“Hey, what’s the deal with the boulder in Albany’s Washington Park?”

A great question and timely too. The boulder is known as “Willett Rock” and commemorates Lt. Colonel Marinus Willett, a soldier who played a pivotal role in the American Revolution and went on to be mayor of New York City in the early 1800s.

But what does that have to do with Albany? A LOT!!

3In summer 1777 British forces under Lt. Colonel Barry St. Leger were making their way east along the Mohawk Valley to join General Burgoyne coming down from the north – objective Albany. The British were making their way up the Hudson as well and there was no doubt Albany would be occupied by the British. It was only a matter of time. Albany was a strategic and tactical target. Albany, as the epicenter of the Northern Department of the Continental Army, was the site of military storehouses, warehouses, a powder house and armory. It was the staging area for all American troops in the Northern Department as well as the site of the military hospital (at Pine and Lodge). More importantly, occupation of the Hudson from Albany to New york City would give British control of New York State and separate New England (thought to be the heart of the resistance) from the other colonies – dividing the burgeoning Union.

Albany in Peril 
The city was faced with the prospect of “savage butchery and unscrupulously soldiery” under the British and their Indian allies. It was a long hot summer of terror. The city was over-crowded, filled with people who had fled to Albany in the face of Burgoyne’s march south. Extra supplies were being stockpiled in the Fort at the top of the hill. Those planning to stay were prepared to defend the city (People were ready to bury their silver and hide their daughters.) Others were getting ready to flee. Albany would be trapped by the approaching British from the south, west, north and by the River on the east.

The Best Laid Plans
6But the British plans fell apart west of Albany at Fort Stanwix* and the Battle of Oriskany. Fort Stanwix (known then as Fort Schuyler) was first surrounded by the British, Indians (lead by Joseph Brant) and Tory and Hessian contingents on August 3, 1777, when the Fort refused to surrender. Inside the Fort were American troops under Colonel Peter Gansevoort**. His second in command was Marinus Willett.

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Old Glory
But let’s stop here for a moment – on the second day of the siege legend has it that the American flag was flown in battle for the first time. Willett recalled, “…………..a respectable one was formed the white stripes were cut…the blue strips out of a Cloak…The red stripes out of different pieces of stuff collected from sundry persons. The Flagg was sufficiently large and a general Exhilaration of spirits appeared on beholding it Wave the morning after the arrival of the enemy.”

Battle of Oriskany
On August 4 part of the British force (primarily the Indians) ambushed American forces at Oriskany, east of the Fort. The Americans were routed in one of the fiercest and bloodiest battles of the War. But a party of about 250 soldiers in the Fort, under the command of Colonel Willett, took the opportunity to raid and loot the British camp, making away with dozens of wagons of supplies.

The British Bluff
St Leger’s command was demoralized, but banking on the victory at Oriskany he sent yet another surrender demand to the Fort. It included news (fake) that Burgoyne was in Albany, and threats Indians would be permitted to massacre the garrison and destroy the surrounding farms and communities. Willett replied, basically saying .. for a British officer you are sooooo ungentlemanly (and by the way, our answer is no).

The General’s Ruse
On the night of August 8th, Gansevoort sent Willett and another officer east, through British lines, to notify General Philip Schuyler (commander of the Northern Department) of their situation. In route they met General Benedict Arnold on his way to relieve the Fort. Although he only had a force of about 700 -800, Arnold crafted a genius disinformation campaign (involving a captured local Loyalist) to spread the word he had 3,000 troops. St. Leger’s force by that time was dwindling, through defections from the annoyed Indians (after all, Willett had stolen all their stuff and the siege was dragging on) and Hessian desertions.*** He was faced with seemingly overwhelming odds. St. Leger broke off the siege on August 22nd, and headed back west.

Victory!
So, the failure of St. Leger to bring additional troops to an already beleaguered Burgoyne led to his defeat less than 2 months later at the Battle of Saratoga (which saved Albany and changed the course of the Revolutionary War). Way to go Martinus!
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Back to the Rock 
10And that is story of why we wanted to honor Col. Willett – his bravery was instrumental in saving Albany.

The granite boulder was placed in Washington Park at the corner of Willett and State streets to honor Willett in 1907 by the Sons of the Revolution. ****

7We have never been able to figure why a rock as a monument (rocks are cheap?). We know there was a multi-year search across upstate for just the right rock, but we’re not sure why this particular rock was selected. (It may have come from the Oriskany battlefield, but we’re not sure.)

The plaque on the rock features a profile of Willett and the following inscription:

In Grateful Memory of General Marinus Willett 1740 – 1836 “For His Gallant and Patriotic Services In Defense of Albany And The People of The Mohawk Valley Against Tory And Indian Foes During The Years of The War For Independence, This Stone, Brought From The
Scenes of Conflict And Typical of His Rugged Character, Has Been Placed Here Under The Auspices of The Sons of The Revolution
In The State of New York By The Philip Livingston Chapter
A.D. 1907″

*Fort Stanwix is a national historic site in Rome NY, north of the NYS Thruway – it’s open 7 days a week, from 9 am to 5 pm, April 1 – December 31.
**Gansevoort would later be promoted to General and was the grandfather of author Herman Melville (“Moby Dick”). He’s buried in Albany Rural Cemetery – Section 55, Plot 1.
*** The Hessian troops were the Hanau–Hesse Chasseurs. During the siege and battle they discovered they were in the middle of verdant and fertile farmland, much of the local population spoke German as their primary language and there were many pretty girls. Genealogies of the area are filled with Hessian soldiers who deserted the British army and ended up in the small villages of the Mohawk Valley populated by German Americans. They could blend in and no one would be the wiser.
**** This memorial was originally located elsewhere in the park, but was moved to its present location several years ago (we believe after having been struck several times by cars missing a sharp turn).

Copyright 2021 Julie O’Connor

Benedict Arnold in the Albany Military Hospital; While Others Nursed his Wounds, He Nursed his Grievances

zzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzsaratogabigToday, October 7, 1777 the Battle of Saratoga, which began on September 19th, ended. British General John Burgoyne made a last desperate attack on Bemis Heights. Disobeying a direct order from the commanding general, Horatio Gates, General Benedict Arnold flung himself into the fray, leading patriot troops against pockets of British attackers and exploiting weaknesses in British defenses. One soldier said “he was the very genius of war”.

zzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzz600px-Arnold-bootDuring one of the last attacks, Arnold was shot in the leg and fell, pinned beneath his horse.

The Americans won the battle, called the “turning point of the Revolution”. Burgoyne retreated, surrendering 10 days later. Benedict Arnold’s fighting days were over. His leg had been shattered by a musket ball. Arnold, along with 1,000 other American, British and German wounded, was sent to the military hospital in Albany. (By tradition, Arnold is reputed to have been transported initially to a house in Kinderhook after the Battle – but he ended up in Albany hospital.)

zzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzz22218658_1613266232081985_8976180239136605161_oThe hospital was constructed during the French and Indian War in the 1750s. It was located down the hill from Fort Frederick, overlooking the City at what is now the intersection of Lodge and Pine Streets. In 1776 it was refitted as one of 11 major military hospitals during the Revolution.

zzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzlodge anbd pine(Once upon a time there was an historical marker identifying the location; that has disappeared.)

zzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzlthospital300It was a large building, constructed in an H configuration; with 2 stories, and 40 small wards (to enable quarantine from infectious disease) and able to accommodate 500 patients. After the Battle of Saratoga, the hospital was so crowded that provisions were made to locate patients in the Dutch Church at the intersection of State and Broadway. The Albany Committee for Safety also commandeered several private residences. About 60% of the patients were British and German; they were accompanied by their own physicians and surgeons.zzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzz

 

Arnold was not a “good patient”. Surgeons wanted to amputate his leg to save his life. He refused. Contemporary descriptions from hospital doctors describe him as petulant and peevish. He was encased in the equivalent of wooden box; immobilized. Finally in January 1778 he was sufficiently recuperated to be able to sit up in bed and write letters. He would remain in the hospital until late February or early March.

Those 5 months gave Arnold time to think. From his hospital bed he learned that most of the credit for the victory at Saratoga was going to “Granny” Gates, notorious for his excellent organizational skills, but thought by many to be a man of little personal courage and deficient in battlefield tactical skills.

Arnold’s Revolutionary War career had already been full of ups and down – the capture of Ticonderoga with Ethan Allen (Allen received most of the credit); an extended campaign in Canada, during which he was promoted, shot in the leg (yes, the same leg) to brigadier general, then replaced and finally forced to retreat from his occupation of Montreal; a rout in the Battle of Lake Champlain (that did serve to delay the British drive south to Albany until the following year), and shot again in the leg (yes, that leg) in the Battle of Ridgefield, Ct. He was passed over for promotion by the Continental Congress several times and accused of corruption and malfeasance by fellow officer. He finally submitted his resignation which was refused by Washington, who then dispatched him to upstate New York.

As he lay in the Albany Hospital, abusing phycians, orderlies and everyone in sight, we see a really angry man with more than ample time to think about his life. He was 36, a widower with 3 sons. He was a man of action and a natural warrior whose fighting career was over. He had thrown himself into the War and his business had suffered. A doctor who treated him after his initial leg wound in Canada less than two years before noted that Arnold, while in the Albany military hospital, seemed to be a different man – now dissatisfied, disgruntled and truculent. Several visitors note the same; it is quite probable that those long months during a cold and bleak Albany winter provided a time for reflection and set the stage for the perfidy that was to come.

By the time Arnold left Albany for his home in Connecticut, the Albany hospital had few patients. The Marquis de Lafayette had spent the month of February, 1778 in Albany. During that time he made arrangements for the remaining British and German patients and their physicians to be transferred to General Howe in New York City. In early June, the hospital closed. The War in upstate New York was mostly over and the hospital was no longer needed. The last patients and staff were transferred by sloop down the Hudson to another hospital near West Point.

The Hospital itself seems to disappear by the end of the War. We surmise land became too valuable and it was demolished and the land sold .

Copyright 2021 Julie O’Connor