Maj. Clinton Wright, the assistant adjutant-general assigned to the staff of Maj. Gen. Edmund Pendleton Gaines, died on February 23, 1818 when a keelboat struck a sawyer and pilled into the rocks of the Flint River near today’s Newton, Georgia. His body was laid to rest at Fort Scott 200 years ago this month.
This article continues a special series that commemorates the 200th anniversary of the First Seminole War. Please click here to see the complete list of stories in this series.
The story of Maj. Wright touches the heart even after the passage of two centuries.
Clinton Wright was the son of a hero of 1776. His father, Gov. Robert Wright, commanded a company of Maryland militia during the American Revolution. The senior Wright later served in the U.S. House of Representatives, U.S. Senate and as the 12th Governor of Maryland.
His son entered the army from Virginia on January 19, 1813, accepting appointment as a cornet in the 2nd Regiment, U.S. Light Dragoons. The U.S. Army eliminated the rank of cornet in 1815, but during the War of 1812 referred to a tier of commissioned officers that was below the level of lieutenants.
Cornet Wright was on his way to the northern frontier when Maj. Gen. William Henry Harrison defeated the British and killed the great Shawnee leader Tecumseh at the Battle of the Thames, but did serve in the fighting on the Niagara frontier. A promotion to 3rd lieutenant came on April 19, 1813, and to 2nd lieutenant one year later.
The 2nd Light Dragoons were dissolved at the end of the War of 1812 but Wright showed great promise as an officer and was offered service as a 1st lieutenant in the 4th U.S. Infantry. He was promoted to major and assistant adjutant-general on April 29, 1816, becoming the key staff officer to Maj. Gen. Edmund Pendleton Gaines. The young general was a hero of the war and assignment to his staff meant that Wright’s star was on the rise.
Like many young officers of his day, Maj. Wright was brave to a fault and sometimes reacted violently when he felt that his honor was impugned. In 1816, for example, he argued over a blacksmith with Capt. James Harvey Hook at Fort Hawkins in today’s Macon, Georgia. Words and anger got the better of both men and they decided to settle their disagreement with an “affair of honor” or duel.
These deadly encounters were fought under an extremely formal set of rules or code. Each man had a loaded single-shot pistol, they paced off an agreed distance, turned, aimed and fired. In some cases the participants chose to fire in the air. In other instances, though, they aimed to kill. Vice President Aaron Burr killed Alexander Hamilton in such an affair.
The duel between Maj. Wright and Capt. Hook was especially bloody. The latter officer gained the advantage on the first fire, wounding Wright so badly that he could not stand. The major, however, was unwilling to give up the fight and – over the objections of others present – demanded that the two combatants fire again.
This time Wright’s bullet struck its target, passing through Hook’s lung and lodging in his spine. Capt. Hook was partially paralyzed and walked on crutches for the rest of his life. He remained in the army, however, and eventually achieved the rank of lieutenant colonel. Whatever his personality at the time of the 1816 duel, he later became known as one of the “most genial gentlemen” in the army. Curiously, he also came to own the ostrich feathers, turban, silver gorgets, belts and other items worn by Osceola. Capt. Pitcairn Morrison of the 4th Infantry gave these to Hook. [I]
Maj. Wright recovered from his wound and continued to serve on the southern frontier. He was at Fort Scott in November 1817 when Gen. Gaines ordered the U.S. attacks on Fowltown that sparked the Seminole Wars. He was also still there when news reached the fort that chiefs and warriors from the area had retaliated by destroying the command of Lt. Richard W. Scott on the Apalachicola River.
Wright accompanied Gaines on his mission to Amelia Island in December 1817 and then commanded Georgia militia forces that responded to a series of Seminole attacks along the Ocmulgee River. He was back with his general on the night of February 23, 1818, as Gaines attempted a desperate keelboat run down the Flint River to carry badly needed supplies to Fort Scott. The boat struck a sawyer and then smashed into rocks near present-day Newton. Gen. Gaines and most of those on board survived the disaster, but Maj. Wright and three other men drowned in the dark, turbulent waters. (Please see U.S. Army meets disaster on the Flint River).
The body of Maj. Clinton Wright was not recovered until May 1818 when a company of Tennessee Mounted Volunteers found it while on the way from Florida back to Fort Early. Capt. Francis Ellis and his men buried the unfortunate major and notified Gen. Gaines that they had done so:
…I feel greatly indebted to Captain Ellis of the Tennessee Volunteers for his attention to the remains of my unfortunate young friend Major Wright and to you my dear general [i.e. Andrew Jackson], for your communication upon that subject. The watch, the dirk, knife and buttons are received, and I have delivered them, with the other effects of the Major ‘s left at Fort Scott, and just arrived at this place [Fort Gadsden] to Mr. Randolph P.M. who promises to forward them safely to Governor Wright, and I shall lose no time in communicating to him the intelligence which you have been so kind as to give me, of the interment of his son, by Captain Ellis and the generous proposition of that worthy officer to return from Tennessee should it be desired, to point out the place of interment. [II]
Gen. Gaines, moved by the thought of his unfortunate friend and aide being buried alone in the wilderness, arranged to have the body moved to Fort Scott on what is now Lake Seminole in Decatur County, Georgia. Regular U.S. Army troops carried this out 200 years ago this month in June 1818 and Maj. Wrightwas reburied in the post cemetery with proper honors. [III]
Wright’s father outlived his son by eight years. So far as is known, he never retrieved the major’s remains from their resting place in Georgia.
Maj. Clinton Wright was the highest ranking U.S. officer to lose his life during the First Seminole War.
This series will continue.
To learn more about the history of Fort Scott, please consider Dale Cox’s book Fort Scott, Fort Hughes & Camp Recovery: Three 19th Century Military Sites in Southwest Georgia. It is available in both print and Kindle formats. You can also learn more in this free documentary from Two Egg TV:
[I] For more on these artifacts, please see Patricia Riles Hickman, Osceola’s Legacy, Fireant Books, University of Alabama Press, Tuscaloosa, 2006.
[II] Maj. Gen. Edmund P. Gaines to Maj. Gen. Andrew Jackson, May 17, 1818, Jackson Papers, Library of Congress.
[III] Hallowell Gazette (Maine), June 24, 1818.