Wednesday, May 1, 2013

The Battle of Chestnut Neck: Atlantic County's Revolutionary War saga

I've got a warm spot in my heart for communities that make an effort to commemorate their otherwise little-known places in history. Having grown up in Union, I'll explain the significance of the 1780 Battle of Connecticut Farms for anyone who will stand still for five minutes. Thus, I was in my element when Ivan and I stopped to check out the imposingly tall monument on Route 9 north of Forsythe NWR.

Bordered by roads on all three sides, the monument seems vaguely off. First, it seems to be in the middle of nowhere, though it's a short drive from the Parkway. Second, the statue of the Revolutionary War-era soldier on top is facing out to sea. It's definitely not placed to attract a ton of visitors, but as we discovered, there's good reason.

We'd stumbled onto the site of the only Revolutionary War battle to take place on the South Jersey shoreline. Memorializing the 1778 Battle of Chestnut Neck, the monument was erected by the Daughters of the American Revolution a little over a century ago. After we parked the car, we discovered even more: a British anchor and a smaller memorial, plus a very informative set of postings from the local Sons of the American Revolution.

To understand the strategic importance of Chestnut Neck, you need to know a little about the naval resources of the Continental forces during the battle for independence. Plainly put, they weren't much. Conversely, the British Navy was considered to be the finest in the world at the time. To improve the odds, the Continental Congress enacted a privateer system by which private merchant vessels were commissioned to capture British supply ships, bring them to port and unload their cargo. Not only would the British fighting forces lose valuable supplies, but the cargo would be sold and proceeds split among the American captains, crew and government. You could say the British were hoisted by their own petard: they'd successfully used the same strategy against the French in an earlier dispute.

A map near the monument
illustrates the terrain and location
of the Chestnut Neck fort.
In Southern New Jersey, the Great and Little Egg Harbor Rivers played crucial roles in this new economy, hosting warehouses and markets for the plundered British cargo. Chestnut Neck stood at the mouth of the Little Egg, and residents built a protective fort in 1777, funded by the New Jersey Assembly. It appears, however, that the budget never accounted for guns. Regardless, the port prospered as a privateer base, hosting the sale of about 30 ships and their cargo.

That kind of success naturally made Chestnut Neck a target of British ire. From their base in New York, General Clinton and Admiral Gambiel determined that the privateers and their cohorts had to be stopped. Nearby Batsto Ironworks was accessible by the Great Egg Harbor River and deemed a worthy target while they were in the area; ending production there would severely hamper the Continentals' weapons supply.

After departing Manhattan on September 30, 1778, the British ships' arrival was pushed back due to harsh weather, giving the Americans a chance to learn about the plot and move many of their ships safety at sea or farther up the river. Nonetheless, when the British reached Chestnut Neck on October 5, local loyalists updated them on militia plans and activities.

This more recent monument
honors privateer captains.
The next day saw the bulk of the action. While the British fleet had difficulty navigating through the shallow waters of Little Egg Harbor River, they managed to make it to Chestnut Neck, which was largely undefended. The remaining ten ships under colonist control were dismantled and burned, along with the fort and the rest of the community. According to contemporary reports, the fires persisted well into the next day.

While the British may have destroyed Chestnut Neck, they thought better of continuing on to Batsto to complete their mission. The fact that many of their craft were becoming grounded in the shallows, combined with the knowledge that the Americans were on to their plans, was enough to encourage them to withdraw.

Still, the British raid had permanently wiped Chestnut Neck off the map as an organized community. Residents resettled at nearby Port Republic, though there's now a relatively small area with a few houses and several boat ramps for small craft. And, of course, there's the monument. If you're in the area, just take Parkway exit 48 to Route 9 south and keep an eye toward the East. You'll find it pretty quickly.



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