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Brief Biographical / Historical Sketch

Biography

While James Wilkinson was embroiled in various scandals and plots, such as the Aaron Burr conspiracy, he managed to attain prominent military and government posts. Eventually, at the height of his military career, Wilkinson would rise to the position of commander in chief of the Army of the United States.

Wilkinson was born in Benedict, Maryland, in 1757, and died in Mexico City, Mexico, on December 28, 1825. He married Ann Biddle of Philadelphia on November 12, 1778, and had four children. After her death in 1810, Wilkinson married Celestine Laveau Trudeau, with whom he had twin daughters.

Enrolled at the University of Pennsylvania, Wilkinson's studies in medicine ended in 1775 when he joined Thompson's Pennsylvania rifle battalion to fight in the Revolutionary War. Wilkinson served under Colonel Benedict Arnold, General George Washington, and as an aide to General Horatio Gates; he was eventually brevetted as a major general from November 1777 to March 1778. He also served as secretary to the board of war from January to March 1778. Due to his participation in the Conway Cabal, Wilkinson was forced to resign his positions as major general and secretary in 1778. This was a conspiracy to replace George Washington as commander in chief of the Continental Army with Horatio Gates. He served as clothier general of the army from 1779 to 1781.

In 1803, Wilkinson and Governor William C.C. Claiborne took possession of the Louisiana Territory on behalf of the United States, and in 1805 Wilkinson was appointed the first governor of the territory by Thomas Jefferson. That same year, Wilkinson came under suspicion of being a co-conspirator of Aaron Burr in a treasonous plot to separate the western states from the Union. After receiving Burr's notorious ciphered letter in October of 1806, Wilkinson informed President Jefferson of Burr's plan and claimed no knowledge of the conspiracy.

In 1811, Wilkinson was court-martialed for taking payment from Spain while serving as general of the United States Army. Though he was acquitted, after his death it was revealed that he had, in fact, drawn a regular pension from Spain for his work to separate the western areas from the United States. He served as a senior officer in the United States Army for over a decade and was commissioned a major general in the War of 1812.

After leading two failed campaigns, the Battle of Crysler's Farm and the Second Battle of La Colle Mills, Wilkinson was relieved of his military duties and went on to publish his autobiography, Memoirs of My Own Times, in 1816. Intending to settle a colony in Texas, he was awaiting approval from the Mexican government when he died.