The only battle of the American Revolution, that took place on the West (South) Jersey coastline was a group of actions around the Little Egg Harbor River.

"The Battle of Chestnut Neck"

      I was lucky to attend a talk by Franklin Kemp, author of A Nest of Rebel Pirates, which really got me interested in finding out more about the events of October 1778. The British referred to it as "The Egg Harbor Expedition," which is a better description.  There were several different events, which all had an impact on the area and the war.

The burning of Chestnut Neck, 
 the grounding of the British ships
destroying the Salt Works

  the battle of Ridgway Farm.
 
Abandoning of the H.M.S. Zebra and return to New York

The following accounts are summaries of A Nest of Rebel Pirates, by Franklin Kemp.

A big round of applause for Mr. Franklin Kemp for his thorough research and his ability to see beyond the legends!
(and gratitude for the Batsto Citizens Committee for making sure it got published.) 

The Traditional Story 
(Found in most General History Books, when it is mentioned at all)

 

Background:

Click on this link to view a Brief timeline of the American Revolution  for 1778-1779, (Chestnut Neck events are included.)

Chestnut Neck

     At the entrance to the Little Egg Harbor River was a small village called Chestnut Neck. It became a hotbed of activity during the American Revolution. It was a major center for the privateers who were regularly capturing British Merchant Ships and relieving them of their cargos. The ships were landed in Chestnut Neck and their cargos were transported, first to warehouses at Chestnut Neck or further up the river to a larger community called "the Forks" . Then the captured goods would be disposed of (see below) and most made there way by wagon to Philadelphia.  

The Privateers

The American Colonists did not have and could not afford much of a navy, but the Continental Congress had seen the British effectively disrupt the French economy by commissioning private vessels to prey upon French merchant vessels. They adopted the same kind of system and issued letters (called Letters of Marquee) appointing specific ships, owners & captains to takeover British Merchant ships and confiscate the cargos. The cargos were then sold and the proceeds divided up by the Government's Court of Admiralty. The ships owners, captains, crews and of course the government all got specific shares. Along the west Jersey coast these sales took place at Chestnut Neck (a small village at the mouth of the Little Egg Harbor River), The Forks ( a larger settlement further up the river), and at Mays Landing (on the Great Egg Harbor River). Large warehouses were built to hold the cargos, while they awaited sales and shipment.

The Privateer system was a great success for the American Rebels. It disrupted the British Merchant Fleet and prevented the British Army from being well supplied. It, also, provided a great income to the participants.

The Iron Works

The iron works at Batsto on the Little Egg Harbor River was started in 1766. Cannon balls and other military equipment was produced there and used by the Continental Army. The importance of the iron works can be seen in the fact that the workmen were given an exemption from military service.

The Salt Works

On the north side of the Bay were numerous salt works. Salt was a highly prized commodity at a time when vast quantities of food needed to be preserved for use by armies and aboard ships.

The Colonist Activity:

During September of 1777, the NJ General Assembly voted to reimburse Lt. Col. Elijzh Clark & Major Wescoat for building the fort at Chestnut Neck. The fort was built at water level and had places for 6 guns. On a nearby hill, a platform was built to mount more guns. It does not appear as if any guns were ever mounted.

Late summer of 1778

According to Mr. Kemps research almost 30 ships and their cargos were sold at "The Forks" and Chestnut Neck in August of 1778. In September at least another 6 ships were sold at Chestnut Neck and "The Forks," including The Venus of London.

The British in New York

In New York, General Clinton and Admiral Gambier decide to organize an expedition to wipe out the privateering center at Little Egg Harbor and destroy the Iron Works at Batsto. Preparations are begun for an expedition. The expedition would become known to the British as "The Egg Harbor Expedition." 

September 29, 1778, Trenton, New Jersey

The Colonial Governor William Livingston and the Council of Safety become aware of the plans but not the destination. They dispatched riders to warn the residents of the coastal communities and informed General Washington of the expected fleet movements..

September 30,1778

Around midnight, Commander Henry Colins, on the newly commissioned  H.M.S. Zebra and 15 other ships slipped out of New York Harbor.

In command of the troops is Captain Patrick Ferguson of the 70th Regiment of Foot. (Captain Ferguson had invented and patented the Ferguson rifle on 12/4/1776) 

October 1-4, 1778

The British - Due to a storm and heavy seas it took the British fleet 4 1/2 days to reach Little Egg Harbor Bay.

The Continental Army - Major General Benedict Arnold received notice of the impending attack and ordered Col. Procter's Pennsylvania regiment of artillery to the Little Egg Harbor area. (Arnold, also, took it upon himself to empty some warehouses and move his troops and supplies further from the coast. He forgot to get permission from Gen. Washington and this is said to be part of the reason for his later Court Martial hearing. ( I am looking for more information about this part of the story.) 

Because of the warning, at Chestnut Neck, several ships were able to put to sea, before the British arrived. Other remaining vessels were sent up to the river to the community known as "The Forks." Warehouses were emptied and many residents removed themselves and their household items.

At Trenton, General Pulaski was ordered to place his Legion under the command of Major General Lord Sterling and move to the defense of the coast.

October 5, 1778

British fleet reached Little Egg Harbor around noon. At favorable tide a few of the more light weight ships enter the bay to prevent escaping ships. Armed vessels were stripped and loaded with troops. Local loyalists join expedition onboard the Zebra and inform of the militia at Chestnut Neck.

The Continental Army - General Pulaski and his Legion leave Trenton.

 

The burning of Chestnut Neck, ( October 6, 1778)

October 6, 1778

Daybreak, the British assault force began moving across the bay, 7 miles to the mouth of the Little Egg Harbor River. It was very slow going, because of the shallow water and the lack of experienced pilots.

Two ships became grounded near Osborne Island, but the H.M.S. Zebra and two other large ships cross the sand bar and enter Little Egg Harbor Bay.

The Colonists at Chestnut Neck - A group of local militia, under the command of Captain Johnson occupy a two platform fort, that had placements for 6 guns, but unfortunately had none.

Around 4:00 pm 

The British arrive and the militia was routed by the bayonet wielding British regulars. There was not much they could do to defend the town. The British had cannons and many men. The defenders of Chestnut Neck, probably numbered less then 20, with no cannons.

Commander Colins found 10 prize vessels still at Chestnut Neck. He ordered the town and all the vessels to be dismantled, set afire and scuttled. It took all night until noon on the 7th.

 

the grounding of the British ships

October 7, 1778

Daybreak Commander Colins faced with the decision to follow the original plan and continue up the Little Egg Harbor River and destroy "The Forks" and the iron works at Batsto or to abort the mission, since the element of surprise had been lost. Local loyalists came aboard the British flagship, Zebra, and told Collins that Procter's Artillery was on the way. Colins decided to withdraw.

At noon, the British assembled to withdraw. They had taken and destroyed the prized vessels. Burned all the storehouses and wiped out the village. Only one British soldier was wounded.

The British - It was not as easy to leave as they might have hoped. Two of the British ships were aground. Col Ferguson decided to take his soldiers and raid the north shore and the salt works. They destroyed 2 landings, 3 salt works and 10 buildings owned by patriots.

October 8, 1778

The 2 grounded ships were refloated and got underway. H.M.S. Greenwich again became grounded. The H.M.S. Dependance was left with her for protection and the rest of the ships rejoined the Zebra in the bay. Commander Colins planned to search Barnegat and Cranbury Inlets on the way back to New York, but the weather continued to worsen and the ships were unable to cross the sand bar

The Continental Army (Pulaski's Legion) reached Little Egg Harbor. They enter the little Quaker settlement known as Middle of the shore (now, Tuckerton). They formed and encampment on the farm of James Willet. Pulaski located his headquarters at an unoccupied farmhouse belonging to Jeremiah Ridgway.

October 9 - 18, 1778

The British capture and unwary American Brigantine with a load of lumber. While they are waiting for better weather they transfer the lumber to their ships. It took 10 days to transfer all the cargo. During that time a few other American vessels were captured. Still the British Fleet was unable to put to sea.

October 12, 1778

A Hessian Lieutenant named Juliat had deserted the British on September 12 and joined The Pulaski Legion. He was assigned to the First Troop of Dragoons under Baron Bose. Baron Bose regarded Juliat with contempt for having deserted his post, even if it was with the enemy. Perhaps to get back at Baron Bose or perhaps he was always loyal to the British. Juliat took several men on a fishing party. They did not return and were thought drowned. They had actually rowed the twenty miles and were given permission to board the H.M.S. Nautilus. The story continues with intrigue. (Check it out in The Nest of Rebel Pirates, by Franklin Kemp)

 

the battle of Ridgway Farm. 

October 15, 1778

Colonel Ferguson decides to lead an attack on the Pulaski Legion. They stop at Osborn Island and compel Thomas Osborn to lead them to the encampment. Juliat uses his influence to make sure the attack takes place at the farmhouse where Baron Bose and his troop are encamped. Ferguson left a party of 50 men behind to guard the bridge and loosen the planking, so that it could be easily removed during the retreat.

At the Ridgway Farm, the lone sentry was easily overpowered and sleeping soldiers were awakened and killed, before they could mount a defense. Only 5 were left alive and taken prisoner. Pulaski's camp was close by and they were quick to respond, but arrived too late. Ferguson's plan to remove the planks from the bridge, plus the high tide, cut off the pursuit and most of the British returned to their ships without incident. Baron Rose and from 30 to 50 of his men died in the attack.

 

Abandoning the H.M.S. Zebra and return to New York

October 20, 1778

Commander Colins decided to wait no longer and attempted to get his ships back across the bar and back to New York. After several attempts the Nautilus made it. The attempts to free the flag ship H.M.S. Zebra were unsuccessful.

October 21, 1778

Commander Colins gives up on the attempts to free the Zebra and transfer his men and himself to the Nautilus.

October 22, 1778

The Zebra is blown up and the rest of the fleet moves toward New York.

October 23, 1778

The Little Egg Harbor Expedition ends in New York Harbor, when the Nautilus drops anchor at 5:00 pm on October 23. It is met by Admiral Gambier .


If you enjoyed this account, 
     please find a copy of  A Nest of Rebel Pirates, by Franklin Kemp. 

Another excellent account of the Chestnut Neck story has been posted online at  Brian and Kim's Genealogy Page

Georgiana C. Blake, from the Atlantic County Historical Society Yearbook, Volume 1, Number 3, Page 111-116. October, 1950

Reenactment and Monument

The Morris Guards did a reenactment in 1929. There is a terrific panoramic picture on Fred Hess Site (among many other great pictures. Copies are for sale, but you can, also, view them.  To view the Morris Guards at 150th anniversary of Chestnut Neck. Site is temporarily among the missing - I will try to locate it


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