Washington’s Last Expedition: Capture Fort Ontario

The Fort Ontario National Landmark Committee will sponsor a rally Nov. 12 to generate support for elevating Fort Ontario and the Safe Haven Holocaust Refugee Shelter Museum to National Monument status.

The Fort Ontario National Landmark Committee will sponsor a rally Nov. 12 to generate support for elevating Fort Ontario and the Safe Haven Holocaust Refugee Shelter Museum to National Monument status.

Provide by: George M. Clark (1993)

To reinforce British presence, at a strategic location, in 1755 Fort Ontario was constructed on an eminence at the easterly confluence of the Oswego River and Lake Ontario.

In 1756 the fort was destroyed by the French and rebuilt by the British in 1759. Americans put the ungarrisoned post to the torch in 1778.  The fort lay in ruins until the spring of 1782 when His Majesty’s troops, under the command of Major Ross, re-occupied the post.

Upon arrival they proceeded to repair and make habitable the “Guardian of the Northern Frontier.”

Intelligence of this operation reached Washington and gave him great concern. The possibility of enemy troops using the fort as a staging area for further intrusions into the Mohawk Valley was foremost on his mind. He now had to devise a plan to capture and destroy the works; a secret mission to be entrusted to a loyal and gallant commander.

Toward the end of November, Colonel Marinus Willett, having seen to winter barracks for his New York regiment at Fort Rensselaer on the Mohawk River, set out for Fishkill.

The purpose of his journey was to meet his wife, intending to return with her to his quarters for the winter. While in the area he decided to visit General Washington at his headquarters in Newburgh. The Colonel was invited to stay for dinner, which he did, and at its close Washington asked him to step into his office. A conversation ensued concerning an undisclosed expedition to Oswego; the location of Fort Ontario.

This was the first time that an opening ever presented itself to Colonel Willett of a chance of procuring fame,that his heart did not vibrate with joy. He had intended to spend a comfortable winter with his wife, but his loyalty to Washington and dedication to duty would overshadow his own pleasures.

In about a week, following their meeting, Willett wrote to Washington in favor of the enterprise and accepted responsibility for carrying out the most secret task of preparing for a winter campaign in the harsh region of the Northern Frontier on Lake Ontario.

Further correspondence developed between Washington and Willett which, because of its highly sensitive nature, was written in the former’s own handwriting.

On December 18, Washington ordered to proceed with the assembling of vests, woolen hose, caps, socks, mittens and blankets, for use by troops in the extremely cold climate.

Willett was to provide for a sufficient number of Indian shoes or moccasins.

Washington was also locating snow shoes which might be useful for the journey.  The force was also to be equipped with axes, saws, augers and a gouge, which would be used to construct scaling ladders for entering the fort.

On January 22, 1783, Willett was informed by the General that the Rhode Island regiment, of African-American troops, had been placed under his direction.

On February 8, the combined force, of approximately 500 troops with 120 horse-drawn sleighs, left Fort Herkimer on the German Flats; near the present day city of Utica. On the 9th, during the night, they pushed across Oneida Lake leaving the sleighs on the north shore, which is now Brewerton.

They walked on the ice covered rivers, for the most part, until they reached Oswego Falls, now the city of Fulton, at about 2:00 p.m. the next day.

Eight scaling ladders were constructed at this place and all necessary preparations for entering the enemy’s works were completed.

The officers were informed of each role the troops under their immediate command would play in the assault.  At approximately 10 p.m., that evening, they reached a point on the Oswego River, about four miles from the fort, between present day Seneca Hill and the city limits of Oswego.

Here it was decided, that because of the weakness of the ice and the possibility of discovery, to climb the extremely high east bank of the river and travel concealed through the woods.

Willett had procured a young Oneida Indian, called Captain John, and two other guides, whose purpose was to lead the party to within sight of the post.  They would strike in the dead of the night and quoting Washington’s order, “From having recourse to the almanack (sic), I am led to wish that the night for the attack may not be delayed beyond the 12th inst.; as I find that the setting of the moon, (even at that time), approached 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 beyond the hour designed, to the entire disappointment of the plan.”

The element of surprise was also a prime factor in Washington’s plan and of this he said, “I wish to impress it upon you, that if you do not succeed by surprize (sic), the tempt will be unwarrantable.  The wounds received in the former, more than probable, 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 (sic) you.  If you should be fully convinced of this, the further prosecution of the enterprise (sic) would not only be fruitless, but might prove injurious.”

Being approximately four miles from their objective and having four hours time left before the moon set, which was the time fixed for entering the fort, the expectations of success were extremely high.  Willett’s attention was then given to encouraging the men on the march, especially those who were carrying ladders because of the freezing temperatures, depth of the snow and difficulties of navigating through the woods at night; not having the slightest worry that the guides would not lead them to their purpose, with time to spare.

However, his attention became quickly focused on this, following two hours being expended and not yet discovering an opening through the woods.

Captain John, the Indian guide, was following tracks made from snow shoes; believing they would most certainly lead to the fort.  Instead, they led the command into a thicket with deep snow and then through a swamp, which was south of the present day Hall Road.

To make matters worse some of the men’s feet became frozen in the mud; they were lost!

As daybreak rapidly approached Willett’s troops found themselves on high ground; now called Oak Hill.  From this vantage point they could see the prize about three quarters of a mile before them; Fort Ontario.

However, keeping in mind Washington’s explicit orders, Willett decided to terminate the incursion and withdraw.

Now all that was left to do was for the soldiers to make their way back to the river and start the long and arduous march back.

Upon arrival at Fort Rensselaer, Pliny Moore, Willett’s adjutant, wrote to his father of the venture, “We return from our unsuccessful expedition to Oswego the 18th at evening after as fatiguing a March I believe as has been since the War we were nine nights in the woods without seeing a House, marched Thiry Six Hours without one hours intermission & as long at another item with but about three Hours Halt for Refeshment & to compleat our disappointment when our hopes were most Sanguine after marching all day & all night Cold fatiguid & many of us frozen…..” (sic)

This mounting of a Winter campaign, in the traitorous northern region of New York, was unparalleled. Coupled with a forced march during blizzards and freezing temperatures, the hardships endured by these brave men were insufferable. Dogs that followed the troops on the march had been shot, along the way, so their barking would not warn the garrison when the attackers reached the fort.

When provisions ran out during the return, the frozen bodies of these animals were dug out of the snow and used for food.

At least two men froze to death and more than 130 cases of frost bite were reported.

In a letter dated March 5, 1783, to Colonel Marinus Willett, General George Washington said of the expedition,  “The failure, it seems, must be attributed to some of those unaccountable events which are not within the control of human means; …. I cannot omit expressing to you the high sense I entertain of your perservering the exertions and zeal on 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.”

An agreement for the cessation of hostilities between Great Britain and the United States of America was reached November 30, 1782, and was officially proclaimed by George the III on February 14, 1783; the formal peace treaty was not signed until September 3 of that year.

The War for Independence, after eight long years of desperate fighting, would end in a fizzle on the Northern Frontier.

The failure of Willett’s Raiders to capture Fort Ontario would leave it and its environs controled by the British for thirteen years after the war.

A Narrative of the Military Actions of Colonel Marinus Willett, William M, Willett, 1831
The Pictorial Field Book of the Revolution, Benson J. Lossing, 1859
A History of Negro Troops in the War of the Rebellion, Geroge Washington Williams, 1888    
Letters from General George Washington to Colonel Marinus Willett; 1783
Letters from Colonel Marinus Willett to General George Washington; 1783
Major Alexander Thompson’s letter 1783
Adjutant Pliny Moore’s letter; 1783