By the time of the American Revolution, white men loyal to the Crown lived in two small settlements of the British Province of West Florida. The settlements were on the Gulf Coast and Natchez, Mississippi. Being situated so far south, they would have felt little of the struggle for Independence if not for a daring raid of a man named James Willing and his band of Americans who traveled down the Mississippi River in 1778.
Spain possessed the port of New Orleans
Spain had possessed the port of New Orleans since 1763, and the Fort was fortified as far north as St. Louis. Spain was willing to embarrass the British so they offered assistance to the Americans through their port of New Orleans via the work of Oliver Pollock, an American merchant who resided in New Orleans.
Bernalde de Galvez (1746-1786)
Oliver Pollock met with Spanish Governors of Louisiana Luis de Unzaga and Bernalde de Galvez and acted as an agent for the Continental Army and Governor Patrick Henry of Virginia.
Pollock urged friends to support an American expedition
In 1776, Captain George Gibson and 18 men came down the Mississippi from Fort Pitt. Governor Luis De Unzaga provided the Americans with 10,000 pounds of gunpowder. Gibson voluntarily surrendered to a temporary arrest to avoid alerting the British of the transaction while his Chief Assistant William Linn returned upstream with the powder.
Pollock continued to urge his friends to support an American expedition down the Mississippi River like the one launched against the Canadians in 1775-1776. He finally convinced his friend, James Willing, who resided in Natchez since 1772, to return to Pennsylvania and encourage Congress to send troops down the Mississippi.
James Willing raided the Natchez District
Congress had been debating an idea to send 1500 men under the command of Colonel George Morgan to seize the Mississippi settlements from England, but they rejected the plan. Willing, Robert Morris of Pennsylvania and Pollock persuaded the secret committee of the War Board to send a more scaled down version of the plan.
A strange group led by James Willing raided the Natchez district. Although, he was evidently authorized to bring back five boat loads of supplies, he was unofficially allowed to plunder Tory property along the way, and dispose of it in New Orleans.
Willing accepted their offer not to take up arms against the United States
January 11, 1778, Captain Willing along with 29 men, left Fort Pitt in the U.S.S. Rattletrap. He recruited additional men along the way and in early February, when he stopped at the mouth of the Arkansas, he had 100 men.
An advance party, led by Lieutenant Thomas McIntire, surprised and captured four British Indian agents who were being entertained at the home of John Watkins, a Walnut Hills planter. The group proceeded downstream to seize the persons and property of Anthony Hutchins and William McIntosh. Captain Willing considered them both leading Tories in the community of Natchez.
“Frightened by the unexpected appearance of an armed force in their territory, the inhabitants of Natchez authorized four prominent planters to arrange favorable terms of capitulation with Willing in order to avert further disaster. On February 21, the American captain accepted their offer not to take up arms against the United States or to assist any of its enemies in exchange for his promise to protect their property as long as they remained neutral in the war. During his brief stay in Natchez, Willing persuaded a number of the settlers who were sympathetic to the American cause to join his force.”
Willing’s force plundered the property of Tories
Meanwhile, an advance group under McIntire’s command was on its way down the Mississippi with Anthony Hutchins and most of his slaves in custody. They were concealed by a dense early morning fog and managed to surprise and capture the Rebecca, an English vessel, anchored to the river bank at Manchac. They then sent out small detachments of men to search the countryside for slaves and property of known Tories. McIntire awaited the appearance of Willing from Natchez and Oliver Pollock’s nephew, Thomas Pollock, from New Orleans.
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Further to the North, Willing’s larger force plundered the property of Tories in the Baton Rouge area. A few settlers had some advanced warning of Willing’s approach and managed to escape into Spanish territory, but most of the inhabitants were taken by surprise.
Left a trail of devastation
Before he left, Willing and his “Troop of Rascals,” as one disgruntled settler described them, left a trail of devastation seldom equaled in the annals of western history. As another inhabitant expressed it, in somewhat of an exaggerated fashion, there was “nothing to be seen but Destruction and Desolation.”
William Dunbar, perhaps the most prominent planter in the vicinity, was particularly vivid in his description of the havoc wrought by Willing’s men. “All was fish that came into their nett,” he wrote. They spared nothing. They seized “all my waring apparel, bed and table linen,” Dunbar recalled “not a shirt was left in the house— blankets, pieces of cloth, sugar, silver ware.”
Miraculously, no one was killed, although there were a few narrow escapes. One British Indian agent was “obliged to fly in his night shirt to the Spanish Fort at Manchac” barely ahead of his determined pursuers. Rumor had it that the Americans planned to slice Henry Alexander “into a hundred pieces” and to flay Alexander Ross alive when they captured him.
Granted asylum in Louisiana
Fortunately, both men remained a step in front of Willing’s band. Although Dunbar and the other victims refused to admit it at the time, Willing was not completely indiscriminate in his choice of victims to plunder. Those known to be sympathetic to the American cause were spared the same fate met by those who were outspoken British partisans.
While Willing was busy plundering the property of British settlers around Baton Rouge, Oliver Pollock was preparing Governor Galvez for his expected arrival in New Orleans. Galvez declared Willing’s men refugees, granted them asylum in Louisiana and permitted them to purchase supplies in New Orleans, including weapons. He also, extended to Willing the use of several public buildings as barracks for his troops. Finally, and most important of all, he allowed Willing to dispose of the booty at public auction. “These sales eventually netted the Americans more than $62,000.”
- Brewer, Willis ALABAMA, HER HISTORY, RESOURCES, WAR RECORD, AND PUBLIC MEN: FROM 1540 to 1872, 1872
This story and more can be found in ALABAMA FOOTPRINTS Exploration: Lost & Forgotten Stories (Volume 1) a collection of lost and forgotten stories about the people who discovered and initially settled in Alabama.
Some stories include:
- The true story of the first Mardi Gras in America and where it took place
- The Mississippi Bubble Burst – how it affected the settlers
- Did you know that many people devoted to the Crown settled in Alabama –
- Sophia McGillivray- what she did when she was nine months pregnant
- Alabama had its first Interstate in the early days of settlement