James Madison Papers

To James Madison from James Wilkinson, 20 April 1811

From James Wilkinson

Washington April 20th. 1811


The singular hardship of my situation, & the great Interests which I have at Stake, will I flatter myself excuse this deviation from the regular course of my communications to you, which considerations of delicacy towards the Secretary of War imposes on me; for it would be as indecorous to wound his feelings, as it would be unjust to myself, to leave you in the dark, touching the result of the report of the Committee of the House of Representatives, appointed to examine into the causes of the mortality among the Troops on the Mississippi;1 with the professed object indeed to ascertain truths for the information of Government, but in Fact to criminate me, which the whole Conduct of the two Committees & the Tenor of their Reports make manifest.

You have observed Sir that the proceedings of the Committee of 1809–10 were published by order of the House;2 and that the late Committee, composed of the same chairman & several of the Members, true to their purpose, after they had actually called for & examined my orderly Books, & the testimony contained in the appendix to the 4th. Vol. of my Memoirs,3 deemed it candid & wise to adopt the same Report, in the face of a Mass of Testimony which nought but the blindest prejudice could have resisted.

When the last Report was handed to the House, a motion was made to transmit the Documents to you which failed, because certain Members, friends to truth & Justice, had determined to call it up & stigmatise it; which the lateness of the Season & the pressure of more important business alone prevented; I hazard nothing sir in this observation, as a Majority of the Members of the House, personally acquited me of all blame in my Command on the Mis[sis]sippi, and with great frankness reprobated this report of the Committee.

But you will perceive under cover unquestionable testimony of this intention, in the Speech & Resolution of the Honble. Mr. Crawford of Pensylvania,4 a Member of the Committee, which he committed to paper; and having made several fruitless attempts to command the attention of the House, He generously called on me after the adjournment, accompanied by Doctor Sage5 & Mr. White Hill,6 altho I had no acquaintance with Him, and furnished me his intended Speech & Resolution, with permission to publish them which I shall do: In the preliminary illustrations of the Testimony contained in the appendix, before referred to, which are nearly ready for the press. And in verification of these Facts, I take the Liberty to tresspass on your attention the original Letter of Doctr. Crawford on this Subject, which together with the Speech, I shall thank you to return after perusal.7

I trust Sir that in thus addressing you, I violate no essential Rule of propriety or expediency—if I do, I shall sincerely deplore it, and the best Apology I can offer in extenuation of the tresspass, will be the indulgence I have experienced on similar occasions from your Predecessors respectively; without pretending to your Confidence, I can say that I have endeavoured to deserve it; but I make strong claims to the Justice, of the Chief Magistrate of a Nation of Freemen, and am persuaded my expectations will not be disappointed.8 With perfect respect, I have the Honor to be sir Your most Humble & obedient Servant

Ja: Wilkinson

RC (DLC). Docketed by JM. For surviving enclosure, see n. 7.

1Report of the Committee Who Were Instructed … to Inquire into the Cause or Causes of the Great Mortality in That Detachment of the Army of the United States Ordered for the Defence of New Orleans (Washington, 1810; Shaw and Shoemaker description begins R. R. Shaw and R. H. Shoemaker, comps., American Bibliography: A Preliminary Checklist for 1801–1819 (22 vols. to date; New York, 1958—). description ends 21853) (printed in ASP description begins American State Papers: Documents, Legislative and Executive, of the Congress of the United States … (38 vols.; Washington, 1832–61). description ends , Military Affairs, 1:268–95). The report listed eight causes for the mortality of the troops, including the climate, the campsite, and the lack of adequate food and medical supplies, but the conclusion of the committee was that Wilkinson’s decisions both to encamp and to detain the men at the Terre aux Boeufs site in 1809 were contrary to the orders he had received from the War Department. Because the report was not made to the House of Representatives until 27 Apr. 1810, it was too late for any action to be taken on it during the second session of the Eleventh Congress. Another House committee, again chaired by Thomas Newton, Jr., of Virginia, therefore reexamined the subject between 19 Dec. 1810 and 26 Feb. 1811, after which the chairman referred the House “to the opinion expressed in the report of last year, as unchanged by anything which has since appeared” (Annals of Congress description begins Debates and Proceedings in the Congress of the United States … (42 vols.; Washington, 1834–56). description ends , 11th Cong., 3d sess., 452, 1033).

2See Annals of Congress description begins Debates and Proceedings in the Congress of the United States … (42 vols.; Washington, 1834–56). description ends , 11th Cong., 2d sess., 1997.

3As Wilkinson indicated later in this letter to JM, the appendix to the fourth volume of his memoirs had not yet been published. According to an “advertisement” bearing the date 1 May 1811 that Wilkinson published in an 1811 edition of the second volume of his Memoirs, the contents of this appendix to “volume the fourth” provided “ample proofs to justify his command on the Mississippi in the year 1809, from whence he had been recalled under circumstances of disgrace, without a trial, or an opportunity to vindicate himself, although it was earnestly solicited, even before his recall” (see Memoirs of General Wilkinson, Volume II [Washington, 1811]; copy in DLC: Rare Book Division). A printed copy of the “Appendix to Volume the Fourth,” followed by a postscript, is bound together with several other pieces of exculpatory material in a copy of the 1810 edition of the Memoirs of General Wilkinson, Volume II (DLC: Rare Book Division).

4William Crawford (1760–1823), a graduate of the University of Edinburgh, resided near Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, and was a Republican member of the Pennsylvania delegation in the House of Representatives in the Eleventh through Fourteenth Congresses, 1809–17.

5Ebenezer Sage (1755–1834) graduated from Yale College in 1778 and resided at Sag Harbor, New York. He was elected as a Republican to the Eleventh through Thirteenth Congresses, 1809–15.

6Robert Whitehill (1738–1813) had a lengthy career in Pennsylvania state politics between 1776 and 1804 before he entered the House of Representatives in December 1805. He was reelected as a Republican to the Tenth through Thirteenth Congresses, 1807–13.

7Crawford’s “original Letter” to Wilkinson has not been found, but Wilkinson enclosed with it an address that Crawford had intended to deliver to the House of Representatives in his capacity as a member of the committee investigating the mortality of the troops at Terre aux Boeufs. Crawford dissented from the committee report, arguing that Wilkinson had not erred in his choice of the campsite outside New Orleans, that the diseases afflicting the troops there were endemic to the area and the climate in general rather than to the campsite in particular, and that the secretary of war’s orders to remove the troops from Terre aux Boeufs caused greater mortality than the general’s decision to encamp them there (ICHi: James Wilkinson Papers, vol. 3; 14 pp.).

8After reviewing the findings of Newton’s committee as well as the documentary evidence gathered by other committees sitting during the second and third sessions of the Eleventh Congress and charged with examining Wilkinson’s dealings with Spain and his relationship with Aaron Burr, JM instructed the secretary of war on 1 June 1811 to inform Wilkinson that “the most full opportunity” to do justice to his honor and character “will be a reference of the whole to a military tribunal.” The subsequent court-martial was held at Fredericktown, Maryland, between 4 Sept. and 25 Dec. 1811 (Eustis to Wilkinson, 1 June 1811 [DNA: RG 107, LSMA]).

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