distribute them through his regimental deputies in a manner that would avoid dissatisfaction. These administrative defects, a scarcity of materials, and a lack of adequate transportation had caused more complaints against the clothing department of the Army than against any other before Wilkinson took office.47
Fortunately for his reputation, he began his new duties in the summer, so that he had a few months to fill his magazines for the coming winter. Never very accurate in routine work, and probably imagining that he should be concerned with more important tasks, he asked the Board of War for additional clerical assistance for himself and his deputies. This request was refused because of a lack of legal provision. During the same summer, warrants aggregating $300,000 were issued in his favor for general purchases, and he needed several assistants in order that a proper record of disbursements might be kept.48 At the same time he was enjoined to write "the most pressing letters to the Executives of the several states" earnestly requesting their immediate exertions in collecting "supplies of clothing for the troops of their respective quotas."49 To discharge his duties more effectively, Wilkinson frequently left Philadelphia to visit the Army at such places as West Point, Newburgh, and Morristown. When cold weather set in, the troops were probably better clothed than during the previous year, although the whole system was so defective that no pronounced improvement obtained. Supplies were scant, local credit exhausted, and purchases abroad at reasonable rates were not easily made. When cloth, leather, etc. existed in any quantity in Philadelphia or elsewhere, there state deputies gathered and bid against each other, paying from a common fund that Congress had appropriated. When a state furnished its troops with clothing, it was indifferent about making a report, in order that more might be drawn from the general supply. When near a magazine, detachments often got special issues irrespective of the amount of their allowance. On some occasions the members of p64 the Board of War appeared to order, and on others to make, these issues for purely personal reasons. Soldiers far from bases on difficult winter service and in great need had to wait until the short-term, seven-months men drew their bounty clothing before leaving for home. Simultaneously deputies grew rich because of the bonus of one-half per cent on expenditures given them in addition to their pay. A similar perquisite was allowed to the Clothier-General.50
Wilkinson in an able letter to the Board of War on November 10, 1780, described these and other defects of the system and urged that they be corrected. He declared that when he had taken charge the department was in utter confusion, and that, although he had tried his uttermost to carry out the established procedure, the very nature of the work had baffled his efforts. The Board of War considered his letter and recommended to Congress a number of significant changes. Among these were abolition of deputies in the several states in order to eliminate competition for supplies; setting up a more highly centralized and adequately staffed office of control; doing away with special issues except in unusual cases; and providing for a more frequent and responsible system of accounting for clothing and funds. Congress accepted most of the Board's suggestions and made some changes of its own; but not all of them became a matter of law until June 18, 1781.51 In the interim Wilkinson had resigned, leaving his successor, John Moylan, to profit by these improvements in less difficult times.
A variety of reasons prompted Wilkinson to resign. In the August following his taking office he purchased what was known as the attainted estate of Joseph Galloway, situated •eighteen miles from Philadelphia and •five miles from Bristol and containing •four hundred and forty-four acres of good land on which dwelling houses and barns had been erected. The purchase price was £4,600, Continental money, all of which, except the initial payment of £1,150, fell due on November 3, 1779. His newly acquired estate was called Trevose.52 Supervision of its pasture and farming land, cattle, fine horses, and distillery absorbed a good deal of time; but it was the kind of work that he enjoyed, and to which he had been bred. Being a clothier-general was different; he never had had a bent for the details of p65 business. When the novelty of his position wore off, he found his duties irksome and neglected them. When his salary was reduced to $2,500 and not promptly paid, he had additional reasons for a lessening of zeal.53
He also had a large circle of friends, to whom he never begrudged a large share of his time. In fact, he was unhappy unless he frequently mingled with them at Trenton, Morristown, and elsewhere. While master of a dancing assembly in Philadelphia during 1780, he arranged the programs, helping in giving the dances such patriotic names as "The Defeat of Burgoyne," "Clinton's Retreat," "The Success of the Campaign," etc. He or an assistant provided the guests with folded billets, each containing a number; thus partners were selected and kept the whole evening through. When the music struck up it was he who called the dancers in their turns.54 He liked these parties; often he was the central figure in them. No matter if they were woodenly methodical, they furnished opportunity to do a little casual strutting in gorgeous uniform and to listen with seeming nonchalant to bits of flattery that came his way. He was brilliant, well connected, and twenty-three; and whether in town or in camp he moved restlessly along the paths of pleasure with brother officers and friends.
After Washington had approved Wilkinson's appointment, he seemed nettled when he learned that his new Clothier-General had turned play boy, spending most of his time in Philadelphia rather than near the headquarters of the Army, where the duties of his office could be most effectively discharged. Repeatedly Washington called on him to establish himself close at hand and pay more attention to his business. Expostulation proving ineffectual, the Commander-in‑Chief wrote to Congress, asking that its authority be brought to bear on this negligent official.55 That Wilkinson made scarcely more than a pretense of meeting the wishes of his general suggests an indifference to continuing in office. If some of his Maryland friends had praised the fairness with which he distributed clothing,56 doubtless there were others whose complaints were loud p66 and frequent. He usually resented criticism, especially when the system under which he worked, rather than himself, was at fault. He preferred service with combat troops to duty in any form with the service of supply, probably because he lacked the business experience necessary to cope with the problems that made life miserable for the quartermasters and commissaries of the Revolutionary Army. When he found his salary reduced as well as too often in arrears, himself hamstrung by vexatious regulations, and the Commander-in‑Chief exasperated with his conduct, he decided once more to slough off his responsibilities by resigning. On March 27, 1781, by the hand of Thomas McKean, a friendly member of Congress, he proffered his resignation in a letter without rancor, expressing the hope of future employment where he might be of service. He did not fail to set forth clearly his reason for giving up his post:
"I should be wanting in Personal Candour and in Public Justice if I did not profess that I find my Mercantile knowledge, on thorough examination, inadequate to the just Conduct of the Clothing Department, under the proposed establishment."57
Nevertheless, he strongly believed that his work had been performed with honor to himself and benefit to his country, and so informed Congress in a letter of the 10th of April.58 He realized equally well that the odds were too great against him for any sort of vindication. To a friend he wrote:
". . . a slight knowledge of the Temper of this country must convince the difficulty, if not the improbability of obtaining a public opinion against the infallibility of General Washington, consequently an impeachment of his justice, be it ever so well founded or ever so ably supported would excite nothing more favorable than derision & contempt, and would be esteemed a sort of impiety."59
Wilkinson was evincing better judgment than he had shown during his wrangle with Gates. The proof of it lay in gracefully resigning when Washington and others found fault with his services. Giving up uncongenial work seemed not to disturb him; he merely regretted that he had been unable to use his late office as a means of obtaining another for which he was more adequately fitted.
After severing his connection with the Army, Wilkinson lived during the next two years at Trevose and Philadelphia, looking after p67 his growing family and rather unremunerative estate. About the time of his resignation Ann had borne him their first child, John Biddle Wilkinson. The infant was named after his grandfather, who chose him as a favorite and delighted in having him about. Even when John grew older and learned to "write prettily," he remained the old merchant's favorite. Before he had abandoned his hobby-horse and had begun to ride like his friend Philip Nolan, he would bedevil the younger brothers who competed for the place at Grandfather Biddle's knee. If the dignified Quaker frowned disapprovingly when little John aped his father and swore lispingly at toy soldiers, it was always with an indulgent twinkle in his eye. Nothing so delighted the boy as a return to Philadelphia from Kentucky and lording it over the host of young cousins who overran the house and garden where his mother had spent so many days of happiness.60 She was devoted to her family and relatives. The Biddles were numerous and returned her affection. They lived comfortably and in an even-tempered way, and she and her husband fitted easily into their wholesome program of life.
On occasions Wilkinson visited his army friends scattered in the neighborhood. Sometimes he did volunteer staff duty for the ablest of Washington's generals, Nathanael Greene, who held him in high esteem and regretted that his talents had been lost to the service.61 More frequently he was found in the camps of the Pennsylvania militia at Trenton, Newton, and places near by. In the course of time he and Joseph Reed, President of Pennsylvania from 1778 to 1781, became intimate friends. When Reed was accused of having intrigued with the British for the purpose of changing allegiance, Wilkinson and officers at Camp Newton evinced their faith in him by signing an "Address of Confidence" during September, 1780. When the charges were revived by General Cadwalader in the early part of the following year, Wilkinson was the moving spirit in obtaining a similar testimonial from those about Philadelphia; possibly still another originating in the vicinity may be credited to his authorship.62 These tokens of friendship were appreciated by the Pennsylvania patriot, who felt that he could trust Wilkinson implicitly. Every so often Reed stopped at Trevose, where Ann's eldest sister, p68 Mrs. Shaw, twice a widow, often visited. In the company of this interesting woman the President found it possible to forget for a while the recent loss of the wife who left to his care a brood of five small children. With the ripening of their friendship a marriage seemed probable until Reed appeared to lose interest. Wilkinson took him strenuously to task, the breach being healed only after Reed had made proper explanations and Mrs. Shaw had shown eagerness to be rid of such a volatile suitor.63 Her antipathy toward marriage was evidently not general or long sustained, for in a few years she took a third husband, Rudolph Tellier, President of the Swiss Confederacy, and went to Switzerland to live. The other two in the tripartite affair quickly resumed their previous friendship.
Reed's assistance was of undoubted aid when Wilkinson embarked in politics. The Army may have appealed to him more, but reëntering it with the same rank that he had previously enjoyed was next to impossible, especially since he had lately angered Washington, and other officers to whom he might appeal, like St. Clair and Greene, were passing through an eclipse or were so busily engaged in distant theaters that they could do nothing for him. There were, moreover, few bright days for patriots in the period between the beginning of 1780 and the surrender of Yorktown. Wilkinson, like many others, at times despaired of the success of the patriots' cause. With little hope of his country's independence and with his finances in a sorry state, he turned to politics as to an interesting haven where he could better weather his troubles. At least it furnished employment, added something to his income, and gave him a certain amount of honor and influence.
On October 10, 1781, Wilkinson was elected representative to the Pennsylvania Assembly from Bucks County; and he took his seat at the meeting that convened soon afterwards. In this first term he was not connected with matters of consequence; he was evidently serving an apprenticeship. Nevertheless, he was made a general of the militia and assigned as "Brigadier and Adjutant General," continuing at the same time to hold his seat in the Assembly, to which he was reëlected in the autumn of 1782.64 With a growth of experience p69 he began to play a determining rôle and was placed on several committees of importance.
In spite of heartening success in politics Wilkinson was not satisfied. He knew that its rewards were few, slowly obtained, and often worth little. His personal debts were accumulating;65 Trevose was advertised for sale, and the coming of peace seemed only to have ushered in chaos. The West, particularly Kentucky, held out promise of better things. Wilkinson determined to try his fortune there. Before the year 1783 had ended he was at the Falls of the Ohio, stirred with a desire to own adjacent stretches of forest and meadow. Daring spirits had already settled on choice parcels that they had acquired with land warrants, either purchased directly or acquired by virtue of service in the Revolution. Wilkinson eagerly joined this vanguard of soldiers and speculators. In December, 1783, he made entries for tracts of land near the present cities of Louisville and Lexington.66 The next month he made arrangements for two valuable cargoes of merchandise to be sent down the Ohio for his disposal. Before long he resigned as brigadier-general of the Pennsylvania militia. He was definitely taking root in the new country of Kentucky. In this general section and the Southwest he was destined to spend most of the remaining years of his life.
1 Gates to Wilkinson, Feb. 23, 1778, in Wilkinson, Memoirs, I, 386‑387.
2 Mifflin to Gates, Nov. 28, 1777, in Ibid., 374.
3 Gates to Conway, Dec. 3, 1777, in Ibid., 374‑376.
4 Ibid., I, 372‑373.
5 Ibid., 381‑382.
6 To Pres. of Congress, Feb. 3, 1778, Papers of the Continental Congress (Library of Congress).
7 Stirling to Wilkinson, Jan. 6, 1778, in Memoirs, I, 382‑383, and Papers of the Continental Congress.
8 Statement of Conway, Jan. 3, 1778, in Hammond, Letters and Papers of Major-General Sullivan, II, 1‑2.
9 To Stirling, Feb. 4, 1778, in Memoirs, I, 383‑384, and Papers of the Continental Congress.
10 To Pres. of Congress, Feb. 22, 1778, Papers of the Continental Congress.
11 Memoirs, I, 385.
12 To Gates, Feb. 22, 1778, in Ibid., 385‑386.
13 Gates to Wilkinson, Feb. 23, 1778, in Ibid., 386‑387.
14 Ibid., 388.
16 Wilkinson, Memoirs, I, 388‑389.
17 Ibid., 391.
18 Ibid., 389‑390, and Wilkinson to Wayne, Nov. 27, 1777, Wayne Papers (Hist. Soc. of Pa. Library), Vol. IV.
19 To Stirling, Mar. 18, 1778, in Wilkinson, Memoirs, I, 391‑392.
20 To Pres. of Congress, Feb. 22, 1778, Papers of the Cont. Congress.
21 Gates to Washington, Jan. 23, 1778, Wilkinson, Memoirs, I, 398‑401.
22 Washington to Gates, Feb. 9, 1778, in Ibid., 401‑405.
23 Gates to Washington, Feb. 19, 1778, in Ibid., 407‑408.
24 Washington to Gates, Feb. 24, 1778, in Ibid., 408.
25 To Pres. of Congress, Mar. 29, 1778, in Ibid., 409‑410.
26 Clark to Stirling, Jan. 15, 1778, and Wilson to Gates, Feb. 21, 1778, in Burnett, Letters of Members of the Continental Congress, III, 40, 142.
27 Ford, Journal of the Cont. Congress, X, 297.
28 To Jay, July 25, 1779, Papers of the Cont. Congress.
29 Stone, "Philadelphia Society One Hundred Years Ago," in Pa. Mag. of Hist. and Biog., III, 362‑393.
30 "The Trial of Major General St. Clair," in Collections of N. Y. Historical Society, XIII (1880), 1‑171.
31 For an account of Wilkinson's second duel with Gates, vide New York Packet (Fishkill, N. Y.), Sept. 17, 24, Oct. 8, 1778; Continental Journal and Weekly Advertiser, Nov. 12, 1778; Mag. of Am. Hist., VII, 65, VIII, 368.
32 "The Trial of Major General St. Clair," loc. cit.
33 "Diary of Daniel Fisher," in Pa. Mag. of Hist. and Biog., XVII, 263‑278.
34 Pa. Mag. of Hist. and Biog., XIV, 203, XIII, 178.
35 Autobiography of Charles Biddle, 420‑423.
36 H. D. Biddle, "Owen Biddle," in Pa. Mag. of History. and Biog., XVI, 299‑329, and S. W. Pennypacker, Historical Biographical Sketches, 84.
37 Hay, "Letters of Mrs. Ann Biddle Wilkinson," in Pa. Mag. of Hist. and Biog., LVI, 33‑55.
38 Ibid., 34.
39 Cousins and Riley, The Colonial Architecture of Philadelphia, 219‑221.
40 Perry to Hay, Dec. 5, 1931, in files of T. R. Hay.
41 Hay, "Letters of Mrs. Ann Biddle Wilkinson," in Pa. Mag. of Hist. and Biog., LVI, 34.
42 To Reed, May 30, 1779, Pa. Archives, VII, 149.
43 To Jay, July 25, 1779, Papers of the Cont. Congress.
44 Thian, Leg. Hist. of the Gen. Staff of the Army of the U. S., 288, 293; McKee, "Service of Supply in the War of 1812," in Quartermaster Review, Jan.‑Feb., 1927, p15.
45 Thian, op. cit., 297, and Frazer to Congress, July 19, 1779, Papers of the Cont. Congress.
46 To Samuel Huntington, Nov. 4, 1780, Papers of the Cont. Congress.
47 Thian, op. cit., 293‑296; Wilkinson to Samuel Huntington, Nov. 4, 1780, in Papers of the Cont. Congress; Washington to Stirling, Sept. 28, 1779 in Force, Transcripts.
48 To Board of War, Aug. 12, 1779, Papers of the Cont. Congress; Ford, Journals of Cont. Congress, XIV, 983.
49 Peters to Wilkinson, Aug. 16, 1779. Wilkinson Papers (Chicago Hist. Soc.), Vol. I.
50 Wilkinson to Samuel Huntington, Nov. 4, 1780, Papers of the Cont. Congress; Thian, op. cit., 292.
51 Thian, op. cit., 238, 319‑321, and Wilkinson to Samuel Huntington, Mar. 27, 1781, in Papers of the Cont. Congress.
52 Pa. Archives, 6th Series, XII, 159‑160, and XIII, 180.
53 Act of Cong., Nov. 4, 1780, in Ford, Journals of Cont. Congress, 1018‑1021, and Wilkinson to Pres. of Congress, Mar. 21, 1781, in Papers of the Cont. Congress.
54 Scharf and Wescott, History of Philadelphia, II, 909.
55 Washington to Stirling, Sept. 28, 1779, in Force, Transcripts; Washington to Wilkinson, Mar. 24, 1781, Papers of the Cont. Congress.
56 Md. Delegates to T. S. Lee, in Burnett, Letters of Members of the Cont. Congress, V, 332.
57 To Samuel Huntington, Mar. 27, 1781, Papers of the Cont. Congress.
58 To Pres. of Cong., Apr. 10, 1781, Ibid.
59 To McKean, Apr. 8, 1781, McKean Papers.
60 For remarks on John Biddle Wilkinson, see Hay, letters of Mrs. Ann Biddle Wilkinson," in Pa. Mag. of Hist. and Biog., LVI, 33‑55.
61 Greene to C. Biddle, June 29, 1780, in Reed, Life and Correspondence of Joseph Reed, II, 469.
62 Reed Papers, IV, 94; Pa. Packet, June 5, 16, 1781; Pa. Gazette, June 27, 1781.
63 Wilkinson to Reed, Jan. 15, 16, 18, 1783, and to Nichols, May 2, 1782, in Miscel. Papers, Hist. Soc. of Pa. Library.
64 Pa. Archives, 6th Series, II, 162‑163; Pa. Gazette, May 29, Oct. 10, 1782; Colonial Records of Pa., XIII, 289.
65 To Lee, Jan. 10, 1782, Wilkinson Papers (Chicago Hist. Soc.), Vol. I.
66 Jillson, Old Kentucky Entries and Deeds (Filson Club Publications, No. 34), 160; Jillson, The Kentucky Land Grants (Filson Club Publications, No. 33), 253.
Images with borders lead to more information.
The thicker the border, the more information. (Details here.)
A page or image on this site is in the public domain ONLY if its URL has a total of one *asterisk. If the URL has two **asterisks, the item is copyright someone else, and used by permission or fair use. If the URL has none the item is © Bill Thayer.
See my copyright page for details and contact information.
Page updated: 14 Jul 20