Fort Herkimer 19 February 1783
It is no small mortification to me, to have occasion to report to your Excellency that our Expedition to Oswego has not been successful--Nothing could be more pleasing than our prospect was, when we were within four or five miles of Oswego between ten and eleven o’clock on the night of the 12th instant, with every thing ready to make the attack--but our expectations were blasted by a very unexpected event, and event which I had not the least reason to apprehend, considering the pains I had taken to prevent such a contingency from taking place—The caution your Excellency had given me respecting guides, had made me doubly careful in procuring such as I conceived would most assuredly preserve me from danger from want of good pilots—I had provided myself with four persons who deserted from Oswego since the beginning of last August—I had several men with me who were well acquainted with Oswego, and were otherwise intelligent & smart—besides which, I took with the three Oneida Indians, all of high estimation with respect to their fidelity, and one in particular, called Captain John, who has a commission from Congress, whose behavior has been uniformly upright in all the changes of our affairs, and who is a very expert Indian—yet, notwithstanding this, it was my guide that ruined me.
On my arrival at the West end of the Oneida Lake, I found the sleighs to be an incumberance, and that they increased the danger of our being discovered—for this reason it was determined to leave them at that place, and march the remainder of the way thro the woods—In little better than a days march we got below Oswego falls, twelve mile only from Oswego , not far from that place, I ventured to have our Ladders made, and at eight o’clock in the evening we left the woods, and went on the ice three miles below the falls—We proceeded cautiously on the ice until we arrived at a point about four miles from Oswego here the fice failing, we were obliged to go on shore and enter the woods—
The guides had uniformly submitted their judgement the whole of the way to the superior knowledge of Captain John, and he still continued to go on in front marking out our rout—thus far he had led us well, land he now told me he would bring us by midnight into a road made to haul wood to the Fort, not more than two miles from the Garrison, and that it was not more than two miles to that road, so that our whole march was not to exceed four miles and it was not then quite eleven o’clock. This information produced fresh ardour in every breast, every countenance brightened and the ladders, which in any other case would have been an intolerable incumbrance, moved lightly thro the woods.—Deep snow, high hills of deep morasses were passed with briskness & chearfulness that was truly pleasing until after following him near three hours without observing any signs of the Fort and by our zigzag movements it appeared evident that our course was not right. I was considerably advanced in front following close after the guide on snow shoes when these suspicions entered fully into my mind, both from the irregularity of his course as well as the length of time we had been marching without arriving at the Fort.—In declaring my suspicious to my Guides, they all appeared entirely lost—In this situation I was compelled to halt the Troops while I endeavored myself, and by sending others in different routs, to find the way to the fort—but it was all in vain. The Moon had set and the day was dawning, when I was out with two of the best hands I had, endeavouring to discover our way without effecting it—Thus were our expectations, which but a few hours before were raised to the highest pitch from a persuasion that we were almost in sight of the Fort in the most silent hour of the night without being discovered, blasted by the unaccountable conduct of our Guide—surmises were made that Captain John the Indian led us wrong designedly, this however is a surmise that I cannot give into—his former conduct has been regular and good, and I had given him such expectation in case of success, as will not admit of the supposition of his having willfully taken measures to disappoint us—
I am inclined to think that the cause of his losing the way was this –soon after he left the ice he came on a snow shoe track, which he followed a considerable way supposing it would lead to the Fort and that after finding he had been led into an error and wasted much time he got bewildered—his bahaviour however had a bad appearance, which occasioned my ordering him under guard together with the other two Indians his companions.—
As long as there was a prospect of affecting the business of the expedition no Troops could exhibit a more clearfull fortitude under the severest task than did the whole of the officers of soldiers, but as that prospect vanished with the approaching day, their great fatigue got the better of the spirits of the soldiers, land as we could have no right to hope to remain several small parties of the enemy made their appearance on the opposite shore, and some few miles higher up, three Seneca Indians came to us with professions of Friendship—as they put themselves in our power, and made a friendly appearance, I did not think it proper to do any thing with them, but reffered them to stand & see the troops march by at a distance, & bid them farewell.
Thus, Sir, I have reported to your Excellency the progress and unfortunate issue of this business—a business in which I had promised myself much satisfaction, as well in rendering service to my Country, as in atchieving fame for the officers and soldiers employed in executing it—Providence has ordered it otherwise.
I cannot help feeling great regret at the disappointment, whilst I reflect with gratitude on the honor conferred on me by your Excellency in affording me an opportunity of acquiring so much as so small a risk.—I pretend not that the work has been performed as well as it might have been, perhaps I have been deficient in point of [discomment?], but I am sure I have not been in points of exertion, these have been stretched to their utmost, yet I have unfortunately failed—failed at a time when I looked on the prize just ready to fall into my hands, which was truly the case from ten to one o’clock on the of the twelvth Instant, with every thing ready to made the attack we were just within view of the fort undiscovered, while every breast was filled with ardor and the most animated determination—but lost it in the strange and unaccountable manner I have related.
I have the honor to be, with the most profound respect and esteem
Sir Your Excellency’s most obed’t and very hum servant. Marinus Willett.
FROM: The Papers of the Continental Congress. 8 pages. Item Numnber 152, Publication Nunber: M247. Letters from Gen. George Washington, Commander in Chief of the Army, 1775-84; June 16, 1775-Sept 18, 1776 (Vols 1-11) Ltrs. from Gen. George Washington Volumne 11. Date 19 Feb. 1783 Roll Number 171.
Return to opening page of Morrison's Pensions