In November of 1782, General Washington met with Col. Marinus Willett to discuss the feasibility of a winter expedition against the British held fort at Oswego. After years of delay, the British had finally reoccupied the site of their earlier fortifications and had constructed a new fort. With Fort Stanwix abandoned, A British presence at Oswego posed a severe threat to the New York frontier. Preliminary peace talks were underway between the United States and Britain, but the outcome was still unknown.
No doubt Washington hoped a winter attack would catch the British by surprise and Willett thought it had every chance of success. The attack was planned for February 1783. It was decided from the outset that if there were too many difficulties in reaching Oswego, or if the element of surprise was lost, the attack would be cancelled. The force comprised 500 men from both the African American Rhode Island Regiment and Willett’s New York troops, with three Oneida Indian scouts. On February 8th, with 120 horse drawn sleighs, the troops left German Flatts (modern Herkimer, NY) headed for Oswego. Willett’s overconfidence was about to combine with the severe winter weather to spell disaster for the expedition.
Though the men had been issued woolen socks, caps, and mittens, four or five men were already frostbitten before the troops reached Oneida Lake. The expedition halted at the ruins of Ft. Brewerton, where it was decided to leave the sleighs behind. Later, Willett ordered the dozen or so dogs that had accompanied the expedition to be killed, so their barking would not alert the British. The plan was to arrive at the British fort at midnight and attack in the predawn hours. First, they had to cross the frozen Oneida Lake in the dark. The ice closest to the fort was too thin to continue so the troops moved to a grueling overland march. After hours of marching, Willett realized the scouts were lost. When the sun began to rise the fort was revealed no more than three quarters of a mile away, but the element of surprise was lost. Several men already had frostbitten feet, and it was discovered that two men who had dropped out of the column to sleep had frozen to death. In addition, the temperatures were continuing to drop, and the men had no food. Confident of victory, Willett had brought only enough food to reach Oswego, planning on feeding the men afterwards from the stores of the captured fort. The demoralized force could do nothing but retreat to their sleighs at Ft. Brewerton.
Reaching the area where the dogs had been killed, many starved men hacked at the frozen remains and ate the meat raw. Brawls ensued as the men fought over the carcasses, but most men bypassed this chaos and staggered on, close to collapse. The expedition finally returned to German Flatts on February 19th, having spent 12 days in bitter winter conditions. Five of those days had been spent with no food. A Rhode Island officer reported that over 130 of his men were frostbitten, with 40 in danger of losing limbs. A sergeant in Willett’s Regiment reported “…many men froze to death with only about thirty to forty of the regiment being fit for duty on their return.”
It had been a costly expedition that failed to meet any of its objectives. By the end of April, a preliminary peace treaty between the United State and Britain gave the Americans most of what they had hoped to gain by taking Oswego. The commander at Oswego, Major John Ross reported to his superiors “…there never was a more ridiculous expedition…” No doubt many of Willet’s troops echoed those words when remembering their time in the frozen wilderness.
February 05, 2022
Last updated: February 5, 2022