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History of the Mohawk Valley: Gateway to the West 1614-1925
Chapter 73: Willett's Expedition Against British Fort Oswego.

[This information is from Vol. II, pp. 1091-1101 of History of the Mohawk Valley: Gateway to the West 1614-1925, edited by Nelson Greene (Chicago: The S. J. Clarke Publishing Company, 1925). It is in the Reference collection of the Schenectady County Public Library at R 974.7 G81h. This online edition includes lists of portraits, maps and illustrations. Some images have been relocated to the area in the text where they are discussed. As noted by Paul Keesler in his article, "The Much Maligned Mr. Greene," some information in this book has been superseded by later research or was provided incorrectly by local sources.]

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1783 — February 9, Colonel Willett's attempt to capture Fort Oswego — Privations of the American troops on the return trip — Colonel Willett's account — Washington's correspondence — Memorials to Willett.

One of the last military enterprises (and possibly the very final one) on which Colonel Willett set out from Fort Plain was the attempt to capture the important British fortification of Oswego in February, 1783. This, as per Washington's report to congress, was an expedition in which a force of 500 Americans were engaged under Willett.

They were troops of the New York line and part of a Rhode Island regiment with Valley militiamen and were all probably then stationed at the valley posts of which Fort Plain was the headquarters, and it was doubtless here that the planning and final preparations for the Oswego expedition were made. Of this little known enterprise, one of the last of the Revolution, Simms has the following:

"Said Moses Nelson, an American prisoner there [at Oswego] in the spring of 1782, when the enemy set about rebuilding Fort Oswego, three officers, Capt. Nellis, Lieut. James Hare, and Ensign Robert Nellis, a son of the captain and all of the forester service had charge of the Indians there employed. [These Tory Nellises may have been of the Palatine Nellis family.] Nelson and two other lads, also prisoners, accompanied this party which was conveyed in a sloop, as waiters. About 100 persons were employed in building this fortress, which occupied most of the season. The winter following, Nelson remained at this fort and was in it when Col. Willett advanced with a body of troops, February 9, 1783, with the intention of taking it by surprise. The enterprise is said to have been abortive in consequence of Col. Willett's guide, who was an Oneida Indian, having lost his way in the night when within a few miles of the fort. The men were illy provided for their return — certain victory having been anticipated — and their sufferings were, in consequence, very severe. This enterprise was undertaken agreeable to the orders of Gen. Washington.

"Col. Willett, possibly, may not have known, as well as Washington did, that Fort Oswego had been so strongly fitted up the preceding year and consequently the difficulties he had to encounter before its capture. Be that as it may, the probability is that had the attack been made, the impossibility of scaling the walls would have frustrated the design, with the loss of many brave men. The fort was surrounded by a deep moat, in which were planted many sharp pickets. From the lower part of the walls projected down and outward another row of heavy pickets. A drawbridge enabled the inmates to pass out and in, which was drawn up and secured to the wall every night. The corners [of the fort] were built out so that mounted cannon commanded the trenches. Two of Willett's men, badly frozen, entered the fort in the morning, surrendering themselves prisoners, from whom the garrison learned the object of the enterprise. The ladders prepared by Willett to scale the walls were left on his return, and a party of British soldiers went and brought them in. Said the American prisoner Nelson, 'The longest of them, when placed against the walls inside the pickets, reached only about two-thirds of the way to the top.' The post was strongly garrisoned and it was the opinion of Nelson that the accident or treachery which misled the troops was most providential, tending to save Col. Willett from defeat and most of his men from certain death."

John Roof of Canajoharie, who was a private in this ill-fated expedition, told Simms that so certain was Willett of success that insufficient provisions were taken along for the journey out and back to the valley. There were several dogs with the American troops at the start and these were killed on the out trip, as their barking, it was feared, would betray the expedition to the enemy. On the wintry trip back the suffering and famished soldiers were glad to dig these animals out of the snow and eat them. The return of the American soldiers to the Mohawk Valley forts must have been one of great privation.

* * * * *

"Willett's Narrative" has the following, concerning the attempt to capture Fort Oswego in a surprise attack, under the chapter head "Expedition to Oswego." The inoculation, in 1783, of American soldiers against smallpox is interesting. It was practised in the American forces camped on the Hudson. Washington's private correspondence to Willett regarding this ill-fated expedition is historically important. It shows the high regard the Commander-in-Chief had for our Valley commander and it also discloses what an important position the Mohawk Valley frontier held in Washington's military plans. His interest in this region, from a military point of view, is shown by a visit later in 1783. Willett's chapter on the "Expedition to Oswego" follows, with quotation marks omitted:

The inhabitants along the frontiers now began to feel themselves secure. During the year '82 the recruiting of the state troops had been successful, in consequence of the legislature having adopted the plan of offering a bounty of money in lieu of the bounty of land: so that at the close of the campaign of '82, Colonel Willett had a regiment of upwards of four hundred state troops.

Winter having set in, barracks for winter quarters were prepared; and as a considerable number of the troops had not had the smallpox, Colonel Willett embraced this opportunity of having them inoculated. Having seen the troops sufficiently provided with quarters for the winter, and erected a comfortable log-hut for himself, he set out, toward the last of November, for Albany. He then went to Fishkill for his wife, intending to take her to his quarters with him during the winter. As the headquarters of General Washington were at Newburgh, directly opposite Fishkill Landing, Col. Willett went to pay his respects to him, and remained to dinner. As soon as dinner was over, he rose to take his leave: the general rose also, and following him out, asked him to go with him into his office. He then inquired as to his success in recruiting, the strength and situation of the regiment: said the clothier-general should have particular orders respecting their clothing; and mentioned that it would be proper to place no reliance on a speedy peace, but be as well prepared as possible for another campaign. He then inquired of Col. Willett if he was acquainted with the situation of the enemy's garrison at Oswego, and if he thought it might be surprised by an expedition in the winter. This was the first time that an opening ever presented itself to Col. Willett of a chance of procuring fame, that his heart did not vibrate with joy. The expectation he had entertained of spending the winter in comfortable quarters with his family at Fort Rensselaer [Fort Plain] was destroyed: but to say anything that might appear to discourage so important a project was not in his nature. The conversation finished by the general desiring him to think of the project, and write him his opinion.

Agreeably to General Washington's request, Col. Willett, in about a week after he left him, wrote to him in favor of the enterprise. A correspondence ensued between General Washington and Col. Willett: which correspondence, as it was secret, was in the general's own handwriting. All General Washington's orders were strictly observed by Col. Willett and the utmost precaution used to conceal the design of the expedition.

The troops were suddenly assembled at Fort Herkimer on the 8th day of February. On the 9th, at night, they crossed the Oneida Lake; and the following day about 2 o'clock P. M. the troops arrived at Oswego Falls. At this place they went into the woods, and made eight ladders. Their prospects were as promising as they could wish. All the necessary preparations for entering the enemy's works were completed; and every officer was made acquainted with the particular part he was to perform. It was scarcely 10 o'clock at night when the troops reached a point of land about four miles from the fort. Here, on account of the weakness of the ice, they were obliged to take to the land; and in doing this they had to ascend an eminence, which caused some difficulty in getting up the ladders.

Col. Willett had procured a young Oneida Indian, called Captain John, and two other Indians, as guides. Not a thought entered his mind of the least danger of losing their way, as they were then but four miles from the fort, and there were still four hours to elapse before the moon set, which was the time fixed upon for entering the fort. Col. Willett's attention was constantly engaged in encouraging the men, whose business it was to carry the ladders; a labour, which, from the inclemency of the season, the depth of the snow, and the difficulties of the woods, was a very arduous one. His attention being thus occupied, and not having the least apprehension that his guides would lose their way, two hours passed without discovering any opening through the woods, which he had been for some time expecting. This circumstance led him to hasten to the front of the line of march, where he was informed that the Indian pilot had not been seen for some time, though they were pursuing his track as fast as they could. Colonel Willett immediately set out to follow his track himself, with as quick a step as possible, and in about half an hour overtook him. He found him standing still, and apparently lost and frightened. They had by this time got into a swamp, and some of the men had their feet frozen fast in sunken holes. In this deplorable situation, ignorant of where they were, the hope of taking the fort by surprise vanished; and the orders of General Washington were peremptory, that if they failed in surprising the fort, the attempt would be unwarrantable. All then that was left for the troops to do, was to retrace their steps. Many of them had suffered much from the frost; only one frozen to death, but a number were lamed, and some so badly as to require constant assistance to get them along. Such was the gloomy end of an enterprise, which, at ten o'clock at night, presented so fair a prospect of success.

Had they been without a guide, and only taken the precaution to keep in view of the river, they would have had sufficient time between ten o'clock, when they were within four miles of the fort, and the setting of the moon, to have effected the design of the expedition. The failure, therefore, is to be attributed to the guide losing his way. Colonel Willett had been particularly careful to secure the hearty co-operation of the Indian, by assuring him that he should not be exposed to any danger; that all that was required of him was conduct them in sight of the fort; and that after it was taken he should have a full share of the plunder. It was not, however, Colonel Willett's opinion that the Indian led them astray by design, though he put him under guard when he first perceived the situation into which he had led them. It appeared afterwards that the mistake of the Indian originated in his having fallen in with two Indian snow-shoe tracks, which he had followed all the day; and as they led in a direct course to Oswego, it was natural to suppose that the travellers were going to that place. The Indian fell in again with these tracks soon after leaving the river, and following them, was led astray; it was afterwards found they led to an Indian encampment, some distance down the lake.

During this march to Oswego, Congress received advice of the signing of the provisional articles of peace; and shortly after Colonel Willett's return to Fort Rensselaer [Fort Plain], he went to Albany, where he heard the peace proclaimed by the town clerk, at the City Hall, to the rejoicing inhabitants.

Correspondence of General Washington in Relation to the Expedition Against Oswego

Letter I.

Newburgh, 18th December, 1782.

Dear Sir, ————

Your letter of the 29th ult. from Albany, came safe to my hand. I am glad to find you enter so readily into a measure which appears very practicable in my eyes, provided the troops for the enterprise can be properly accommodated.

I have again written to the Secretary of War respecting clothing for the York state troops, and desired Colonel Tilhman, who left this on Sunday last for Philadelphia, to enforce it, not only on him, but on the clothier general also; that, if it can be had, it may be sent up without delay. From the deputy clothier's store at this place, I could furnish vests and woollen hose enough for the State troops, and woollen caps, socks, and mittens sufficient for the whole party.

Indian shoes or moccasons I must depend upon you to procure, and also the snow shoes, of which I do not forsee the necessity for each man's having a pair, though some may be indispensably necessary. I well remember to have directed (two years ago), a number of snow shoes to be made; and if I mistake not it was done: but I do not suppose any dependence is to be had on them at this time. It may not be amiss however to inquire of General Schuyler (to whom I think I wrote on the subject) the quartermaster, or any other who may be likely to give information, whether they are yet in being.

To provide and carry scaling ladders from the settlement would at once announce your design, and more than probably defeat the enterprise — at any rate they would be troublesome to transport, and must impede the rapidity of your movements, on which everything depends. — It appears to me therefore that the attempt would be improper, and that the difficulty may be surmounted by carrying a few tools, (to-wit, axes, saws, augers and a gouge) with which, at a convenient time and place, a sufficient number of ladders might easily be made.

The mode you propose for obtaining the sleighs and assembling the troops, I approve of preferably to the quartermaster's having any agency in the business, and do of the time named for the execution, if the clothing can be got to you in season; but having doubts on this head, I shall be glad to know to how late a period the expedition can be delayed on account of the ice on the Oneida Lake, and goodness of the sleighing.

If there be a necessity for a party to precede the sleighs a day or two to mark the route, it ought to consist of picked men, of tried fidelity, and even then the chance of discovery is greater than it otherwise would be.

The strength of your party should be proportioned to that of the garrison you attempt, for which reason every possible pains should be used to obtain the most accurate account of it. If you have men to set the enemy at defiance, in case of their discovering you previous to the assault or miscarriage therein, it is all that is necessary. More than these would render your movements unwieldy and slow: consequently more liable to discovery in your preparation and on the march.

I should be glad to hear from you again on this head by some safe conveyance; and if matters can be properly prepared for the enterprise, and nothing more than I know of at this time to hinder it, I will be at Albany when you march, that I may be at hand to remove difficulties if any should occur. With great esteem and regard,

I am, dear sir,

Your most obedient servant,

G. Washington.

Col. Willett.

P. S. It will be essentially necessary to fix your eyes upon some one or more persons (deserter or otherwise,) who have been in and are acquainted with the enemy's works, and seize them at the moment they are wanted that you may have them as guides.

Letter II.

Newburgh, January 22d, 1783.

Dear Sir, — On the 20th, by your paymaster, I informed you, that besides the usual proportion of clothing, I had sent to your orders woollen caps, socks, and mitts, for the intended enterprise, to be made use of, or not, according to the circumstances. — I have also written to Mr. Duer, who is now at Albany, to lay in a month's provisions for one hundred men, at each of the posts of Forts Rensselaer and Herkimer, and till further orders have placed the Rhode Island regiment under your direction.

For the reasons you assign, I approve of the time you propose for the attack, and suppose it will be necessary for you to begin your march from Fort Herkimer at the time you mention, viz. on the 8th or 9th of next month.

If the sleighing should be good, and business does not prevent it, I will endeavour to be at that place, or Fort Rensselaer by that time, but of this you will make no notice to any body, nor suffer it to have any influence on your preparations or conduct before or at that time, as many things may intervene to detain me.

All that remains to be done is now with you to do. And as the matter is between ourselves, and you have better information of the situation of the enemy, and difficulty in getting at them, than I, — I have only to request you to act from your best judgement, under a firm persuasion that if the enterprise in contemplation was even better known than it is, no imputation could fall upon you for having laid it aside, if the difficulties in the way should be greater than appeared at first view. Let me hear from you, and if possible by the 3d or 4th of next month.

I am, dear sir,

Your most obedient servant,

G. Washington.

Colonel Willett.

Letter III.

Newburgh, February 2d, 1783.

Dear Sir, — Your letters of the 28th ultimo from Fort Rensselaer, and the 30th from Albany, both came to my hands last night.

One hundred and fifty blankets (all that are in the clothier's store at this place) and twenty-five axes are now packing to be sent to you, and the Quartermaster-General will endeavour, if possible, to have them at Albany on the 4th, from whence you must take measures to get them to Fort Herkimer in time. If any of Olney's men (on the enterprize you are going) should be in greater need than yours, they must be supplied out of this parcel, that the whole may be as comfortable as it is in my power to make them.

I do not send medicines, bandages and instruments, because it would take some time to procure them, and not a moment is to be lost in dispatching the sleighs with the blankets, that they may arrive in time, and because (though I wish you not to be unprovided) it is to be remembered, and I wish to impress it upon you, that if you do not succeed by surprize, the attempt will be unwarrantable. The wounds received in the former, more than probably will be trifling.

Every plausible deception should be used to mask the object of your expedition to the latest moment. Your movements afterwards should be quick, and pains must be taken to discover, by tracks or otherwise, whether intelligence has outgone you. — If you should be fully convinced of this, the further prosecution of the enterprize would not only be fruitless, but might prove injurious.

To an officer of your care, attention and foresight, I shall not dwell upon circumspection and caution. The consequence of a surprize, (not only to the party you command, but to your own reputation,) is too serious and self-evident, to stand in need of illustration. A vast deal depends upon having good guides to Oswego; and everything, in a manner, upon persons that can carry you without hesitation and difficulty to the points of attack, when you arrive there.

How far a few Indians would be useful to you for the first purpose; and how far they are to be confided in, you, from a better knowledge of them than I possess, must judge, and act accordingly.

Guides who are pressed in the service must be well secured, lest they desert from you in a critical moment.

From having recourse to the almanack, I am led to wish that the night for the attack might not be delayed beyond the 12th inst.; as I find that the setting of the moon, (even at that time,) approaches so near day-light, that the intervening space is short, and consequently must be very critical; as accidents unforeseen, and consequently unprovided for, may embarrass your movements towards the works, and retard the attack of them from beyond the hour designed, to the entire disappointment of the plan: Let me caution you, therefore, against being too exact in your time for your last movement — reflect that you can always waste time, but never recover it. Halts, or slow marching will accomplish the first; but nothing can effect the latter — consequently, in such an enterprize as yours, want of time will be a certain defeat.

Let your disposition be such, that in any circumstances your retreat to your sleighs, and afterwards with them, may be secure.

If success should crown your endeavours, let your first object be to secure your prisoners, whom you will treat with lenity and kindness; suffering no insult or abuse to be offered them with impunity, your next object must be to destroy the works; the vessels (if any should be found there) and everything else which cannot be brought away. Such works as cannot be consumed by fire, nor easily erased by the soldiers, must be, if practicable, blown up. In a word, they are to be effectually demolished, if it is within the compass of your power to do it.

Whatever is found in, or about the works, belonging to the enemy, and is agreeable to the rules and customs of war, humanity and generosity, shall be given to the party as the reward of their gallantry and fatigue — to be distributed in proportion to their pay. The drivers of sleighs, if countrymen, should receive a part as an extra encouragement for their services.

Make me the earliest report, (if successful, from the scene of action — at any rate on your return,) of your progress, and the issue of the expedition. The inclosed letter will show you what I have done respecting spirits and subsistence for your officers. Seal it before delivery, and make your arrangements with the contractor. I begin to doubt the practicability of my being up; my sentiments however you are possessed of, as well as the aid I can give. Your own judgment most govern where my instructions are deficient. I heartily wish you honour and success, and am,

Dear Sir, your most obedient servant,

G. Washington.

Colonel Willett.

Letter IV.

Head Quarters, 5th March, 1783.

Sir, — I have been favoured with your letter of the 19th of February, announcing the failure of your attempt against Oswego.

Unfortunate as the circumstance is, I am happy in the persuasion that no imputation or reflection can justly reach your character; and that you are enabled to derive much consolation from the animated zeal, fortitude, and activity of the officers and soldiers who accompanied you. The failure, it seems, must be attributed to some of those unaccountable events which are not within the control of human means; and which, though they often occur in military life, yet require, not only the fortitude of the soldier, but the calm reflection of the philosopher to bear.

I cannot omit expressing to you the high sense I entertain of your persevering exertions and zeal in this expedition; and beg you to accept my warm thanks on the occasion; and that you will be pleased to communicate my gratitude to the officers and men who acted under your command, for the share they had in that service.

With much esteem and regard, I am, Sir,

Your most obedient servant,

G. Washington.

Lieut. Col. M. Willett.

* * * * *

Although the editor of these chapters knows of no monument erected to the memory of Col. Marinus Willett, in the Mohawk Valley, there are two memorials to him, erected at Albany and at New York. The one in Washington Park, Albany, is a bronze tablet, affixed to a massive boulder, and was erected by the Sons of the Revolution. It commemorates particularly Willett's services in the defense of the New York state frontier.

The inscription on the tablet to Colonel Willett, at the corner of Broad and Beaver Streets, New York City, is as follows:

"Marinus Willett: Oriskany, Monmouth, Ticonderoga, Fort Stanwix, Peekskill.

"To commemorate the gallant and patriotic act of Marinus Willett, in here seizing, June 6, 1775, from British forces, the muskets with which he armed his troops, this tablet is erected by the Sons of the Revolution, Nov., 1892."

There are portraits of Colonel Willett in the New York City Hall and in Independence Hall, Philadelphia.

There is no more fitting place for a statue or memorial of Colonel Willett than in Fort Plain, which was his headquarters for one of the most critical periods of the Revolutionary War. Haslett Park, on Willett Street, Fort Plain, is admirably located for such a statue, affording as it does a beautiful location where such a monument would be annually viewed by thousands.

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