Captain Winfield Scott despised U.S. General James Wilkinson. When Scott came to Natchez with the U.S. Army in 1809, he insulted Wilkinson. Scott’s comments led to a court-martial and later a duel that played out along the Mississippi River at Vidalia.
Scott and Wilkinson were each a part of a frontier army that numbered 3,500 men. Wilkinson had been sent to New Orleans in the spring of 1809 by the Secretary of War to prepare for a possible attack by the British. An army of 2,000 was raised, including regulars and raw recruits, but when sickness and disease spread through the military and civilian ranks, Wilkinson moved the men a few miles below New Orleans to swampy ground where the soldiers suffered even more.
Of the 2,000 originally stationed in New Orleans in the spring of 1809, some 686 died, 108 deserted and 58 were discharged. By the time some of the survivors arrived in Natchez weeks later to recover and rest, the army had been cut almost in half with only 1,184 soldiers remaining in service. There, at the Mississippi Territory capital of Washington, six miles east of Natchez, the army was reorganized under a new commander, General Wade Hampton.
Wilkinson was relieved of his command in mid-December 1809 and left Washington for the nation's capital in February 1810 to face a Congressional committee investigation as well as an army court-martial. It was during this same time that Scott ran into legal difficulties and faced a court-martial of his own in January 1810, a month before Wilkinson left town.
50 LASHES WITHOUT A TRIAL
Like his comrades in arms, Scott faced a rugged life in the frontier army. Service on these outposts was at times maddeningly dull, but the troops were lucky at Washington and Natchez because there were plenty of drinking holes and an assortment of sin to be engaged in at Natchez Under-the-Hill.
"Garrison duty was boring and these young guys would get in trouble," said historian Clark Burkett of Natchez. Jefferson College borders what was once the 44-acre site of Fort Dearborn. "The troops might go see a girlfriend or a lady of the evening under-the-hill and might not get back to the camp on time. They'd also go to tippling houses, get drunk and get in trouble. Sometimes they would leave their posts and get caught."
In October and November of 1809, as the troops began to arrive at Fort Dearborn, a number of court-martials followed at the military encampment where the well men built huts, and the sick recovered. The army included recruits from the 3rd, 5th and 7th regiments of infantry, a battalion consisting of four companies from the 6th regiment and companies of light dragoons, light artillery and riflemen raised in the states and territories south of New Jersey.
For charges of sleeping on guard duty or desertion, punishment might equal 50 lashes with a cattail bullwhip. Burkett said it was not uncommon for the men to receive their punishment in stages, receiving 10 lashes today, 10 a few days later and so on.
On December 10, 1809, before General Wilkinson gave up command to General Hampton, he had heard complaints "of outrages committed on the property of the inhabitants by the soldiers of Camp Dearborn." Some were accused of marauding, which the general defined as "a crime punished with death in all armies" when soldiers "steal or destroy the property of a peaceful inhabitant..."
Wilkinson determined that any non-commissioned officer or private involved "in so vile an excess shall be seized by the nearest officer and receive 50 lashes without the benefit of a trial and be delivered to the civil authority for further punishment."
As a young soldier, Winfield Scott, born in Virginia in 1786, was quite familiar with these punishments. He joined the Calvary in 1807 and soon found the military life suited him. He was temperamental and sometimes hard to handle, but he came to understand that success came through discipline.
In later life, Scott commanded the U.S. military for 20 years, stepping down in 1861 as the Civil War broke out. He earned great fame during the Mexican War in 1846. At the outbreak of the Civil War, Scott unveiled the Anaconda Plan, which basically outlined the North's war strategy against the South. This included blocking Southern ports, gaining control of the Mississippi River down to New Orleans, and fighting the war on Southern soil. Under this successful plan, the Yankee armies wrapped themselves around the South and squeezed out its life as an Anaconda does her prey.
But years earlier, his military career almost came to an end. In 1808, a rumor circulated that Scott had withheld pay from his men and had went on leave without disbursing the money. Dr. William Upshaw, a military surgeon, apparently spread the story about Scott, eventually telling General Wilkinson, the man Scott despised.
Historian Edward D. Mansfield wrote a book on Scott's life in 1862, explaining that Scott had recruited a company from the interior of Virginia and was given about $400 to pay his men but some were never paid: "Some of the receipts taken for payments were irregular, and at the time of his trial, a small part of this small sum (about $50) was uncovered by formal vouchers. The court so found, but expressly acquitted him of all 'fraudulent intentions.'"
In his memoirs, Wilkinson wrote that Scott was "most conspicuous ... for he not only deserted his immediate countrymen, and companions in arms, whom he led from Virginia, but had previously deprived them of two month's pay."
Scott was 23 years old, captain of light artillery, and had witnessed one of most famous trials in early American history. When the former vice-president, Aaron Burr, faced treason charges in Richmond, Virginia, in 1807, Scott was the doorkeeper at the court and learned of Burr's connections with Wilkinson and Wilkinson's connections with the Spanish. He grew to detest Wilkinson and the general knew this.
‘UPSHAW’S SLANDEROUS REMARKS’
In 1930, Concordia historian Robert Dabney Calhoun wrote that "while the troops were stationed at Washington, Miss., in 1809, during dinner at a public tavern there" Scott became furious when "the subject of the 'Burr Conspiracy' was broached. Rising, Scott publicly, and very heatedly, denounced General Wilkinson in a most unbecoming manner. He was court-martialed on charges of conduct ungentlemanly and unbecoming of an officer, with speaking disrespectful of his superiors and withholding money for his troops."
In his book (Winfield Scott: The Quest for Military Glory, 1998), author Timothy D.D. Johnson offers this account: "Scott arrived at the army's new camp near Natchez in November 1809, anxious to face his accusers (concerning the payroll issue). He soon learned of Upshaw's slanderous remarks, and he asked for a court of inquiry to clear his name.
"While waiting for the court to convene, Scott took the opportunity to castigate Wilkinson in front of a group of officers. In a reckless display of malice, he called the general a 'liar and a scoundrel' and asserted, '[I] never saw but two traitors, General Wilkinson and Burr.' On another occasion, he avowed that to serve under Wilkinson was as disgraceful as being married to a prostitute. They were bold statements coming from an overconfident, impetuous young captain. Upshaw heard of the remarks and immediately reported them to Wilkinson. The charge of insubordination was then added to that of withholding his men's pay.'"
In January 1810, a military court ruled that Scott was guilty of "conduct unofficer-like" but acquitted him "of all fraudulent intentions in detaining the pay of his men." As punishment, he was "suspended from all rank pay and emoluments for a space of 12 months."
DUEL ALONG THE MISSISSIPPI
Before he left Mississippi Territory, Scott had one personal matter to take care of involving Dr. Upshaw.
Johnson writes: "If Scott could not clear his name through the legal process, he could at least gain satisfaction under the code of honor by challenging his greatest critic to a duel. He knew that Upshaw had called him a thief and had kept the commanding general informed of his derogatory remarks … He also learned that it was Upshaw who had preferred charges against him. Before leaving the army, Scott confronted his defamer and issued the challenge."
On Saturday, February 3, 1810, the two men met on the dueling grounds of Concordia along the Mississippi River at Vidalia. A crowd watched from the Concordia shore while hundreds, including soldiers, officers and civilians, lined the bluffs at Natchez. The spectators watched as Scott fired first and missed. The doctor didn't do much better but the ball he fired nicked Capt. Scott in the head, drawing blood.
"Upshaw was not injured in the exchange," says Johnson, "but Scott came away with a grazed scalp. The wound was more painful than serious and, no doubt, injured his pride more than his skull. Having settled his affairs, Scott returned to Virginia to serve his suspension."
There, Scott studied law and the military. This "sentence of suspension was probably one of the fortunate events of his life," wrote historian Edward Mansfield. At the end of his suspension Scott returned to his military career and this man who once showed such a great lack of restraint with his "unofficer like" comments about Wilkinson, became a great disciplinarian who loved all aspects of army life.
As he aged, his soldiers called him "Old Fuss & Feathers." During his military career Scott put together a three-volume tactical manual for the army, which was the standard for many years.
While Wilkinson had left Natchez with a career in a tailspin, Scott left town a man on the rise. So successful was Scott's military career that this highly decorated officer was nominated for President in 1852 as a Whig candidate 42 years after he left Natchez. The party so wanted Scott that it turned its nose up at Millard Fillmore, who was the incumbent president.
Scott, however, lost the election to Franklin Pierce, who tallied 1.6 million votes to 1.3 million for Scott.
Pierce carried Mississippi, 26,876 to 17,548, and won Louisiana, 18,647 to 17,255.
But Concordia stood behind "Old Fuss & Feathers" by a vote of 121 to 86.