Map of Louisiana

THIS 1814 Louisiana map shows English Turn (center of map), a big bend in the Mississippi below New Orleans where in 1809 hundreds of ill and dying U.S. troops were encamped during a harsh summer of heat, humidity, disease and swarms of mosquitoes. (Credit: Carey’s General Atlas of the World, Library of Congress)

(Second in a series)

For three months, hundreds of U.S. troops, many raw recruits from the north, suffered the long, hot summer of 1809 in a camp 12 miles south of New Orleans at a place called Terre aux Boeufs in present day St. Bernard Parish.

Hundreds were deathly ill, suffering from fever, diarrhea, scurvy and dysentery. Most of their suffering was due to malaria and yellow fever, each carried by the bite of an infected mosquito.

President James Madison had ordered a build-up of 2,000 troops in New Orleans as war with Britain seemed likely. General James Wilkinson was in command at New Orleans and was instructed by the U.S. Department of War to remove the troops to Fort Adams and Natchez when the sick count began to rise.

But Wilkinson didn't want to move the sick men northward. He contended the journey would kill many of them. He feared leaving the city defended by only 150-plus men when war was possible.

Instead he moved the men to what was considered a defensive position at Terre aux Boeufs, located at a big bend in the river called English Turn. Terre aux Boeufs was a bayou named by a Frenchman in the early 1700s. He had observed cattle grazing along the banks. The words means “land of oxen.”

By this point in his career, General Wilkinson had as many enemies as friends. He had recently survived the Burr affair, in which the former vice-president was arrested and tried for treason. Some believed Wilkinson was involved Burr's schemes, but sold him out when the general realized that Burr's plans would be exposed.

Wilkinson also was involved in other eyebrow-raising deals in the past, and the public seemed to be equally divided over whether he was a patriot or a villain. At Terre aux Boeufs, as the sickness raged, some officers petitioned the general to move the men to Natchez. He refused, but when he was unequivocally ordered to make the move, he began plans at haste.

Wilkinson had trained as a doctor when a young man but left that profession for the military, which was his passion. One officer recalled that Wilkinson visited the sick every day, constantly questioned the medical staffs over the men's condition and even threatened the arrests of two surgeons when he didn't think they were being attentive. It was common, said others, to see Wilkinson remove sick officers from their tents and put them in his own quarters, a home he rented on the camp grounds, and when that wasn't possible, he sent them "to a fine airy house above the city of Orleans."

But there was more to the story.

 

‘GREAT ANXIETY OF MIND’

 

Moving hundreds of men from the encampment to Fort Adams and Natchez was a massive undertaking. Secretary of War William Eustis ordered the U.S. Navy, under Admiral Porter, to revamp gunboats in order to transport the army. But Porter's crews also were suffering from the fevers and sickness that also raged among the civilian population in New Orleans. Older residents of the city said the outbreak was the worst they had seen in years.

Nineteen-year-old Matthew Gardner, traveling on a flatboat from Natchez to New Orleans, was one of the civilians who fell ill during this time. He recalled that when approaching the city his health "began to give way, and I became quite unwell with diarrhea, so that when we reached the city, about the last of May, 1809, I was so weak that I could scarcely walk ... They proposed to move me to the hospital, but I objected, having heard that nearly all died who went there ... After four or five weeks during the hot season of June and July in that hot climate, my body was a mere skeleton, and the bones seemed to protrude through the skin."

Gardner was lucky. He recovered and enjoyed a long life.

Adding to the problem was this: Converting gunboats to transports was a long and laborious project. After delays, Wilkinson determined to put another plan in action, which pleased Admiral Porter, who wrote the general on September 1st:

"It is the cause of much regret to me, that the extreme unhealthiness of our crews should have prevented our being of more assistance to the army in ascending the river; and it affords me particular pleasure that you have determined on the plan of transporting chiefly in barges, as I was under serious apprehensions that our unhealthiness would retard your movement until the middle of October."

Four gunboats were converted to transport about 40 ill troops and baggage in each vessel, and four keelboats were borrowed from New Orleans' businessmen who wanted to get the vessels to Natchez. Wilkinson had nine damaged boats at Fort Adams repaired and floated down the river and the flotilla also included one quartermaster's boat and a contractor's boat with supplies.

The man in charge of repairing the boats from Fort Adams said some were almost rotten, had to be "drawn up, patched, and caulked ... Rudders, oars, masts and sails were also obliged to be made, which was completed by the 10th of September."

Around that time, the sickest men were sent to the general hospital in New Orleans, and about 1,500 men prepared for the journey north. Almost 1,000 of the most able men prepared to march to Natchez, while the remaining 380-plus convalescents too weak to march boarded the flotilla.

Wilkinson had made arrangements that "the boats were covered, to keep off the rays of the sun and the dews of the night, and were equipped with oars, masts, and sails.”

By this time, the general himself was in bed, suffering from fever and chills. "To find myself unable to accompany them (the troops) even in a litter or a boat ... galled me to the soul, and seemed to retard my recovery," he said. When the embarkation began, Wilkinson said the sickness "pressed me hard" and the "powers of my iron constitution yielded." One doctor said in addition to his illness, the general's worry over the troops gave him "great anxiety of mind."

He remained in New Orleans as the main army moved northward. Troops and officers, some so anxious to get out of Terre aux Boeufs, expressed "joy" in departing despite the long journey ahead. Wilkinson, feverish and concerned about his men, asked a doctor his expectations of the voyage. Said the doctor: "Your sick will die and your well will sicken."

Before leaving, the doctors divided the medicine that had recently arrived by ship. Supplies included "several large pipes and casks (or hogshead) of wine, brandy, molasses, etc., and boxes ... of medicine."

 

NO COFFINS FOR THE DEAD

 

Lt.-Col. William D. Beall, in testimony before Congress months later, said the men unable to march were left at New Orleans while the "weaker part" managed by "able men" under the direction of officers ascended the river about eight to 15 miles a day depending on "wind and current" and in locating the "best ground" to camp.

"Sickness and deaths increasing as we progressed," he said.

A meeting was called between the surgeons and the officers. The surgeons said the condition of the troops was so "unsettled" that it was "useless to administer medicine." The officers urged "reasonable haste to a place of rest where the skill of the physician, and effect of the medicine, might have a fair trial."

Beall lamented that the "sufferings were such as would excite pity in the most callous heart."

Capt. John Darrington recalled that the "men were crowded in such numbers in the boats as to preclude everything like comfort. In many of the boats were two and three companies. This was an evil which could not be remedied: for, had our boats been multiplied, I do not think we should have been able to manage them. In the boat in which I ascended were three companies, and it was with difficulty I could ever get more than twelve or fifteen men at the oars.

"For the first few days after we commenced our ascent, the number of deaths were not more than usual. Afterwards they began to increase, and before we arrived at Point Coupee, it became a first duty at our nightly encampments to bury those who had died during the day, and in the morning to bury those who had died during the night.

"This last rite consisted in wrapping them in their blankets and covering them with two or three feet of earth."

During the congressional inquiry on the death march, this question was asked: "Did you ever hear or know of the dead of an army in the field or on a march being buried otherwise than in their blankets; and is it practical to furnish planks?"

Lt.-Col. Beall snapped: "It is impossible on a march to provide coffins for the dead."

 

DESPERATE AT POINT COUPEE

 

On the 3rd of October, the first boats arrived at Point Coupee Post {near New Roads}. At this place the doctors determined that a hospital had to be set up because some of the men could bear the journey no longer. On this trip, the frontier military bureaucracy had few provisions for money in such an emergency situation. So the officers dug into their pockets to provide for the men to be left behind.

Financially, everyone was in a bind. The sick men's uniforms were obviously soiled and in tatters. They were too weak to keep up with any of their belongings.

Major Elecus Backus said soldiers were normally paid every two months but had not been paid in four to six months. His testimony was refuted by others, although even if the men did have money in their pockets they would have been too ill to keep up with it. Backus said the men could not purchase fowl or vegetables that would have been an improvement over the poor provisions provided by the military. Much of the flour provided by the military was rancid.

Backus testified that "the (Army) paymaster ... did not consider it his duly to go from New Orleans to pay the troops, and there being no paymasters to many of the regiments, payments could not be made; and one cause assigned by General Wilkinson was, that if the men were paid off before they ascended the river, many would desert."

Wilkinson denied this claim, although frontier companies suffered greatly from desertion. On the average, an Army private made $10 per month.

"The want of clothing was so great," said Backus, "that many of the soldiers were almost naked; this was owing to the new clothing not arriving until short time before the army moved up the river and was not delivered to the company officers until after they had arrived at Washington, Mississippi Territory."

There was already a shortage of doctors and as they became ill, the medical attention available for many men was non-existent.

Backus said that when the voyage began he talked to Wilkinson as he lay on his sick bed. The general told him "that there was not a dollar in the Quartermaster's Department to defray any extra expenses; that I must take them as they were."

So poor was this convoy that when 100 of the sick were left at Point Coupee, Backus said that had the officers not pooled about $100 dollars to buy some chickens and vegetables that the sick would have had virtually nothing to eat.

The flotilla journeyed onward, burying men along the riverbank all the way to Fort Adams. By now, the number of dead from the original total of 2,000 troops assembled at New Orleans was in the hundreds and rising.

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