Marinus Willett: The Exploits of an Unheralded War Hero

Portrait of Marinus Willett by Ralph Earl, c. 1791. (Metropolitan Museum of Art)

Marinus Willett was born the son of a Quaker, Edward Willett, on July 31, 1740, in Jamaica, Long Island (now part of Queens). After spending his early years on a farm in Jamaica, he relocated to a place known then as Cedar Grove, along the East River and now part of New York City. This place, where his grandfather Samuel Willett, Sheriff of Queens County, died at age ninety-three, became the virtual Willet headquarters for his lifetime.[1]

He became a wealthy merchant and property owner at a young age. During the French and Indian War, Willett, at age eighteen, was appointed a lieutenant in Oliver De Lancey’s New York Regiment, serving in numerous campaigns, among them actions on Ticonderoga (not so successful) and Frontenac (highly successful).[2] These contrasting experiences gave him some sense of the British military and its inconsistent leadership. At this point, feeling ill from the strains of the war effort, he was done with fighting for now, returned to New York, and soon married the first of what would be three wives.

Soon after, the war of words began heating up between the British and the colonies. Though his whole family were devout loyalists, Willett joined the New York chapter of the Sons of Liberty, joining agitators such as John Lamb and Isaac Sears. While Willett does not appear to have been much in the speechmaking department, he was there when the mob needed to exert itself. Such was the case when he helped liberate six hundred muskets from a local arsenal in April 1775. Later, when the British were hauling away their remaining weapons to load them on the ship Asia, the Sons thought the weapons were destined for Boston to interfere in the action occurring there. It was Willett’s good fortune to meet the military procession at Broadway and Beaver streets, and he revved up the crowd enough to enlist their aid to capture all the carts of equipment. This equipment would later be used by the first troops raised in New York.[3] He participated in one more theft of British arms. Borrowing a sloop with some friends they raided the arsenal at Turtle Bay on the east shore of Manhattan and made off with more weapons.[4]

Once the Revolution started, Willett signed on as a captain in Alexander McDougall’s 1st New York Regiment. His initial involvement was in Gen. Richard Montgomery’s ill-fated attack on Canada. He was left in command of St. Johns on the Richelieu River while Montgomery made his unsuccessful push on Quebec. Returning to New York City, he was involved in a number of minor skirmishes, but things wouldn’t really start to get interesting until he was transferred to Fort Stanwix in May 1777.

At Stanwix, Willett was under the command of Col. Peter Gansevoort. The fort had been little used since the French and Indian War and, in Gansevoort’s assessment, was in such a state of disrepair that it was barely defensible. Willett commanded a fort in ruins with a small number of men, many too ill to work and stretched thin in both repairing the fort and protecting the region from numerous Native American attacks.[5] It was largely Willet’s job to see that this changed. A French officer, Capt. B. De La Marquise, was engaged for the work. Willett did not much like his work, but politics dictated that he be retained. Eventually, though, Gansevoort was forced to arrest Marquise and ship him back to Albany due to his subpar efforts to rehabilitate the fort. It was August before Fort Stanwix was in what its officers considered a state of defense, and none too soon.

With British Col. Barry St. Leger’s forces on the way, a siege was anticipated, and a siege is what they got. St. Leger’s forces arrived at the fort on August 4. Gen. Nicholas Herkimer’s forces were the closest with the potential to provide relief, but as we shall see, those hopes were dashed. Herkimer did draw off St. Leger’s troops, but at a high cost. A prearranged signal to call for Herkimer to assist the fort failed to click, and Herkimer’s forces walked into a trap set by St. Leger in what would become the Battle of Oriskany. Herkimer’s forces were cut to pieces in the resulting ambush. This included the general himself who, mortally wounded, allegedly sat against a tree and smoked his pipe as the battle raged around him.

Back at Stanwix, Willett had a plan, and it worked to perfection. By now the majority of the Loyalists, British, and German troops were absent. A sizable number had been committed against Herkimer while others were still miles away working on the wilderness road. On August 5, Willett decided to exit the fort and see what damage he could do. Dividing his force into two groups, Willett moved quickly against his two primary targets: the camps of General St. Leger and Sir John Johnson. Willett was hoping to kill or capture either one or both of the commanders.[6]  After driving off the stragglers defending the camps, including Johnson who fled in his nightshirt, Willett had free run at both camps. He made off with three wagonloads of supplies, including five British flags, the baggage of Sir John Johnson with all his papers, the baggage of a number of other officers with memoranda, journals, and orderly books containing all the information which could be desired.

Willett’s sortie had struck a blow not only to British morale, but especially so to that of their Native American allies. The Americans had also lucked out by the confiscation of Johnson’s papers. They detailed not only the British forces they faced, but St. Leger’s and Gen. John Burgoyne’s campaign intelligence including their critical supply lines.[7] Retiring victoriously back to Fort Stanwix, Willett and his raiders cheered loudly—the raid had been a total success, with their only casualties two men slightly wounded. In their final mockery of the British, the flags that had been captured by the raiders were hoisted right underneath the American flag.

The only negative was the question of why Willett’s forces did not proceed to Oriskany to see if they could assist the outmanned Herkimer. St. Leger’s troops had been informed that their camp was being raided and a portion peeled off to try to defend it. Could Willet likewise have heard what was happening at Oriskany? Willett apparently did not know the militia had engaged the enemy, which would explain why he didn’t immediately march to their aid. It is doubtful whether the forces under Willett’s command would have changed the outcome at Oriskany. Willett’s sortie into the camps was a complete success, while Oriskany was a huge loss.

St. Leger’s troops, though traveling a little lighter than before, nevertheless continued the siege. In fact, on August 9 they sent Capt. William Ancrum into the fort under a flag of truce to demand the fort’s surrender. Gansevoort, though he knew he was in trouble in the event of a prolonged siege, refused to budge. Willett spoke for him at the meeting, and did not mince words, saying in part:

For my part, I declare, before I would consent to deliver this garrison to such a murdering set as your army, by your own account, consists of, I would suffer my body to be filled with splinters, and set on fire, as you know has at times been practiced, by such hordes of women and children killers, as belong to your army.

Before Ancrum could respond, Willett’s officers gave a loud round of applause. Colonel Gansevoort immediately added that he had no intention of surrendering, and Ancrum was sent on his way.[8]

The bravado displayed by Gansevoort and Willet did not hide the fact that they were in a tough spot should the siege be prolonged. To get out of it, they needed something to happen. Willett would again provide the heroics. On August 10 at around 10 p.m.—in a howling and raging storm and in total darkness—Lieutenant Colonel Willett, accompanied by Lt. George Stockwell, slipped out of Fort Stanwix through a sally port and raced into a marsh. To move rapidly, each man was armed with only a short spear and tomahawk.[9] Stockwell was a good hunter and was well acquainted with the Indian method of traveling in the wilderness. Proceeding silently along the marsh, they reached the Mohawk river which they crossed by crawling over a log, amazingly undetected by the enemy’s sentinels who were still close by.[10] They passed by night through the besieger’s works, and made their way for fifty miles through pathless woods and unexplored morasses, in order to summon some help and bring relief to the fort.[11] Even the British grudgingly complimented this gutsy maneuver, with one publication writing of their escape from the fort, “such action deserves the praise even of an enemy”[12]

After traveling fifty miles in about two days, they arrived at Fort Dayton near German Flatts. Eventually they met up with Benedict Arnold while the general was marching the 1st and 4th New York regiments west towards Fort Dayton. Willett accompanied Arnold to Fort Dayton where the relief force was assembling before the push to Fort Stanwix.[13]  As a deception, Arnold sent a mentally impaired Tory named Hon Yost Schuyler ahead to Stanwix carrying a message that Arnold was approaching with an overwhelming force.[14] St. Leger intercepted the message and believed it. His demoralized Indian forces were more than ready to believe it. As a result, St. Leger ordered a general retreat to begin the night of August 22 by removing the sick and wounded to Wood Creek.[15] With his Native American allies giving up and heading home in droves, and Arnold’s “overwhelming force” approaching, it seemed the only option. Thanks in large part to Willett and Stockwell’s daring clandestine escape, the siege was broken.

The end of the siege freed up both sides of what became an encounter that would impact Willet both now and later. As described by Dr. William Petry (1733–1806) of German Flatts, chairman of the Tryon County Committee of Safety and a surgeon in the Tryon County militia:

Yesterday Morning one Mr. [Walter N.] Butler, Son to Colonel [John] Butler and said to be an officer in the British Army came to Mr. Shoemaker’s [proprietor of a tavern], two Miles from Fort Dayton, accompanied by about fourteen white Men and as many Indians all armed under pretence of a Flag of Truce … He was Yesterday inviting the Inhabitants to lay down their Arms and repair to the Royal Standard. While with him he used us very uncivilly indeed, condemning and ridiculing all our Measures as rebellious and tyrannical. His Conversation was much taken up in magnifying the Enemies Strength and the most insolent threats imaginable.”[16]

This was the notorious Walter Butler, not a British regular but a loyalist and co-leader of a force known as Butler’s Rangers. Butler seemed unaware, or did not care, that the Rebel Fort Dayton was close by and that his antics might cause some commotion. They did and after some discussion Butler and his crew were taken into custody. Arnold, still in the area, was briefed on the arrest and arranged a court martial on August 20, with Lieutenant Colonel Willett serving as judge advocate and Butler, a lawyer by trade, defending himself. The court martial found three of the accused guilty of spying or desertion and they were sentenced to death.[17] However, a number of officers belonging to the 1st New York regiment who had known Butler prior to the war petitioned to have his sentence commuted, and Arnold granted their petition. Butler was instead imprisoned in Albany. He escaped from there the following winter and became afterwards a severe scourge to the inhabitants of the Mohawk Valley and beyond.[18] As fate would have it, Willett and Butler would meet again before the war was over.

In 1778, Gansevoort released Willett to join Washington’s army, and he did so for the Battle of Monmouth, where he witnessed Washington’s bravery and his rebuke of Gen. Charles Lee’s retreat. “I have seen him in a variety of situations,” Willett would write, “and none in which he did not appear great, but never did I see him when he exhibited such greatness as on this day.”[19] Willett remained away from the upstate New York and with or close to Washington from 1778 through 1780.

Meanwhile, in Willett’s absence, battles along the Mohawk raged in 1778 as the forces traded raids in which civilians were killed, each one ramping up both emotions and anxiety among the residents. One particularly egregious action came in November 1778 when Butler’s Rangers, led by Walter Butler, along with some British regulars and their Indian allies, made an attack on a settlement in Cherry Valley, New York. Butler was either unable or unwilling to control his Indian allies (the stories vary depending on to whom he was writing), and the result was a massacre in which roughly seventy people including women and children were slaughtered, and many scalps taken. This attack ratcheted Butler’s infamy to a new level and made him a marked man.

Willett finally returned to the Mohawk Valley in early 1781 with the assignment from Gov. George Clinton to keep things under control with the Indians and the British. As a little boost to his confidence he had a commendation from General Washington, written late in 1780: “It will give me great pleasure to see an officer of your merit retained in service, but your determination to submit cheerfully to any regulations which may be deemed necessary for the public good, is very laudable, and the surest mark of a disinterested, virtuous Citizen.”[20] He needed it, as he had his work cut out for him. Headquartered in Albany, he had a force under him that was insufficient in both skill and number (fewer than 400) to cover the area he needed to control.

He distributed his forces among the various towns and hoped nothing resembling Cherry Valley would erupt. “I can promise to do everything in my power, for the relief of the people, of whom I had some knowledge in their prosperous days; and am now acquainted with in the time of their great distress; a people whose case I most sincerely commiserate” he wrote to Washington.[21] Skirmishes broke out, but major engagements were few. In one battle, Willet’s forces were outnumbered two to one yet emerged victorious with five killed compared to forty of the enemy.

In late October 1781, Willett was frantically pursuing a force led by British Maj. John Ross and including Walter Butler. He was determined to destroy them if he could, so that never again would such savage warfare be brought to the Mohawk Valley.[22] The weather turned cold, and the campaigning season was drawing to a close, but Willett was determined. He rallied some 400 men and was joined by about sixty friendly Oneida Indians. Estimates of the British forces were round 600, so again he was outnumbered. In a driving snow storm, carrying provisions for just five days, he led his men out on the track of the much-hated Butler who he knew was amongst Ross’s force.[23]  As darkness closed in, Ross, in fear of meeting the same fate as Burgoyne at Saratoga, began a rapid retreat.[24]

Willett finally caught up with the rearguard of the Loyalist army at Canada Creek in eastern New York. What happened next remains the source of some disagreement. Some sources say the conflict was prefaced with verbal exchanges: One witness remembered Butler taunting, “Shoot and be damned,” and another, “kiss [my] posterior.”[25] From what we know of Butler, all could be true. As a mist came down across the water, there was a burst of firing, with several men hit on each side. The enemy fire slackened and ceased, and after a pause the Continental scouts, the Oneidas, some troops, and finally Colonel Willett forded the chilling creek. There were several bodies on the opposite bank. One of them wore a gold-laced hat. They pulled it off and saw a bullet hole in the head, then someone, possibly Willett himself, recognized the man as Walter Butler, seriously wounded but still alive. An Oneida warrior proceeded to end that by scalping him.[26] Willett had achieved his goals: Butler was dead and so severely was this victory over Major Ross felt, that not only through the rest of the winter but during the following campaign of 1782, no considerable force of the enemy, in one body, at any time appeared.[27]

Willett was just forty-three years old when the war ended, with a sterling war record and still, as it turned out, more than half his life still ahead of him. There was much yet to do. His strong reputation with Washington landed him an assignment in 1790 to persuade the Creek Indians and their leader, Alexander McGillivray, to continue treaty efforts. The Creeks were causing trouble to the settlers of Kentucky and Tennessee. Willett was successful and a delegation of Creeks under McGillivray visited New York City, then capital of the United States, resulting in the Treaty of New York.[28]

As was the case with many of the former New York “Liberty Boys,” he aligned himself with the Anti-Federalist party. He was appointed by New York Governor Clinton to two terms as Sheriff of New York City, from 1784-1787 and 1790-1795. Ironically, this put him in charge of suppressing any actions like the ones he was in the middle of as a Son of Liberty.[29]

In 1797, he was appointed the city’s mayor, serving just one year. In the 1820s, he served as president of the Electoral College. With the ascendancy of Alexander Hamilton, Philip Schuyler, John Jay, and the New York Federalists, his role in politics started to wane. During the last years of his life, Colonel Willett mingled little in public affairs. In 1824 he was a member of the delegation that met with the Marquis de Lafayette, who he had known from the Battle of Monmouth in 1778, on the latter’s return trip to America. Lafayette later visited him at Cedar Grove.[30]

Surrounded by his family and friends, Willett yielded slowly, but not reluctantly, to the gradual progress of aging. Very interested in social services and the needs of citizens, Willett established relief centers and a city medical clinic and hospital to assist the needy. He donated much of his own money for this center and was involved with it until his peaceful death on August 23,1830, at the age of ninety-one.[31] He laid in state at his home for two days and more than 10,000 paid their respects.[32]

Of the numerous epitaphs written in the New York papers following his death, the one in the New York Evening Post probably summed it up the best: “Col. Willett distinguished himself by his bravery and good conduct in the war of the Revolution. His courage, prowess, and presence of mind were particularly displayed in conflicts with the Indians who took part with Great Britain. He was a man of great integrity, frankness, and decision of character in private life.”[33] The New York Mirror put it most succinctly, stating that “His biography is inseparably interwoven with the history of our country’s glory.”[34]

 

[1]John Schuyler, Institution of the Society of the Cincinnati – Proceedings of its general meetings and from the transactions of the New York State Society (New York, D. Taylor, 1886), 347.

[2]Mark Mayo Boatner, Cassell’s Biographical Dictionary of the American War of Independence (London, Cassell, 1966), 1207.

[3]Frederick L. Bronner, “Marinus Willett,” New York History, Vol. 17, No. 3 (July 1936), 274-275.

[4]Larry Lowenthal, Marinus Willett – Defender of the Northern Frontier (Fleischmanns, NY: Purple Mountain Press, 2000), 8.

[5]Harry Schenawolf, “Battle of Oriskany and Siege of Fort Stanwix– Brutal Civil War that Helped Save a Nation,” www.revolutionarywarjournal.com/battle-of-oriskany-and-siege-of-fort-stanwix-brutal-civil-war-that-helped-save-a-nation/.

[6]Michael O. Logusz, With Musket and Tomahawk Volume II: The Mohawk Valley Campaign in the Wilderness War Of 1777 (Havertown, PA, Casemate Publishers, 2012), 151.

[7]Schenawolf, “Battle of Oriskany and Siege of Fort Stanwix.”

[8]Logusz, With Musket and Tomahawk, 181. William Ancrum was a captain in the 34th Regiment of Foot; some accounts of his interaction with Willett give his rank as major.

[9]Ibid., 182.

[10]William M. Willett, А Narrative Of The Military Actions Or Colonel Marinus Willett, Taken Chiefly From His Own Manuscript (New York: G. & C. & H. Carvill, 1831), 59.

[11]Logusz, With Musket and Tomahawk, 183.

[12]J. Seeley and J. Wright, The Annual Register or a View of the History, Politics, and Literature for the year 1777 (London, Longmans, Green, et al., 1835), 161.

[13]Schenawolf, “Battle of Oriskany and Siege of Fort Stanwix.”

[14]Lowenthal, Marinus Willett, 35.

[15]Schenawolf, “Battle of Oriskany and Siege of Fort Stanwix.”

[16]Philip Schuyler to George Washington, August 17, 1777, footnote 1, founders.archives.gov/documents/Washington/03-11-02-0008.

[17]Schenawolf, “Battle of Oriskany and Siege of Fort Stanwix.”

[18]Willett, Narrative, 62.

[19]Lowenthal, Marinus Willett, 40.

[20]Washington to Marinus Willett, October 24, 1780, in footnote 2 to Willett to Washington, October 18, 1780, founders.archives.gov/documents/Washington/03-28-02-0328.

[21]Lowenthal, Marinus Willett, 59.

[22]Fred J. Cook, What Manner of Men: Forgotten Heroes of the American Revolution (New York: Morrow, 1959). 171.

[23]Ibid.

[24]Lowenthal, Marinus Willett, 66.

[25]Gavin K. Watt, Gavin K. Watt’s Revolutionary Canadian History 6-Book Bundle: A Dirty Trifling Piece of Business (Toronto: Dundurn Press, 2017), 37.

[26]Howard Swiggett, War Out of Niagara – Walter Butler and the Tory Rangers (New York: Columbia University Press, 1933), 242.

[27]Willett,Narrative, 89.

[28]Bronner, “Marinus Willett,” 278.

[29]Ibid.

[30]Lowenthal, Marinus Willett, 91.

[31]Logusz, With Musket and Tomahawk, 52.

[32]Lowenthal, Marinus Willett, 92.

[33]Willett, Narrative, 159-160.

[34]Ibid., 158.

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