Tuesday, November 12, 2013

Refining Gloucester's Revolutionary history: Paulsboro's Fort Billings

You wouldn't know it from its neighbors, but a small park tucked between two oil refineries on the banks of the Delaware River has a very distinct place in American history. Not only is it the site of a Revolutionary War fort, it was the very first land purchase made by the United States Government. Fittingly, I decided to visit on Veterans Day.

On first glance, Paulsboro wouldn't seem to be the place for an 18th century historic site. Downtown has seen better days, houses are tightly packed together and as you get closer to the riverfront, you're addressed by the sights and smells of the refineries that sit on the shoreline. I'd heard somewhere that years ago Standard Oil had placed a monument at the site of Fort Billings on or near its own property, so I was hoping that it was now a publicly-accessible site.

That it is, and well marked. Heading westward from downtown, I reached the end of North Delaware Street to find this sign at the entrance to a park.

In the distance, beyond a small playground and pavilion, I could see a flag flying in the breeze. Getting out of the car, I was immediately hit by refinery odors, but as I walked toward the flag, the smell dissipated in the breeze. Maybe it wouldn't be so hard to imagine the fort, after all.

Fort Billings' memorial flagpole.
Fort Billings is essentially a small but integral part of the story of the little known Battle of Red Bank and, ultimately, the defense of Philadelphia during the Revolution. The site was originally purchased from the Paul family (of Paulsboro fame) by the Council of Safety of Philadelphia and billed to Congress on July 5, 1776. Less than a year later, Fort Billings (or Billingsport, depending on your source) was built under the guidance of General Thaddeus Kosciusko in his first engineering assignment from Congress. Located four miles south of Red Bank's Fort Mercer, it was one of three installations built to protect Philadelphia from a British naval invasion. Soldiers stationed at the fort submerged obstacles called chevaux de frise strategically in the river to damage the hulls of any enemy ships that might try to venture up the river. Billings also maintained a signal cannon as part of the American army's system to warn other forts of an approaching British attack.

Fort Billings' history was relatively brief but notable. Thinking twice about the substantial obstacles blocking their entry by water, British forces approached Philadelphia by land instead, eventually taking the city on September 26, 1777. They still had one major problem: as long as the Delaware was inaccessible, supplies couldn't reach the city. General William Howe, commanding the British forces, ordered the destruction of all American defenses along the river, and Billings was the first target.

Though New Jersey militia fought bravely, they were unable to stop the British approach on Billings a few days later. General George Washington ordered the evacuation of the fort, and on October 2, Continental Marine Lieutenants William Barney and Dennis Leary safely brought the 112-man garrison and its ammunition on board the Andrew Doria for transport across the river to Fort Mifflin.

To ensure that the British wouldn't be able to easily capitalize on the fort's strategic position, a small group stayed behind to render the cannons unusable and burn down the fort. Close to finishing their duties when the Redcoats arrived, the Americans exchanged gunfire with the enemy briefly before jumping into the last rowboat to make their way to safety.

There's not much at the site now to tell the full story or connect it with the better-curated Fort Mercer site in National Park. One memorial notes the presence of the fort, while another recognizes Leary and Barney for leading the evacuation of 112 men but says nothing of the impact in saved lives. A third plaque from the Copernicus Society notes Kosciusko's contributions as a military engineer. Though all evidence of the fort itself is gone, we can be happy the name and these few acknowledgements are on site to pique curiosity and interest among those who don't know the story.

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