(Fourth in a Series)
At noon on Tuesday, December 19, 1809, the U.S. Army gathered on the grounds of Fort Dearborn in Washington, Mississippi Territory, six miles east of Natchez.
On the parade ground was a commanding general of the United States Army -- James Wilkinson -- and the man sent by the Secretary of War to relieve him of his duties -- General Wade Hampton.
Music filled the air at Fort Dearborn on this chilly winter day. Surrounding the parade ground was a host of citizens and officials. David Holmes, the new governor, was there as were members of the territorial legislature.
Natchez historian Clark Burkett said at a time when the U.S. army strength amounted to only about 3,500 troops, some 1,000 of that total were on the grounds of Fort Dearborn that day. While there was no official account, there may have been, in addition to the troops, some 500 or more citizens.
"The economic benefit Natchez experienced at that time from these soldiers had to be tremendous," says Burkett.
Waiting to hear news of this change of command were Americans from all across the country. Just two years earlier, the nation's eyes were on Natchez when former vice-president Aaron Burr was arrested and charged with treason.
EVENTS IN TERRITORIES
Even in the years before that, events in Natchez were followed by the nation. During this era, men were building fortunes and speculating on the future of this 11-year-old American possession. At this very time, the territory's first bank -- the Bank of Mississippi -- was established in Natchez.
Across the river from Mississippi Territory at the Post of Concord in Orleans Territory, the young democratic government there was only five-years-old. In November of 1809, Jose Vidal, the longtime Spanish servant in both Natchez and Concordia, donated an acre of ground and a building on the river front for use as a courthouse, the parish's first. A short time later, Concordians honored Vidal by naming the little settlement of Concord in his honor. Soon it became known as Vidalia.
These were the days when northeastern Louisiana, part of Orleans Territory, witnessed a steady influx of American settlers almost every day. According to historian Dunbar Rowland, the settlements "were generally made on the high and fertile lands north of Red river" and "along the Mississippi, Tensas, Boeufs and Ouachita rivers, where, in many places, a plantation could be cleared by setting fire to the grass and cane. This may be taken to mark the beginning of westward emigration from Mississippi, when hardly a fourth of the area of the present state itself was open to settlement."
‘PRESEVERE IN HARMONY’
In December 1809 in Mississippi Territory, the troops at Fort Dearborn were mourning the loss of hundreds of their comrades who had died during the preceding months in the midst of an epidemic of sickness and disease that also claimed many lives of scores of civilians from Natchez to New Orleans. Wilkinson had been blamed for the death of the troops and for this, and other alleged offenses, he was being relieved of his duties and faced a court-martial.
Wilkinson was ultimately a traitor. While a U.S. general, he also was a spy for Spain, a fact proven years after his death. He was vain and petty. A heavy drinker, he was also full of himself, loved fancy uniforms and hobnobbing with the rich. He was brilliant, deceitful and persuasive: He could sell a fishing pole in the desert. Investigated by Congress four times, he always came out on top.
After the troops fell into line, the musicians began to play. On the right, the battery was loaded, matches struck, fuses lit and a national salute was fired. Citizens far away could hear the boom of canon.
As smoke filled the parade ground, Wilkinson and Hampton entered the field and marched to the center. In a short time, the changing of the command had taken place, all officers were introduced, and the canons fired again. Wilkinson did his best not to show his feelings.
He looked on the faces of the men and recalled "the ravages they had experienced, more terrible than those of the sword," telling them that he had "participated in their sufferings ... mingled in their sorrows, and bears testimony to their fortitude."
"I leave you," he said, "with a single request -- persevere in harmony ... and be ready at an instant's notice to devote your lives to the cause of your country."
Later, Wilkinson would recall that this day was "the most painful and most humiliating" of "all the scenes of my variegated life ... Heaven can bear me witness how much more welcome would have been the stroke of death."
‘MY VOCIFEROUS SLANDERERS’
General Wade Hampton, who arrived in Natchez in mid-December, said Wilkinson had received him publicly and privately with a spirit that "does equal credit to both his head and heart." Hampton said that in taking over command from an officer "so much superior in rank and experience," Wilkinson had bent over backwards to accommodate him.
Hampton added that Wilkinson had shown great "patriotism" and had "communicated with much frankness his ideas upon all the important points of my command. At the same time, all his maps, charts and sketches with the most unreserved explanations of them have likewise been placed in my possession."
But despite the civility of the two officers, the military and the country were split over Wilkinson, his service and what his future should be. Before Wilkinson left Natchez, some of the officers wanted to hold a public dinner for the general "as a demonstration of their friendship and approbation of (his) conduct." A petition was signed encouraging the event, a meeting was held, a committee appointed. But the dinner was never given, said Wilkinson, for reasons that he "could never learn."
A list of officers -- more than 40 -- signed the petition. But some of these men, Wilkinson later said, "have become the distinguished protégés of General Hampton and ... my vociferous slanderers." Even before Wilkinson left Natchez, the lines were drawn in camp.
WILKINSON DEFAMES CLARK
Wilkinson had many enemies and he held them all in contempt. He was a fighter and he lived by the final words uttered by his dying father. If someone attacks your character, his father said, fight back in a fury.
Perhaps the man Wilkinson despised most of all was 43-year-old Daniel Clark Jr., a native of Ireland who immigrated to the U.S. in 1786 at the age of 20. Clark's uncle, Daniel Clark Sr., was one of the largest landowners in Natchez country who began investing and speculating in property in the region during the Spanish days in the late 1700s. Clark Sr. had strong relationship with Spanish officials.
Clark Jr., the nephew, inherited his uncle's fortune and was elected to Congress for the Orleans District of Louisiana in 1806 and, according to Wilkinson, arrived in the nation's capital "contrived to impose himself as a man of rank, family and boundless fortune," and to add to the impression made "liberal donations" to "ostentatious charities, which gave him great celebrity." Wilkinson and Clark had known each for years and had previously been friends and associates.
But the two had since become bitter enemies.
Wilkinson said claimed that in November 1807 he had been in Annapolis in his home state of Maryland accompanied by Dr. John Carmichael, a prominent Natchez surgeon, and Captain Murray, an Army man. At a social event, Wilkinson claimed he learned that Clark had a reputation as a ladies man and was causing "havoc ... among the hearts of our charming countrywomen."
During tea after dinner, Wilkinson found out that Clark was seeking to borrow money from an old friend of the general's. When the friend asked Wilkinson of Clark's financial status, the general said Clark had inherited a cotton estate from an uncle. Wilkinson estimated that with "judicious management" the estate should yield Clark $12,000 per year, a fortune in 1807. But Wilkinson also indicated that Clark's debts probably equaled his assets.
Wilkinson learned later that a prominent man had overheard the conversation. This man had a "young and charming daughter" who Clark was courting in Washington. But afterward, the daughter withdrew from Clark's attentions.
When Clark learned of Wilkinson's comments about him he was "incensed," especially in the aftermath of the failed relationships that Clark felt Wilkinson had purposely derailed. Later, the two men's paths crossed Clark received the general "coolly" but "politely."
Wilkinson observed Clark was talking with a "Mr. Chew of Maryland.” Clark was describing "a tract of country in Louisiana," possibly property Clark owned along the Ouachita River. The two men had a "chart spread before them." Wilkinson's suggestion was that Clark was scheming.
CLARK SEEKS REVENGE
Mississippi historian John F.H. Claiborne wrote in his 19th century book that when the Aaron Burr affair became a national scandal in 1807 that Clark had by then became a sworn enemy of Wilkinson, as had Sen. John Randolph of Virginia. Others would testify against Wilkinson during his court-martial and before Congressional committees.
In 1809, the year Wilkinson lost his command during a ceremony in the Mississippi Territorial capital of Washington, Clark published "Proofs of Corruption of Wilkinson.” In the document, Clark claimed that from 1794 to 1803, Wilkinson was on the Spanish payroll, that Wilkinson was guilty of treason for conspiring with Spanish officials to detach the western states, and that Wilkinson was involved in Aaron Burr's schemes but outted Burr when the general became convinced that Burr's schemes would fail.
Historian Claiborne said Clark soon "gave up society and his equipage, became morose and crabbed, and expended his money only to grasp more land and to procure and suborn witnesses and informers, to avenge himself on Wilkinson."
While Wilkinson would be accused of many things in his life and would face other court-martials and trials, the death voyage of the troops up the Mississippi in 1809 would be the beginning of the end of his career and seal his reputation as a man who could never quite be trusted.
In mid-winter the general left Natchez country for the nation's capital, arriving in April. By October, all the talk was about the charges being leveled against Wilkinson, who had been removed from command.