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|Death Voyage up the Mississippi -- Part 4|
SOLDIERS, CITIZENS WITNESS WILKINSON'S MOST 'PAINFUL' DAY; RELIEVED OF DUTIES AT MILITARY CEREMONY AT FORT DEARBORN, 1809
(Fourth in a Series)
At noon on Tuesday, Dec. 19, 1809, the U.S. Army gathered on the grounds of Fort Dearborn in Washington, Mississippi Territory, six miles northeast of Natchez.
On the parade ground was the 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 echoed from Fort Dearborn on this chilly winter day. Twelve miles to the south at the Forest Plantation, William Dunbar was bed-ridden and had only a few months to live. He was still mourning the death of his son Tommy who Dunbar said was "so good and so promising a boy." Tommy had died in July 1808 with an "ulcerous putrid sore throat."
While the Dunbars were absent from the ceremonies at Washington, 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.
Jefferson College 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.
EXCITING TIMES IN TERRITORIES
Even in the years before that, events in Natchez were the most followed in the nation. This was the most exciting place to live in America. At the time, men were building fortunes here 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 at the Post of Concord, 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."
This western movement meant more conflicts with the Native Americans whose way of life had long been under assault by encroachment of white settlers. Along the Ouachita, north of present day Monroe, lived a small village of Choctaws who, said Indian Agent John Sibley, were "very troublesome" to white settlers.
When one settler caught a Chowtaw stealing corn, he attempted to run the Indian out of the field, but the Choctaw resisted and chased the owner. Later, the white man and his neighbors caught the Choctaw and whipped him. Soon the Indian returned with "an armed party" and "committed great outrage" against the family in the man's home. So fearful was the white man that he abandoned his home.
To the Indian, the fruits of the field, whether seeded by nature or the hand of man, belonged to everyone.
Sibley noted that during a drought, farmers needed rain for their corn and hired a Choctaw chief to "make it rain." He was paid "a certain quantity of articles" for the service, but "it did not rain." Another chief was hired but he said that to appease the creator of rain, the unsuccessful chief had to be killed. But the second chief failed and he, too, was killed. This continued until "thirteen chiefs and (the) head man were destroyed."
GENERAL PREFERRED DEATH
Just as the Dunbars were still mourning the loss of a son 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 civilian lives 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.
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 as far away as Natchez 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..."
Hampton, who arrived in Natchez on December 13, said Wilkinson had received him publicly and privately with a spirit that "does equal credit to both his head and heart." He 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 which 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.
ENEMIES OF WILKINSON
Gen. James Wilkinson had many enemies and he held them all in contempt. Wilkinson 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., who was born in Sligo, Ireland, in 1766, and immigrated to the U.S. in 1786 at the age of 20. Clark's uncle, Daniel Clark Sr., was one of the largest land owners in Natchez country who began investing and speculating in property in the region during the Spanish days in the late 1700s. Clark Sr. had a solid 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.
Wilkinson said that in November 1807 he was 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 was astonished to learn 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 that 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 "third party" overheard the conversation. This third man's "young and charming daughter" was being courted by Clark in Washington. Afterward, the daughter withdrew from Clark's attentions.
When Clark learned of Wilkinson's comment he was "incensed," especially in the aftermath of the failed relationships which Clark felt Wilkinson had purposely derailed. Later, the two men's paths crossed. Clark received the general "coolly" but "politely." When he saw Clark, Wilkinson said Clark was talking with a "Mr. Chew of Maryland" and 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.
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 who would testify against Wilkinson during his court-martial and before Congressional committees were Andrew Ellicott, the former U.S. Boundary Commissioner, as well as Thomas Powers, Daniel W. Coxe and Captain Winfield Scott.
By 1809, Clark published "Proofs of Corruption of Wilkinson," claiming 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 him when the general became convinced that Burr's schemes would fail. 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."
GENERAL DEPARTS; DEATH OF DUNBAR
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. On the 17th, sad news circulated in Mississippi Territory.
The man who had led the 1804-05 exploration of the Ouachita River on the request of President Thomas Jefferson, and who had described in a report to Congress the valley's soil and topography, was dead. The road map for this western expansion now underway into northeastern Louisiana was made possible by William Dunbar, who was also an astronomer, scientist, planter, public servant and inventor.
In May of 1810, Dunbar, on his death bed, heard that Alexander Wilson, the great ornithologist, was in Natchez. Dunbar sent a servant with two extra horses to carry Wilson and his belongings to his plantation.
"It is very unfortunate that I should be so much indisposed as to be confined to my bedroom; nevertheless, I cannot give up the idea of having the pleasure of seeing you as soon as you find it convenient," wrote Dunbar in a note. He said Wilson's first volume of ornithology had been "lent me by General Wilkinson (and) has produced in me a very great desire of making your acquaintance."
Wilson recalled later that Dunbar received him "with great hospitality and kindness; had a neat bedroom assigned me; and was requested to consider myself as at home..." Wilson said "the few happy days I spent there (at the Forest) I shall never forget."
On the 16th of October, Dunbar, suffering from what his son-in-law called a "most afflicting malady," drew his last breath and died at the age of 61, an old age 200 years ago.
In the northeast, Gen. Wilkinson was hunkered down and taking depositions from friends and associates as he prepared for his defense against his enemies and the Secretary of War.
|Frank Morris Murder Series|