Cantonment Wilkinson, 1801-1802

Cantonment Wilkinson excavation
Cantonment Wilkinson excavation by the Center for Archaeological Investigations

Cantonment Wilkinson was a U.S. Army base located in what is now Pulaski County from January, 1801, to April, 1802. Cantonments were large temporary camps lacking fortification. At its peak, Cantonment Wilkinson was the largest military base in the country with around 1,500 infantry, artillery, and cavalry soldiers.

Portrait of Alexander Hamilton by John Trumbull
Portrait of Alexander Hamilton by John Trumbull

Preparing for the possibility of war between the United States and France and Spain in the late 1790s, George Washington and Alexander Hamilton asked General James Wilkinson to set up a large military reserve in the Ohio River valley. Should war be declared, troops stationed at the base could quickly capture the Mississippi River and New Orleans from the Spanish, who were expected to ally themselves with the French. In spite of a treaty with France and the death of Washington in 1799, Hamilton proceeded with plans for the cantonment.

General James Wilkinson
Portrait of General James Wilkinson by Charles Willson Peale

Wilkinson was placed in charge of the cantonment even though he was suspected of spying for Spain. He ordered smaller posts such as nearby Fort Massac to be abandoned and added their garrisons to the Reserve Corps.

Arriving at Cantonment Wilkinson in early January, 1801, the troops constructed log huts for shelter. The boundaries of the camp were patrolled by sentinels. The cantonment eventually had quarter master supply buildings, a hospital, a bakery, brick works, a powder magazine, commanding officer's quarters, vegetable gardens, parade grounds, and a boat yard.

At its peak in the summer of 1801, Cantonment Wilkinson supported around 1500 soldiers and a number of civilians, including laundresses, nurses, peddlers, and boat men. What may have been malaria and dysentery then struck the cantonment, killing 70 soldiers, while its commander Colonel David Strong died of another illness.

Following the death of Colonel Strong, most of the troops moved to the mouth of the Tennessee River. Major Jonathan Williams, a grand-nephew of Benjamin Franklin who later founded West Point and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, was left in charge of a small number of soldiers, including those too sick to be moved. The 2nd Infantry troops returned to the cantonment in the fall of 1801, restoring the garrison population to around 800.

The cantonment was abandoned in April, 1802, following the election of President Thomas Jefferson, who reduced the size of the U.S. Army. After the soldiers left, around 200 Cherokees occupied the abandoned cantonment buildings for several years. All of the original structures either decayed or were burned. The land later became the site of a small settlement named Wilkinsonville, with a few buildings that appeared on maps throughout the early nineteenth century.

The Center for Archaeological Investigations conducted research at Cantonment Wilkinson with funding from the Library of Congress (2003) and the Illinois Historic Preservation Agency (2004). Among their discoveries were brick scatter and a refuse pit containing large amounts of broken animal bone, broken ceramics, gunflints, uniform buttons, and other items associated with the cantonment.