About James Wilkinson
DAR Ancestor #: A125639
James Wilkinson (March 24, 1757 – December 28, 1825) was an American soldier and statesman, who was associated with several scandals and controversies. He served in the Continental Army during the American Revolutionary War, but was twice compelled to resign. He was appointed governor of the Louisiana Territory in 1805 and commanded two unsuccessful campaigns in the St. Lawrence theater during the War of 1812. After his death, he was discovered to have been a paid agent of the Spanish Crown.
Historian Robert Leckie characterized him as "a general who never won a battle or lost a court-martial."
Historian Frederick Jackson Turner called Wilkinson "the most consummate artist in treason that the nation ever possessed."
George Rogers Clark biographer Temple Bodley said of Wilkinson, "He had considerable military talent, but used it only for his own gain."
John Randolph, at the trial of Aaron Burr, said "Wilkinson is the only man I ever saw who is from the bark to the very core a villain!"
James Wilkinson was born about three miles (5 km) northeast of Benedict, Maryland, on a farm south of Hunting Creek, the second son of a respected Maryland merchant–planter. He received his early education from a private tutor; his study of medicine in Philadelphia at the University of Pennsylvania was interrupted by the American Revolution.
Revolutionary War actions
Wilkinson first served in Thompson's Pennsylvania rifle battalion, 1775–76, and was commissioned a captain in September 1775. He served as an aide to Nathanael Greene during the Siege of Boston, participated in the seizure and placing of guns on the Dorchester Heights in March of 1776, and following the British abandonment of Boston, went with the rest of the Continental Army to New York where he left Greene's staff and was given command of an infantry company.
Sent to Canada as part of the reinforcements for Benedict Arnold's intrepid little army besieging Quebec, he arrived just in time to witness the arrival of 8,000 British reinforcements under General John Burgoyne which precipitated the collapse of the American effort in Canada. He became aide to Arnold just prior to the final retreat and left Canada with Arnold on the very last boat out. Shortly thereafter, he left Arnold's service and became an aide to General Horatio Gates in August 1776.
When Gates sent him to Congress with official dispatches about the victory at the Battle of Saratoga, Wilkinson kept Congress waiting while he attended to personal affairs. When he finally showed up, he embellished his own role in the victory, and was brevetted as a brigadier general and appointed to the newly created board of war. The promotion over more senior colonels caused an uproar among Continental officers, especially because Wilkinson's gossiping seemed to indicate he was a participant in the Conway Cabal, a conspiracy to replace George Washington with Horatio Gates as commander-in-chief. Gates soon had enough of Wilkinson, and the young officer was compelled to resign in March 1778. In July 1779 he was appointed clothier general of the Army, but he was forced to resign in March 1781 amid charges of corruption.
After his resignation from the Continental Army, Wilkinson became a brigadier general in the Pennsylvania militia in 1782 and a state assemblyman in 1783. He moved to the Kentucky District in 1784 and was active there in efforts to achieve independence from Virginia.
In 1787, Wilkinson undertook a highly controversial trip to New Orleans, which was a colony of Spain. At that time, Americans were not allowed to trade in New Orleans. Wilkinson met with Spanish Governor Esteban Rodríguez Miró and managed to convince him to allow Kentucky to have a trading monopoly over trade on the Mississippi River; in return he promised to promote Spanish interests in the west. In August 1787, Wilkinson signed an expatriation declaration and swore allegiance to the King of Spain.
Upon returning to Kentucky in February 1788, Wilkinson vigorously opposed the new U.S. Constitution. Kentucky had very nearly achieved statehood under the old Articles of Confederation, and there was widespread disappointment when this was delayed because of the new constitution.
Leading up to Kentucky's seventh convention regarding separation from Virginia in November 1788, Wilkinson attempted to gauge the support for Kentucky to seek union with Spain. At the convention, Wilkinson was elected chair, and he advocated seeking independence from Virginia first, and then to consider joining the Union of states as a second step. For many, joining the Union was conditional upon the Union negotiating free navigation on the Mississippi with Spain, a contentious point which many Kentuckians doubted the eastern states would act upon.
Unable to gather enough support for his position at the convention, Wilkinson instead took his own initiative and approached Miró with a proposal to grant them 60,000 acres (243 km²) in the Yazoo lands at the junction of the Yazoo River and the Mississippi (near present-day Vicksburg, Mississippi). The land was to be payment for Wilkinson's efforts on behalf of Spain and also to serve as a refuge in the event he and his supporters had to flee from the United States. Wilkinson asked for and received a pension of $7,000 from Miro and also requested pensions on behalf of several prominent Kentuckians, including: Harry Innes, Benjamin Sebastian, John Brown, Caleb Wallace, Benjamin Logan, Isaac Shelby, George Muter, George Nicholas, and even Humphrey Marshall (who at one time was a bitter rival of Wilkinson's).
However, by 1788 Wilkinson had apparently lost the support of officials in the Spanish mainland. Miro was not to grant any of the proposed pensions and was forbidden from giving money to support a revolution in Kentucky. However, Wilkinson continued to secretly receive funds from Spain for many years.
Second military career
In the Northwest Indian War, Colonel Wilkinson led a force of Kentucky volunteers against American Indians at Ouiatenon in May 1791. He commanded a follow-up raid that autumn, highlighted by the Battle of Kenapacomaqua. In October he received a commission to the U.S. Army as lieutenant colonel, commandant of the 2nd U.S. Infantry. He was promoted to brigadier general and served on the frontier under General Anthony Wayne, commanding the right wing in the Battle of Fallen Timbers in August 1794. During this time, he secretly maintained contacts with the Spanish government and informed them of plans for General George Rogers Clark to attack New Orleans in 1793-94. He was appointed commander at Detroit in 1796 and partially redeemed himself by rejecting entreaties to lead a rebellion in the Natchez, Mississippi, area. Despite his treachery, upon Wayne's death, he became the senior officer of the U.S. Army from December 15, 1796 to July 13, 1798.
Quasi-War with France
Wilkinson was transferred to the southern frontier in 1798. During the Quasi-War crisis of the late 1790s between France and the United States, he was given the third place in the United States Army behind George Washington and Alexander Hamilton. Among other duties, he was charged by Hamilton with establishing a "Reserve Corps" of United States troops in the lower Ohio Valley who would seize the lower Mississippi River Valley and New Orleans in the event of war with France and her ally Spain. Despite the end of the crisis in mid-1800 and the fall of Hamilton from power, Wilkinson for unknown reasons continued the plan for the establishment of the base which he named "Cantonment Wilkinson" after himself. Located in southern Illinois, the base operated from January 1801 to late 1802 before finally being abandoned. Archaeologists from Southern Illinois University have recently located the remains of this base, which is producing much previously unknown information regarding the daily lives and artifacts of the frontier army.
Wilkinson was again the senior officer of the United States Army, from June 15, 1800 to January 27, 1812. Along with Governor William C. C. Claiborne, he shared the honor of taking possession of the Louisiana Purchase on behalf of the United States in 1803.
Connections with Aaron Burr
In 1804-05, he exchanged communications with Aaron Burr, possibly regarding Burr's conspiracy to set up an independent nation in the west. Some embittered associates later claimed that Wilkinson was the mastermind behind the plot of which Burr was accused.
In 1805, following the Louisiana Purchase, President Thomas Jefferson appointed Wilkinson governor of the northern Louisiana. He sent Zebulon Pike on an expeditions to the Southwest in 1805, and 1806.
He was removed from office after being publicly criticized for heavy-handed administration and abuse of power. Noting the lack of support for his new nation with Burr, Wilkinson revealed Burr's plans to Jefferson.Wilkinson testified at Burr's trial, resulting in public accusations against him and two congressional inquiries of his private ventures and intrigues. President James Madison ordered his court-martial in 1811. He was found not guilty on December 25, 1811.
"Wilkinson is the only man I ever saw who is from the bark to the very core a villain!"
John Randolph, at the trial of Aaron Burr
War of 1812
Wilkinson was commissioned a major general in the War of 1812. In March 1813, Wilkinson and his soldiers occupied Mobile in Spanish West Florida. He was then assigned to the St. Lawrence River sector, after Henry Dearborn's reassignment. He led two failed campaigns (the Battle of Crysler's Farm and the second Battle of Lacolle Mills (1814) and was relieved from active service, but he was cleared by a military inquiry.
Wilkinson published his memoirs, Memoirs of My Own Times, in 1816 and visited Mexico in pursuit of a Texas land grant in 1821. While waiting for Mexican approval of his Texas scheme, Wilkinson died in Mexico City, where he was buried.
Wilkinson's Spanish involvement (Agent 13), although suspected, was not proven until 1854, with the publication by Louisiana historian Charles Gayarré of his correspondence with Rodríguez Miró, the Spanish governor of Louisiana.
Wilkinson married Ann Biddle of the Biddle family on November 12, 1778 in Philadelphia, and had four children with her. After Ann's death on February 23, 1807, he married Celeste Laveau Trudeau on March 5, 1810, with whom he had three children (Stephanie and Theofannie, twin girls, January 1816 [Theofannie, his favorite, died in early 1822] and son, Theodore, born 1819).
Dying on December 28, 1825 at the age of 68, he was buried in Mexico City, Mexico.
Some of his descendants used the surname Wilkerson, which appears in Southern Alabama and Eastern Louisiana.
Frankfort, Kentucky's downtown was created from land owned by Wilkinson. He designed their layout and a major boulevard is named in his honor.
Wilkinson County, Georgia, is named for Wilkinson. A Georgia historic marker on the courthouse square gives a brief biography of the General and states he is the namesake for the county.
Wilkinson appears as a major character in the novel To the Ends of the Earth: The Last Journey of Lewis and Clark, by Frances Hunter (2006 - ISBN 0-9777636-2-5), in which he draws explorer Meriwether Lewis into a conspiracy to separate the western territories from the United States.
Wilkinson also appears as a major character in Janice Holt Giles's novel The Land Beyond the Mountains which deals extensively with Wilkinson's participation in the issue of Kentucky statehood.
Wilkinson County, Mississippi is named for General Wilkinson, as well. It was there in the Old Natchez District that Wilkinson spent much of his time allegedly plotting the Burr Conspiracy, as Fort Adams (then a major U.S. Army post, located in present day Wilkinson County) was the most south-westerly point in the United States and the last stop on the Mississippi River before entering Spanish territory. It was also from these environs that Burr recruited his would-be revolutionaries, most notable amongst them a young Philip Nolan, famously remembered as "the man without a country" in literature and history.
There is a road in New Windsor, New York named in honor of him.