25 January 2010

The Treachery of General James Wilkinson

It seems incredible that General James Wilkinson, while the Commander-in-Chief of the Army of the United States of America, was simultaneously "Agent No. 13" in the pay of Spain. "With magnificent gall and with the smell of Spanish gold still on his hands, the general in 1791 had gone back into the United States Army, though without severing his amiable relations with Spain." [Devil's Backbone]

To describe General James Wilkinson as a colorful character does not do justice to the life he led. He wrote a memoir of his life, which is interesting, especially juxtaposed against known facts. "If a Burr who would be king was a great knave, Wilkinson as a liar was an undisputed champion in our whole history. He was an energetic liar, however, and, until Spanish archives were opened long after his death, a successful one." [Devil's Backbone]

There was the Conway Cabal incident whereby Wilkinson leaked the details of General
Conway's attempt to undermine General George Washington's authority during the Revolutionary War.

From America's Greatest Scoundrel by Thomas Jewett:
Wilkinson was with Wayne at the Battle of Fallen Timbers (in 1794) and it was reported
that he intentionally delayed sending a supply train to his commanding general
in an attempt to undermine Wayne."

Depiction of the Battle of Fallen Timbers

Despite his perfidy, General James Wilkinson was appointed Commander at Detroit in 1796. As a former Detroiter, this is of particular interest to me.

General Wilkinson betrayed Aaron Burr's plans to Thomas Jefferson after Burr had recommended Wilkinson to President Jefferson as the Governor of the Territory of Louisiana.

"Philip Nolan's death, as the result of an order which came originally from General Wilkinson's friend Gayoso, is still a mysterious affair. Wilkinson had not hesitated to try to hang the noose of treason about the neck of his friend Aaron Burr." [Devil's Backbone] Nolan was a business aide to General Wilkinson. Philip Nolan was a character in the novel by Edward Everett Hale in The Man Without A Country; Hale later wrote "The Real Philip Nolan" to differentiate between the character Philip Nolan and the authentic Philip Nolan.

Wilkinson's dispute with Hon. John Randolph could have stemmed from an incident at Aaron Burr's trial in Richmond, Virginia. James Wilkinson challenged Randolph to a duel; Randolph's reply - duel with Clay (with whom John Randolph had dueled).

James Wilkinson had to be furious when his former business partner, Daniel Clark, wrote "Proofs of the corruption of Gen. James Wilkinson." "Clark was a rich and romantic Irishman who owned properties near Natchez and in Spanish Louisiana, too. Together with an even richer uncle, he had business and social connections with General Wilkinson, since 1787, when he was a twenty-one-year-old newcomer." [Devil's Backbone]. The Court martial against General James Wilkinson may have been triggered by Mr. Clark's writings.

General Wilkinson participated in the War of 1812; in August of 1813 he arrived at Sackett's Harbor from New Orleans and assumed direction of the campaign. Wilkinson tried to acquire General Andrew Jackson's army of Tennessee volunteers without being saddled with Jackson. General Wilkinson asked the Secretary of War Armstrong to intervene, which he did. Jackson disobeyed Armstrong and maintained control of his volunteers.

A defense of General James Wilkinson was prepared and read by his great-grandson, also named James Wilkinson. It's hard to defend the indefensible, though. A good summary of Wilkinson's life can be found in Spainards, Scoundrels, and Statesmen.

"Perhaps the best picture of General Wilkinson, on the scene as the government's chief witness, was given in the words of Andrew Jackson, also in Richmond for the trial. That forthright Tennessean, certain now as to where the greatest villainy lay, called Wilkinson 'a double traitor.'"[Devil's Backbone]

General James Wilkinson was in Mexico as an Advisor to Emperor Iturbide. That was where Wilkinson died in 1825.


Frances Hunter said...

I wanted to let you know how much I enjoyed your post about James Wilkinson! He is truly one of the great unsung traitors of American history.

I have spent a lot of time over the last several years researching Wilkinson for two books, To the Ends of the Earth and my new book The Fairest Portion of the Globe. It is hard to find a conspiracy in early America in which Wilkinson did not play a part. You did a great job of summarizing his nefarious career.

Lori said...

Very interesting! Thanks for posting!

PalmsRV said...

Thanks to both Frances Hunter and Lori for reading my post and for the generous feedback. Frances, I will be looking for your books.


Anonymous said...

If Wilkinson was a traitor, why did Jefferson send him to New Orleans to manage the Louisiana Purchase?

PalmsRV said...

Apparently proof of his treason was not proven until much later in history. Wonder if Jefferson left any documentation as to why Wilkinson was chosen. http://www.npr.org/2010/04/28/126363998/the-man-who-double-crossed-the-founders