(Third in a series)
The sick men making the voyage of death up the Mississippi River to Natchez country in September 1809 were the sons of farmers, traders, merchants and Revolutionary War veterans. They came from the fringes of the wilderness and from the small villages and young cities.
Some were veteran soldiers but most were raw recruits, young men who had never been exposed to the hot Southern summers and the sickness and diseases that sometimes raged.
From the spring of 1809 until February of 1810, some of these troops fell ill and died in New Orleans at an army encampment below the city known as Terre aux Boeufs. Others died on what became known as the death voyage up the Mississippi River, and at Point Coupee and Fort Adams.
The Secretary of War, William Eustis, blamed Gen. James Wilkinson for the deaths. As the commanding officer of the U.S. Army, Wilkinson had much to lose from the charge.
But when ordered to move the troops from New Orleans to Natchez country Wilkinson had no choice but to do as he was told. Eustis thought Natchez healthier than New Orleans and vicinity. But Wilkinson knew that the main question was: Could the sick survive the 45-day journey to their destination? He knew the answer. Many would not.
J. Villere, a resident of New Orleans area for 27 years, said the season at which the army "struck their camp" in Terre aux Boeufs and departed for Natchez was one "in which disease commits its greatest ravage in this country. Strangers well seasoned to the climate, and even Creoles, dread traveling in the months of August, September and October, so fearful are they of the maladies."
For an army to march at that time, he said, was ill advised.
Villere’s comments, and those of others, are contained in correspondence as well as military, court and Congressional records.
As Wilkinson was making plans to move the troops northward, he reminded Eustis that Natchez country had its share of sickness and was not immune to disease. He was candid: "I fear it will be vain for us to fly from disease in this region with our unseasoned recruits."
Wilkinson recalled that in 1798, when the U.S. took possession of Natchez country, there was widespread sickness in the region. When U.S. soldiers were encamped at what was considered a healthy camp at Columbian Springs near Fort Adams, then under construction, Wilkinson said he “had 240 men down at one time, out of about 500."
Dr. A. Thurston, a surgeon in the 7th Infantry, opposed the transport of the sick troops to Natchez, too, calling such a move "hazardous to the extreme -- I mean removal in any distance, where the troops would be obliged to be conveyed in small vessels by water, and contending against a strong and difficult current."
REMOVED HIS TONGUE
The sickness and fevers of summer and early fall of 1809 became a measuring stick for disease outbreaks for years to come. Dr. William Upshaw said prevalent ailments in 1809 included "chronic diseases, bilious and intermittent fevers, some cases of scurvy."
Those afflicted vomited and suffered chronic diarrhea.
Another symptom, according to Dr. Jabez Heustis, was a "sad" face that "assumed a sallow hue." Joints stiffened, the tendons in the arms became "rigid and contracted." Soldiers experienced pain in the parotid (salivary) glands, while the lymph nodes in the armpits and groins swelled. Their gums bled and teeth became loose.
As the disease progressed, sometimes "the whole inside of the mouth" was destroyed in 12 hours, sometimes in half that time. One patient, the doctor said, was so afflicted that he grabbed his tongue and "deliberately drew it from his mouth, and threw it on the table."
Heustis thought scurvy was a major enemy of the men but also found symptoms that reminded him of the "Eastern plague."
One contributor to the sicknesses was the food provided by army contractors, which was often rancid. Another was the shortage of vegetables. Yet another factor may have been the damp, hot air at Terre aux Boeufs, which he said was "highly impregnated with noxious maismata" (a vapor rising from the swamps and from putrid matter).
Wild pepper-grass was one treatment recommended by Wilkinson, who studied medicine and favored "vegetable remedies." Pepper-grass was used to treat scurvy and poison ivy rash. It was brewed in a tea or applied to the chest as a poultice. Pepper-grass was nutritious, and a known treatment for vitamin C deficiency.
Another cure-all treatment during the day was mercury, which was given in pill or syrup forms and was said to relieve a host of ailments. But Heustis thought the superintending physician's "injudicious use of mercury" might have actually killed many patients.
Another treatment for just about any ailment was "bleeding." This was achieved with an instrument such as the lancet, a small knife. People actually cut themselves and bled, thinking it released the "bad" or "ill" blood. Wilkinson actually "bled" himself while confined to a bed in New Orleans with fever and diarrhea as the men marched northward.
Naturally, this treatment actually made a patient faint and weak and sometimes too much blood was drawn and the patient died. Well-educated men considered this reliable treatment.
‘WITH MUCH AFFECTION’
As the sickest men were transported up river in a flotilla of gunboats and flatboats, the healthy men marched. Along the way, many died. Scores were wrapped in blankets and buried along the riverbank. About 100 of the sickest on the boats were left at hospital set up at Point Coupee.
At Fort Adams, 134 men were placed in a temporary hospital. More than half -- 68 -- died at the fort.
The troops healthy enough to continue traveling were brought to Natchez, where Lt.-Col. William Beall recalled that people did everything they could to help the troops
"As the boats arrived at Natchez," he said, "carriages were procured to move the sick and baggage to the intended cantonment near the town of Washington." Beall said Washington was "a place healthy, elegant, and convenient to springs of fine water."
The campsite was known as Fort Dearborn, named in honor of the former Secretary of War, before the name was changed by the end of 1809 to Fort Washington, in honor of the former president. These grounds were on the north side of Jefferson College.
Beall said the healthiest men rested and then "began to clean their arms, rendered rusty from the unavoidable neglect of them while on the march." Lt.-Col. Electus Backus said huts were built at Fort Dearborn in an area that was heavily wooded and cleared of "a great deal of underbrush. I cannot say how much was cleared. It took a large piece of ground."
Found in the William S. Hamilton Papers at LSU is a description of the camp and the work performed, on the orders of Lt.-Col. Beall:
• The huts "are to be uniformly erected."
• In clearing off the ground, "the wood is to be piled and pressured for fuel."
• Huts are to be "framed 16 feet square in the clear, nine feet pitched from the floor to joints."
• "Ten and an half feet rafters, doors one in front, one in the rear of the center, three and an half (feet) wide and seven feet high."
• Two windows, "one on the side furtherest from the chimney of each door, two and an half feet deep and four feet long."
• One chimney "to every two huts, in the center of the gable end."
• Piazzas "six feet deep to join the eve of the huts. One each side and to have a fall of two feet to the front."
And concerning bathrooms, orders were issued as the camp was being set up that as "soon as possible sinks must be dug in a line in front of the encampment and made secret by bushes and the filth there in covered every day four and five inches thick with earth ... the sooner the officers commanding corps turn their attention to the search of springs the better ... good, clear water will certainly contribute much to the health of the men.'
The spring found behind Jefferson College and beside Fort Dearborn had pure, great-tasting water. In 1797, before the Spanish turned over Natchez country to the United States, the American Boundary Commission camped there. Led by Andrew Ellicott, the commission's good experience at that location helped make the fine water and healthy climate of Washington well known outside Natchez country.
Backus would always remember the kindness of the people in Natchez and Washington. He recalled:
"After the army arrived at their place of destination (Washington, early November), the weather became cool ... the troops were much relieved at this place by a plentiful market, both in fresh provisions and vegetables, which sold one hundred per cent, cheaper than in New Orleans, or its Territory.
"The inhabitants of Washington and its vicinity received the army with much affection, and treated them with more attention and friendship than they had hitherto experienced on that Southern station."
WILKIINSON’S PROBLEMS MOUNT
Backus recalled the kindness of Natchez residents during proceedings against Wilkinson, who would face a court martial over the death voyage and his decision to locate at Terre aux Boeufs. In fact, Backus, who would become a prosecution witness against Wilkinson, said he lost six men out of a company of 76 at Terre aux Beoufs, then lost 16 men on the journey to Natchez. Other officers had similar stories.
A Congressional inquiry into this disaster revealed that out of an army of 2,000, some 656 men died from May 1809 to February 1810. A total of 108 deserted and 58 were discharged, leaving only 1,184 men available to defend New Orleans, Natchez country and the lower Mississippi Valley. The percentage lost to illness -- 32 percent (one in three) -- was devastating.
The blame would fall in Wilkinson's lap and as the nation watched, Wilkinson faced a court-martialed. The saddest day of his life, he would later say, would occur in Washington, the capital of the Mississippi Territory.
In the weeks ahead, the charges against Wilkinson would mount and his enemies would seize the moment in an attempt to bring him down. But Wilkinson was a fighter and when he was in a crisis he could fall back on the last words he heard his dying father say: "My son, farewell.”
Then he added, “If ever you put up with an insult, I will rise from my grave to disinherit you."