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Late in September the General had arrived at Natchitoches, and had taken chief command of the troops confronting the Spanish forces. On the 8th of October, one Samuel Swartwout brought him a confidential letter from Colonel Burr. He was received by Wilkinson with much attention, stayed eight days, and then left for New Orleans. On the 21st, Wilkinson determined to expose the plot. He despatched a messenger to the President of the United States, bearing a letter which apprised him of Colonel Burr’s contemplated descent of the Mississippi with an armed force. Eight days later, the General arranged with the Spaniards for the troops under each flag to withdraw from the contested boundary, leaving its location to be settled by the two governments, and hastened toward New Orleans, hurrying on in advance of him a force of artificers and a company of soldiers.
Presently the people of New Orleans were startled from apathetic tranquillity into a state of panic. All unexplained, these troops lead arrived, others had re-enforced them; there was hurried repair and preparation; and the air was agitated with rumors. To Claiborne, the revelation had at length come from various directions that Aaron Burr was plotting treason. Thousands were said to be involved with him; the first outbreak was expected to be in New Orleans.
Wilkinson had arrived in the town. In the bombastic style of one who plays a part, he demanded of Claiborne the proclamation of martial law. Claiborne kindly, and with expressions of confidence in the General, refused; but the two met the city’s chamber of commerce, laid the plot before it, and explained the needs of defence. Several thousand dollars were at once subscribed, and a transient embargo of the port recommended, for the purpose of procuring sailors for the four gun-boats and two bomb-ketches lying in the harbor.
There were others in whose confidence Wilkinson held no place. The acting-governor of Mississippi wrote to Claiborne: “Should he [Colonel Burr] pass us, your fate will depend on the General, not on the Colonel. If I stop Burr, this may hold the General in his allegiance to the United States. But if Burr passes the territory with two thousand men, I have no doubt but the General will be your worst enemy. Be on your guard against the wily General. He is not much better than Catiline. Consider him a traitor and act as if certain thereof. Zion may save yourself by it.”
On Sunday, the 14th of December, a Dr. Erick Bollman was arrested by Wilkinson’s order. Swartwout and Ogden had already been apprehended at Fort Adams, and were then confined on one of the bomb-ketches in the harbor. On the 16th, a court officer, armed with writs of habeas corpus, sought in vain to hire a boat to carry bin off to the bomb-ketch, and on the next day, when one could be procured, only Ogden could be found.
He was liberated, but only to be re-arrested with one Alexander, and held in the face of the habeas corpus. The court issued an attachment against Wilkinson. It was powerless. The Judge-Workman-appealed to Claiborne to sustain it with force. The Governor promptly declined, the Judge resigned, and Wilkinson ruled.
One of Burr’s intimates was General Adair. On the 14th of January, 1807, he appeared in New Orleans unannounced. Colonel Burr, he said, with only a servant, would arrive in a few days. As he was sitting at dinner, his hotel was surrounded by regulars, an aide of Wilkinson appeared and arrested him; he was confined, and presently was sent away. The troops beat to arms, regulars and militia paraded through the terrified city, and Judge Workman, with two others, were thrown into confinement. They were released within twenty-four hours; but to intensify the general alarm, four hundred Spaniards from Pensacola arrived at the mouth of Bayou St. John, a few miles from the city, on their way to Baton Rouge, and their commander asked of Claiborne that he and his staff might pass through New Orleans. He was refused the liberty.
All this time the Creoles had been silent. Now, however, through their legislature, they addressed their governor. They washed their hands of the treason which threatened the peace and safety of Louisiana, but boldly announced their intention to investigate the “extraordinary measures” of Wilkinson and to complain to Congress.
Burr, meanwhile, with the mere nucleus of a force, had set his expedition in motion, and at length, after twenty years’ threatening by the Americans of the West, a fleet of boats actually bore an armed expedition down the Ohio and out into the Mississippi, bent on conquest.
But disaster lay in wait for it. It failed to gather strength as it came, and on the 28th of January the news reached New Orleans that Burr, having arrived at a point near Natchez with fourteen boats and about a hundred men, had been met by Mississippi militia, arrested, taken to Natchez, and released on bond to appear for trial at the next term of the Territorial Court.
This bond Burr ignored, and left the Territory. The Governor of Mississippi offered $2,000 for his apprehension, and on the 3d of March the welcome word came to New Orleans that he had been detected in disguise and re-arrested at Fort Stoddart, Alabama.
About the middle of May, Wilkinson sailed from New Orleans to Virginia to testify in that noted trial which, though it did not end in the conviction of Burr, made final wreck of his designs, restored public tranquillity, and assured the country of the loyalty not only of the West, but also of the Creoles of Louisiana. The struggle between the two civilizations withdrew finally into the narrowest limits of the Delta, and Spanish American thought found its next and last exponent in an individual without the ambition of empire, -a man polished, brave and chivalrous; a patriot, and yet a contrabandist; an outlaw, and in the end a pirate.