In 1778, Captain James Willing and his crew sailed and rowed the bateaux Rattletrap down the Ohio River to the Mississippi. A “left” turn of sorts then took them down the Mississippi all the way to the Gulf of Mexico. Willing’s purpose was straightforward: secure the neutrality of residents along the Mississippi, obtain supplies from New Orleans, and return them to the new United States. It was as tall an order as the Ohio and Mississippi were dangerous. British rangers and their Native American allies closely watched both shores and would readily attack vulnerable river traffic. Willing’s only refuge lay in a string of forts the Americans had established on the Ohio, but they did not extend very far. He would have to make due with his crew and the two swivel guns that armed Rattletrap.
Willing was born in Philadelphia in 1751, the youngest son of Charles and Anne Willing. The family was prominent and well off. Charles was a London-born merchant who helped give Robert Morris his start in business, eventually naming him a partner. When Morris later became one of the Revolution’s chief financiers, James’ oldest brother, Thomas, joined him raising funds by putting up his own private wealth against the public debt. He later went on to become President of the Bank of North America.
James was the family’s black sheep. As the youngest, he had more of a responsibility to make his own way and set out for Natchez, on the Mississippi River, in 1774. Within a few years, he had exhausted his resources with little to show for it and returned to Philadelphia in 1777. Likely exploiting his family connections, Willing arranged a Naval Captaincy from Congress, which authorized him to undertake his mission on the Mississippi. With little more than the commission in hand, he traveled to Pittsburgh, arriving on December 12. On the 21st, he promptly presented a list of his requirements to Brigadier General Hand, then commanding the post. It included 1 Lieutenant or Ensign, 24 regulars, a sergeant, a corporal, a ship’s carpenter, ten additional volunteers, a boat with 12 or 14 oars, 40 stands of Arms, 250 pounds of gunpowder with sufficient ammunition, 100 lbs of iron, matches, paper, wadding, and sponges to support two swivel guns, and the range of additional equipment needed for men going to war. Hand, already besieged with the demands of supplying his own forces, must have groaned.
The Congressional Agent at Fort Pitt, George Morgan, could only support Willing’s request. But, frustrated at the timing, he wrote Willing “It is to be lamented that you had not been able to leave this 1st of October The Time I have so often pointed out to Individuals of Congress. You should now be about leaving Orleans to ascend the River & thereby secure your Passage & at one third the Expence of Provisions &c—I now dread the Issue.” Morgan, himself a merchant with extensive experience in the west, knew his subject. For his part, Willing also asked Hand to order sufficient supplies be delivered to Arkansas to support five boats with 100-125 men on the return trip.
With most of his men drawn from the 13th Virginia Regiment, Willing and the Rattletrap finally left Pittsburgh on January 10, 1778. Ironically, the slapdash nature of his mission began to trouble Congress in far off Philadelphia when General Hand asked for guidance about fulfilling Willing’s request for supplies on the return trip. Some suspected Robert Morris of arranging the whole thing without proper oversight and Hand’s request for guidance was the first they heard of it.
The Rattletrap’s passage down the Ohio did not go unnoticed by the British or their Native American allies. For that matter, one of Willing’s first acts was to seize a large bateaux from the Becquet brothers and relieve another trader, Mr. La Chance, of his cargo of brandy near the mouth of the Wabash River, not far from the British post at Vincennes. (The traders were Frenchmen who remained in Illinois after the French and Indian War transferred control to the British and were traveling on a British pass.) They just missed capturing Philippe De Rocheblave, the senior British representative at Kaskaskia on the Mississippi, who was returning from a visit to Vincennes. He informed the Governor of Quebec, Major General Carleton:
“I learned upon my arrival at the beautiful [Ohio] River, the fifth of the present month, that two days ago a vessel had passed coming from Fort Pit, which had taken two brothers who under the passport of Mr. Abott [the British officer in charge of Vincennes] had gone to trade with the Indians. I learned the next day that they had also taken Mr. LeChance, officer of Militia at this place who left before me, going under my passport to journey to St. Vincennes. They took with the latter his childred [sic], his effects and his negroes. They took likewise one of the two brothers of the first capture, with fifty packages of skins which they had, after making them understand that they should only put the blame on their passport and they wished to take Mr. Hamilton, Abbott, and myself. We discovered that, by their language, they were seeking to inspire a spirit of independence among the people. The ship is large, pointed and with quarter netting having, according to some of the energes, two cannon, and four, according to others, who say that two are masked, and forty soldiers, commanded by an officer from Philadelphia named Willing, who has three others under his orders. It is loaded with provisions.”
Along the way, Willing’s force continued to grow. He was joined by two canoes and ten more men.
On February 19, Willing and the Rattletrap arrived off the plantation of Anthony Hutchins, a loyalist, just north of Natchez. Willing was almost home. He seized Hutchins and his moveable valuables. John Watkins told the story, testifying before a council formed by the Governor of West Florida to consider the threat:
“[A]t night Two Small Barges came to the landing place belonging to His Plantation…and landed a party consisting of about Forty Men Commanded by one Strodder Supposed to be a Lieutenant and one McIntyre aid to be an Ensign in the Rebel Service. That these men came directly to his House and Seized four Persons named Robert Welsh, John Richmond Marshall Henry Earnest and John Earnest who were all in the employ of Colonel Stuart the Superintendent That the Rebels bound these people with Cords and repeatedly Swore that they would put them all to Death.”
After extensively interrogating and forcing Welsh to swear an oath of neutrality, they then took a rifle, two smoothbored fusils, and a pistol from him, allowed him his freedom, and removed the others to their boats. Watkins appears not to have been home during this episode, but the next day, Willing arrived in his bateaux, armed with two swivel guns, and accompanied by four canoes. He sent five men ashore, who made more threats and announced they were the advance party of a second force of two thousand men that would arrive in May. (At this time, George Rogers Clark was recruiting up and down the Virginia frontier for an invasion of the Illinois Country in what was still supposed to be a secret mission.)
Then, Willing divided his men, dispatching the faster canoes under the command of Robert George and Thomas McIntyre to scout ahead. They arrived at Natchez late that day and immediately announced the town was occupied. Natchez was a multinational town of American, English, and French settlers who offered no resistance. The morning of the 20th, Willing and the rest of his men arrived. He convened the town’s population and announced the occupants were now prisoners of war and that he was contemplating seizing the town in the name of the United States. In truth, he had already done that, but Willing’s mission required him to depart it for New Orleans and he lacked sufficient forces to permanently occupy Natchez. The locals did not know that, so they worked out terms of surrender. One local wrote:
“Our settlers were, with very rare exceptions, well disposed to the American cause. Willing was a good speaker, and he represented the case for the colonies, and the certainty of their ultimate success, in very persuasive terms. He assured us that five thousand American troops, under Gen. Clarke, were on their way to this quarter, to take possession and bring us under their jurisdiction, and all that Congress and he, their agent, required of us, was the oath of neutrality; which oath, when he concluded his address, was duly administered and freely taken; our people not being disposed to compromise themselves at that period of uncertainty and transition, by any overt act, on one side or the other, which might, in certain contingencies, be construed to their disadvantage.”
Essentially, they agreed to observe strict neutrality in the war provided their “persons, slaves, and other property of whatever description shall be left secure, and without the least molestation during our neutrality.” Willing agreed, excepting the property of British officials, and limiting protection to those who signed a pledge of neutrality. Still, he demanded provisions for his men, ordered all single men to join him—some did—and directed those who supported him to move to the Spanish side of the river. For all intents and purposes, he was destroying the integrity of the community in which he had commercially failed and departed roughly a year before. Whether it was a demonstration of military success, an act of petty revenge, personal bullying, river piracy, or bravado is open to debate. But, the diversion, which lasted days, was not entirely in keeping with his mission of obtaining supplies from New Orleans.
Departing Natchez, Willing and his hodge-podge flotilla proceeded to raid plantations on the Mississippi below Natchez. He had acquired a second bateaux and still more men. His crews destroyed crops, killed cattle, burned houses, seized slaves, took hostages, and threatened worse to come. The plundered locals, who knew Willing personally, could only resent him. One such, William Dunbar, described the experience:
About sun sett the Genl. Himself dropt down & put ashore at Walker’s, where the scene that followed markes the nature of the man,/I had almost said Brute/The Houses were immediately rumaged & every thing of any value secured for the Commodore’s use, after which the Heroick Captain ordered his people to set fire to all the houses & indigo works, which was accordingly done & they were quickly consumed to ashes—Twas not enough to pillage & plunder the man at whose house he had been often most hospitably entertained, his ruin must be compleated by a piece of wanton cruelty, from which the monster cou’d derive to himself no advantage…the Houses of the English Gentlemen on the British side were plundered & among the rest mine was robbed of every thing that cou’d be carried away—all my wearing apparell, bed & table linen; not a shirt was left in the house—blankets, pieces of Cloth, sugar, silver ware, In short all was fish that came in their net, they destroyed a considerable quantity of bottled wine, tho’ they carried away no liquor; …the orders given by their head were to drive down my negroes & if opposed by any one to shoot ‘em down.
…Cap. Willing conceived the design of making his fortune at one Coup upon the ruin & destruction of his Old Friends & Intimates—His chief reason was that he had by his folly squandered a fortune upon the river & twas there he ought to repair it. In order to effect this, his hellish purpose, he recruited & collected together on his way down, all the vagabonds & rascalls he met with, of which kind the river is always full.”
Dunbar believed that Willing’s force had reached 200 men by the time he reached the lower Mississippi. Ironically, Willing eventually provided a Dunbar a pass to exempt him and his property from further seizures, “he being a frd to America.” In all likelihood, Dunbar had also thrown in the towel and sworn the neutrality oath.
 Charles Rappleye, Robert Morris: Financier of the American Revolution, (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2010), 216-217, 289.
 Charles R. Smith, Marines in the Revolution: A History of the Continental Marines in the American Revolution, 1775-1783, (Washington, DC: History and Museums Division, United States Marine Corps, 1975), 182.
 “Colonel George Morgan to Captain James Willing, January 1778” NDAR, XI, 10.
 Reuben Gold Thwaites and Louise Phelps Kellogg, eds., Frontier Defense on the Upper Ohio, 1777-1778, Draper Series, Volume III, (Madison: Wisconsin Historical Society, 1912), Note 62, 191-192; Michael J. Crawford, ed., Naval Documents of the American Revolution, Volume XI, American Theater: January 1, 1778-March 31, 1778, European Theater: January 1, 1778-March 31, 1778, (Washington, DC: Naval Historical Center, 2005), 6. The pay abstract and list of crewmen on the mission is on page 71 of this volume. The series is hereafter referred to as NDAR, followed by the volume number.)
 “Continental Commerce Committee to Robert Morris, February 21, 1778,” NDAR, XI, 397-398.
 Smith, Marines in the Revolution, 182; Edward Gay Mason, ed., Philippe De Rocheblave and Rocheblave Papers, (Chicago: Fergus Printing Company, 1890), 242. The Becquet Brothers were from Cahokia and Le Chance was from Kaskaskia, all on the Mississippi above the mouth of the Ohio. Thwaites and Kellogg, eds., Frontier Defense, note 49, 286.
 “Rocheblave to Carleton, 18 Fr. 1778” John Moses, ed., Philippe De Rocheblave and Rocheblave Papers, (Chicago: Fergus Printing Company, 1890), 273.
 “Minutes of the Governor’s Council of West Florida, March 5th, 1778,” NDAR, XI, 521-522.
 “Minutes of the Governor’s Council of West Florida, March 5th, 1778,” NDAR, XI, 522.
 “Journal of Captain Mathew Phelps, February 21, 1778,” NDAR, XI, 400.
 Quoted in Smith, Marines in the Revolution, 184; “Minutes of the Governor’s Council of West Florida, 10th March, 1778,” NDAR, XI, 592.
 Quoted in Smith, Marines in the Revolution, 185.
 “Order of Captain James Willing, March 3, 1778,” “Journal of Captain Mathew Phelps, February 21, 1778,” NDAR, XI, 499.