The story of the Revolutionary War tends to focus on operations and events east of the Appalachian Mountains, with good reason as most of the war took place in at area. West of the mountains, the story of George Rogers Clark in the Ohio Valley is famous and found in many history books. The expedition of James Willing on the Mississippi River is not as well known but is full of adventure, intrigue, and piracy.
Born to a well-to-do family in Philadelphia, James Willing opened a store in 1770 in Natchez, then part of British West Florida. A poor businessman and reckless with his money, he soon was on the verge of poverty. The Mississippi was bordered by Spanish Territory to the west and the British to the east. When the Revolutionary War began, Willing tried to rouse the local population, a mix of Spanish, French, and other backgrounds, against the British but failed.
Returning to Philadelphia in 1777, Willing lobbied Congress for command of an expedition to eliminate the threat of the British closing the Mississippi to trade. Congress agreed. He later described his instructions to the American agent in New Orleans: “the following Extracts will serve to specify their Tenour—After being ordered to make prize of all British property on the Mississippi River I was instructed to apply to the Governor of this Province [Spanish Louisiana] for Liberty to make sale of them, that obtained I am again instructed to pay one moiety [share] of the Net proceeds into Your Hands as agent for the Congress.” It is not clear what property was included in these instructions.
Willing arrived at Fort Pitt on December 12, 1777, with instructions for Gen. Edward Hand, the local commander: “You will receive this from the hands of Mr. James Willing who is charged with some P[rivate?] dispatches for New Orleans and . . . require from you one of the Continental Boats properly manned, armed and provisioned to carry him from Fort Pitt to New Orleans and hereby request that you immediately comply with this order . . . it is of great Importance that Mr. Willing get speedily down.”
Given a captain’s commission in the Continental Navy, Willing purchased a small craft from a local merchant. The boat, named the Rattletrap, was a galley of some sort with long oars, a small sail, and a sweep in the stern. Its armament consisted of two small swivel guns. When considering that the expedition was to clear the Mississippi of British control, the cost of outfitting of the craft was a bargain: “payment of a Bill drawn by Capt James Willing . . . for Three hundred pounds, as also for payment of an account for sundry Articles he furnished Capt James Willing for the use of the armed Boat Rattle Trap’s Crew, amounting to Two hundred and fifteen pounds.” Hand helped Willing enlist Marines for his boat. First to enlist was a group of twenty men from the 13th Virginia Regiment, another fourteen came from a variety of other regiments. Willing appointed Robert George and Robert Elliott as lieutenants.
The little vessel set out down the Ohio River on January 10, 1777. Along the way to the Mississippi the Americans seized cargoes of pelts and brandy from French traders. Approaching the Mississippi, Willing recruited ten more men and two canoes. With the reinforcements, Willing proceeded to take property that appeared to be owned by British Loyalists along the banks of the Mississippi.
By February 19, the expedition had reached Natchez. The population, with no means of defense and far from any support by Spanish or British officials, was cowed by the presence of so many armed men. The local citizens agreed to remain neutral, proposing to Willing: “That we will not in any fashion take arms against the United States of America, nor help to supply, nor give any assistance to the enemies of said States. That our persons, slaves and other property of whatever description shall be left secure, and the least molestation during our neutrality.” In return, the residents would provide supplies for Willing’s men.
Many men unofficially joined his force, swelling the ranks to at least one hundred adventurers. Moving into the countryside, his followers took livestock and slaves, and destroyed property of British citizens or those perceived to be British sympathizers. One British planter, who had known Willing when the young swashbuckler had been a merchant in Natchez, wrote a description of Willing’s raids: “a young man . . . perfectly & intimately acquainted with the Gentlemen upon the river at whose houses he had often been entertained in the most hospitable manner . . . they have taken from the Natchez Col. Hutch[ins] with his Negroes; they plundered Harry Stuart’s House and have seized the negroes & other property at Cumming’s Plantation; they divide the property at Castles’ . . . wantonly killing the Hogs & other stock upon the plantation . . . . The Houses were immediately rummaged & every thing of any value secured . . . the Heroick Captain ordered his people to set fire to all the houses & indigo works.” The planter did not think that Willing’s motives were purely patriotic: “Cap. Willing conceived the design of making his fortune at one Coup upon the ruin and destruction of his Old Friends & Intimates.” For the most part, those who declared themselves neutral or American sympathizers were untouched by the destruction.
A British sloop of war, the Rebecca, was sent upriver from the Gulf of Mexico to stop the American advance. The vessel mounted fourteen small cannon and six swivels. The advanced guard of Willing’s expedition surprised the British short of Natchez and captured the ship. Renamed the Morris, in honor of Robert Morris who was a friend of the Willing family, the small craft was used to raid British possessions in the lower Mississippi. With each success, more locals joined his force. Only a few of them were actually enlisted as Marines, the rest hung on to the edges of the expedition looking for plunder.
A few weeks later Willing’s forces, now over 200 strong, reached Spanish New Orleans. Pushing on toward the gulf, they captured British vessels and goods. In the forays into British plantations in West Florida, there were excesses. This led Willing into clashes with Louisiana’s Spanish governor, Bernardo Galvez, who was a covert supporter of the overall American revolutionary effort but also trying to maintain neutrality with his powerful British neighbors.
Using the Rattletrap and the Morris, Willing’s men continued to raid the countryside up and down the Mississippi. Unfortunately, many of the men associated with his force were nothing more than bandits, using the raids to plunder for their own benefit. Spanish citizens as well as other neutrals were pillaged and Galvez asked Oliver Pollock, the Continental agent in New Orleans, to end Willing’s services. Frustrated, Pollock wrote Congress: “The Small Party you sent hereunder the Commander of Captn. James Willing without any Order or subordination, has only thrown the whol river into confusion and created a Number of Enemies and a heavy Expence which would not have happened had they been otherwise Governed and a Proper number sent, however the only Remedy for what has past is a speedy dispatch.”
The British were not idle, sending troops to take Natchez and blockading New Orleans. Representatives of the British government pressured Galvez to cease his support of the raiders. Willing interfered with the treatment of paroled British prisoners in New Orleans, usurping Galvez’s authority. Pollock fell out of favor when he was unable to financially support Willing’s efforts. Pollock wrote to Congress again: “What his next Pretence for tarrying here will be God knows, but there is a clear Passage for him and his Party to go up, part by Land and Part by Water through the Spanish territories by way of the Appelousa & Nachetosh and join Colo Clark, I am determined to stop all Supplies in order to get him away.”
Pollock managed to get most of Willing’s men, about sixty, to leave in August 1778. They would join George Rogers Clark at Kaskaskia. Eventually the Morris set sail into the Gulf as a privateer but sank in poor weather along with eleven of her crew. When Pollock ended his support of Willing, the pillagers and thieves who had lurked alongside the American expedition skulked away.
Finally, in October 1778, Willing set sail for Philadelphia but his ship was captured and he was taken prisoner. He remained in British custody in New York for several years. He tried to escape; thrown into solitary confinement he was apparently abused by his captors. George Washington implored Congress in the spring of 1781 to facilitate a deal for Willing’s freedom: “Should there be no Naval Officer of Captain Willins Rank who has prior right of exchange, I shall be very glad to see his effected, as he has been peculiarly severely treated by the enemy.” He was finally exchanged in September 1781.
Meanwhile, Spain declared war on Great Britain on June 21, 1779, and Galvez launched an invasion of British West Florida. Capturing the major towns and forts in the British province, Galvez ended the threat of Britain’s control over the Mississippi River. Some of the men Willing had enlisted as Marines remained in West Florida, assisting the Spanish against the British. Willing returned to Pennsylvania and resumed his business activities. He died in Havorford in 1801.
James Willing to Oliver Pollock, May 30, 1778, in Charles R. Smith, Marines in the Revolution, A History of the Continental Marines in the American Revolution, 1775-1783 (Washington, DC: Government Printing Office, 1975), 182.
Commercial Committee to Edward Hand, November 21, 1777, in Edmund C. Burnett, ed., Letters of Members of the Continental Congress, Volume II, July 1, 1776 to December 31, 1777 (Washington, DC: Carnegie Institute, 1923), 565.
Committee of Commerce to Hand, February 28, 1778, in Worthington Chauncey Ford, ed., Journals of the Continental Congress, 1774-1789, Volume X, 1778, January 1-May 1 (Washington, DC: Government Printing Office, 1908), 183.
George Washington to the Board of War, May 1, 1781, in John C. Fitzpatrick, ed., The Writings of George Washington, 1745-1799, Volume 22, April 27, 1781-August 15, 1781 (Washington, DC: Government Printing Office, 1937), 22.