Thursday, July 4, 2019

A Rebel Seeks Aid for his Cause

In the summer of 1812, José Bernardo Gutiérrez de Lara was putting together a filibuster in the Neutral Ground between Louisiana and Spanish Texas. While weaving together a motley force of desperate men with disparate views, the Mexican revolutionary was well aware of the network of Burr Conspirators who had almost invaded Texas in 1806, and sought to tap these for his army.
Indeed, he had already reached out and obtained the very tentative support of Gen. John Adair of the Kentucky militia, who was a chief Burr protagonist. Adair was widely respected on the frontier, and it was hoped by Gutiérrez and his supporters, could bring thousands of volunteers to the cause. But there was a bigger fish than Adair: General James Wilkinson.
Wilkinson was the senior general in the United States Army, the Governor of Upper Louisiana (the Louisiana Purchase north of the Modern state) and like Adair, a confidant of Burr. But as the 1806 plot advanced, Wilkinson had gotten cold feet and panicked, defecting from Burr, exposing the plot to President Thomas Jefferson, and clamping New Orleans down under Martial Law, jailing his erstwhile associates and masterfully portraying himself as the savior of the Republic from a nefarious plot.
General James Wilkinson
In truth, Wilkinson had been plotting against the United States for years. He had been a paid spy for Spain, even as he had risen to the senior post in the U.S. Army. But he had also double-crossed his Spanish paymasters by sending his protégé Phillip Nolan into Texas, ostensibly to export wild horses, but more likely to plot plans to invade the Spanish lands, with his ultimate target the rich mines of New Mexico. It was Wilkinson who likely first suggested to Burr the idea of invading Spanish lands under the pretext of freeing them from tyranny. But successive American presidents, aware of rumors of Wilkinson’s schemes, kept him on the payroll, and as long as they did, he merely plotted, but did not act. Fear of giving up a certain job of power and responsibility for an uncertain scheme with the unpredictable Burr likely gave him cold feet in the end.
But Gutiérrez, who had been courted by former Burrites, knew of Wilkinson’s sympathies and sought to bring him into the cause. Perhaps he could be incited to do now what he had failed to do in 1806, now that there was a legitimate representative of the Mexican Revolutionaries with whom he could partner. So the rebel put pen to paper and wrote the general a note, dispatching it to be hand delivered by his trusted agent, Pedro Girard.

Gutierrez' original letter to Gen. Wilkinson,
National Archives, Letters Received, Sec. of War
Unregistered Series, Roll 6


The translated letter, which Wilkinson forwarded to the Secretary of War follows:


Natchitoches 16 July 1812

Although I have not the honor of a personal acquaintance with you, yet I know by reputation the noble, great & high qualities of your great soul, the greatness of which have made you for a long time past favorable to our glorious and just independence.

This encourages me to address you, believing that you will contribute with all your influence and power to favor the most just & greatest of causes which ever have been given rise to in this hemisphere, being interested in it the most sacred rights of humanity and the greatest interests of civilized nations.

I need not point out to you the duty of good men with respect to this cause, nor the great glories to be acquired by its exercise.

 Wilkinson added in his own hand:

 [The last paragraph of this letter cannot be read, written in the first instance by Gutierrez who writes & spells badly & copied by a worse hand the amount of it appears to be that Don Pedro Girard, his agent, has full force and will give any information to Genl. Wilkinson & his object was to induce persons to join the cause of the patriots.]

Wilkinson's signature on his letter to the Sec. of War
Girard met Wilkinson on a ship on the Mississippi River, as the general made his way back to New Orleans from an absence of several months in Washington. The two were known to each other. Wilkinson admitted this to his superiors in his report, but downplayed the association. “His agent Girard happens to be one of my ancient “employees” mentioned” in letters to the department, he said. The precise nature of Girard’s employment is unknown, but the quotations suggest he was a possible informant. Girard gave Wilkinson more information, but he did not pass it on because it was “scarcely worth the repetitions because [it is] not quite creditable.”

 “In sum,” Wilkinson wrote, “Mr. B. wishes to learn from me the disposition of the government and also my own dispositions & purposes, with respect to the Mexican conflicts. He wishes to get them and ammunition from me. He wishes to know what might be the feelings of the government in relation to the expedition they are projecting. He promises himself two thousand more men for the impending expedition, from Kentucky, Tennessee and this state, and the adjacent territory, but I have no clear evidence that they have as yet embodied two hundred. He had consulted Gen. Adair with regard to taking the command who was undetermined and it appeared are waiting events.”

 Unlike Wilkinson, who had landed on his feet after the 1806 Burr affair, Adair had been burned badly. He had lost a senate seat and his political career in Kentucky appeared to be shattered. Adair would wait, and wait. Ultimately, he would never join Gutiérrez in Texas.
Wilkinson reported further:

“I did not hesitate to reply, that [manuscript torn] the expedition to be not only unauthorized by, but in opposition to the dispositions of the government, that whatever might be the governmental or national sympathy, a scale of discretion and justice governed the conduct of the executive departments; and that no illegal assembly of the citizens of the U.S. in any, for whatever purposes could be satisfied or justified, and that where such appreciation had the tendency to involve the country in war, with a nation now at peace with us, it would at last be discouraged and discountenanced. Girard wishes something to say to Bernardo from me, for I declined writing.”

“Tell him to have patience,” Wilkinson told Girard, “to wait the maturation of the fruit,  to trust in the justice of God, to believe in my devotion to the liberty of mankind, and to merit the friendship and protection of my country, by respecting its government and supporting its laws.” 
Wilkinson, the great conspirator, who had dreamed of invading Spain for years, would not do so. News had already arrived of the United States’ Declaration of War against England, and the general, responsible for the entire Southwest, would have more than enough to worry about preparing for the defense of New Orleans. In two years, he would be reassigned to Canada and his place taken by a more able, and more loyal, officer, General Andrew Jackson.
But the revolutionaries would march anyway. In fact, they already had, 10 days before Wilkinson’s meeting with Girard. The advanced force of the army commanded by Augustus Magee and Gutiérrez, had already entered Texas, routed the first Spanish forces, and would take Nacogdoches within a day of Wilkinson’s letter.
Sources: U.S. National Archives: Letters Received by the Secretary of War Registered Series, Roll 49; Letters Received by the Secretary of War Unregistered Series, Roll 6.

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