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Story Archives: Duel along the Mississippi -- Capt. Winfield Scott vs. Dr. William Upshaw
|Duel along the Mississippi -- Capt. Winfield Scott vs. Dr. William Upshaw|
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.
One of the results of Scott's criticism of the general was a duel fought on the Mississippi River that played out at present day Vidalia.
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 to swampy ground where the troops suffered even more.
Of the 2,000 originally stationed in New Orleans in the spring of 1809, some 686 died, 108 deserted and 58 were discharged. By the time the survivors arrived in Natchez weeks later to recover and rest, the army had been cut almost in half with only 1,184 soldiers remaining in service. There, at the Mississippi Territory capital of Washington, six miles east of Natchez, the army was reorganized under a new commander, Gen. Wade Hampton.
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.
THE FRONTIER ARMY
Scott, like his comrades in arms, faced a rugged life in the frontier army. Service on these outposts could be maddeningly dull and such was the case at Fort Dearborn in Washington, Miss. 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 in Wilkinson County 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 historian Clark Burkett of Natchez. Jefferson College 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 December 10, 1809, before General Wilkinson gave up command to Gen. 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."
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