I could tell you a lot of nasty thing about General James Wilkerson (above), but in the spirit of Donald Rumsfeld's memoir, let me begin by offering some known positives. His public manners were “accommodating and popular” - in short he was a politician and ambitious. He was also brilliant. At twenty he was the youngest general in the American Continental Army. He was plump and ruddy faced and usually had a drink close at hand. And he knew how to dress well. He “made a showy appearance, wearing medals and gold buttons on his braided uniform.” And this was at a time when general officers in the Army usually designed their own accoutrement's. “Even in the backwoods, he rode around in gold stirrups and spurs while seated on a leopard skin saddle cloth.” He also fathered six children with two wives, and one of his distant ancestors tried valiantly to defend his reputation. It did not work.
George Washington did not trust James Wilkerson, nor did John Adams or James Madison. General Andrew Jackson called him a “double traitor.” John Randolph, Virginian politician supreme, described him as “…to the very core a villain!” One of his business partners published a book entitled, “Proofs of the corruption of General Wilkerson.” And that was just for the offenses people knew about. What the public suspected but could not prove until the 1850's was that the Spanish gave General James Wilkerson the title of “Agent 13”, and paid him $12,000 and several thousand acres of land to encourage Kentucky to separate from the United States, and he came close to pulling it off. Twice he was forced to resign from the Army. He betrayed every commanding officer he ever served, including Benedict Arnold. That is quite an accomplishment, to have betrayed the most famous traitor in American history. He also betrayed Generals Horatio Gates and George Washington.
In fact the infamous Aaron Burr conspiracy was invented at least in part by James Wilkerson. And when President Jefferson (above) had Burr arrested for treason, Wilkerson became his chief witness against Burr. But the same Grand Jury that indicted Burr missed indicting Wilkerson by just two votes. And I've always felt that the primary reason Burr was not convicted of treason is that the jury disliked Burr less than they mistrusted Wilkerson.
General James Wilkerson was court martial-ed three times and investigated by Congress four times, and every time he came out smelling like a very well fertilized rose. The reason was simple - like J. Edgar Hoover, Wilkerson knew where all the bodies were buried, occasionally literally. He won the unquestioned backing of President Jefferson after he betrayed Burr, making Jefferson just about Wilkerson's only superior he did not betray. I'm sure it was just an accident. Among those who knew him only by his record, Fredrick Jackson Turner, the historian who closed the book on the American frontier, called Wilkerson “the most consummate artist in treason the nation ever possessed.” Teddy Roosevelt called him “the most disgraceful” commander the U.S. Army ever had. Wilkerson was, according to historian Robert Leckie “a general who never won a battle and never lost a court-martial” He was suspected of several murders, assorted frauds and constant graft.
He even warned the Spanish about the Lewis and Clark expedition, and it was only blind luck that prevented their murders by the Spanish agents sent after them. It was also Wilkerson who was responsible for the U.S. Army's worst peace time disaster. As top general in the American Army he had been dispatched to New Orleans in early 1809, when it looked like war with Britain might break out at any moment. Wilkerson paid more attention to his own land deals than he did to his troops. By April over one quarter of his army, 500 men, were on sick call. Things got so bad that the Secretary of War, penny pincher William Eustis, suggested that the General move his troop to healthier ground north of the city, even as far as Natchez .
Instead, Wilkerson moved them down river, into the swamps – to a spot called Terre aux Boeufs. His reason was that he got a kickback from the $630 paid to the land owner for three months rent on the new campground.
The move was completed on June 9, 1809, just in time for the height of summer. First came the afternoon rains, which matched well with a level of humidity capable of inducing bread growth under the soldiers' armpits. And then came the lousy camp sanitation, because the officers were already learning from their commander. The food supplied to the troops was spoiled, the mosquitoes experienced a population explosion, the water supply was polluted, and the few medicines available were limited by orders from the Secretary of War to no more than $50 for the entire 2,000 man force for the entire year. And, as a topper, the War Department denied any expenditure for fresh fruit for the troops; too expensive. In January of 1810, after the Secretary specifically ordered the troops back to New Orleans, there were barely 1,000 men fit for duty, with 166 desertions and the rest dead. Of the officers, forty of them had either resigned or died. Lt. Winfield Scott, who would one day command the army himself, suffered through this debacle and publicly described Wilkerson as “a traitor, liar, and a scoundrel.” Wilkerson had him court martial-ed and sentenced to loss of pay and rank for one year. The net effect was to convince everybody that Scott was at least an honest man. It was an accusation never made against General Wilkerson.
The debacle of Terre aux Boeufs forced Wilkerson to resign from the army, but the War of 1812 got him reinstated, not as over all commander this time but at least as a general in command of 12, 000 men. This force was supposed to conquer Montreal...maybe. The new Secretary of War, John Armstrong, could never make up his mind what the objective of the campaign was supposed to be. And until the last moment, he was going to lead it himself, since he did not trust Wilkerson, and since the next in the line of command, General Wade Hampton, refused to work under Wilkerson. Hampton was thus dispatched to command troops on Lake Champlain.
From day one things did not look promising for the campaign, and then at the last second Secretary Armstrong decided too dump everything into Wilkerson's lap, and head back to Washington. That left the biggest thief in uniform running the campaign, with predictable results. When Hampton got word that Wilkerson was now in command, and as threatened, he resigned.
As was to be expected, Wilkerson's army was poorly fed, and poorly supplied. They had no uniforms or training. Wilkerson led his dispirited troops up the St. Lawrence until they reached a narrowing of the river at a place called Crysler's Farm. Here the Canadians had established an outpost, and Wilkerson called a council of war to decide what to do next. His subordinates were unanimous in wanting to attack. But the next morning, faced with a cold rain and an impending battle, General Wilkerson came down sick, and the actual command fell to a General Boyd. It was 12,000 cold, hungry and disorganized Americans attacking a few thousand Canadian militia. The Canadians beat the pants off the Americans.
In the confused melee, the Americans maneuvered and the Canadians attacked. The result was 31 Canadian dead, 148 wounded and 13 missing, while General Wilkerson admitted 102 killed, 237 wounded , but he never gave a total for the missing. In fact the Canadians reported the battlefield covered with American dead and captured 120 Americans. The Battle of Crysler's Farm is referred to north of the border as The Battle That Saved Canada.
Wilkerson retreated downstream into winter quarters. As spring of 1814 approached, General Wilkerson got word that the disaster was being blamed on him and he decided to save his reputation by taking a cheap shot at 80 British soldiers at an outpost on the Lacolle River.
Wilkerson's attack fell on the Canadians on March 30h. He had 4,000 men and artillery. The Canadians had a few Congreve rockets. Once again the Americans maneuvered and the Canadians attacked The Canadians lost 11 killed, the Americans 13. Throughout the engagement, General Wilkerson rode about in full view of the enemy as if he wanted to get shot. But even in that, he failed. By evening the Canadians still held their positions and the Americans retreated. The score was now Canadians two and General Wilkerson nothing. Eleven days later General Wilkerson was relieved from command.
Afterward came the court-martial and the acquittal. And although it would be unfair to pile all of the blame for the debacle of the 1813 Canadian campaign on James Wilkerson, he did not help the situation one little bit. Two years later James Wilkerson published his memoirs, entitled “Memoirs of My Own Times.” It was not a best seller. Ever the schemer, in 1821 he went Mexico City, seeking a land grant in the disputed territory of Texas. And that was where he died, and where he was buried.
But let the last words be James Wilkerson's own. In the first decade of the 19th century, he wrote to the Spanish Governor of New Orleans. He was seeking a job as a secret agent for the Spanish government. This was his job application as a traitor. “Born and educated in America," he wrote,"I embraced its cause in the last revolution, and remained throughout faithful to its interest, until its triumph over its enemies: This occurrence has now rendered my services useless, discharged me of my pledge, dissolved my obligations, even those of nature, and left me at liberty, after having fought for her happiness, to seek my own; circumstances and the policies of the United States having made it impossible for me to obtain this desired end under its Government, I am resolved to seek it in Spain.”