James Wilkinson

James Wilkinson (1757-1825) was an American military leader best known in Alabama for capturing Fort Charlotte in Mobile, present-day Mobile County, from the Spanish in 1813. He also initiated construction on Fort Bowyer at Mobile Point, Baldwin County, to defend Mobile from the British during the War of 1812. Wilkinson served as the overall commander of the U. S. Army on two occasions, despite his mediocre leadership and suspicions he was a double agent working for the Spanish. Indeed, Wilkinson often found himself involved in domestic conspiracies and controversies, and his suspected connections to the Spanish government were confirmed many years after his death.

Wilkinson was born on March 24, 1757, on a small farm in Calvert County, Maryland, to Joseph and Alethea Heighe Wilkinson. He was one of three sons. The Wilkinsons portrayed themselves as members of elite society, despite being in a substantial amount of debt. As the second-born son, James inherited no land after his father’s death and decided to pursue studies in medicine at the University of Pennsylvania. He quit his studies to join the American Revolution when it became clear that the colonies would be embroiled in a war with Great Britain.

In 1775, Wilkinson was commissioned as a captain and served as an aide to Gen. Nathanael Greene during the Siege of Boston. After the British surrendered there, Wilkinson followed Greene to New York, where he eventually was given command of an infantry company. His company was then sent to Canada as reinforcements for Gen. Benedict Arnold, who was leading the effort against the British in Quebec. After the Continental Army was defeated in Canada, Wilkinson served as an aide to Gen. Horatio Gates, who sent him to the Continental Congress to testify about the success of the Continental Army at the pivotal Battle of Saratoga in 1777. As a result of his glowing self-serving testimony, he was appointed to the American Continental Army’s Board of War, upsetting higher ranked officers.

A wave of rumors followed his promotion, suggesting that he spread word about the so-called “Conway Cabal,” a effort late in 1777 by some Army officers to replace George Washington with Gen. Horatio Gates as commander-in-chief of the Continental Army. As a result of these rumors, Gates forced Wilkinson to resign his commission in 1778. That year, he married Ann Biddle; the couple would have four children. Biddle died in 1807, and Wilkinson married Celestine Laveau Trudeau in 1810. The couple would have three children.

After his resignation, Wilkinson moved in 1783 or 1784 to the area of present-day Kentucky, where he formed an alliance with the Spanish governor of Louisiana, Esteban Rodriguez Miró y Sabater. Miró agreed to grant Kentucky a trading monopoly along the Mississippi River, and Wilkinson pledged his loyalty to the Spanish government, committing to help Spanish expansion in the American west. Wilkinson advocated for Kentucky’s independence from Virginia and the United States as well as its alliance with Spain. He would be a paid ally in the service of Spain at various times over several decades. Wilkinson was among the state leaders who designed Kentucky’s capital city of Frankfort and named a street for Miró, though it is spelled “Mero.” It intersects with Wilkinson Boulevard a block or so from the Old State Capitol Building. Several contemporary accounts note that Wilkinson had incurred debts though his excessive spending, leading him to work for Spain.

In 1791, Wilkinson returned to service in the U.S. Army as a lieutenant colonel and commanded troops during several battles with Native Americans in the Midwest. I would go with the original text: He was later overlooked as senior commander of the Army, because of suspicions about his relationship with Spain, but was promoted to brigadier general. (Some of the suspicions were forwarded in 1797 to Pres. George Washington by surveyor Andrew Ellicott, who was surveying the border between the United States and Spain and was told of Spanish payments to Wilkinson and his use of a secret code.) In 1796, he was made senior commander of the U.S. Army following the death of his immediate superior, Maj. Gen. Anthony Wayne, with whom he had a contentious relationship. Wayne, who had been investigating Wilkinson’s ties to Spain, died before a court-martial could take place. Wilkinson was removed as senior commander in 1798 and returned to the post in 1800, following George Washington’s death in 1799. He remained in the position until 1812. Such was his stature that his portrait was painted by two of the most noted American portraitists of the time, Charles Willson Peale in 1797 and later by Gilbert Stuart.

In the early 1800s, Wilkinson again acted against the interests of the United States. He informed the Spanish government of Pres. Thomas Jefferson’s missions to find a route to the Pacific Ocean, including the secret Lewis and Clark Expedition, and even suggested to the Spanish that they intercept them, which the Spanish attempted but failed to do. He also provided the Spanish with advice on how to slow westward expansion in Texas and advised them to protect Spanish West Florida.

Pres. Thomas Jefferson appointed Wilkinson to serve as the first governor of the Louisiana Territory north of the 33rdrd parallel in 1805, a post he held until 1806. During this time, he met with and communicated in code with Aaron Burr and was possibly allied with his vague plot to gather an army and invade Spanish territory and create a country separate from the United States. Wilkinson grew fearful, however, and exposed Burr’s plot to Jefferson and sent out troops to arrest him. Burr was later apprehended near present-day McIntosh, Washington County, and imprisoned at Fort Stoddert. Wilkinson was also questioned by the grand jury during Burr’s trial in Richmond, Virginia, and barely avoided being convicted of treason himself.

During the War of 1812, Wilkinson commanded the Seventh Military District, which consisted of Louisiana, the Mississippi Territory (present-day Alabama and Mississippi), and Tennessee. He was also returned to active military service yet again and was commissioned a major general. He led troops to Mobile County to take control of Mobile Bay from the Spanish. The bay serviced much of the Gulf of Mexico in present-day Alabama and Mississippi and was important prize for the American cause. The Spanish surrendered Fuerta Carlotta in Mobile to Wilkinson in 1813, and the U.S. government returned the name to Fort Charlotte, as it was called under the British. Wilkinson then ordered work to begin on a defensive earthworks structure on Mobile Point facing the sea. Named Fort Bowyer, it later played an important role defending against the British as the war ended. Wilkinson was replaced by Thomas Flournoy in March 1813 and then sent to command the Ninth U.S. Military District, which included New York, Vermont, and adjacent territory. He ineptly led troops during two campaigns in Canada, just south of Montreal and was relieved of duty and court-martialed in New York but was eventually cleared of charges.

Wilkinson was appointed envoy to Mexico by Pres. James Monroe in 1816 and unsuccessfully pursued a land grant in Texas from Mexico. He died on December 28, 1825, in Mexico City and is buried at St. Michael the Archangel Catholic Church there. Many years later, documentation demonstrating his allegiance to Spain was discovered in a Spanish archive and confirmed the suspicions that had followed him for decades: James Wilkinson was a traitor and a spy and had been receiving gold from Spain for more than 30 years. Among the many historians and public figures who were appalled by Wilkinson, Theodore Roosevelt would describe him as the most despicable character in history of the United States.

Further Reading

  • Brammer, Robert. “General James Wilkinson, the Spanish Spy Who was a Senior Officer in the U.S. Army During Four Presidential Administrations.” Library of Congress, 2020.
  • Cox, Howard W. American Traitor: General James Wilkinson’s Betrayal of the Republic and Escape from Justice. Washington D.C.: Georgetown University Press, 2023.
  • Linklater, Andro. An Artist in Treason: The Extraordinary Double Life of General James Wilkinson. New York: Walker Publishing Company, 2009.

External Links

Share this Article

James Wilkinson

Courtesy of the National Park Service
James Wilkinson

Ellicott Map

Photo courtesy of the Library of Congress
Ellicott Map