Captain James Willing’s Mississippi Raid, Part 2

Bernardo_de_Gálvez (Wikimedia Commons(
Bernardo De Galvez, Governor of Louisiana (Wikimedia Commons)

Willing’s next target was the town of Manchack upon which he descended “so rapidly that they reached the Settlements without being discovered.”[1]  On the 23rd, Willing’s advance parties captured the 250-ton British sloop Rebecca, with sixteen 4-pounders and six swivels.[2]  It was a coup worthy of Navy SEALS.  Rebecca was normally a merchant vessel, but had been armed and sent upriver to contest the Rattletrap’s advance by protecting Manchack.  Instead, her presence had strengthened Willing’s force.  Captured while lying against the levy opposite the town, she only had fifteen men aboard when an equal or superior force of Americans struck about 7 am.[3]  With Manchack captured and the Rebecca renamed the Morris, Willing turned his attention to the end game at New Orleans, where he hoped to dispose of his booty and obtain supplies useful for the American war effort.

At New Orleans, the Congressional Agent, Oliver Pollock, was aware of Rattletrap’s advance and began making preparations to dispose of the property Willing and his raiders had taken, a growing portion of which constituted slaves.  He organized a small force under his nephew, Thomas Pollock, to go up river and help Willing bring his vessels and cargo into port.  Instead, Pollock and his men proceeded down the river, where they captured an English brig, the Neptune, eventually bringing her into New Orleans as a prize.[4]  (The British would argue strenuously that Neptune and a private boat were not in fact legal prizes.)

Willing’s eventual arrival in New Orleans created potential problems for the Spanish government and the local governor, Bernardo de Galvez.  Spain was still a neutral party in the war.   It conducted an extensive commerce across the river, with loyalists and whigs alike, and constantly had to contend with the British forces ensconced in the colonies of East and West Florida.  Many of the loyalists had fled to the Mississippi’s west bank seeking protection from Willing’s flotilla.  At the same time, an opportunity to weaken Britain in the Gulf of Mexico and enrich Spain presented opportunities.  Galvez sensed them both.  He had to thread the needle of pursuing Spain’s interests at Britain’s expense without causing a formal breach.  His solution was to provide protection to the loyalists and disallow high-profile transactions with Willing.  Instead, he would permit deniable commercial interactions with the Americans “which must take place quietly so that it cannot be proven that I know of this business, so as to avoid any quarrels or complaints by the Court of London on this matter.”[5]  Moreover, he assumed that British subjects under Spanish protection would liquidate their assets, particularly slaves, at fire sale prices in order to return to Europe.  This made slaves a particularly lucrative target for Willing to seize, since that increased the likelihood that loyalists would sell them rather than lose them and the Spanish were always willing to purchase them.  The result was to transform the last portion of Willing’s original mission—obtaining supplies for the American war effort—into a campaign of slave trading.

Politically, protecting loyalists and permitting the Americans to profit while maintaining deniability of Spain’s own role was a reasonable approach until the British sloop Sylph, commanded by John Fergusson, arrived on March 14.  Fergusson was eager to press the British case against Willing and demand the return of captured property.   Until that point, Galvez had been able to put off private petitions for relief.  Fergusson’s presence and communications were official matters that could not be so easily avoided.  He eventually split the difference, requiring the return of some property, but quietly allowing the Americans to dispose of portions for cash.[6]  De Galvez had fewer qualms about permiting Willing to obtain the supplies he had originally been sent to purchase, yet also wanted that kept secret.


The British were not content to cede Willing’s control of Natchez or Manchack.   In addition to sending the Sylph to the Mississippi, they sent 50 men toward the later town and successfully recaptured it from a tiny American garrison March 19, killing two men and one woman, wounding eight or ten more people, and capturing another fourteen.  Willing could not allow that to stand and sent his own detachment north to successfully retake the town.  But, rather than garrison it, the Americans moved upstream, continuing to plunder English plantations and capture slaves.[7]  The forces at his disposal continued to grow as locals joined him, perhaps more motivated by his riverine raids than any real identification with the American cause.  Opportunists are often happy to join “armies” when the prospect of booty is high and the risks are low.  The change indicates that Willing’s mission had grown well beyond its original intent of securing supplies.  Indeed, the Congressional Agent at Pittsburgh, George Morgan, had anticipated a rapid descent to New Orleans and a quick return when helping outfit the mission.  But, Willing’s plundering successes had taken on a life of their own as more men flocked to his banner and he tarried in New Orleans.

Events at Manchack may have prompted Willing to fear for Natchez as well.  Indeed, despite swearing an oath of neutrality, they had sought assistance and a garrison from the British.[8]  So, in April, he sent another detachment in that direction determined to ensure that the oath of neutrality was observed.  Word spread among the residents that this latest American foray really intended to loot the town, entirely credible given their activities south of Natchez in February.  So, they armed themselves and prepared to ambush the Americans at White Cliffs, below Natchez on the Mississippi.  An attempt at a parlay failed, gunfire was exchanged, and the Americans withdrew and returned to New Orleans, having lost five men killed and several more captured.[9]

Willing was becoming an increasing pest for Galvez.  He could not maintain any deniability about Spain’s role in providing a de facto base of operations for Willing so long as Willing continued to raid the countryside.  British merchants began demanding that Willing and Pollock be arrested and surrendered to the British.[10]  It was one thing to quietly dispose of booty and slaves while Willing purchased goods locally for dispatch back up the Mississippi: a short-term affair that could be waved away with time.  It was another to be dragged into an escalating conflict between the Americans and the British on the lower Mississippi.  Willing, however, remained, planning ever more operations in the region while continuing to dispute the matter of property he had seized, particularly the Neptune and a private boat taken on the Mississippi. In April, the British sloop Hound arrived to press the British case and the Sylph moved farther upstream.  Rather than quietly disposing of Willing’s seized property to the benefit of Spain, Galvez had to begin preparing New Orleans against a possible attack.[11]  Hoping to reduce tensions, he required the British citizens who had sought and received his protection, and, more importantly, the Americans in town, to take an oath of neutrality.   Most of the Americans did, but it was not enough.[12]

By May, the British had sufficiently mobilized their forces to establish a garrison of some 200 men at Natchez and 100 at Manchack, while the Sylph’s presence upriver controlled the Mississippi.   Willing had been effectively cut off from Pittsburgh.  Galvez was hard-pressed to defend his own town, key to Spanish Louisiana.  He let American authorities know of his predicament.

My Dear Sirs:

The bearer of this letter will inform You of the Critical Situation in which I find myself with my neighbors, blocked from every side, and threatened with an attack if I do not turn over the prizes taken by Captain Willing, his person, Mr. Oliver Pollock, and several officers from his party considering the protection, asylum, and support I have given them a declaration of War.  To force me to yield to their demands, they have placed two English frigates in front of the city, two corsairs at its back along Lake Pontchartrain, eight hundred English Royalists and Savages above the river in Natchez, another two frigates expected from Jamaica, and two companies of grenadiers arriving from Pensacola to Manchac.  I find myself with only two hundred men for defense and so I do now know what will happen or what the results will be.  Nevertheless, I have resolved to sacrifice everything before giving in to their demands and am not the least bit regretful that the occasion has arisen to prove my affection for You and my desire to serve you no matter the cost.  May God protect [&c.]

Berndo de Galvez[13]

Galvez’ note can be read several ways.  Literally, it was a pledge to the American cause, which exceeded his authority.  No doubt, he and the letter’s intended recipients knew this full well.  The subtext, however, can also be read as a plea to the Americans to solve the problem of Willing for the Spanish.  Bluntly, New Orleans was more useful to the Americans as a port in the hands of the Spanish than as a port seized by the British.  Galvez, Smith, and Morris knew this as well.  While war between Spain and Britain would serve American interests, Galvez’ admission of weakness meant he had little to offer in the way of assistance.  Pollock indirectly reinforced the message, confirming the Spanish weakness and proposing an American invasion at a time when the Americans themselves had little more to offer![14]

Meanwhile, the American agent, Oliver Pollock, was having his own difficulties with the captain.  Part of his duty was helping settle accounts for Willing and his men from the proceeds of sales from their seized property.  Officers and sailors always overestimated the value of the “prizes” they took while raiding.  But, as Galvez had so astutely predicted, slaves made a significant portion of the wealth that Willing and his men seized, depressing the market and enabling the Spanish to purchase them as a reduced price.  As agent, Pollock was entitled to a cut of the proceeds.  Worse, Congress claimed half.  Thus, the American slave raids enriched Willing’s crews less than they expected.  Meanwhile, Galvez was reluctant to let Pollock dispose of high-profile property that promised to fetch a high price, such as the Neptune.  Desertions were the result.  Willing’s forces began to shrink.[15]  The captain exploded, writing the American agent:  “My Men and Officers are discontented, myself displeased and the Governor himself highly dissatisfied with Your Conduct and what is of the most serious consequence My Men are deserting and the American Bank as it is termed is becoming Proverbially Ridiculous.”[16]  In the meantime, Pollock did his best to purchase and ship supplies to the Americans up the Mississippi aboard Spanish vessels, still taking advantage of Spain’s technical neutrality and marginal control of the river’s western shore.  Pollock responded politely, but firmly, refuting Willing’s accusations, but he was clearly ready to be rid of the captain, whose value to the American cause was rapidly declining.[17]  He began looking for ways to get Willing and his men out of town.[18]


Galvez was of two minds on the subject.  Willing and Pollock preferred to travel up the Mississippi, ostensibly returning to Pittsburgh.  But, British domination of the river, particularly at Natchez, would likely frustrate such an attempt.  Galvez was also concerned that the journey was merely a ruse to renew raids on English plantations, which would only further complicate his relations with the British, already poised on a knife’s edge.  So, he initially declined.  Pollock worked to outfit the Morris as a proper warship that could return the Americans by sea, but that was a slow process.  Finally, Lieutenant Robert George came up with a new plan: he would take most of the men—no longer commanded by Willing—up the Mississippi.  Galvez relented, provided that George and his men would not raid any English plantations, but instead treat them as de facto Spanish citizens.  Simply, he would no longer tolerate the American use of New Orleans as a base for raiding the English.  George agreed and received a pass from the Spanish governor, along with a prescribed route of travel designed to minimize the American interaction with the English shore.  George and his men departed in August, 1778.  They would eventually join George Rogers Clark, who had used the summer to conquer the Illinois Country.  Rattletrap, skippered by George, would be renamed Willing after its former captain.  For his part, Willing finally vacated New Orleans in October, relieving Pollock of the stress of dealing with him and Galvez of the burden the American captain had become.  He was bound for Philadelphia by sea, but the British finally captured him on the open ocean.  Willing ended up in a New York prison until he was exchanged in 1781.[19]

Captain James Willing’s Mississippi Raid, Part 1


[1]                “Colonel John Stuart to Lord George Germain, March 5 1778,” NDAR, XI, 523-524.

[2]                “Minutes of the Governor’s Council of West Florida, 2nd March 1778,” NDAR, XI, 492.

[3]                “Minutes of the Governor’s Council of West Florida, 2nd March 1778,” NDAR, XI, 490-491.

[4]                Smith, Marines in the Revolution, 186.

[5]                “Governor Don Bernardo De Galvez to Don Jose De Galvez, March 11, 1778,” NDAR, XI, 607-608.

[6]                Smith, Marines in the Revolution, 186-187.

[7]                “Donald Campbell to Colonel John Stuart, March 20, 1778,” NDAR, XI, 748.

[8]                “Governor Peter Chester to Brigadier General Augustine Prevost, 21st March 1778,” NDAR, XI, 754.

[9]                Smith, Marines in the Revolution, 188.

[10]              “Petition of David Ross and Company to Don Bernardo De Galvez, April 11, 1778,” Michael J. Crawford, ed., Naval Documents of the American Revolution, Volume 12, (Washington, DC: Naval History and Heritage Command, 2013), 93-94.

[11]              Smith, Marines in the Revolution, 188.

[12]              Smith, Marines in the Revolution, 188.

[13]              “Don Bernardo De Galvez, Governor of Louisiana, to William Smith and Robert Morris, May 5, 1778,” NDAR, 12, 271.

[14]              “Oliver Pollock to the Continental Marine Committee, 7th May 1778,” NDAR, 12, 286-289.

[15]              Smith, Marines in the Revolution, 190.

[16]              “Captain James Willing, Continental Army, to Oliver Pollock, 30th May 1778,” NDAR, 12, 493.

[17]              “Oliver Pollock to Captain James Willing, Continental Army, 31st May, 1798,” NDAR, 12, 502.

[18]              “Oliver Pollock to Don Bernardo De Galvez, Governor of Spanish Louisiana, 16th June, 1778,” NDAR, 13. 130-131; Smith, Marines in the Revolution, 190.

[19]              Jeff Dacus, “James Willing and the Mississippi Expedition,” Journal of the American Revolution, April 18, 2019.  Available at:

2 thoughts on “Captain James Willing’s Mississippi Raid, Part 2

  1. Pingback: Captain James Willing’s Mississippi Raid, Part 1 | Emerging Revolutionary War Era

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