(Sixth and final in a series)
The arrival in 1809 of General James Wilkinson to Natchez country along with the Army was a sad thing. Scores of soldiers had died as disease and sickness moved through the camps south of New Orleans and during the journey up the Mississippi.
In the territorial capital of Washington, six miles east of Natchez, Wilkinson had lost his command during a somber ceremony on the grounds of Fort Dearborn. At the same time, Congress was investigating him on a variety of charges.
Some of Wilkinson’s men adored him.
Some despised him.
Among the soldiers camped at Washington in 1809 was Winfield Scott, who would become one of the most famous U.S. generals of the 19th century. As part of the U.S. Army in Mississippi Territory, he was among the many who despised Wilkinson.
Scott’s harsh comments criticizing Wilkinson in a Washington tavern outraged some. It was against the rules to bash your commanding officer. Before long, Scott and a doctor greatly offended by Scott’s words met on the dueling grounds of Concordia Parish.
Scott and Wilkinson were part of a frontier army that numbered only about 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.
When living conditions became so desperate at the military camp called Terre aux Boeufs, the bulk of the army grew to despise the place. Officers signed a petition asking the general to move troops to Natchez, but Wilkinson, fearing that the sick men wouldn't survive the journey up the Mississippi, refused. When Wilkinson received orders from the Secretary of War to make the move, however, the general began the process that, due to circumstances beyond his control, took weeks to begin and once started, 45 days to complete.
Wilkinson was blamed for the great mortality and because of other complaints against him, he soon found himself under Congressional and military scrutiny. Of the 2,000 men originally stationed in New Orleans in the spring of 1809, some 686 died, 108 deserted and 58 were discharged. That army had been cut almost in half with only 1,184 soldiers remaining in service and a major reason once settled in Natchez country, a major reorganization began.
While a few men were left in New Orleans, Pointe Coupee and at Fort Adams, the remaining army, about 1,000 men, was stationed in the Mississippi Territory capital of Washington, six miles east of Natchez.
Wilkinson was relieved of his command in mid-December of 1809 and left Washington for the nation's capital in February 1810 to face a committee investigation as well as an army court-martial. It was during this same time that Scott ran into his legal difficulties and faced a court-martial of his own in January 1810, a month before Wilkinson left town.
A CATTAIL BULLWHIP
Scott had faced a rugged life in the frontier army. Life on these outposts could be maddeningly dull and such was the case at Fort Dearborn in Washington. But these troops were lucky because there were plenty of drinking holes in Washington and Natchez. Any soldier posted in the wilderness of Fort Adams would have traded places in a heartbeat with one at Fort Dearborn.
Jefferson College property borders what was once the site of Fort Dearborn, which totaled about 44 acres.
Boredom often got the soldiers into trouble. They’d drink too much, leave their posts and get caught or commit a variety of offense that violated military rules.
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 men 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.
Among the men tried by military court at Fort Dearborn during the encampment in addition to Winfield Scott were, as examples, James Carson, a private in Irwins Company of Artillery, charged "with sleeping on his post ... two different times," and Peter Wilson, a private in Captain Long's company of the Fifth Regiment, "charged with desertion from camp at Brothers-settlement" on the Mississippi. There were scores of other cases.
Punishment was sometimes 50 lashes with a cattail bullwhip.
On December 10, 1809, before General Wilkinson gave up command to General Wade 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 announced 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."
WHY SCOTT HATED
As a young soldier, Winfield Scott, who was born in Virginia in 1786, was familiar with these punishments. He had joined the Calvary in 1807 and soon found that the military life suited him. Though he was temperamental and sometimes hard to handle, he came to understand that success came through discipline, something he didn't always possess himself as a young man.
His military career had almost come to an end in 1808, beginning when a rumor circulated that Scott had withheld pay from some of his men and took a leave without disbursing the money. Dr. William Upshaw, a military surgeon, apparently spread the story about Scott, eventually telling Gen. James 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 $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," wrote Mansfield. "The court so found, but expressly acquitted him of all 'fraudulent intentions.'"
Wilkinson in his memoirs said 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 loved the military. But he hated Wilkinson. When the former vice-president, Aaron Burr, was tried for treason in Richmond, Virginia, in 1807, Scott sat through the trial 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.
‘MARRIED TO A PROSTITUTE’
In 1930, Concordia historian Robert Dabney Calhoun wrote that Captain Scott "while the troops were stationed at Washington, Miss., in 1809, during dinner at a public tavern there" 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 an officer, with speaking disrespectful of his superiors and withholding money for his troops."
In the book "Winfield Scott: The Quest for Military Glory," 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, the 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."
But 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 February 3, the two men met on the dueling grounds of Concordia along the Mississippi River at present day Vidalia.
When each raised his weapon, a crowd stood on the Concordia shore and the bluffs at Natchez were lined with onlookers. The spectators watched as Scott pulled the trigger of his pistol and completely missed. The doctor didn't do much better but the ball he fired nicked Capt. Scott in the head.
"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 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.
His soldiers called him "Old Fuss & Feathers." During his military career he 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. Almost forgotten is the fact that during the winter of 1809-1810, the former commanding general of the U.S. army and the future commanding general of that same army, walked the streets of Natchez and Washington, ate in their taverns and drank in their saloons.
So successful was Scott's military career that he 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.
But Scott lost to Franklin Pierce, who also carried Mississippi and Louisiana. But according to historian Calhoun, Concordia stood behind "Old Fuss & Feathers" by a vote of 121 to 86.