Saturday, February 7, 2015

The Bravest Son of Liberty?

A Boy from Jamaica

Colonial Jamaica, Long Island was verdant farm land

Jamaica, Long Island that is. Brigadier General Marinus Willett may in fact be one of the greatest and accomplished New Yorkers - ever. He was a descendant of Thomas Willett, who arrived in New York on the ship The Lion in 1632. The elder Willett served as the first English Mayor of New York City after New Amsterdam fell to the British in 1664. Marinus' father was Edward Willett, a farmer who lived in Jamaica, Long Island (now  Queens). Hard to believe that the mean streets that folks see on the way to JFK Airport once was some of the lushest farm land in America. But Edward was a man of letters and business - he made his living as a school teacher and a tavern keeper.

Soldier of the King

Marinus Willett: Citizen Soldier
As with so many American leaders of the Revolutionary War, young Marinus cut his teeth fighting for the King as a Loyal and devoted subject. He served in the militia during the French and Indian War, where he received a commission as Subaltern in a New York regiment commanded by Oliver DeLancey Sr.  Delancey was among the wealthiest of New Yorkers and his family would remain
staunchly Loyal a generation later. The regiment took part in General James Abercrombie's expedition to Fort Ticonderoga in 1758. Later, Marinus Willett served with the regiment as part of John Bradstreet's army in the Battle of Fort Frontenac. He became ill during the campaign and stayed at Fort Stanwix until he recovered. He helped with the upgrade of the fort while there and as his career later unfolded that seems almost providential.

Son of Liberty

New York, not Boston style. Willett settled in New York City after the war and although he worked as a cabinet maker, he took an interest in politics as tensions with Britain started to simmer. He became the community organizer of his day, which is to say rabble rouser and street brawler. After the news of Lexington and Concord he helped plan a raid on the old arsenal in New York and took weapons for the cause. On June 6 1775, the British decided to evacuate the City of New York. Willett led an effort that stopped the soldiers from taking spare arms with them. On July 20 1775, he and other members of the Sons of Liberty procured a sloop and captured a British storehouse at Turtle Bay. This cove on the East River received its name from the Dutch settlers because of its resemblance to a knife. The word Deutal (Turtle) being Dutch for "knife." Ironically Turtle Bay is near where the British landed when they recaptured Manhattan a year later.

Patriot Soldier

Colonel Marinus Willett during
the War for Independence

Clearly, Marinus Willett came in to his own in war time, as so many of our military legends have. He started as a captain in the 1st New York Regiment and almost immediately the regiment took part in General Richard Montgomery's invasion of Canada in 1775, one of the most horrific events of the entire war.  He fought at the Battle of Quebec in December of that year and for a while commanded Fort St. John during the American occupation.  But he returned to New York City with the regiment when enlistments ended, arriving in March. During the time of the great British offensive to retake the city in 1776 he had lost a captain's commission in the 4th New York Regiment (perhaps in a card
game) but served as a militiaman. But experience and connections do count, especially in time of war. In November, 1776 he was made Lieutenant Colonel of the 3rd New York Regiment which was commanded by Peter Gansevoort. He spent the winter recruiting before marching the regiment north. In March of 1777, he was given command of Fort Constitution in the New York Highlands, where he launched a successful attack on one hundred British soldiers burning a block house. He later helped MacDougall defend Peekskill against a British raid in 1777, before being assigned to Fort Stanwix on the Mohawk River.

Drums Along the Mohawk

Stanwix was the anchor of a line of American defenses stretching from Albany to Oneida Lake. This was the western frontier with the Iroquois and a strategic position guarding the portage between Oneida Lake and the Mohawk River. General Washington recognized its importance and had the old French and Indian War post rebuilt and garrisoned. Willett worked tirelessly to prepare Fort Stanwix (also known as Fort Schuyler) for the onslaught that was sure to come. It came in the form of a British force under Colonel Barry St. Leger, who laid siege to Stanwix on the third of August 1777. St. Leger made the obligatory demand for surrender.  But Willet refused. The defenders hoisted a
Herkimer wounded at Oriskany
makeshift Stars and Stripes in defiance of the more than one thousand British, Loyalist and Iroquois. Word arrived on the fifth that General Nicholas Herkimer and the Tryon County Militia were marching to relieve the fort.  On August 6th, the defenders made a sortie to distract the besiegers, the signal to be the sound of three guns. But when Willett led his troops out of the fort they found the enemy camp deserted. The force of Loyalists and Indians had gone east to Oriskany, where they ambushed Herkimer. The British Regulars, Loyalists, and Indian Allies returned from that vicious ambush under the cypress trees to find Willet had ransacked and looted their camp of supplies and munitions with his sortie. Willett was later was presented with a sword from the Continental Congress for this exploit.

Leading the relief of Ft. Stanwix

Still, the besiegers continued with demands for Willet to surrender. Willet met with the emissaries personally.  But when he learned of Herkimer's defeat at Oriskany, he decided to slip out himself and get help from Fort Dayton further down the Mohawk Valley. There he learned that Major General Schuyler had already dispatched a second relief force under the command of Benedict Arnold. Willett proceeded to Albany where he met with Arnold and then returned to Fort Dayton with Arnold's army. On the way back, Willett stopped to visit Herkimer. Almost two weeks after the battle of Oriskany, Herkimer had his leg amputated that same day (August 19th), but seemed in good spirits. However Herkimer the following day died from infection and blood loss.

Countering Espionage?

Butler's Rangers played a significant
role in the war in New York

In an unintended Yankee Doodle Spies connection, it seems Willett had a small role in countering espionage. On August 20th, he served as a judge in Loyalist Captain Walter Butler’s trial. Butler was the son of John Butler, commander of Butler’s Rangers, an elite Loyalist unit both feared and hated by Patriots living on the New York frontier.  Continental Army troops had captured the younger
Butler while he was trying to recruit rangers at Shoemaker Tavern in German Flatts, New York.   Butler was tried as a spy.  Willett's court found Butler guilty and sentenced him to death. The condemned Butler was sent to Albany to await execution, but after a few months he escaped and returned to Canada.

Back to the Continental Army, then back to New York's Frontier, then...

3rd New York Continental Line
Willett seemed to be everywhere at times. In June, 1778 he was given leave from the Northern Department to join Washington's' Main Continental Army, which was preparing to attack General Clinton's British Army making its way from Philadelphia to New York. There he served as an aide to General Charles Scott and took part in the Battle of Monmouth.  Scott's Brigade was part of the advanced guard at that epic struggle. By the summer of 1779, Willett was back with the 3rd New York Regiment as it took part in the Sullivan Campaign against the Iroquois. This was a less than noble campaign of death and destruction that proved a precursor to later Indian campaigns. Willett
later spent some time in the New York Highlands and then rejoined the main army at Morristown. In January, he took part in a raid on Staten Island. In early 1780, he was given command of the 5th New York Regiment, a unit that was severely weakened by battles in the New York Highlands. Ever the zealot, he got involved in presenting grievances on behalf of unpaid troops.  He also found time for diversion. In 1780, while his headquarters was at Fort Plain, New York, he met and had an affair with an attractive widow named Mrs. Seeber. The affair resulted in the birth of a baby boy, Marinus Willett Seeber. Willett made no secret about the boy's paternity, and supported the boy and provided him an education.

In January 1781, Willett returned home when the New York Line was reduced to just two regiments. However, he was back as a colonel of New York militia by April that year and took part in lots more action. His regiment defended the Mohawk Valley and areas around Albany. That summer he led the militia in the Battle of Sharon Springs, ambushing Indians and Loyalists . In October, he led the militia at the Battle of Johnstown. After the battle he pursued the retreating enemy throughout an increasingly cold month. A forced march in snow shoes through a heavy snowstorm brought Willett's militia close to the retreating Loyalists but they escaped under the cover of a the falling and swirling snow. Ironically, the escaped "spy," Captain Walter Butler, was killed during the pursuit.  But most of the Loyalists disappeared into the forest. Willett continued in command in western New York throughout the war. He performed many successful missions, although he failed to capture Fort Ontario. His men also helped repair roads and waterways that would help develop that part of the state as the Iroquois retreated west and into Canada. Another precursor to US Army missions in the next century.

Post War: Politico; Peacemaker; Peace Officer...

I would almost have to write another blog on Marinus Willett's post war escapades. His later career is hard to believe. At the end of the war, Willett helped establish the Society of the Cincinnati, a controversial order of former American and French officers of the Revolution. He opened a store on Water Street in New York City. In 1793, his first wife Mary died. He soon remarried. His new wife Susannah Vardle, was “active” in New York society. But the vivacious woman proved more than even he could handle and in 1797 they divorced. In post war politics Willett became an Anti-Federalist under George Clinton and served in the New York State Assembly. He became Sheriff of New York County (aka Manhattan) for a few years. He helped quell Shay's Rebellion in 1787. By
1788 he was again aligned with Clinton in fighting against the Constitution (yes, that Constitution). When it finally passed he continued with others in efforts to repeal it or amend it. Despite his anti-Federalism, Willett was sent by President Washington to convince the Creeks to come to New York (then the  nation's capital). This resulted in the Treaty of New York, the first of many that would not bode well for the Indians. He again became sheriff of New York County. When war broke out against the Indians in the Northwest Territory (1792), Willett was offered a general's commission. He declined, writing to President Washington that he did not favor war with the Indians. Willett turned down a later offer to serve as peace emissary to them. One can only speculate that his experiences in Sullivan’s campaign had an impact on his thinking regarding America’s Indian policies.

Creek Indian Leaders in New York City

Going Strong in the New Century

De Witt Clinton
So strong, that in 1799 Willett married young Margaret Bancker. He was 59 and she only 24 but they had four children, three sons and a daughter. Willett, the former Liberty Boy, believed in grass roots democracy. During one very hot gubernatorial race, he actually fought a duel with a member of the opposing party - - - fortunately, both missed. At the turn of the new century he had a role in the building of some of the fortifications protecting New York City. In 1808 he replaced populist De Witt Clinton as Mayor of New York City (becoming its 48th) and, in 1811, ran unsuccessfully for Lieutenant
Governor of New York. He supported the War of 1812 but now in his 70s only gave patriotic speeches to support it.  In 1824, he was named a presidential elector in the bitter election that made John Quincy Adams president.The extremely accomplished Marinus Willett died at his home on August 22, 1830, a few weeks after suffering a stroke. Ironically, exactly 53 years to the day after the lifting of the siege of Fort Stanwix. The ninety year old First Patriot was buried in the churchyard of Trinity Church, corner of Broadway and Wall Street, in New York City. His funeral had 10,000 mourners - that's about 5% of the population at the time. Not too bad for a cabinet maker from Jamaica.

Marinus Willett in later life

1 comment:

  1. Note. Willet was second, not first, in command, under Col. Peter Gansevoort, at the Fort Stanwix siege in 1777.