Sunday, February 08, 2009

The Case for Corps of Discovery, pt. 1

I've moved on to my new project. Yes, you could see it coming. I'm working on my Lewis and Clark project. Yes, I hear your protests, this was a peaceful expedition. However this was luck; luck because both the captains used good enough judgment to avoid a serious incident with the Indians. Luck because the vastness of the Great Plains was too great to allow their Spanish pursuers to find them.

There are four hypothetical conflicts that make the Lewis and Clark expedition a viable subject for miniature wargaming, and here I'll take on the first.

When Thomas Jefferson signed on the dotted line to purchase the Louisiana Territory from France it was the end (sort of) of a long and bitter process to secure New Orleans and control the mouth of the Mississippi River. As more settlers spilled over the Alleghenies into the Kentucky and Ohio territories, and Indian resistance was largely ended with the Treaty of Greenville in 1795, western farmers and traders poured their products down the Ohio to the Mississippi River through the port facilities at New Orleans. At this time Spain controlled East and West Florida, Louisiana, and the prize of New Orleans. Louisiana and its chief port were ceded to Spain as part of the Treaty of Paris which ended the French and Indian War in 1763.

Though the United States importuned Spain repeatedly throughout the early Federal period about ceding these territories to the new nation, the Spanish were adamant in retaining them. Though American agents threatened seizure, Spanish officials saw the future: America was an expansionist power in North America and rolling over to their demands would lead to only more demands and further expansion. Spain negotiated trade regulations with the U.S., but New Orleans and Louisiana would remain Spanish.

When Napoleon seized power as First Consul in 1800, one of the first things he did was to cast an eye toward the New World, particularly the lost French empire of Louisiana. He wangled a deal with the Spanish in which he traded the Italian territory of Etruria to the Duke of Parma for Louisiana. This was approved by the Spanish king's adviser, Manuel Godoy, on the condition that Louisiana not be transferred or sold except to Spain. Napoleon's minister, the wily Talleyrand, obligingly said yes, and Spain agreed to take possession in 1803.

However Napoleon's plans to begin a new empire in the Western Hemisphere were wrecked amid the the yellow fever that killed 50,000 French troops fighting the slave insurrection on Haiti. With events heating up in Europe, the First Consul had less interest in sending military force to Louisiana.

Jefferson's emissaries persisted in their efforts to acquire New Orleans at a heated intensity as the Spanish withdrew the "right of deposit" from Americans trading through that port. Word on the frontier was that westerners would form a militia to take the city themselves. American regular forces began to mass at key points along the Mississippi, and Spanish troops began fortifying places such as Natchez and Chickasaw Bluffs.

In the summer of 1803 the Spanish received the shocking news that France had sold New Orleans and the immense vastness of Louisiana to the Americans. With its huge undefined borders the Americans acquired the means to hold a gun to the head of New Spain. Already negotiating with the Spanish for a passport to explore the upper reaches of the Missouri for a dozen or so men, Jefferson again requested that a somewhat larger expedition on Meriwether Lewis be permitted to cross Spanish territory on an exploring mission.

The Spanish were quite fearful of the military expedition and the threat it posed to Spanish possessions in New Mexico. The source for the knot of rivers that converged with the Missouri was unknown, and were believed to perhaps originate in what is now the Colorado Rockies, then an important part of New Spain and not far from Santa Fe, its capital.

When Lewis assembled his Corps of Discovery, he wisely located it at Camp Dubois on the east bank of the Mississippi River, just downstream from St. Louis. It Spanish control until November of 1803, passing to French control at that time, before reverting to American sovereignty in early 1804. Though his relations with the Spanish commander were friendly, it was equally clear his status as a military commander and expedition leader was one of a rival, and Lewis's plans were reported to the Spanish governor of Louisiana, Charles Delassus.

Delassus, through his career as Louisiana governor from 1799-1804, deftly maintained peaceful relations with the United States despite their bellicose demands for Spanish territory as well as their liberal interpretations of the borders of American lands. Believing the Lewis and Clark expedition to be a danger to Spanish claims, he authorized a military expedition to set off, intercept the expedition, and arrest its leaders. The composition of the intercepting force is unclear. Richard Dillon, Lewis's biographer states it was about a hundred men composed wholly of militia that unfortunately ran afoul of the Pawnee on its way to the Platte River's intersection with the Missouri. Another source states that the Spanish force was composed wholly of Comanche allies. Yet another has a mix of Spanish troops and Comanches.

In any case, locating the Corps was a bit like finding a needle in the vastness of the American wilderness. It didn't happen. A second expedition was sent out to catch them in their return trip, but again no connection.

It's difficult to speculate what might have happened if the expedition and Spanish had met. Would Lewis have meekly capitulated? Both Meriwether Lewis and William Clark were men of grit and determination, and it's unlikely that they would have ended their mission without a fight. It was well armed, and many of the men were skilled woodsmen and marksmen. However, Jefferson's directions to Lewis required that he avoid putting the Corps into any hazards that might result in its destruction, that the scientific information they were gathering was too important. All the makings of a good hypothetical action

No comments: