The American Revolution in the Old Southwest: The James Willing Raid
On 11 January 1778, Captain James Willing, Continental Navy, departed Fort Pitt, Pennsylvania, on the Ohio River, with twenty-nine men. He was weeks late departing and on a scaled-back mission that had been approved by the Commerce Committee (known earlier in the history of the Continental Congress as the Secret Committee). Willing’s mission was not placed before the whole Congress for approval, nor, apparently, did it need to be.
Taking the Revolutionary War to the old Southwest and seizing control of the Mississippi River for use as a logistical/communication line to rebel forces in the east was a sound strategic plan and a viable one. American privateers were already “using” the river, but always under the threat of British capture. The plan was also gutsy, and we Americans like gutsy.
The plan’s feasibility had been determined in the late summer/early fall of 1776 when American Captain George Gibson, with “eighteen men and a boy” departed Fort Pitt, descended the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers, and arrived in New Orleans. Gibson carried letters of introduction from Major General Charles Lee, Commanding Officer of the Southern District, and the Virginia Committee of Safety—all American Rebels. (Remember, at this point in history, what is now West Virginia was still part of Virginia. Pennsylvania and Virginia shared a border—and a common defense.)
The Gibson party stopped briefly in Walnut Hills, present-day Vicksburg, and several of its members openly declared they had dispatches from the Continental Congress in Philadelphia for the Court of Spain and the Governor of Spanish Louisiana, Luis de Unzaga y Amezaga (Unzaga). Once reported to Peter Chester, Governor of British West Florida in Pensacola, that news raised the proverbial red flag. Discretion obviously not a concern, Captain Gibson hoisted the “Rebel” colors as he passed Natchez.
Upon arrival in New Orleans, George Gibson’s instructions were to contact Oliver Pollock, a native of Northern Ireland and influential merchant, who stood in good stead with Louisiana’s Spanish governors. Pollock had arrived in the city in 1768 on the heels of Alejandro O’Reilly, the “enforcer” who established order in the wake of Governor Antonio de Ulloa’s tumultuous governorship over hostile Frenchmen. Pollock served O’Reilly’s commercial needs, and the two men became close friends. Pollock remained a friend of every Spanish governor who followed. Oliver Pollock is a story unto himself, a sincere Patriot, credited for financing the American Revolution in the west. [He also developed a symbol for the Spanish peso consisting of an elaborate “p” within an “S” which evolved into our dollar sign.]
Also working in favor of Captain Gibson’s mission was the fact he was an acquaintance of some of Oliver Pollock’s kinfolk in the Cumberland Valley. George Gibson received a personal audience with Unzaga, to whom Gibson provided a Continental Army requisition list. Items requested included muskets, powder, blankets, and medicine (in particular, quinine). Through Pollock, Unzaga discreetly filled the requisition. Of particular note, 10,000 pounds of gunpowder came directly from the Spanish King’s stores, and in return, Gibson wrote a draft for eighteen hundred and fifty Spanish milled dollars on the account of the Grand Council of Virginia. But here’s another of history’s tidbits that had Governor Chester spewing musket balls: Gunpowder from Great Britain—carried on British-flagged ships—went directly to British merchants in New Orleans (Pollock for example), bypassing British West Florida’s Gulf Coast ports. The British routinely sold gunpowder to various Spanish Commissions for a range of domestic purposes (the Indian Commission, for example, provided powder to friendly tribes for use in hunting—that kept the “friendly” Indians happy). My point here is the 10,000 pounds of powder sold to Gibson originated in Britain. Since Spain and Britain were not at war, the business was legal. Chester validly argued Britain’s own powder was being supplied to the Rebels via legal British commerce.
Though Governor Unzaga supported the American cause—and its threat to British power in North America—he knew Madrid did not want Spain embroiled in this most recent New World conflict. Unzaga put Gibson’s Lieutenant Linn and nine thousand pounds of that powder on a boat flying Spanish colors, with a Spanish master at the helm, and sailed them north to Fort Pitt. At the same time, he had Gibson submit to arrest (a ruse to quell the British protest Unzaga feared forthcoming).
New Orleans teemed with British merchants and spies (many one and the same), and it was only a short time before one or several brought to Governor Chester’s attention that a boat of powder was headed upriver, under the Spanish flag, to aid the revolutionary colonies. Of greater concern to Chester were Captain Gibson’s inquiries regarding the defenses of Mobile and Pensacola and his declaration that a large American force was to sail down the river in the spring of 1777, laying waste to and seizing land occupied by Englishmen between the Ohio and Manchac, the most southern British possession on the Mississippi, with a final objective to capture Mobile and Pensacola.
This grand strategy was not only distressing to Chester, but was equally distressing to Unzaga, who wanted to project the appearance of complete neutrality. He was also smart enough to know that a sovereign nation (United States) to its east would, in its own right, be a threat to Spanish Louisiana. Unzaga concluded that Madrid would have his head when London’s protests reached the Spanish capitol. Much to Unzaga’s surprise, and Chester’s dismay, Madrid approved what Unzaga had done to support the American cause and considered the proposed American plan to bring the war to British West Florida a good one. Madrid told Unzaga to continue his “discreet” support—meaning to continue operations through Oliver Pollock.
There was one important lesson learned (or relearned) by Lieutenant Linn on his trip upstream with all his gunpowder—travel on the Mississippi is a lot easier when one is headed south. He and his crew ended up wintering-over near the mouth of the Arkansas River, and he reached Fort Pitt in April 1777, just in time to save Fort Pitt from falling into enemy hands.
Lieutenant Linn had left New Orleans on a bateau—a small, flat-bottomed boat with a raked bow and stern and flaring sides (that’s the dictionary definition). But the difficulty this group had in making its way back up the Mississippi may account for Oliver Pollock’s subsequent contracting for the construction (in New Orleans), with Spanish approval, of six gondolas, or row galleys, of 80-100 oars for the purpose of conveying arms and ammunition up the river. By the time this information landed on Chester’s desk early in the governorship of Bernardo de Galvez, Unzaga’s successor, two of these ships were already under construction.
During 1777, Madrid lifted sanctions prohibiting Spanish trade in French ports, a new policy designed to wreak havoc with the British merchants that heretofore owned the monopoly of trade with New Orleans and Spanish Louisiana. In the past, Louisiana’s predominantly French colonists became violent at the prospect of inferior Spanish goods (Governor Ulloa’s undoing years before), and Britain provided the products of choice. The newly appointed Galvez sat back patiently and waited for the British to give him an excuse to curtail the lucrative illegal trade done on the river. Lieutenant George Burdon, Royal Navy, provided Galvez’ impetus in April 1777 when his sloop of war seized two Spanish canoes on Lake Pontchartrain for conducting illegal trade with British West Florida. What appeared on the surface as a reprisal for this incident was really Galvez’ determination to initiate Madrid’s new trade policy with France by disrupting (even eliminating) British trade in Spanish Louisiana. On 17 April he seized eleven British merchant ships. These seizures and concern for future reprisals crippled British commerce on the lower Mississippi. In July, French Trade Commissioners visiting New Orleans wrote to the effect that no British flag had been seen on the river in three months and the whole trade on the Mississippi “is in our hands.”
Indeed, British commerce on the river decreased significantly in the last half of 1777, while American trade, under the protection of the Spanish flag, increased. Galvez further directed American ships to call only at Spanish ports upriver and warned them to be on the lookout for hostile Indians (Indians often served as sentinels for European powers on the river(s). In the case of the east bank of the Mississippi, Britain had this system as well in hand as could be expected given they were working with tribes who tended to reprioritize “river-watch” duties behind those of hunting season, planting season, intra-tribal warfare, etc.).
All in all, the provisions provided Continental forces during this period were valuable. They did not, however, prove decisive in the war effort.
Throughout 1777, intelligence reports predicting an onslaught of Americans from the north kept Chester on his toes, and he passed his concerns to London. By late in the year, however, even he had become complacent about the reports. Additionally, winter is not considered a good time to mount an offensive—even if rivers upstream didn’t freeze over. Furthermore, London knew Madrid did not want to become involved in the war, preferring to be a pain in Britain’s backside by aiding her rebellious colonies. London’s reasoning here must have been that the Colonials would not be a threat to Pensacola without Spanish support, and for Spain to maintain its neutrality, that support would not be great enough to threaten British West Florida. Those rebellious colonies, however, did not give a hoot about maintaining peace between the European powers.
When Captain Gibson returned to Fort Pitt and reported his success to Colonel George Morgan, the American agent for Indian Affairs and Deputy Commissary General for Purchases in the Western District, the colonel immediately opened a dialogue with Governor Galvez. He wanted maps and intelligence on Mobile and Pensacola, he wanted the governor’s opinion on whether or not 1,000 men would be enough to capture those objectives, and he asked if Americans would be able to charter boats and cannon on short notice? He qualified his request, assuring Galvez the Americans would never do anything without the governor’s blessing. Galvez responded to the effect: I am for you, I know nothing of your mission, and for all your needs and wants, go to the “other fellow” (meaning Oliver Pollock).
Thus, as early as the spring of 1777, the stage was set for a full-scale American invasion of British West Florida down the Mississippi River with Spain providing surreptitious support. The Continental Congress liked the idea of taking Pensacola and turning it over to Spain. The aforementioned agent for Indian Affairs, Colonel Morgan (who, by the way had been in Pensacola and other regions of British West Florida in 1766 and who in 1777 provided the original invasion plan via the then still faithful Benedict Arnold) liked the idea of taking Pensacola and keeping it. His vision was obviously greater than that of the majority of Congress.
The Board of War accepted the Morgan/Arnold plan to send a force of 1,000 men down stream under the command of General Edward Hand, Commanding Officer of Fort Pitt. They would be re-supplied/provisioned in New Orleans by Pollock (Spain) and from there they would set sail and capture Mobile and Pensacola. There were only 300 British to defend that frontier and the costs of the expedition would be offset by the seizure of English munitions and military stores and the removal of all obstacles hindering trade between the American colonies and New Orleans. The strategy was a good one.
Whatever Pensacola’s fate would have been if we Americans had succeeded in capturing it is forever unknown. After two days’ debate in the Congress where the influential Philadelphia merchant Robert Morris lobbied passionately for it, Henry Laurens of South Carolina talked Congress out of the invasion. He stated that if the Continental Congress had a thousand men to spare, it should consider sending them to South Carolina and Georgia. Further, if British West Florida was getting a constant influx of Tories, were a thousand men really going to be enough? And lastly he argued there was no way the Americans were going to move one thousand men down the Mississippi without the British getting wind of it. How valid his concerns were, I’m not sure. Morgan didn’t indicate he planned on taking Pensacola by surprise—he’d made a point of emphasizing there were only 300 British soldiers to defend the western part of the province and he intended to confiscate British military stores en route (hardly a plan to “sneak” past them). Congress was, no doubt, looking at more details than I have at my disposal and considered Laurens’ concerns valid enough to scrap the entire plan.
Enter the “Secret Committee,” which had become the “Commerce Committee” before the idea of a “scaled-down” raid on British West Florida was put before it. This committee apparently had the authority to give the go-ahead to certain missions without the approval of the full Congress. [So, now you know congressional committees were making unilateral decisions like this before Congress became the body we love, honor, and respect today.] Robert Morris, and that same Henry Laurens from South Carolina, were both members of the Commerce Committee.
Some background on the men driving this mission is appropriate here. Robert Morris was a wealthy Philadelphia merchant who had an equally successful partner in Thomas Willing, also of Philadelphia. Robert Morris had economic interests in New Orleans, and he was a very good friend of Oliver Pollock.
And the plot thickens.
In the summer of 1771, Thomas Willing’s younger brother James arrived in British West Florida. Young James’ ambitions included becoming one of the area’s leading planters and merchants. He acquired 1250 acres on the east bank of the Mississippi just north of Baton Rouge, and later acquired property near Natchez. [A side note here, if I may: Many wealthy landowners acquired property in both the Baton Rouge and Natchez areas and lived between the two locals. During the latter half of the 18th century, an intimacy existed between Natchez and Baton Rouge that few people today realize existed.]
James’ brother Thomas and Robert Morris had instructed the younger Willing to contact Pollock in New Orleans, and Pollock subsequently assisted James in lobbying for a contract to supply British forces in West Florida with flour. Willing and Morris in Philadelphia were the flour suppliers. The commander of British forces, General Halimand was not interested in dealing with Willing, and James took no real initiative after in developing other business opportunities, including planting. Rather, he enjoyed visiting his neighbors, eating and drinking their food and liquor and, in general, being entertained. He was also a boisterous proponent of the American cause in a province inhabited by influential Tories—a number of whom had fled to the area in order to escape the upheaval along the Atlantic seaboard. James Willing made some enemies—in the Natchez District, Anthony Hutchins and Alexander McIntosh. In Baton Rouge, as we shall see, he apparently didn’t like much of anyone.
In 1777, James returned to York, Pennsylvania (his hometown of Philadelphia was then in British hands) an embittered young man. (Just my opinion, but I’d hazard to guess he was more broke than bitter). Whichever, he was familiar with British West Florida and Robert Morris knew it. James informed the expedition planners that British West Florida grew more Tory every day, but that the substantial number of people there were either American or neutral and if an American expedition sailed down the river, these people would flock to it. The Commerce Committee bestowed a Continental Navy Captaincy on James Willing and put him in charge of executing the attack against British West Florida. Willing persuaded Thomas McIntyre, newly released from a British prison camp, to accompany him as his second in command and bestowed upon McIntyre the rank of lieutenant.
The expedition took enough flour, pork, beef, and whiskey to last thirty men 180 days, but they acquired “recruits” along the way. Word eventually reached Pensacola of the expedition, but by the late winter of 1778, the British capitol had become immune to “rumors” of an American invasion, plus, if the invaders were still on the Ohio, they were probably iced in.
Welling stopped at the Spanish post at the mouth of the Arkansas River and stashed supplies for his return trip (the same place Lieutenant Linn wintered the year before?), then plundered a small British fur-trading post on the opposite side of the river. Here, one of those traders joined him. There were more recruits along the way. By the time he reached the Yazoo River, Willing had 100 men.
In the vicinity of Walnut Hills (present day Vicksburg), Willing sent Lieutenant McIntyre ahead. McIntyre slipped past the Choctaw sentinel post there because the relief force for the last group of river guards had not yet reached the watch station, and the off-going watch had already left. McIntyre found four British Indian agents at the home of John Watkins. He took the agents prisoner and obtained an oath of neutrality from Watkins. The next morning, Willing arrived and informed Watkins he planned to try all his prisoners in New Orleans, sell the plunder he would acquire, and execute deserters and Indian agents (I’m assuming he expected to find American deserters hiding out in British West Florida). The next morning, oath of neutrality and all, Watkins set out to warn Pensacola.
In Natchez, Lieutenant McIntyre captured both Alexander McIntosh and Anthony Hutchins—getting Hutchins out of a sick bed and forcing him to go to New Orleans as Willing’s prisoner. Willing and his main body pillaged both the McIntosh and Hutchins plantations, plundering the houses, stealing the slaves, and wantonly killing livestock. When Mrs. Hutchins refused to tell Willing where the gold and silver were hidden, he took out his pistol, placed it to her breast, and threatened to pull the trigger. She called him a coward and told him to go ahead and shoot she was only a woman. He left with no coin, but he and his men devastated the farm. He did not shoot Mrs. Hutchins.
Willing then had the Natchez citizens assemble and convinced them his group was much larger than it was and that Colonel Morgan was coming down the river with 2,000 men. The Natchez citizens sued for peace and delegated members among them to represent the citizenry for terms. Those terms were to not take up arms against the Americans or assist enemies of the Americans. If the Natchez citizens swore neutrality, Willing promised to respect their persons, and he also promised to send a flag of truce to the Choctaw, so the citizens would not be defenseless against the Indians. Another footnote here: During this period, when authority was preoccupied with treason, rebellion, and the Machiavellian machinations of neighboring governors, the Indians most certainly did take advantage of the situation by attacking and sacking plantations.
During his five days in Natchez, Willing had plundered the most notorious loyalists, neutralized the settlement, and attracted approximately 100 new recruits. A significant number of those recruits were in debt to John Fitzpatrick, the famed ‘merchant of Manchac,’ Manchac being a very important British trading center just north of Bayou Manchac (Iberville River) on the north shore of Lake Pontchartrain. One can only speculate at the motives of these men in joining Willing on his campaign to plunder and pillage Manchac and all British points north.
With the Mississippi swollen from torrential rains, McIntyre moved at a rapid clip. At Manchac, he captured the British merchant ship Rebecca. Willing followed, and the closer he came to his old neighbors at Baton Rouge the more rapacious he became. Natchez was relatively unscathed when compared to the devastation this band inflicted on inhabitants farther south. No one seemed to know this group was coming until the marauders were upon them.
Willing was initially selective in which of his old neighbors he chose to plunder and those he passed by. Some homes he looted. Some he looted, then burned to the ground. His men seized scores of slaves, and continued, on a larger scale, the wanton destruction of livestock. He destroyed businesses and indigo works. William Dunbar, a prominent planter in the Baton Rouge area, later Natchez, and one of Willing’s particularly obnoxious targets (Willing’s assessment, not history’s), could not believe Willing would want to plunder the homes of people in “whose houses he [Willing] had been often entertained in the most hospitable manner…[and] frequently indulged his natural propensity of getting Drunk” (from a 1 May 1778 entry made in William Dunbar’s private papers). Willing did £1200 worth of damage to Dunbar’s property and $13,000.00 in damages to John Fitzpatrick at Manchac.
The British inhabitants along the east bank of the Mississippi had the mistaken belief that once the marauders had passed, the crisis was over. This proved not to be the case. After Willing’s group of merry men arrived in New Orleans—where they, along with the “refugees” he had created—were offered asylum, his men continued for weeks to foray back up the river and plunder new targets—some of which Willing had assured the owner would not be attacked. They returned to New Orleans to auction their wares, then repeated their actions. Personally, I can’t help but wonder how much control Willing actually tried to extend over some of the men he attracted to his “cause.”
A number of his prisoners, walking the streets on “parole,” and refugees attended the Spanish auctions and watched helplessly as their private property was sold to the highest bidder. Particularly distasteful was the selling of some 680 stolen slaves, some old and loyal servants who were, for all intents and purposes, loved members of their masters’ families.
As noted above, Galvez offered sanctuary inside New Orleans to Americans and displaced Loyalists in order to maintain the appearance of impartiality. The Willing band’s forays upriver to the remains of British West Florida’s devastated Mississippi shore continued until the British were able to move enough forces into the river to put a stop to it. Galvez justified his harboring of the Americans as an effort on his part to keep ‘very dangerous men’ appeased, but Anthony Hutchins, on parole in New Orleans, saw Spanish officers routinely assisting, entertaining, and even abetting their “American intimidators.” Other American “patriots” in league with Willing continued to pirate British ships, then divvy up the plunder among themselves. I cite the case of one Joseph Calvert who captured the merchant ship Dispatch, property of David Ross and Company out of Pensacola.
The Americans had caught the British napping. Instead of fighting back, the abused citizens opted to seek legal redress. For a brief period in the spring of 1778, the Americans had command of the lower Mississippi Valley. But all that could have been, should have been was not to be, at least, not for another two decades.
Anthony Hutchins broke parole and returned to Natchez and managed to rally enough supporters to fight back against a Willing party sent to check on the promised “neutrality” of the Natchez citizens. Hutchins killed the leader of the party and several others, hauled down the American colors, and raised Britain’s.
In May 1778, the initial attempt to spirit supplies to American forces in the east was aborted when Alexander Graiden, a carpenter working for Oliver Pollock, tipped off British merchants Robert Ross and John Campbell that Pollock’s ship Speedwell had departed New Orleans with supplies slated for the Americans. Ross and Campbell sent Graiden out with dispatches tipping William Dunbar, John Fitzpatrick at Manchac, Jean Baptiste Tenoir at Point Coupée, and Alexander McIntosh and Anthony Hutchins at Natchez to stop the ship. Spanish soldiers caught Graiden not far outside New Orleans, but not before he’d delivered the missives to William Dunbar. Galvez could not afford to have the Speedwell, under a Spanish flag, stopped with American arms onboard and had Pollock recall the vessel. For their efforts, Ross and Campbell spent a miserable couple of months in a New Orleans’ jail, paid some hefty fines, and were banished from New Orleans forever. In April, both men had sworn allegiance to Spain. They argued that since Spain and Britain were not at war, and the goods were meant for American rebels, they’d done nothing wrong. Alexander Graiden ended up in a Cuban prison. I do not know for how long.
So, supported by the loyalists in Natchez and reinforcements from Mobile, Jamaica and St. Augustine, by May the British had regained control of the southern half of the river, and they were strong enough to prevent American ships from moving north. Further, the British no longer had qualms about stopping Spanish-flagged ships and confiscating cargo intended for the Americans. The Mississippi was no longer available for transporting American supplies north, no matter how they were disguised.
During this same time, the arrival of British warships outside New Orleans began to worry the Spanish governor. Captain Joseph Nunn, skipper of the Hound, made it clear to Galvez that Britain knew the Americans had set up headquarters in New Orleans for the purpose of sailing out and plundering British West Florida. Nunn, apparently could be pretty ruthless himself, and Galvez did not want the city blown apart by British guns. Additionally, Willing was communicating with prisoners “paroled” by the Spanish governor through a “public proclamation”—a direct challenge to Galvez’ sovereignty, and Willing argued with the governor, when the latter decided to return the Rebecca and Dispatch to their British owners. Galvez was now in a situation where he needed to appease some very ruffled British feathers. Though Willing always backed down and apologized to Galvez, it really was time for him to go. Still, he tarried. Pollock wanted to get the American supplies out—no easy matter with the British back in a position to control American use of the river. Additionally, Willing and his men started to haggle with Pollock on the divvying up of the profits from the auctions. Pollock—not having received his return for expenditures from the Continental Congress—was trying to make ends meet. Additionally, Willing’s inclination to stay was eating up the gains from the expedition.
In late August, Lieutenant Robert George relieved Willing of his command. Galvez provided George with safe conduct through Spanish territory (by land—and some by water) with strict instructions not to bother anything or anyone British. George set out with 41men and the American supplies from back in May and eventually met his uncle, Colonel George Rogers Clark, in the Illinois country.
Captain Willing, Lieutenant McIntyre and nine others left New Orleans on 15 November 1778 on a private sloop, which the British overtook at sea. (Whatcha’ wanna bet someone tipped off Britannia?). Willing was initially imprisoned on Long Island, but escaped and sought refuge in the home of a friend, who was also a British officer. The British officer turned him in. At this point, the British put him in irons. Britain exchanged him on 3 September 1781.
Willing’s rebel career was over, as were any significant American ambitions in British West Florida. Except for a brief disruption of British trade between West Florida and the West Indies—primarily in lumber and slaves—and $75,000.00 in plunder (a relatively small amount of money), the Willing raid did nothing to enhance the American cause and a great deal to hurt it.
Willing’s primary mission (ostensibly) was to open the Mississippi River to American commerce. Britain now not only targeted American ships (if there were any), but put a stop to the moving of American goods under the protection of the Spanish flag as well. The hope some patriots held that British West Florida would become the 14th colony had been obliterated. Loyalists’ sentiments in the area increased, not decreased. The raid—or rather Willing’s allowing it to drag on—also hurt Oliver Pollock’s abilities to function as the official American agent in New Orleans, since the entire affair ended up draining Pollock’s resources. That wasn’t as disastrous to the American cause as it was to Pollock, since the Americans could no longer readily move goods in and out of New Orleans, anyway.
These setbacks, of course, were very short-lived. In less than a year of Willing’s capture, Manchac, Baton Rouge, and Natchez would fall to Galvez. Mobile fell to him in 1780 and Pensacola in 1781. By 1783, Spain and the young United States were squaring off for control of the lower Mississippi Valley. It would be another fifteen years before the United States would control the ‘Father of Waters,’ a strategic plum we take for granted today, but a critical element of our nation’s grand strategy two centuries ago. One could argue that our possession of the river occurred twenty years later than it should have. What that would have meant to our history and the history of the South I leave to better guessers than I, but I will speculate, tongue in cheek, that before it was all over in 1798, the Spaniards were wishing they had the Brits back. We had a destiny regarding this continent, and Spain was in the way.
In addition to Christopher Morris’ Becoming Southern (Oxford University Press, New York, 1995), I used my faithful standby, Robin Fabel’s The Economy of British West Florida, 1763-1783 (University of Alabama Press, Tuscaloosa, 1988) where I found a reference to what proved to be my primary source, Robert V. Haynes’ The Natchez District and the American Revolution (University Press of Mississippi , Jackson, 1976). That little book provided excellent background on the political atmosphere of the period, and an all-inclusive source of information on the Willing raid. I’m so glad I found it.
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