New Orleans

NEW ORLEANS was bustling with activity in the early 1800s when U.S. troops arrived in the city to defend it from a possible attack by the British. But illness spread through the population of more than 17,000 and also in the army barracks. Scores of soldiers grew sick. The commander, General James Wilkinson, opted to move the troops south of New Orleans to a location he felt would be better for the men’s health, but instead the camp became a death trap. The location was along a big bend of the Mississippi known as English Turn. Weeks later, the men would be relocated to Fort Adams and Natchez, but many more would die on the grueling trip upriver. (Credit: "Under My Wings Every Thing Prospers," by New Orleans artist J. L. Bouqueto de Woiseri, showing an upriver view of New Orleans from Marigny plantation)

(First in a series)

In April 1809, Esaias Preble, an Army artillerist stationed at Fort Adams, watched as a detachment of newly recruited U.S. troops made a stop at the fort while descending the Mississippi in route to New Orleans.

Preble observed that the men "appeared to be young, able for any duty, and well clothed." Afterward, a number of other detachments passed down the Mississippi heading for New Orleans.

President James Madison had ordered a build-up of 2,000 troops in New Orleans as war with Britain seemed likely. But months later, in the middle of October, some of the same men returned to Fort Adams from New Orleans. Preble, still on duty at Fort Adams, was shocked at their condition.

Many were emaciated and deathly ill -- vomiting, and suffering from diarrhea, dysentery and scurvy. Many were unable to move without assistance and almost all were in severe pain and misery.

Because of their weak conditions, the men were made as comfortable as possible along the river bank for two or three days. Then, said Preble, 122 non-commissioned officers and privates were "sent into Fort Adams and buildings attached to the fort." On October 23, Preble was ordered to ascertain the condition of each soldier.

He learned that 17 of the men had died, 20 were "very sick," and eight to 20 were in "an open room in which they could have no fire, some of them no blanket, and almost naked; and all, with one or two exceptions, extremely dirty."

By late November, 14 more troops, all suffering, were left at Fort Adams. Altogether, 134 men were nursed there.

More than half -- 68 total -- died at the fort.

What happened at Fort Adams, at Point Coupee southward, in New Orleans and at an Army camp south of the city was alarming. Out of an army of 2,000, more than 600 died. The nation was outraged.

A Congressional investigation followed. At the center of this probe was General James Wilkinson, the controversial officer who had as many enemies as friends.

His account of events and those of others were recorded in court proceedings, military records, letters and other correspondence.

 

SICKNESS IN NEW ORLEANS

 

The events that lead up to this death voyage up the Mississippi River began on December 2, 1808, as war with Britain seemed likely. Wilkinson was ordered to assemble 2,000 troops in New Orleans to defend the city and the Mississippi River. Troops began arriving in March. Wilkinson arrived in April.

Because there had been a drawdown of the army a few years earlier, a national recruitment effort was launched. Men from throughout the western, eastern and Atlantic states joined the army. Some were shipped to New Orleans on transports down the Ohio and the Mississippi. Others boarded vessels on eastern seaports for an ocean voyage to New Orleans.

Once in the city, the raw recruits were wild and testy. They drank too much. They also drank bad water that caused stomach problems. Soon, civilians and soldiers alike in New Orleans became sick. They suffered extreme stomach pain and headaches accompanied by vomiting and diarrhea.

On April 30, 1809, William Eustis, the U.S. Secretary of War, expressed concern to Wilkinson over the health of the troops. Eustis had mulled over a March 24th report that revealed more than one-fourth of the army at New Orleans was sick. With the summer months coming Eustis wanted the troops removed from the city. In the hot Southern summers, sickness sometimes spread like wildfire through communities, especially in areas where there was a concentration of people.

Eustis told the general to leave a small force in New Orleans and move the bulk of the Army to Natchez country -- half to the "high ground in the rear of Fort Adams" and the other half to the "high ground in the rear of Natchez" at the territorial capital of Washington, six miles to the east. This dispatch did not arrive in Wilkinson’s hands until the middle of June.

By then he had already made other plans. He wrote Eustis that to march by land on the east side of the Mississippi to Fort Adams and Natchez would not be possible because the Spanish would not give permission for a military force to move through West Florida. At that time, Baton Rouge and what is known today as the Florida parishes east of the Mississippi River, belonged to Spain.

Wilkinson also pointed out that moving the army up the river would be expensive and a logistical nightmare in obtaining enough boats to transport hundreds of men against the current of the river. Tracking would be required of the boat transport crews and it would take days to make the journey northward.

He added that to "ascend the river with 2,000 men would probably have diseased nine-tenths of the men, many of whom were in a convalescent state, and as many sick."

Finally, he reminded Eustis that the very reason for amassing 2,000 troops at New Orleans was to defend the city from attack. Natchez country was "too remote" to defend "against external attack or internal commotion" in New Orleans. And, he said, the upper country (might prove) even "more sickly."

 

CAMP OF ‘GREAT STENCH’

 

Instead, Wilkinson determined to encamp the men on a piece of ground 12 miles below New Orleans on the left (east) bank of Mississippi. The place, known as Terre aux Boeufs, was partially protected by a levee. And, said the general, the site had enough nearby communities to provide "a good market for vegetables, milk and fowls."

Terre aux Boeufs was located at a wide bend in the river known as English Turn and had been considered a defensive position by the English and Spanish years earlier when they controlled New Orleans.

English Turn got it name around 1700 when French explorer Bienville, having recently visited Natchez, was descending the Mississippi in two bark canoes below New Orleans when he observed a British warship in a huge bend in the river. Bienville told the British commander that the French had already established itself in the country. That was a big lie. After a few choice words for Bienville, the commander turned the ship around and proceeded back to the Gulf of Mexico. Since that day, the bend has been called English Turn.

At that location a century later in 1809, the river was high and was lapping over the levee. In fact, the river was three feet higher than the 30 to 40 acres picked for the encampment at Terre aux Boeufs.

Captain Zebulon Pike was dispatched to Terre aux Bouefs in early June with seven officers and 200 men to clear and drain the ground and prepare for the arrival of the sick troops.  They had a gigantic task. Some of the ground was covered in high weeds, briars, bushes and brambles, overgrowth from land that was once cultivated. There were a few live oaks on the property that provided good shade, but the land was muddy, surrounded by a marsh and a swamp. One man called it "a perfect bog."

Rows of tents had to be erected, ditches had to be dug to drain the property, and holes, known as "sinks," had to be dug to handle the raw sewerage that had to be disposed.

Provisions for the troops included salted pork, beef, bread and flour. But much of the flour was "sour, moldy in lumps and full of bugs and worms." One officer called the pork "rusty and moldy."

Wilkinson made efforts to find better flour and provisions, but without much luck, and in the end could find very few vegetables for the men.

A total of 150 soldiers remained in New Orleans, while the sick and remaining healthy were encamped at the new site after Pike and his crew spent nine days in preparing the ground. They didn't have enough time to finish so that the healthy troops had to help once they arrived and the work was so great that some of these men quickly were put on the sick rolls. Some of the sick were forced to sleep on the ground or on a bed of palmetto until all of the tents could be set up, some of which were floored with planks from transport ships.

More than 250 tents were set up with six men per tent. Healthy men bunked with sick men who were vomiting and suffering from diarrhea and dysentery.

When heavy rains fell throughout June and July, the sinks overflowed creating "a great stench." Sometimes the sentinels stood in mud and water over their shoes. Eventually palmetto roof sheds were built for the sentinels and for the men well enough to leave their tents. Throughout the camp, the scorching sun baked the men, while minutes later "torrents of rain" fell. The mosquitoes attacked in swarms in the late evening and night.

The place resembled a refugee camp.

 

SUFFERINGS OF THE SICK

 

Dr. William D. Beall, a lieutenant-colonel of the 5th Infantry, was appointed by a House committee to investigate the causes of the sickness. He arrived at the camp on June 12. He said a large hospital was erected.

In the middle of July, the effects of the sickness and heat of the summer were causing great dissatisfaction in the rank: Officers disagreed whether Terre aux Boeufs was a good choice for camp.

Captain John Darrington of the 3rd Infantry was horrified at what he saw. The number of sick was so great that doctors could not keep up. They ran out of medicine, and sometimes the medicine "proved injurious." Doctors quarreled over the best treatment for the troops.

Said Darrington: "The sick and the well ... were equally exposed to the constant and incessant torrents of rain, to the scorching heat of the sun, and during the night to the attacks of numberless mosquitoes. They manifested the pains and sufferings they experienced by shrieks and groans, which, during the silence of the night, were distinctly to be heard from one end of the line to the other. It is my candid belief the mosquitoes produced more misery than any other cause.

"In the night the air was filled with them, and not a man was provided with anything like a bar or net. Thus situated, the sufferings of the unfortunate sick, who were too weak to defend themselves, can perhaps be better imagined than described."

At twilight fires were built to smoke out the mosquitoes, which worked for a few hours.

Military police had a thankless and difficult job as they tried to make sure the men followed all orders, especially involving sanitation. Rules forbade the men from "eating in their tents, and neither bone, nor chip, nor rag nor any other matter is to be thrown in front of the tents or within the streets; tubs must be provided by companies to receive offal of every species, which is to be carried and deposited" in sinks and pits. Obviously, as the sick count rose, these rules were impossible to enforce.

By July 12, the military police reported "filth and nastiness of almost every kind ... men easing themselves a few yards from kitchens." The entire camp was "assailed" from the "unpleasant" smells of sewers where "stinking meat, refuse of vegetables, old clothes, and every species of filth" were disposed.

The dead were buried in shallow ground "covered with just a few inches of dirt," where there was a "stench arising from the burying ground."

 

MOVING TO NATCHEZ

 

Soon the officers petitioned the general to move the troops.

Everything that could go wrong was going wrong. When Wilkinson was presented with the officers' petition, he said they "were crazy," pointing out that due to the wretched situation of the men, the voyage to Natchez would surely mean death.

Obtaining provisions had proved difficult, too. Military contractors were having a difficult time finding not only food, but also medical and general supplies. Supply vessels coming from the north were delayed in arriving as were the payrolls.

It had been in early June that Wilkinson received the April message from Secretary of War Eustis concerning the move to Natchez country. Replying that day, the general explained his reasoning in choosing Terre aux Boeufs in a dispatch that arrived on the Secretary of War's desk in late June. Eustis wasn't happy.

"On receiving this letter," Eustis answered, "you will be pleased immediately to embark all the troops" to Fort Adams and Natchez. He enclosed a copy of an order to the Navy to provide transportation.

When Wilkinson responded in late July 1809, 150 bodies were lying in graves at the camp. Many more would soon die on what became a death voyage to Natchez country.

 

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