Stanley Nelson

(Fifth in Series)

On April 17, 1810, General James Wilkinson arrived in the nation's capital.

There he found two Congressional committees in session. In a book, Wilkinson recalled that one committee was investigating “the causes of mortality among the troops on the Mississippi whom I commanded” and the other was investigating his “public life, character and conduct."

One of the charges Wilkinson faced in this and future proceedings was that he had long been on the Spanish payroll, even while a U.S. general; that on several occasions money was delivered to Wilkinson by the Spanish, sometimes packed on mules; that the Natchez horse trader, Philip Nolan, and Thomas Power, now one of Wilkinson's enemies, had delivered the general Spanish money; and on and on.

There was one charge, too, involving Daniel Clark Jr., a U.S. Senator representing the Orleans Territory since 1806. The territory included most of present day Louisiana.

Before they became enemies, there was testimony introduced that Clark had visited Wilkinson at Fort Adams in 1798. At this time, Wilkinson was said to have inquired of Clark Jr. about his Spanish pension. Clark, like Wilkinson, was closely associated with the Spanish.

Wilkinson told Clark he was due $10,000, but instead of cash, he asked that the Spain transfer him the Spanish mansion in Natchez known as Concord as well as surrounding property. The Spanish governor of Natchez in the 1790s -- Manuel Gayoso -- built the mansion.

This requested transaction never occurred.

 

A KICKBACK FOR THE GENERAL?

 

Another charge against Wilkinson involved Terre aux Boeufs, an Army encampment below New Orleans where sickness and disease raced throughout the military and civilian communities in 1809. Many said that Wilkinson's father-in-law owned the property on which the camp was located. Others said Wilkinson, himself, owned the property.

But, said Wilkinson, "my respected father-in-law ... did not own a foot of land within three leagues of the spot and, as if nothing could be too gross for credulity where my destruction was concerned, this monstrous tale was circulated by my enemies with as much confidence as if it had been a solemn truth." Wilkinson said it horrified him to learn that even his enemies would think the general would sacrifice his men for a monetary profit.

But there were suggestions that Wilkinson received a $630 kickback from the landowner on whose property the encampment was located.

The general responded that "if the seeds of death were sown at Terre aux Boeufs, they germinated on the voyage up the Mississippi, and prepared the fatal harvest which was reaped at Washington" in Mississippi Territory.

From September 12 to October 31, Wilkinson said that 300 men died in hospitals at Point Coupee and Fort Adams and on the trip upriver. By the final count, out of an army of 2,000 assembled in New Orleans, one in three died from the spring of 1809 to February of 1810. All toll, 686 lives were lost, 108 men deserted and another 58 were discharged.

 

HOUSE COMMITTEE’S REPORT

 

In 1811, a House committee completed its probe into the mortality of troops at Terre auxs Boeufs and the death voyage up the Mississippi. The committee, which criticized Wilkinson for not following orders, reported that "from a knowledge which they have acquired of the climate of New Orleans, and of the country surrounding it, and from the facts stated in the depositions, are of opinion, that the mortality in the detachment ordered to New Orleans is to be ascribed to the following causes:

"1. The detachment consisting of new levies.

"2. The insalubrity of the climate — the Summer and Autumn of the year 1809 being unusually sickly.

"3. To the nature of the ground on which the detachment was encamped at Terre aux Boeufs, and the detention of it at that place during the whole of the Summer, contrary, as the committee conceive, to the instructions contained in the letter of the Secretary of War, bearing date the 30th of April, 1809.

"4. To the want of sound and wholesome provisions and of vegetables; the want of a hospital, and hospital stores and medicines.

"5. The excessive fatigues to which the troops were subjected in clearing, ditching, and draining the ground on which they were encamped.

"6. To the want of repose during the night, owing to the troops not being provided with bars or nets to protect them from the annoyance of mosquitoes.

"7. The want of cleanliness in the camp, the nature of the position rendering it almost impracticable to preserve it.

"8. The sick and well being confined to the same tents, which neither protected them sufficiently from the heat of the sun, nor kept them dry from the dews and rains."

In the matter of removal of the troops from New Orleans to Natchez, you can take two views. Wilkinson testified that the original order to remove the men to Natchez didn't arrive until he was in the process of relocating from New Orleans to Terre aux Boeufs in early June. Plus, and most revealing, is that with one-fourth of the troops ill, Wilkinson knew that a march northward during what the general called the "dog days" of summer would be devastating to the sick and that healthy men would fall ill. 

The Secretary of War, William Eustis, a doctor himself, felt without question that the men would be much better off in Natchez country than at New Orleans. When the troops began arriving in Natchez in November the weather was cool and they quickly regained their health six miles to the east at Washington.

But getting them there was a deadly disaster.

 

GENERAL’S SWORD RETURNED

 

On Christmas Day, 1811, the military court-martial of Wilkinson ended in his favor. There were many accusations and many complicated events the court attempted to weed out. In the end, the military judges said it was "proper to declare" that "General Wilkinson appears to have performed his various and complicated duties with zeal and fidelity, and merits the approbation of his country."

President James Madison, who took office in March of 1809, examined the proceedings held at Frederickstown, Maryland, and approved the court's ruling. However, he made it clear that he found "instances of conduct" of the court and the general "evidently and justly objectionable." But the President said Wilkinson's "sword is accordingly ordered to be restored."

Wilkinson blamed the President and Eustis for his troubles, along with a list of other men. The general looked at his court-martial as politically motivated and what he saw as a plot by many to bring him down at all costs. Though a guilty man is sometimes paranoid, the general offered a warning to the American public in the aftermath of his trial. His warning came just three decades after the Declaration of Independence.

""Every friend to republican institutions," said the general, should carefully examine his "persecution" because it exposes "the march of executive power, which if not seasonably checked (the) national legislature may in (the) process of time trample under foot the most precious rights of the American people."

Don't give the President too much power!

Follow the steps of Wilkinson's life from here until his death in 1825 in Mexico, and you will find a man always under a cloud of suspicion. He survived every court organized against him, but in the decades after his death, Charles Gayarre, a Louisiana historian, found the smoking gun in Europe. In the Spanish archives he found the proof of treason that Wilkinson's contemporary enemies never found.

Gayarre learned that from the 1790s through the early 1800s, Gen. James Wilkinson received a $2,000 per year pension from Spain while he served as the general -- much of the time the commanding general -- of the U.S. Army. The bulk of his service during this period was spent in Natchez country where Wilkinson and Spanish representatives communicated regularly.

 

‘FATHER, SON AND WASHERWOMAN’

 

The Wilkinson committee investigation and his court-martial from 1809 to 1811 were a sensation in the country. Although the proceedings were held in the nation's capital and elsewhere up north, the juicy news being generated came from events that occurred in Natchez.

One of the juiciest stories was a sex scandal involving Andrew Ellicott, his son, Andy, and Betsy, a washerwoman considered a prostitute. President Washington named Ellicott in the mid-1790s as the U.S. Boundary Commissioner in charge of running the new boundary line along the 31st parallel separating the newly formed Mississippi Territory from Spanish possessions to the south.

An Act of Congress following the Treaty of San Lorenzo between the U.S. and Spain formed the territory in 1798. Ellicott and crew arrived in Natchez in 1797 but couldn't begin work until the Spanish actually gave up possession, which didn't happen until the spring of 1798.

On the day Spanish troops and the Spanish government abandoned the Natchez fort (Rosalie) and sailed down the Mississippi, Ellicott headed to Loftus Heights and six miles below that began marking the boundary line. U.S. soldiers came to Loftus Heights at about the same time and later began construction of Fort Adams to guard the southwestern corner of the United States. Wilkinson arrived there in late summer.

When Wilkinson visited the boundary line during this time, he found the camp in disarray. Ellicott and Lt. Thomas Freeman were embroiled in a dispute that Wilkinson realized was too far advanced to mediate. Ellicott demanded that Wilkinson remove Freeman from camp. To keep the peace, Wilkinson did so, reassigning Freeman to oversee the construction of Fort Adams.

When Ellicott offered testimony against Wilkinson during his court-martial, suggesting that Wilkinson was tied to the Spanish, Wilkinson remembered the conflict on the boundary and asked Freeman to give a deposition on the morals of Ellicott in order to damage both Ellicott’s character and credibility in court.

Freeman's deposition raised eyebrows.

He had been commissioned as surveyor for the boundary line on May 24, 1796, and joined Ellicott in Philadelphia in the autumn of 1796 for the journey to Natchez during one of the coldest winters on record. The Ohio River was frozen over in places and chunks of ice floated down the Mississippi River.

When Ellicott's party arrived in Natchez in February 1797, the Spanish governor, Manual Gayoso, welcomed the Americans on the commissioner's barge, and there Ellicott introduced the washerwoman Betsy to Gayoso.

Freeman said Betsy sat at Ellicott's table with him for all meals and was presented by Ellicott "to occupy the station of a washerwoman to the party." But, said Freeman, Betsy's "known character was that of a prostitute of the lowest grade."

Ellicott and his 19-year-old son, Andy, were both involved with the woman, said Freeman, and paid "mutual friendly and familiar attentions to her." In fact, "father, son and washerwoman" often enjoyed a threesome, sleeping "in the same bed, at the same time."

"I was even pressed myself by the old sinner, Ellicott, to take part of his bed with his washerwoman and himself for the night," said Freeman. Everyone knew that the Ellicotts "held, and continued a beastly, criminal and disgraceful intercourse with said harlot Betsy."

Gov. Winthrop Sargent, the first territorial governor of Mississippi, wrote the Secretary of War about Ellicott, his son and the washerwoman. The men in camp likewise knew what was going on and mentioned it in letters. A junior surveyor wrote his father that Betsy had a nervous breakdown on the trip to Philadelphia after the boundary line work was complete.

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