Marinus Willett - Purple Mountain Press


From the Series "New Yorkers and the Revolution"

by Larry Lowenthal

From Chapter II, The Hero of Fort Stanwix:

A day later Ganservoort made a formal written reply to St. Leger's demand: "It is my determined defend this fort and garrison to the last extremity, in behalf of the United American States, who have placed me here to defend it against all their enemies." This proud and defiant retort may be more impressive to us than it was at the time. Such statements were an accepted element of the ritual of sieges. Within memory of many of those present at Fort Stanwix, the British had delivered a similar reply at Fort William Henry, only to surrender a few days later.

By the time this brusque dismissal was delivered into St. Leger's refined hand, Marinus Willett was no longer at Fort Stanwix. He had gone off on the most dangerous and weighty of all his exploits. Although Gansevoort and Willett had brazenly defied St. Leger, they understood that the fort, crowded with more men than it could comfortably accommodate and incompletely restored, could not hold out for a long seige. Outside aid would be needed, and it was clear that the Tyron County militia would not be able to provide it. Willett then volunteered to go down and secure help, taking with him a lieutenant, Levi Stockwell, who was known as a skilled woodsman. The enemy surrounded the fort, meaning that the two officers would have to slip through their lines. If captured, they could have no illusions about the outcome. Willett's mention of being burned alive by splinters showed that he was familiar with a common Indian method of torture. He had seen Captain Gregg "weltering in his gore." Rank would offer little protection to a man who had shaken his fist in the face of a British officer and called him a murderer.

Even in time when an infant nation's military structure was much looser than today, it was extraordinary for a colonel, second in command, to go forth on a critical individual mission. Analysts might suspect that there was dissension between Gansevoort and Willett, but the record does not support this surmise. More likely the explanation offered by Willett is correct: in his brief passage through the valley, the Tryon militia had "expressed a particular attachment" to him. The importance of this errand can hardly be overestimated. A little over a month before, Fort Ticonderoga had fallen to Burgoyne with dismaying ease. Only in retrospect would it become apparent that the value and impregnability of the "Gibraltar of the North" was overrated. At that time it seemed that little stood in the path of the invincible Burgoyne; perhaps he was already in Albany, as St. Leger's emissary had suggested. Willett and Stockwell went forth in a dark hour of the night and a dark time for the Northern Department.

Armed only with long spears known as spontoons, the two men slipped out of the sally port in the midnight stillness. In the thick, damp air they sensed the nearness of the river, which they crossed by crawling along a log. Surrounded by the swampy darkness, they soon lost their sense of direction. They knew, however, that the Indians were camped nearby, and when they heard a dog bark, Stockwell felt they had no choice but to stand perfectly still against a tree until the light increased. It seemed like an eternity of waiting, and indeed lasted several hours until daylight approached.

Luck favored them, and they passed undetected through the enemy lines. They had carried no blankets and no food other than pocketsful of cheese and crackers and a canteen of spirits. Still in the wilderness, another night overtook them. Soaked from stepping in and out of the river to hide their trail and hungry, the two officers spent a chill night wrapped in each other's arms to keep warm. Willett awoke with severe rheumatism and limped the rest of the 50-mile journey to Fort Dayton. Even the British were forced to praise this daring exploit.

During the War for Independence, citizens like Marinus Willett truly risked their "lives, fortunes and sacred honor" to establish a republic in which they fervently believed. Willett's bravery and unflinching dedication to the cause of liberty made him a hero of Fort Stanwix in 1777 and saved the Northern Frontier for the patriot cause in 1781. He was a superb warrior, but the contradictions in his complex personality kept him from converting his military reputation to a successful career in New York's tangled politics. This is the second in the new Purple Mountain Press series "New Yorkers and the Revolution. The first tells the story of Sybil Ludington.

Larry Lowenthal, a retired National Park Service historian, first became acquainted wtih Marinus Willett while working as an historian at the reconstructed Fort Stanwix when it opened in May 1976. He was the same age as Willett had been when stationed at the fort 200 years earlier and sometimes portrayed the colonel in "living history" dramatizations. While he was under no illusion that he shared Willett's courage and fortitude, his admiration for these traits eventually inspired this biography.

104 pages, illustrated, 6 x 9, index, 2000
$15.00 paperback--A Purple Mountain Press original

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