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Story Archives: William Leland's incredible story: Valley Forge to Natchez
|William Leland's incredible story: Valley Forge to Natchez|
(Fifth in a series)
Among the U.S. soldiers who arrived and stayed in Natchez in the spring of 1797 was William Leland, a veteran of the Revolutionary and Indian wars.
Leland had served under Gen. George Washington during the long winter of 1777-1778 at Valley Forge and in the New Jersey campaign against the British. He was part of the small Continental Army force that surprised and overwhelmed a superior British force at Stoney Point, N.Y., during a midnight attack. He, like others during the era, had risked life and limb for liberty.
By the mid-1800s, Leland, an old man, was living in the Sicily Island hills in Catahoula Parish. The little community of Leland is named after him.
Leland arrived in Natchez in 1797 with a small detachment of soldiers under the command of Lt. Piercy Pope. A treaty between Spain and the U.S. called for American possession of Natchez. In 1798, Congress created the Mississippi Territory, which comprised the present day states of Mississippi and Alabama.
But before that transfer of government occurred, a U.S. force under the overall command of Capt. Isaac Guion was charged with taking possession of Spanish forts on the east side of the Mississippi at Chickasaw Bluffs (Memphis) and Walnut Hills (Vicksburg) before securing Natchez, which would become the capital of the new U.S. territory. Leland was among the first U.S. soldiers to arrive in Natchez.
The American military force -- stretched from Memphis to Natchez -- totaled just under 200 men. Many of these same troops would help build Fort Adams in lower Wilkinson County in 1799, which was then just six miles north of the boundary line separating the U.S. and Spainish West Florida.
In the early 1850s, Leland was interviewed by A.R. Kilpatrick, a physician and Black River planter in Concordia Parish who wrote an article for "DeBow's Review" about neighboring Catahoula Parish. Among the remarkable things Kilpatrick reported about Leland, was that although he was extremely old, he was exceptionally healthy and occasionally walked to Harrisonburg, which was 10 miles away.
Kilpatrick wrote that Leland in the early 1850s preferred walking to riding a horse, attended church every Sunday, conversed "freely and cheerfully," and displayed "no appearance of that bodily or mental imbecility which might naturally be looked for in one of his great age."
"Mr. L. is now a good looking man for his age; his complexion is florid, his face is full, blue eyes, and has a full suit of gray hair," Kilpatrick wrote. It's hard to determine Leland's age at that time. Although Kilpatrick writes that Leland was born in 1742, that's likely an error. Otherwise, Leland would have been a 55-year-old private in the army when he arrived in Natchez in 1797.
Born in Virginia, Leland enlisted in the Continental Army in 1776. He told Kilpatrick that he first served under Daniel Morgan, whose company of riflemen was considered the best in the country. Later that year, he served under Gen. Washington during the great American victory at Trenton in New Jersey during heavy snow.
He also survived the cold, deadly winter at Valley Forge, where Leland recalled that Gen. Washington had all of the troops inoculated for small pox. It was controversial and risky decision. Many troops became seriously ill from the vaccine but Washington's forethought was wise. His army by and large remained healthy and free of the dreaded disease.
On a stifling hot and humid day in June 28, 1778, Leland was there when the Americans fought the British at Monmouth Court House. This battle pitted 12,000 Continental Army soldiers, many untested but recently trained at Valley Forge, against 10,000 British, constituting some of the finest soldiers on the planet. Washington was the American commander, the British were led by Lt. Gen. Henry Clinton.
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