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General Was A Spy
—And So Was The Pirate

by C. F. Eckhardt
James Wilkinson was Commanding General, United States Army—a rank that no longer exists but, at the time, the highest rank in the US Army. The equivalent, today, is Chairman, Joint Chiefs of Staff. He was also the top spy in the US for the Spanish Empire. He was designated Agent #1.

Wilkinson ran quite a spy network, and two of his best agents were based in Louisiana and Texas. One history has largely ignored, but the other is the stuff of legend. Agents #12 and #13 were the brothers Laffite, Pierre and Jean.

Jean Laffite worked for the Spanish? All along we were told he hated the Spanish. Well, what better cover could a spy have than a reputation as a man who hated the power he worked for in secret? It works very well, even today. All during the last part of the 20th Century the #2 man in the Communist Party USA, Chairman Gus Hall’s right hand man, was an FBI mole.

Yes, Jean Laffite raided Spanish shipping. He also lived in Spanish territory—at Campeachy, which is now known as Galveston Island. The fact that he was there was no secret. If he was a real threat to Spain’s interests, Galveston was and is all but indefensible against a major naval attack. All Spain had to do to eliminate Laffite was sail a half-dozen men-of-war into Galveston Bay and turn their 64-pounder guns on Laffite’s headquarters. A ship of the line mounted between twenty and thirty-two guns per broadside. Twenty to thirty-two 64-pound iron cannonballs coming at about 400 mph are going to knock down just about anything in their way. Two or three such broadsides and La Maison Rouge, Laffite’s house, and just about every other structure on the island would be matchsticks.

It never happened. Why not? The man was stealing from Spain, holding Spanish subjects for ransom, killing Spanish seamen, and—in some cases—either converting Spanish ships to his own use or sinking them. Or at least he claimed he was, and the Spanish claimed the same thing. If ever Spain had grounds to go after somebody, that somebody was Jean Laffite. Yet Spanish officials, knowing exactly where he was, what strength he had in ships and men, and what he supposedly was doing, never made a single move to stop him.

Laffite was Spain’s eyes and ears on the Texas coast. Nothing that happened on the Texas coast—or inland--escaped his knowledge for long. Anyone interested in entering Texas for whatever reason, whether it be simply to hunt wild horses, as Philip Nolan was supposedly doing, to search for rumored gold and silver mines, as a number of people did, or to invade the place with the intention of either setting up a separate republic or annexing it to the US, came to Laffite’s attention. Laffite welcomed such people into his home. He wined them and dined them and got them to talk about what they intended to do. He encouraged them with his tales of his hatred for Spain and things Spanish. As soon as his guests departed, a messenger went to brother Pierre in New Orleans with the full details. Brother Pierre handed the message to General Wilkinson, who promptly had it forwarded to Spanish officials in Mexico.

When, after the Hundred Days, Napoleon was exiled to Ste. Helena, a group of his soldiers, about 400 strong under General Lallemand, established a settlement ‘to cultivate vine and olive’ on the lower Trinity. They built a fort overlooking the river, planted nothing, and spent a lot of time in military drill. At the same time a boat was being readied in Maryland to sail to Ste. Helena and rescue Bonaparte. A house was prepared for him in New Orleans.

Jean Laffite welcomed his ‘countrymen’ to his baliwick, then told them that the Spanish had somehow heard of their existence and that there was a force of some 2,500 Spanish regulars on the way to attack them. The French packed up and moved to Louisiana. About two weeks later a force of about 250 Spanish militia showed up at the fort the French called champs d’asile and, finding it deserted, burned the place. The 400 French soldiers, hardened veterans of the Napoleonic Wars, could have whipped the lot of them before breakfast and not worked up a real sweat doing it. Laffite knew there was no force of 2,500. The 1810-1821 revolution in Mexico was well under way. The Spanish government didn’t have 2,500 soldiers, not otherwise committed, to send into Texas.

General Wilkinson was the architect of the Neutral Strip. Ownership of the land along the Sabine was disputed by the US and Spain. Spain once had the capitol of Spanish Texas sited at what is now Robeline, Louisiana. Wilkinson and the Spanish military commanders in Texas set up an area which both agreed their troops would not enter. They referred to it as ‘the neutral territory.’ Spain would not give up its claim to the land and neither would the US, but by agreeing to keep troops out of the area there was no chance there might be an accidental clash between the armies that could lead to a larger war.

When you have the police abandon an area, guess who takes over? The Neutral Strip was a haven for every sort of outlaw imaginable, from both Texas and the US. The Yocum family established itself in the Neutral Strip and made a regular business of raiding into Louisiana, in one case murdering a free black man, kidnapping his wife and children--who were legally free--and selling them as slaves in Texas.

The Neutral Strip did prevent what might have been a pretty nasty war for the US, which was definitely in Wilkinson’s interest. He didn’t need his spying for Spain to become public. He would have been court-martialed and executed for espionage, the only US general officer ever to be caught and tried for that crime. However, when his niece’s husband, James Long, decided to create The Republic of Fredonia in what is now Texas, her Uncle James duly reported the fact to Spanish agents. That led, of course, to the downfall of Long’s efforts and to his eventual death at the hands of a prison guard in Mexico.

Exactly how many Americans James Wilkinson sold out to the Spanish while Commanding General, US Army, is unknown. He maintained a façade of patriotism that lasted long after his death. Mississippi even named a county for him. It was not until late in the 20th Century, when some long-secret Spanish archives in Madrid were opened to scholars, that the identities of Spain’s agents in the US and Texas were disclosed. It came as quite a shock to a lot of folks.
© C. F. Eckhardt
"Charley Eckhardt's Texas"

November 2 , 2007 column

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