Revolutionary War Historical Article

Brigadier General Marinus Willett
"Bravest" Son of Liberty

by Donald N. Moran

Brigadier General Marinus Willett was a descendant of Thomas Willett, who arrived on the ship The Lion in 1632. Thomas served as the first English Mayor of New York City. Marinus' father was Edward Willett, a farmer who lived near what is now Jamaica, Long Island. Marinus was born on July 31th, 1740; Marinus was the second child in a family of thirteen. Marinus was ambitious, and farming on the family farm did not suit him. He set off to seek his own fortune. Shortly thereafter he was caught up in the French and Indian Wars. A company of militia was raised from the men around Jamaica. Willett, age 18, was commissioned as a lieutenant in Captain Thomas Williams' Company. Lieutenant Willett was part of Major General James Abercrombie's attack on the French fortress called Carillon (Fort Ticonderoga), and also served with Colonel John Bradstreet's force to destroy Fort Frontenac (now Kingston, Ontario). Contracting a severe illness on this campaign, he was hospitalized at the nearest American outpost post, Fort Stanwix, which was then under construction. His stay at Fort Stanwix was to later prove invaluable.

 

We do not know exactly what Marinus' occupation was between the French and Indian War and the beginning of the Revolution. However, a secretary, depicted herein, exists that is attributed to Marinus Willett, cabinet maker of New York City. Since many of the original members were craftsmen, it is probable that this was his occupation. The early records of the New York City's Sons of Liberty list him as a member. Those records indicate that he was a front line (street) leader like Isaac Sears and John Scott. Willett, backed by other Sons of Liberty members, seized arms from the British while trying to evacuate their arsenal from the city. This act of gallantry, being completely unarmed, seizing the reins of the wagon's horse, astonished both the escorting British soldiers and witnesses. Later, these muskets were used to arm the New York troops raised in 1775.

 

On June 28th, 1775 Willett received a commission as a Lieutenant Colonel in Alexander McDougall's New York Regiment. Marinus was 35 years old at that time. He participated in the Canadian campaign, and was placed in command of Fort St. John during it's American occupation.

 

Willett was appointed Lieutenant Colonel of the 3rd New York Regiment. He helped MacDougall defend Peekskill against a British raid in 1777, before being reassigned to Fort Stanwix on the Mohawk River.

 

The Siege of Fort Stanwix and the battle of Oriskany were key victories in defeating General John Burgoyne's invasion from Canada. Willett was at Fort Stanwix during the siege. Fort Stanwix was the western most Fort in a line of American defenses stretching from Albany to the Great Lakes. Stanwix guarded the important portage between Wood Creek, and the Mohawk River. General Washington recognized the strategic importance of this spot, and ordered the old French and Indian War fort rebuilt and garrisoned. Willett and his commander Colonel Peter Gansevoort worked feverishly to make Fort Stanwix (also known as Fort Schuyler) as strong as possible.

Commanding the western invasion of General Burgoyne's invasion force was Colonel Barry St. Leger. After surrounding the fort he demanded surrender. Colonel Gansevoort refused it. Gansevoort's troops assembled a makeshift Stars and Stripes, and flew it in defiance. It is considered to be the first time the American flag was in battle. A message was received advising a relief column commanded by Colonel Nicholas Herkimer of Tryon County Militia was on the way. Gansevoort and Willett developed a diversionary action to distract the British and their Indian allies and would signal the advancing Militia by firing three artillery pieces.

Unfortunately the relief column was detected and ambushed. One of the hardest fought battles of the American Revolution followed.

While the battle raged a few miles east of Fort Stanwix, Willett led some of his troops out of the Fort. He discovered the enemy camp complete deserted. Willett's men looted the British camp, carrying off everything they could including nearly all of the Indians' belongings. When the British Regulars, Loyalists, and Indians returned from the bloody fight at Oriskany they found their camp ravaged. For the Indians it was the last straw, and most abandoned the campaign, leaving St. Leger badly undermanned.

The next day, knowing the garrison at Fort Stanwix knew their rescuers had been turned back, St. Leger again demanded another surrender, this time accompanied by threatening to turn his remaining Indians loose upon the garrison. The situation at Fort Stanwix was deteriorating fast. In desperation, and unwilling to ask anyone to do anything he himself would not do, Lt. Col. Willett disguised himself as a loyalist. He and Major Levi Stock knew all too well what awaited them if captured by the Indians. Drawing on his experience in the area during his recuperation during the French and Indian War, Willett knew he had the best chance of getting through the British and Indian lines. They slipped out of the fort in the middle of the night and set out for Fort Dayton, the nearest American post. They soon found out that they had not been abandoned. Another force, stronger then the first, included Major General Ebenezer Learned's Massachusetts Continental Line troops was on the way, along with the New York Militia, with the expedition led by General Benedict Arnold.

Willett and Stockwell briefed Arnold and Learned, then led the relief column to Fort Stanwix. This action stopped the British strategy of invading from the west cold. There would be no junction of forces for General Burgoyne, he was now alone, facing stiffening resistance.

 

Willett spent some time with the main American army, then returned to the Mohawk Valley to join troops on a raid on the Onondaga villages (now Syracuse, New York). Unfortunately, the attack was on the neutral Onondaga's, which drove the survivors to side with the British. Colonel Willett had additional experiences in Indian Country in 1779 when his regiment joined Major General John Sullivan's expedition. They attacked and burned Indian villages and crops in the Finger Lakes area of central New York State.

Marinus Willett was transferred to the 5th New York, serving as it's Lieutenant Colonel, and then was promoted to Colonel.

The New York Continental Line was reorganized in 1780. Willett was passed over for assignment. Governor James Clinton of New York offered him command of the levies and militia in the Mohawk Valley. Governor Clinton had made this offer before; but at that time, Marinus felt the position was a step down in rank and prestige, so he refused it. This time he found he didn't have an option if he wanted to continue his military career. Colonel Willett accepted the command, and now was in charge of the overall defense of the Mohawk Valley - - - a very difficult command.

The Sullivan campaign was supposed to stop the terrible raids in the Valley, but had the exact opposite effect, causing more rather then fewer raids. The Sullivan raid left the once friendly Onondaga warriors hungry, homeless, and seeking vengeance.

During 1780 the Loyalist and Indian raids on the Mohawk and Schoharie Valleys increased dramatically. During one of these, militia General Robert Van Rennselaer had badly handled the pursuit of loyalist Sir John Johnson's raiding party. This lost opportunity to eliminate the Valley's worst enemy led to a complete lack of confidence in Rennselaer. Governor James Clinton appointed the hero of Fort Stanwix and trusted leader Marinus Willett to command the retaliation.

Willett applied all his military skill and leadership abilities in defending the Valley. There were many serious problems. Fort Stanwix was to be his base of operations, but had been destroyed by an accidental fire and had been abandoned. Willett developed a plan wherein his troops would use "flying camps" and relocate their positions almost daily, hence the Loyalist and Indians were never sure where he was, hence were reluctant to launch raids.

There were numerous skirmishes, but his tactics were on the whole successful. After the main armies' return to the Hudson Highlands from their victory at Yorktown, General Washington was able to send reinforcements to Willett's small force.

With these reinforcements, Willett went on the offense, and in February 1783 led a large force on snow shoes against the Loyalists and Indians at Oswego, New York. The weather was harsh and the attempt proved too difficult. The planned attack was aborted.

In 1780, while his headquarters was at Fort Plain, New York, be met and had an affair with an attractive widow, a Mrs. Seeber. This 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 an education.

At the end of the war, Willett was one of the founders of the Society of the Cincinnati, and like most of his fellow officers had to find a way to earn a living in the newly established country. He opened a store on Water Street in New York City. In 1793, Willett's first wife, Mary died. Within a year he was seeing Susannah Vardle. She is said to have been the toast of New York City society. It. was not long, however, before the marriage was in trouble. She was more than he could handle and was giving him more trouble than the Indians did in the Mohawk Valley. In 1797, she filed for a divorce. From all accounts, Willett was devoutly grateful.

In 1799 Willett married for the third time. This time to Margaret Bancker. He was 59 and she only 24. This marriage resulted in four children, three sons and a daughter. Like many of the original Sons he was a staunch believer 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.

In the postwar years he served as sheriff of New York City and was appointed Mayor for a short period of time.

During the War of 1812, Willett still had the ability to lead. At age seventy-four he rallied a crowd in the city against the British by his patriotic speech.

In 1830, fifty-five years after his sudden rise to fame, he suffered a stroke and a few weeks later, on August 22nd, he died, aged ninety.

At the time of his death it was written that more than 10,000 people attended his funeral.

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