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|Death Voyage up the Mississippi -- Part 6|
SCOTT'S COURT-MARTIAL IN MISSISSIPPI TERRITORY, DUEL ON CONCORDIA SHORE; AT WASHINGTON TAVERN, SCOTT CALLED WILKINSON A LIAR, SCOUNDREL, TRAITOR
(Sixth and final in a series)
Not long after Winfield Scott joined the U.S. Army in 1807, he developed an intense hatred of the country's commanding general, James Wilkinson. When Scott came to Natchez country with the army in 1809, he expressed his opinion of Wilkinson and it got him into big trouble.
Scott and Wilkinson were each a 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 au Boeuf, 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 which, 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. The 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 northeast 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.
CAPTAIN SCOTT & THE FRONTIER ARMY
Scott, like his comrades in arms, 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.
"Garrison duty was boring and these young guys would get in trouble," said Clark Burkett, an historian at Jefferson College. The college property borders what was once the site of Fort Dearborn, which totaled about 44 acres.
"The troops might go see a girlfriend or a lady of the evening under-the-hill and might not get back to the camp on time," says Burkett. "They'd also go to tippling houses, get drunk and get in trouble. Sometimes they would leave their posts and get caught."
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 often 50 lashes with a cattail bullwhip. Burkett said that it was not uncommon for the men to be allowed to received their punishment in stages, receiving 10 lashes today, 10 a few days later and so on.
On Dec. 10, 1809, before General Wilkinson gave up command to Gen. 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 said 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 GEN. WILKINSON
As a young soldier, Winfield Scott, who was born in Virginia in 1786, was well-familiar with these punishments. He had joined the calvary in 1807 and soon found that the military life suited him. He was temperamental and sometimes hard to handle, but he came to understand that success came through discipline, something he didn't always possess himself as a young man.
In later life, Scott commanded the U.S. military for 20 years, stepping down in 1861 as the Civil War broke out. He earned great fame during the Mexican War in 1846.
By the time of the Civil War, Scott had developed the Anaconda Plan, which basically outlined the North's war strategy against the South. This included blocking Southern ports, gaining control of the Mississippi River down to New Orleans, and fighting the war on Southern soil. Under this successful plan, the Yankee armies wrapped themselves around the South and squeezed out its life as an Anaconda does her prey.
But years earlier, his military career almost came to an end. In 1808, 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 about $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.
THE ILL-FATED NOLAN EXPEDITION
By this time, hatred of the Spanish was at an all time high, especially in Natchez. Among the reasons were the news of the death of the great horse hunter Philip Nolan in 1801 and recent information concerning the imprisonment of his men by the Spanish. Nolan, a protégé of Wilkinson's, had made three previous trips into Texas and Mexico to catch and tame wild horses and drive them back to Natchez to sell.
His final trip west began in the fall of 1800 not long after he had married Fanny Lintot, the daughter of a prominent Natchez family. When Nolan and his men, about two dozen, rode out of Natchez they did so without the blessings of Jose Vidal, the Spanish leader in Concordia. At the time, Spain claimed all lands west of the Mississippi and to go west, Nolan needed a passport. He claimed to have one, but Vidal said it was invalid.
Nolan journeyed west anyway, Vidal alerted Spanish superiors and the Spanish army caught up with Nolan near the Brazos River in Texas. Nolan was killed in a gunfight in a corral, the only fatality. Afterward, the Spanish commander cut off Nolan's ears as a gift for his superior. Many of Nolan's men were sent to Mexican prisons and held there for the rest of their lives. One man was executed.
Captain Zebulon Pike, on a reconnaissance mission in Spanish territory on orders of Wilkinson, saw some of the men in Mexico where he learned of Nolan's fate. Held captive by the Spanish for a brief time himself, Pike was later released and informed Natchez country of what he saw in July 1807. By 1809, Pike -- the man for whom Pikes Peek in Colorado is named -- was in New Orleans with Wilkinson and had actually been the man picked by the general to prepare the military encampment at Terre au Boeuf.
News of Nolan's death, and word of Burr's and Wilkinson's dealings with the Spanish greatly divided Natchez country. Many hated the Spanish and equally hated Wilkinson.
Edward Mansfield wrote that on the national level all "who are familiar with the popular feeling of the country at that period, know that it ran very strongly against Burr, and all who were supposed, directly or indirectly, connected with him," such as Wilkinson, were also despised. "It was this feeling -- patriotic in its basis -- which Scott shared, and which urged him subsequently to the use of indiscreet words."
SCOTT'S TRIAL & SENTENCE
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," published in 1998, 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 this highly-decorated officer 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 tallied 1.6 million votes to 1.3 million for Scott. Pierce carried Mississippi, 26,876 to 17,548, and won Louisiana, 18,647 to 17,255. According to historian Calhoun, Concordia stood behind "Old Fuss & Feathers" by a vote of 121 to 86. In his lifetime, Scott was as popular among the American people of the 19th Century as was Dwight Eisenhower in the 20th.
But in the early 1800s, Americans and Europeans were amazed to read about the Aaron Burr affair, the Sabine Expedition, the infamous military camp called Terre au Boeuf, the death voyage up the Mississippi, the court-martials, trials and investigations of Gen. James Wilkinson, the Ellicott sex scandal, the ill-fated Philip Nolan Expedition and the duel of Captain Winfield Scott and Dr. Upshaw.
All of these major events, some international in scope, had one thing in common -- Natchez.
|Frank Morris Murder Series|