Monday, February 13, 2012

Marinus Willett, Forgotten Savior of Peekskill


No Peekskill street bears his name.
No statue of him graces any Peekskill park.
No memorial plaque commemorating his stunning exploits during the Revolution can be found anywhere in Peekskill.
He was Lt. Col. Marinus Willett, an outstanding soldier whose determined action saved Peekskill from destruction at the hands of the British. Yet he is hardly remembered by the community he delivered from the enemy.

Meet Marinus Willett
Marinus Willett was born on July 31, 1740, in Jamaica, Long Island. Originally called Rustdorp by the Dutch, when the Brutish took over in 1664 they named it Jameco, after the Lenape word for beaver. The tenth of thirteen children and one of the six sons of Aletta Clowes and Edward Willett, Marinus was named for a great uncle, Marinus Van Varick.
Later genealogical research casts doubt on the claim made in the 19th century that he was the great-grandson of Thomas Willett, first mayor of New York in 1665. This lineage was never claimed by Marinus Willett.
Little is known about his childhood, except that he worked as a cabinet maker. At the age of 18, he gained military experience as a lieutenant in the French and Indian War by taking part in attacks on French-held Forts Ticonderoga and Frontenac.
In the years before the Revolution, Willett was a fervent and effective member of the Sons of Liberty. Like other secret societies, it was formed to protest the series of onerous acts passed by the British to extract more taxes from the colonies.
After the news of the armed rebellion at Lexington and Concord in April of 1775 reached New York, the British decided to evacuate the city. On June 6th, seeing a British detachment taking five wagonloads of muskets to the docks, Willett dashed into the street, grabbed the bridle of the lead horse and stopped the column.
An unruly crowd gathered, and Willett--by now an accomplished rabble-rouser--stirred them up. He announced to the astonished British that they could only leave the city with the personal weapons they carried. The spare guns would have to remain, and remain they did. Willett even persuaded one of the British soldiers to join the American cause.
In 1892, a plaque commemorating this event was placed by the Sons of the Revolution at the northwest corner of Broad and Beaver streets. It contains a representation of old Broad Streetand Federal Hall and a medallion head of Marinus Willett.
Two months after the seizure of the British weapons, Willett became a captain in Col. Alexander McDougall's First New York militia regiment and took part in the misguided and abortive invasion of Canada.
An obvious key objective of British forces during the war, Peekskill guarded the southern gate to the Hudson Highlands, a natural mountainous barrier. Part of the Appalachian mountain chain, the Highlands commanded a vital avenue of communication--the crucial waterway known as the North River, today called the Hudson to honor its discoverer.
Travel back in time with me to the spring of 1777. British forces had wintered comfortably in New York City and now occupy Westchester as far north as Dobbs Ferry.

    Marinus Willett in a 1791 oil painting by portrait artist Ralph Earle.
Owned by the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Above the Croton River, American forces are in control. In between is the so-called "Neutral Ground." Raided by marauding Tory forces called "skinners," who steal cattle from farmers to sell to the British in New York City, the region is defended by patriot militia and irregulars called "cowboys."
Brig. Gen. William Heath, nominally in command of the Eastern Department at Peekskill, is on leave and visiting his home in Massachusetts. Commanding Continental forces in the Highlands and headquartered at Peekskill is Scottish-born Alexander, now a Brigadier General.
McDougall, 46, a wealthy merchant and dedicated patriot, had been a member and later a leader of the Sons of Liberty. He wrote and had printed an anonymous broadside, To the Betrayed Inhabitants, protesting provincial payments for housing and provisions for British troops under the Quartering Acts. Accused of libel, he refused to post bail and was held in jail for five months. Public demonstrations became so frequent his release was ordered by Governor Tryon.
McDougall fought delaying actions in 1776 against the British at Brooklyn Heights and White Plains. [In one of those peculiar alterations that occur in street names, MacDougal Streetin New York's Greenwich Village was later named for him.]
In command at Fort Independence on Roa Hook (opposite the present entrance to Camp Smith) is Lt. Col. Marinus Willett, 36, who spends every available moment drilling his New York militia troops of the Third Continental Regiment.
At Peekskill, McDougall's forces erect redoubts and barracks in a military complex on a series of three hills lying south of the present Bear Mountain State Parkway

The British Attack Peekskill
On Sunday, March 23, 1777, an attack force consisting of the British frigate H.M.S. Brune, four transports and other naval support craft appears in the Hudson off Peekskill. About 500 British troops and four light cannons served by sailors are landed unopposed in Lent's Cove, between Charles Point and Indian Point.
Their mission is to destroy the Continental encampment and any wharves, warehouses, buildings, equipment or supplies useful to the American cause.
General McDougall decides that his Peekskill garrison is too small to attack the superior British force. A defeat at the hands of the enemy would open the Highlands and jeopardize the weapons and supplies stored at Continental Village and Fishkill.
McDougall prudently withdraws his troops to the north of Peekskill. The retreating Americans burn one of the barracks on Fort Hill, thus denying it to the attacking British. For the same reason, they burn a mill on McGregory Creek and several warehouses near the waterfront.
The British set up their four field pieces on Drum Hill and fire on Peekskill. Nathaniel Brown, a Continental soldier retreating before the British, stops to drink from a spring and is killed by fragments from a British cannonball. The spring near which he is standing is located on Division Street, north of the junction with Highland Avenue. It will hereafter be known as the Soldier's Spring. General McDougall sends an urgent message to Lt. Col. Willett on Roa Hook telling him to leave the fort in charge of a subordinate and to meet him at Bald Hill (north of the present Van Cortlandtville) with a detachment of troops. After the hanging of British spy Edmund Palmer in August of 1777, the hill will acquire the sinister name it bears to this day: Gallows Hill.

Colonel Willett Reports
At about three in the afternoon, Marinus Willett and 80 soldiers join McDougall on Bald Hill. Quickly taking in the situation, Willett spots British troops on a hill to the south of Peekskill Hollow Creek (the site of the present Cortlandt town hall), where they have set fire to a house. He immediately proposes to attack them by circling to their rear and asks McDougall to make a feint to the left to distract attention from his flanking movement.
Initially uncomfortable with this plan, McDougall prefers to wait for Dutchess County militia reinforcements expected the next day. Willett pesters the reluctant commander, who finally gives him permission to execute his plan.
Aggressively ordering his troops forward, Willett moves them through a gully with guns "at trail" to avoid detection. After being delayed by two fences at which they are subjected to enemy musket fire, in a loud voice Willett gives the order, “Fix bayonets and charge!”
On hearing that chilling command, the British troops, busy reloading their muskets, fall back to the Post Road
. Confusion reigns in the gathering darkness. Unfamiliar with the terrain, the entire British force is soon in disorderly retreat back to their boats, leaving behind the baggage and supplies that had been landed with their expedition. One abandoned item, a blue cloak made of camlet (a mixture of silk and wool) will have special significance for Marinus Willett.
Willett's decisiveness and the unflinching determination of his well-drilled troops undoubtedly saved Peekskill from the fate of other rebel towns struck in lightning raids.
Burning was a common British retaliatory tactic as punishment for communities storing grain and supplies for rebel forces. The previous autumn, they had burned White Plains after the battle there. One month after their attack on Peekskill, Danbury in Connecticut will be raided, and homes, warehouses and provisions destroyed. Later in 1777, the British will attack and burn the upriver town of Kingston, temporarily serving as New York’s capital because an attack on Albany was anticipated.
Two years later, the same fiery fate awaits the Connecticut towns of Groton, New Haven, East Haven, Fairfield and Green's Farms. New London will be savagely torched in 1781.
Peekskill will be overrun twice by the British—first in the fall of 1777 to guard their flank in the attack on Forts Clinton and Montgomery near Bear Mountain, and again in the summer and fall of 1779 during their campaign to capture Stony Point and Verplanck Point.
On each of these occasions, the enemy's troops will remain longer and wreak greater havoc than before. By then, Willett and his troops will be long gone. One likes to think the outcome of these subsequent attacks would have been different had Marinus Willett still been in Peekskill.

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