On this day in 1795, General Mad Anthony Wayne writes a letter to Henry Knox. He was livid! He’d just discovered that another American General, James Wilkinson, had been secretly plotting against him. Wayne was then commander of a newly created American army, the Legion of the United States.
But Wilkinson wanted that job for himself.
Who was Wilkinson? He was the “most notorious American traitor you’ve probably never heard of,” according to one historian. He served in the Continental Army during the Revolution, but then moved on to Kentucky after the war. Kentucky was then attempting to separate itself from Virginia. Wilkinson found himself in debt, and he ended up brokering a deal with Spain. He would feed Spain information about American activities on the frontier.
He might have been a spy, but no one knew that. Wilkinson soon found himself once again serving in the American armed forces. He even thought that he’d found a chance for promotion in late 1791.
At about that time, Americans led by Arthur St. Clair suffered a devastating defeat at the hands of Indian tribes who’d attacked them near the Ohio/Indiana border. The defeat prompted the creation of a new professional army to deal with the situation: The Legion of the United States. Wilkinson expected to be given command of the Legion, and he even wrote to his Spanish contact of this expectation. He had to have been horribly disappointed when he learned that he’d been passed over. Wayne was put in charge of the Legion, thus receiving the appointment that Wilkinson thought he deserved. Wilkinson would have to settle for second-in-command.
Wilkinson spent much of the next few years writing to friends in Washington, D.C., secretly badmouthing and undermining Wayne. He even wrote an anonymous letter in a Cincinnati newspaper in which he complained about Wayne’s leadership. He was polite to Wayne’s face, though, and Wayne had no idea what was happening until he received a letter from Henry Knox in January 1795.
Wayne was furious! He wrote Knox: “Charges accusations & imputations against me: were as unexpected as they are groundless: & as false, as they are base & insidious.” He wrote of that “vile invidious man” who worked against Wayne even as he treated Wayne “with attention politeness & delicacy” to his face.
Throughout this time, remember, Wilkinson was still spying for the Spanish. And now he had an angry General Wayne seeking to discredit him. Wilkinson’s treachery was never exposed during his lifetime, but he came close at least twice. The second of these occurred during 1796.
Wayne had ordered Captain Zebulon Pike, the commander at Fort Massac, to be on the lookout for suspicious documents. Wayne suspected Wilkinson’s treachery and was looking for proof. In August 1796, one of Pike’s patrols stopped a boat sailing under a Spanish flag. The patrol considered the possibility of searching the boat, but ultimately declined to do so. If the boat had been searched, a crewman later claimed that the patrol “would have found papers enough to hang Wilkinson himself.”
Wayne had very nearly caught Wilkinson. Was it a coincidence that Wayne fell ill and passed away mere months after this incident? One modern historian speculates that it might not have been.
Either way, Wilkinson benefited from Wayne’s passing. Following Wayne’s death in late 1796, the army was reorganized and Wilkinson was made its new commander.
Wilkinson got away with treason during his lifetime. Did he get away with poisoning his commander, too?
Andro Linklater, An Artist in Treason: The Extraordinary Double Life of General James Wilkinson (2010)
Hugh T. Harrington. Was General Anthony Wayne Murdered? (Journal of the American Revolution; Aug. 20, 2013)
Paul David Nelson, Anthony Wayne, Soldier of the Early Republic (1985)
Roger G. Kennedy, Burr, Hamilton, and Jefferson: A Study in Character (1999)