A privateer is much like a pirate, except that they are authorized by their government (during wartime) to attack and rob enemy vessels. During the Revolutionary War, many investors put their money into privateer ships hoping that they would make money either in reward money, or sales of the captured ships and cargo. Privateers helped the war effort; the government did not have to expend resources and money on ships or crews, and the enemy saw their commerce disrupted, insurance rates skyrocket and, in some cases, used their warships to protect merchant ships. Furthermore, the new United States were sometimes able to acquire the better of the captured ships and refit them as warships.
According to the United States Merchant Marines, about 55,000 men served at one time or another as privateers during the Revolution on about 1,700 ships. These men captured about 2,300 enemy ships. In comparison, the Continental Navy had 64 total vessels during the war and captured under 200 enemy ships. (1) Keep in mind that there were also a large but unknown number of men acting as privateers without the permission of the United States government, effectively making them pirates, but no less damaging to the British.
This brings us to Chestnut Neck. Located in the Little Egg Harbor area of the state, which runs along the coast from Barnegat Inlet to Brigantine Inlet (about 25 miles) and about 25 miles inland, it is surrounded by bays, inlets, rivers and streams (see map). While the swift and smaller American ships could navigate these mostly shallow waterways, the larger British men-of-war could not.
During the Revolution, the town consisted of only about dozen houses, George Payne’s tavern, Daniel Mathis’ Inn, some store houses for captured goods and John Adams’ landing.” (2) Nearby was the Batsto Iron Works, which produced weaponry for the Americans, as well as a number of saltworks. After the war began, the town became a hotbed of privateering. Captured prizes were brought in and sold at public venues along with their cargos. If a ship was too large to bring in, the crew would salvage what they could at sea and burn the ship. Small shipyards abounded where privateer ships were repaired and outfitted, and captured ships repaired or refitted for military use.
Commander Henry Collins, of the Royal Navy, who was stationed in New York, called the Little Egg Harbor area a “Nest of Freebooters.” Captain Patrick Ferguson, who would command the British expedition against this place called it a “nest of pirates.” (3) Between June and September 1778 more than seventeen captured ships were taken into Chestnut Neck. From Chestnut Neck, goods were transported across New Jersey to the American Army. Items not purchased or appropriated by the army were sold at public auctions, sometimes lasting multiple days.
By late September 1778, the British command in New York had more than enough of the “pirates” of Chestnut Neck. On the evening of 30 September a British fleet of nine vessels under the command of Henry Collins carrying almost 1,200 men began to prepare at Staten Island for an attack. Due to poor weather, the fleet was delayed. Major Benedict Arnold, in Philadelphia, learned of the attack and sent one hundred men to reinforce those at Chestnut Neck. When General Washington was informed, he sent Count Casimir Pulaski and his Legion (about 250 men) to the area. When joined with the estimated 150 militiamen, 300 troops under Colonel Samuel Furman, and artillerymen under Thomas Proctor, already at Chestnut Neck, the American force would be just under 1,000 men. (4)
The British fleet did not reach Little Egg Harbor until just before noon on 5 October. Some American vessels made their escape before the British appearance. Upon arrival, Commander Henry Collins ordered three vessels into Little Egg Harbor bay to prevent any rebel ships from escaping. The other British ships followed, carrying the troops. At daybreak on 6 October the British force moved across Great Bay toward the mouth of the Little Egg Harbor River. They moved slowly, since they did not have experienced pilots to guide them through the shallow water. Still, two British ships, Greenwich and Granby, became grounded. Collins also realized he would have to make an attack before landing his men.
A small fort had been built at Chestnut Neck, erected level with the water and with embrasures for six cannon, though no guns were in the fort at the time of the British arrival. Lieutenant Colonel Elijah Clark and First Major Richard Wescoat directed the building of the fort, and the men manning the post this day were reportedly under the command of Captain Johnson. Among the defenders at the fort was Captain George Payne.
At about 4 in the afternoon on 6 October, the British ships reached Chestnut Neck. Because the banks of the river were swampy, Collins could not land Ferguson and his men there. He sailed in close to the fort, which he believed contained artillery, and began a bombardment. The militiamen were no match for the heavy British fire, and they fled. Ferguson and his men landed unopposed about 100 feet above the fort. Once the British landed, they found ten prize ships along the river. Not wasting any time, Collins ordered the ships dismantled (after any valuable cargo was preserved) and set ablaze. While the destruction of the ships continued into the night, Ferguson set up a defensive perimeter and began destroying the town. (5) Chestnut Neck contained twelve dwelling houses (including one belonging to Captain George Payne), and various barns and outbuildings. All of these were destroyed, along with a storehouse near the wharf and the small fort. (6)
As the British prepared to leave Chestnut Neck on the morning of 7 October, Collins had his men unload the cargo of the two British ships so that they could be refloated. During this time, some men were sent to destroy three saltworks located on the north shore of the Mullica River, along with the home of local militiaman Captain John Mathis. (7) It wasn’t until the morning of 8 October that the Greenwich and the Granby were refloated and the British were able to push off.
In the action, Captain Ferguson noted, “One soldier of the Fifth was wounded through the leg at Chestnut Neck but we have neither lost a man by the enemy nor deserting since we set out.” The commanding officer of the British Fifth Foot later commended the conduct of Capt. William Cox, Lieut. Thomas Littleton, Ensign Cotter (all of the Fifth) and Captain Peter Campbell (Third Jersey Vols.) in this action. (8)
The British were not done with this attack. A week and a half later, they would launch another, more deadly attack against the Americans.
(1) American Merchant Marine at War, “Privateers and Mariners in the Revolutionary War.” 15 March 2001. http://www.usmm.org/revolution.html (4 October 2010).
(2) Guttman, Howard M. “The Massacre of Chestnut Neck,” The Crossroads Volume XIII No. 3 December 1975. New Jersey Historical Society.
(4) A Nest of Rebel Pirates. 24.
(7) Brief Encounter at Osborn Island: The Pulaski Affair, 11.
(8) A Nest of Rebel Pirates. 17, 12.