History’s B-Listers


381px-James_WilkinsonBiography is probably the most popular — and certainly the most accessible — way of learning about history. For obvious reasons, most of them focus on the star figures of their day: hundreds of books have been written about Alexander of Macedon, Augustus, Napoleon, Abraham Lincoln, and Winston Churchill, and hundreds more will be written in the centuries to come.

But for every Great Man, there are always a number of ancillary and supporting characters whose lives are equally fascinating — and just as illuminating about their eras — as those of the superstars. I don’t simply mean the other well-known figures of the day — the Dariuses, Marc Antonies, Wellingtons, and Jefferson Davises — or the millions of common folk who are the subject of social history: I mean the genuine supporting characters who were important in their day, but whose names have understandably faded from memory. Think of them as “Best Supporting Historical Figures.”

One such character is Gen. James Wilkinson (1757-1825), who recently found a biographer in Andro Linklater. As the title of An Artist In Treason implies, Wilkinson was undoubtedly one of the slimiest, most perfidious characters of his day and widely suspected of being in the employ of the Spanish government, then one of America’s biggest rivals (the Spaniards confirmed Wilkinson’s well-compensated treachery decades after his death). That, however, did not prevent him from serving as America’s highest-ranking military officer under each of America’s first four presidents, and as the United States’ first governor of the Louisiana Territory. His military career began with the Siege of Boston in 1775 and ended — with a few gaps as a Kentucky politician/statesman/scoundrel — thirty-seven years later 1812. He died while serving as the American Envoy to Mexico.

Wilkinson appears in many histories of the era, but is usually only given a few paragraphs, often for comic relief: his antics during the Revolutionary War included a (likely) invented story of George Washington shaking his hand at realizing that they’d won the Battle of Trenton, escaping the capture of General Lee by climbing out a window, getting promoted to Brigadier General at the tender age of twenty by inflating his role in the Battle of Saratoga in a report to Congress, and then divulging the details of a conspiracy to replace Washington with his patron, General Gates, while blind drunk. Biographers of Aaron Burr will devote a full chapter or two to Wilkinson, mostly because of Wilkinson’s participation in — and exposure of — the Burr Conspiracy, the precise nature of which has been a matter of controversy for nearly 200 years (I tend to go with the slimier interpretations of Wilkinson’s behavior, but my sources have been overwhelmingly pro-Burr).

I’m only a few chapters into Linklater’s book, but I’ve already learned more — unsurprisingly — about Wilkinson’s upbringing and early character than I have from about two dozen other books I’ve read on the era: the youngest son of (very) minor Maryland gentry, he left the family plantation early to study medicine in Philadelphia, practiced briefly as a doctor in his late teens, then joined the army after Lexington and Concord to make his fortune. I can’t wait to see how the a book-length treatment illuminates his later actions.

Wilkinson is just one of many such B-List historical characters from his era, and every period has a few delicious ones. Who do you think deserves a little time in the spotlight?

Image Credit: “James Wilkinson” by Charles Willson Peale – Independence National Historical Park Collection in Philadelphia, PA.. Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.

Update: An earlier version confused General Gates with General Gage.

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  1. user_2505 Contributor

    On “The Phil Silvers Show”, Sergeant Bilko discovers that he’s the descendant of the hitherto unknown Major Joshua Bilko, recipient of a medal during the Revolutionary War. The episode then flashes back to the roguish, crooked career of the 18th century con man, including selling General Washington’s seat on the boat crossing the Delaware, forcing him to stand. In the end, it turns out the gold medal was awarded by George III.

    Sounds a bit like your man Wilkinson.

    • #1
  2. Tom Meyer Contributor
    Tom Meyer

    Gary McVey: Sounds a bit like your man Wilkinson.

    Too honorable.

    Honestly, Wilkinson is something like a less-lecherous Flashman.

    • #2
  3. Tennessee Patriot Member
    Tennessee Patriot


    • #3
  4. Percival Thatcher

    Gates, not Gage. Gage was the British general in command for Lexington and Concord and Bunker Hill. Granny Gates was the general who had Daniel Morgan, Tadeusz Kościuszko, and the traitor from Norwich win the Battles of Saratoga for him.

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  5. Tom Meyer Contributor
    Tom Meyer


    • #5
  6. Tom Meyer Contributor
    Tom Meyer

    Percival:Gates, not Gage.Gage was the British general in command for Lexington and Concord and Bunker Hill.Granny Gates was the general who had Daniel Morgan,Tadeusz Kościuszko, and the traitor from Norwich win the Battles of Saratoga for him.

    Curses and damnation. Corrected.

    • #6
  7. user_245883 Member

    Scoundel!: The Secret Memoirs of General James Wilkinson by Keith Thompson is a novel based on Wilkinson’s revolutionary war antics.  It is written in a highly Flashmanesque imitation of GM Fraser.

    • #7
  8. user_309277 Inactive

    The Civil War alone provides a huge number of neglected b-listers.

    There’s Oliver Otis Howard, the ridiculously devout West Point librarian who lost an arm, commanded a Corps of immigrant Germans that got whipped at Chancellorsville and Gettysburg but then redeemed themselves by fighting like lions in the West, then headed up the doomed Freedmen’s Bureau after the war, trying to get ex-slaves the promised “forty acres and a mule” along with advocating for public education, temperance, and governmental reform.

    Or how about dueling biographies of James Longstreet and Jubal Early – two of General Lee’s chief lieutenants to survive the war, but who fought tooth and nail over whether the South should remember the “Lost Cause” or embrace the new order?

    Winfield Scott Hancock commanded the U.S. Army at the beginning of the Civil War, and when he retired in 1861 he was the longest-serving officer in American history (a record he still holds to my knowledge).  He was almost singlehandedly responsible for the professionalization of the U.S. army in the early 19th century, fought one of the great expeditionary campaigns in U.S. history during the Mexican-American War, and had no less a personage than the Duke of Wellington call him “the greatest living soldier.”  He also ran for president twice (though he was roundly thumped each time).

    How’s that for starters?

    • #8
  9. user_2505 Contributor

    A Koslin comment is getting to be an automatic Ricochet sign of brainwork…nice branding, Adam!

    • #9
  10. Misthiocracy Member

    • #10
  11. user_477123 Inactive

    Was it Winfield Scott, not Winfield Scott Hancock?

    • #11
  12. Crabby Appleton Inactive
    Crabby Appleton

    Stephen A Douglas. When America needed a Lincoln, Providence provided a Stephen Douglas.

    • #12
  13. user_433424 Inactive

    Winfield Scott. Hancock was a later, but overlapping, figure who was (presumably) named after Scott.

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  14. user_309277 Inactive

    GAAAH!  I did mean Winfield Scott, not Winfield Scott Hancock.  Hancock fought in the Civil War and was a compelling figure in his own right, eventually earning the sobriquet “Hancock the Superb” and being almost universally regarded as one of the most able Generals wearing Union blue.  He also ran for President (though only once) and like his namesake, got thoroughly drubbed.

    • #14
  15. user_309277 Inactive

    Gary McVey:A Koslin comment is getting to be an automatic Ricochet sign of brainwork…nice branding, Adam!

    Aww shucks, Gary.  You’re too kind.

    • #15
  16. user_309277 Inactive

    He’s probably one for the C- or D-list, but I have a sentimental attachment to William “Little Billy” Mahone – a tiny Virginian from a poor family who became chief engineer of the Norfolk and Petersburg railroad and designed a system of corduroy-pattern rails through the Great Dismal Swamp still in use today.  He then commanded a brigade in the Army of Northern Virginia, along the way being acclaimed as the hero of the infamous “Battle of the Crater” near Petersburg, where Confederate troops shot black Union soldiers trying to surrender.  After the war he returned to the railroads with an audacious scheme to turn the port of Norfolk, VA into a new center of Southern industry and the hub of a network of region-spanning rail lines.  Part Gilded-Age robber baron, part opportunistic demagogue, and part dedicated southern patriot, his post-war career is too long to fully detail here (full disclosure: I wrote my undergraduate history thesis on the populist political movement Mahone founded in 1873) but it’s a rollicking good tale full of political corruption, high drama, fortunes made and lost, and one of the oddest political coalitions ever put together in American history.

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  17. user_653084 Inactive

    John the Marshal
    John Talbot 1st Earl of Shrewsbury
    Lord Cochrane
    William Slim

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  18. Petty Boozswha Inactive
    Petty Boozswha

    One of my favorite books was Burr by Gore Vidal – almost good enough to redeem Vidal’s reputation. Wilkinson is one of the many characters in the book, and, though it’s historical fiction, Vidal does stick pretty much to actual events and relationships.

    I believe Douglas MacArthur or Omar Bradley may have given Scott some competition in the longevity contest, but Scott was a General from the War of 1812 through the early Civil War, so was probably more consequential.

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  19. Percival Thatcher

    Captain John “Mad Jack” Percival, USN


    Ran away to sea when he was 13 and started as a cabin boy on merchant ships. Joined the Navy for the Quasi-War with France, and was mustered out after the conclusion.  Went back to sea on merchantmen, until he was impressed by the Royal Navy.  (No, he didn’t see them and think “snazzy uniforms” – they grabbed him and “volunteered” him.)  He was assigned to HMS Victory.  When he was moved over to a prize crew, he led a revolt (it’s not mutiny if it’s not your navy) and escaped. He reenlisted in the Navy for the War of 1812.  He borrowed a fishing boat, put goats on the deck and armed men in the hold, and took the HMS Eagle (a tender) when they tried to seize the goats as he sailed blithely past. Then he went on three cruises, captured 19 merchantmen and 2 warships, and earned his nickname.  (The sword in the picture was awarded him by Congress for one of the warships.)

    After a long career of chasing mutineers and pirates, training a flotilla or two of midshipmen – several of which went on to be senior officers in the Civil War, and well past the age when most officers had retired, he had one more job to do.  The Navy was tasked with keeping the USS Constitution afloat.  The initial estimate for the work was $70,000.  Balking at that, Percival was sent to give the ship a good hard look.  He came back with his own estimate of $10,000, so the Navy told him to turn to.  Upon completing the job, Percival reported back that the ship was good to go for a two to three year cruise.

    “Well, then” the Navy said, “take her around the world.”

    So Percival took her on her only circumnavigation.


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  20. Mark Coolidge

    Nathanael Greene.  Next to Washington, the most important American military leader of the Revolution.

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  21. user_477123 Inactive

    Damn, Mark, you beat me to him. Great book is Washington’s General, a buography of Greene. I also like Salvatore’s suggestion of Agrippa (“Augustus’s general”) and Belisarius (I think “Justinian’s General”).

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  22. Mark Coolidge

    Peter Fumo:Damn, Mark, you beat me to him. Great book is Washington’s General, a buography of Greene. I also like Salvatore’s suggestion of Agrippa (“Augustus’s general”) and Belisarius (I think “Justinian’s General”).

    Agrippa and Belisarius are great suggestions.  I’ll pick up the bio of Green you recommended.

    I’ve been writing a series on Forgotten Americans some of whom may qualify as B-listers (you can find it here):

    John Dickinson

    Cumberland Posey

    Patrick Cleburne

    John Laurens

    Bayard Rustin

    George Sears Greene

    Elihu Root

    Helen Dortch Longstreet

    • #22
  23. user_477123 Inactive

    I am currently listening to podcast series by Thomas Duncan called “Revolutions”. He is currently discussing the American Revolution and spends some time on Dickinson. Interesting. BTW, Duncan did an outstanding podcast series on history of Rome recommended to me by another Ricocheti found at http://www.thehistoryofrome.typepad.com.Terry Golway is author on Greene book.

    • #23
  24. user_477123 Inactive

    I love the Dickinson quote Mark at your blog. Very Burkean. (Experience must be our only guide. Reason may mislead us).

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  25. Mark Coolidge

    Peter Fumo:I love the Dickinson quote Mark at your blog. Very Burkean.(Experience must be our only guide. Reason may mislead us).

    At some point I’ll write a longer piece on Dickinson.  Interesting thinker.  Of course his reputation has suffered for dissenting on the timing of the declaration of independence.

    • #25
  26. blank generation member Inactive
    blank generation member

    Fr. Coughlin.  Influential radio personality back in the day.  Lots of listeners during the Depression.

    • #26
  27. Percival Thatcher


    Mike –not Thomas – Duncan.

    (Ok, I’ll stop now)

    I really like those podcasts too.

    • #27
  28. user_2505 Contributor

    You people are brilliant. Aggravating sometimes, but brilliant.

    Not collectively but individually. That’s the way we do things around here.

    • #28
  29. Xennady Member

    George H. Thomas

    • #29
  30. user_477123 Inactive

    It was Seawriter who recommended podcast series by Duncan. And thanks for the correction!

    • #30
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