South Jersey Heritage: A Social, Economic and Cultural History - R. Craig Koedel
Resistance against British mercantile restrictions and protests against the abrogation of liberties long held dear by Englishmen everywhere had warmed to the point of violence and open rebellion in South Jersey by 1774. The most spectacular demonstration of this mounting spirit of opposition occurred at Greenwich on the Cohansey near the end of that year.
The brig Greyhound, loaded with tea intended for Philadelphia, tied up at the Greenwich wharf in mid-December. Evidently the captain had been warned that any attempt to land his cargo at the Quaker City would encounter stiff rebuff. A Greenwich Tory offered the use of his cellar as a storage place for the unwanted tea until it could be marketed. Surreptitiously, on December 12 the chests of tea were removed from the ship under cover of night and secreted in the Greenwich house.
It was an ill-kept secret, for the whereabouts of the hated tea was widely known throughout the countryside. On December 22, while the citizenry was gathered at Bridgeton for the purpose of choosing a committee to confiscate the tea and arrange for its proper disposal, a gang of impetuous enthusiasts broke into the Tory’s home, stole the tea, piled it in the town square, and set it afire. While their contraband blazed up in a bonfire, the vandals, disguised as Indians, danced around it. Several of them were later indicted, but there was no jury to be found in Cumberland County who would convict them. According to Philip Fithian, the victim of an unlikely tradition that he was the ringleader of the episode, the community consensus was one of gladness that the tea was gone, but of disapproval as to the method of its disposition.
The counsel of moderation laid by their leaders upon the people of South Jersey during the months of 1774 and early 1775 yielded to rebellious fervor after the skirmishes at Lexington and Concord, in Massachusetts. All expedients short of open fighting having failed to resolve their differences with the mother country, South Jerseymen began to prepare for war. In May, companies of militiamen were formed in the southern counties, as elsewhere in the colony. Among the more enthusiastic of this new soldiery were the Greenwich tea burners. Committees of Observation were chosen throughout the region to plan for the common defense.
Except for training and planning, there was little action for nearly a year. In March, 1776, Joseph Bloomfield’s company of the Third New Jersey Battalion was summoned to duty in the Canadian campaign. In July, others were called to camp at New York, where they distinguished themselves in the ill-fated battle for that city in the fall of 1776. The end-of-the-year retreat of Washington’s army across the Jerseys brought the war close to home.
In the early years of the Revolution, three forts were erected on the lower Delaware to stave off a possible British naval assault upon Philadelphia by way of the river. Two of the forts, Billings and Mercer, were on the Jersey side in Gloucester County; the third, Fort Mifflin, was a short distance below the mouth of the Schuylkill on the Pennsylvania side. The chief strategic function of the South Jersey strongholds was to guard the chevaux-de-frise that had been laid across the navigable channel of the Delaware River.
This deterrent to the upriver movement of enemy vessels, of a design attributed to Benjamin Franklin, was constructed in the summer of 1775. It consisted of rows of mammoth logs, secured in stone cases at the bottom of the river, and extending upward toward the surface at a forty-five degree angle. Their ends, concealed just beneath the surface, were capped with iron points that could tear apart the wooden hull of any unwary ship that passed over them.
Purchase of planks for the erection of a redoubt at Billingsport was authorized by the Continental Congress in June, 1776, two weeks before the adoption of the Declaration of Independence. In July, ground was purchased and the fort begun. About four miles upstream, at Red Bank, Fort Mercer was constructed the following spring on land confiscated from an elderly Quaker couple, James and Ann Cooper Whitall. It was situated on a high bluff overlooking the river.
With the fall of Philadelphia to the British commander-in-chief in September, 1777, the defense of the lower Delaware assumed a critical importance. Albeit the attacking forces approached the city by way of the Chesapeake and overland from the southwest, the occupying army could not rely upon the same route to bring in its needed military supplies, nor food and other necessities for the soldiers. General Howe had to have access to the open sea by way of the Delaware, if the captured capital was to be retained.
Washington, cognizant of Howe’s predicament, ordered a shoring up of the defenses along the lower river. He was prompted into quick action when Fort Billings was taken without a struggle by one of Howe’s officers in a surprise attack on September 30. The British demolished the fort and opened a seventeen-foot passage between the shore and the chevaux-de-frise. Through this, and a wider passage cleared later, British ships penetrated to within firing range of Fort Mercer, but were repelled by cannon fire from gun emplacements along the shore and American floating batteries stationed in the river.
The American commander dispatched a letter to Colonel Christopher Greene of the First Rhode Island Regiment on October 9, informing him that he had been placed in command at Red Bank. A French engineer and captain, Manduit du Plessis, and Colonel Israel Angell, with their forces, were also being sent to the Gloucester County stronghold, Greene was told. Washington reminded him that, "the post with which you are now intrusted is of the utmost importance to America, and demands every exertion you are capable of, for its security and defence. The whole defence of the Delaware absolutely depends upon it, and consequently all of the Enemy’s hopes of keeping Philadelphia and finally succeeding in the object of the campaign."
The sprawling fortification at Red Bank was much too extensive to be defended, even with this increased manpower. At du Plessis’ suggestion, the fortified area within the outer stockade was reduced by two-thirds. A pentagon-shaped redoubt was erected at the lower end, protected by wooden pickets and an abatis, a barricade of brush and fallen trees with spiked branches. Heavily loaded cannon were trained on the upper end of the enclosure.
The anticipated attack on Fort Mercer was launched when a Hessian colonel, Count Carl von Donop, was selected by the British commander-in-chief to lead his 1200 picked Hessian mercenaries against the fort. Early in the morning, on October 21, 1777, von Donop and his army crossed to Cooper’s Ferry and took the road to Haddonfield, where they encamped. The next morning (October 22), at dawn, they began the march toward Red Bank, by way of Woodbury. Meanwhile, the British ships Augusta and Merlin had moved into position within range of Fort Mercer.
By afternoon, the Hessians, hidden among the trees, were within 400 yards of the fort. An American sentry alerted the 400 defenders within the enclosure to the impending attack. Commander Greene ordered his men to hold their fire until they sighted the Hessian soldiers’ belts, and then to shoot below them. The strategy was effective, for in the ensuing battle, although von Donop and his men breached the abatis, crossed the ditch beyond it, and some even mounted the parapet, 400 or more of the Hessian mercenaries were killed or severely wounded. The American losses were twenty-eight wounded and eleven dead. Within forty minutes of the time the Hessians had commenced the assault, those who remained of von Donop’s disordered ranks were fleeing toward Woodbury.
There the badly injured were hospitalized in the Friends’ Meeting House, while the others continued the retreat to Haddonfield and back to the safety of Philadelphia. Their commander lay mortally wounded within the fort. He, with the other injured and dying soldiers, was removed later to the Whitall house at the south end of the stockade.
The British ships anchored in the river were ineffectual during the battles for their cannon balls were hurtled harmlessly into the muddy bluff beneath the fort. During an attempt to withdraw downriver to escape the bombardment from the American galleys and shore batteries, the Augusta and Merlin ran aground. A naval battle of sorts was then waged until nightfall. Resumed the next morning, it resulted in the destruction of both ships.
The struggle for the Delaware was not yet ended. Fort Mifflin succumbed to British seizure and bombardment in mid-November, while General Cornwallis, with 2000 troops, was crossing from Chester to Billingsport and marching toward Red Bank. His forces were supplemented by a detachment from New York. General Nathaniel Greene was ordered by Washington to proceed with his division to give battle with Cornwallis in defense of the Red Bank garrison.
Accompanied by General Lafayette, Greene and his men crossed to Burlington and headed south. However, expected reinforcements did not appear, in consequence of which Greene deemed it unwise to engage Cornwallis and filed off toward Haddonfield. Colonel Christopher Greene, the general’s cousin and still commander at Fort Mercer, upon orders evacuated the fort on November 20. Under cover of darkness, on the night of November 21, part of the American fleet escaped upstream to Burlington, but seventeen vessels still remained at Gloucester when the maneuver was detected by the British. The stranded American ships were abandoned by their crews and set afire.
Cornwallis seized and dismantled the forsaken redoubt at Red Bank. Then with a contingent of about 5000 men he marched northward a short distance along the river bank to Gloucester Point, where he established a fortification. There followed in that region of Gloucester County a number of minor skirmishes, involving Nathaniel Greene, Lafayette, and other less prominent American and French officers, but a hoped-for attack on the Cornwallis garrison never became feasible. American power on the Delaware River broken, the British removed the chevaux-de-frise and began to pass safely to and from occupied Philadelphia.
Both the British, happily ensconced in the comfort of Philadelphia, and the American patriot army, freezing at Valley Forge, depended upon the farmland of South Jersey for food during the terrible winter of 1777-1778. Foraging parties scoured the countryside from Gloucester to Cape May, rounding up cattle, stealing horses, robbing barns of their grain, and confiscating wagons. Too often in ravaging the fields and farms, they plundered the homes and defiled the meeting houses in sprees of wanton destruction that brought needless suffering upon civilians, sometimes the very elements of the population that had most befriended them. Forage that could not be gathered was sometimes burned to keep it from falling into the hands of the enemy.
The encounters of foraging parties with detachments of the opposing army resulted in a number of skirmishes. Among them were the affair at Quinton’s Bridge and the notorious massacre at the Hancock House. With a force upwards of 3000 men, the British occupied the city of Salem in March, 1778. Their foragers attempted to advance deeper into the county, but the patriot militia determined to stop them at Alloway’s Creek. The Americans, some of whom were ambushed, made an apparently successful stand at Quinton’s Bridge. The British returned to Salem, only to attack later at Hancock’s Bridge. There they surrounded the William Hancock dwelling, where they supposed the militia officers guarding the bridge were billeted, stormed it from front and rear, and put all those within to the bayonet. Unknown to the British raiders, most of the defenders had departed from the house the night before.
The affair at Hancock’s Bridge was the last episode of the Revolution along the Delaware. In June, 1778, a change in British strategy dictated the evacuation of Philadelphia, as the seat of battle moved to other parts of the seaboard north and south of the Delaware valley.
When South Jerseymen were answering the call to arms, the fires at Batsto furnace began to glow with patriotic warmth. John Cox was the owner of the ironmaking establishment in 1776, when munitions for the Continental Army began to pour from the village in the Pines. Cannon and cannon balls, hardware for ships and wagons, kettles, and other articles were hauled overland to Washington’s soldiers. Guns and ammunition were manufactured, too, for the arming of privateers. A militia company was organized to defend the works in case of invasion, but otherwise the ironmakers were exempt from military duty.
Munitions not manufactured in the colonies were imported for sale to the Continental Army by South Jersey shipowners. Quantities of gun powder, flints, and lead from the West Indies were unloaded regularly during 1776 at Somers Point from the ships of Colonel Richard Somers. Although much of it was retained for the use of the militia companies of Gloucester County, some of it was forwarded to the Continental Congress for their disposition.
Richard Somers, John Cox, Richard Wescoat, and other notables of old Gloucester County were heavily engaged in privateering during the war. Whereas the importing of military supplies from the islands proved to be of little profit, the gains to be realized from privateering were immense. The advantages that made the South Jersey coastline attractive for smuggling were equally beneficial for privateering. In fact, from the British point of view, there was little difference between the two.
A privateer was a privately owned vessel, outfitted with arms, and licensed by a government to prey on enemy craft. During the Revolution, American privateers were granted their licenses, called letters of marque, by Congress or the state. These entitled them to fire on British ships, capture and board them, and take them to an American port, where they and their cargo (except that part designated for the army) were sold at public auction. The crews of the enemy vessels were imprisoned. In some instances, a percentage of the income from the sale of the prizes went to the Continental Congress. The remainder was divided among the owners, the officers, and the crew of the privateer. It was a dangerous but highly profitable undertaking that resulted in enormous gains for the Americans, but devastated British coastal and transoceanic shipping.
A naval clash, called the Battle of Turtle Gut Inlet, the first in South Jersey waters to be waged by a privateer, occurred off the Cape May County beaches during the last week of June, 1776. The armed American merchant brigantine, Nancy, returning from the Caribbean with a supply of arms and ammunition, fired a broadside at the armed boats sent out by a British warship to intercept her. Barges of three American privateers other than the Nancy reached her in time to give assistance. While some seamen manned the guns, others worked to get as much of her precious cargo as possible to the beach. As British warships moved in, with their nine-pounders, the Nancy’s commander prepared for the destruction of all that remained by a delayed explosion, after he and the crew had abandoned ship. Just as the British seamen boarded her, a carefully laid trail of powder caught fire from a sail ignited by the Americans before they had departed, and the ship blew up with a deafening roar.
At the estuary of the Little Egg Harbor River lay the "nest of rebel pirates" that was of most annoyance to the British. In September, 1778, their commander-in-chief drew up plans to dispose of this annoyance by sending a naval striking force against it. A fleet of a dozen armed sloops and galleys, tenders, and transports, with their crews and an army of 300 soldiers, were assembled for the expedition at Staten Island on September 30. Heavy seas, stirred up by storms, slowed their progress southward, a delay used by the defenders of the Little Egg Harbor to get some of their larger ships to sea and the smaller craft upstream to prevent their falling into British hands. Goods were removed from the houses, warehouses, and public buildings at Chestnut Neck, the village on the south side of the river, near its mouth, where Gloucester County privateering was centered.
It was surmised at Chestnut Neck that they were the object of the British maneuver. A small redoubt, called Fort Fox Burrows, had been erected there about two years before to protect the privateering interest along the bay and to prevent enemy penetration upstream to Batsto. But, for reasons that have never come to light, neither in the fort, which stood at the water’s edge, nor on the platform constructed on the hill behind it were cannon ever installed.
On the afternoon of October 6, the British fleet reached Chestnut Neck. A direct bombardment of the fort quickly routed its cannonless defenders, whose muskets, soon emptied, were no competition for British artillery. The patriots scattered to the woods. The British troops and seamen went ashore, destroyed the fort, and set fire to the entire village. Ten vessels, prizes of the privateers at Chestnut Neck, which could not be removed before the British arrived, were dismantled and scuttled.
Advised that American reinforcements were on the way, the fleed commandee decided against carrying out his intent to push upstream to Batsto and Pleasant Mills. The British desire to return to New York immediately was thwarted, however, by inclement weather, which made a crossing of the bar to open sea risky. While their ships lay at anchor, British raiding parties plundered the north shore of the river. A picket post of Count Pulaski’s Legion was taken by surprise in a farmhouse on Osborn Island and massacred.
At last, on October 20, the commander ordered his vessels out of the bay. With the other craft safely over the bar, the flagship Zebra tried to cross it, but struck, and attempts throughout the day and into the next morning to free her having failed, she was abandoned and set afire; thus, the British lost a major ship in an expedition that accomplished only half its purpose. The affair at Chestnut Neck was the last incident of the Revolution to take place in South Jersey.
Full-scale privateering was resumed at Chestnut Neck, but the village was never rebuilt. The residents, having fled at the approach of the enemy, remained at the inland villages to which they had escaped, especially at the town on Nacote Creek which later came to be called Port Republic.
Religion dictated, along with economics and political loyalties, the attitudes of many South Jersey people toward the Revolution. Not all viewed it with favor. The Quakers, as a whole, were opposed to the Revolution, as they were to all wars, on the basis of their pacifist principle that the bearing of arms for any reason whatever is evil, even when so precious a right as liberty is at stake.
When the county militias were being formed at the commencement of hostilities, young Quakers were forbidden by their monthly meetings to join, on pain of disownment; nor were they permitted to pay the fines assessed upon those who refused to serve. Payment of taxes imposed by the revolutionary government to defray the expenses of the war was deplored among their membership as a deviation from their "peaceable principles." Any noncombatant association with the Revolution, whether by joining committees of correspondence or administering or taking an oath of allegiance to the new government, was disapproved by the Society. Quakers who observed these strictures laid down by their monthly meetings not only incurred the suspicion and ill-will of their non-Quaker neighbors, but frequently landed in the county jail while their property was seized. Those who violated them were cut off from the unity of Friends.
A number of South Jersey Quakers, some of prominent name, chose to risk almost certain disownment by their religious society rather than turn their backs upon the cause of political and economic freedom for which the American patriots were fighting. The minutes of the South Jersey monthly meetings reveal the names of scores who were separated from the Society of Friends for overt participation in military activities, the payment of military fines, and joining the privateers.
The most evident consequence of the Revolution to the Society of Friends in South Jersey was a marked attrition in membership - - the loss of young men to the military and the young women who married them. Accompanying this loss was a spiritual decline on the part of many who remained, a condition lamented constantly by local Quaker preachers. Most regrettably, the loss of Quaker power and influence, so prominent in colonial affairs in South Jersey, deprived the new state of the same moral fiber and public conscience that the Society of Friends had woven into the fabric of the former province.
For South Jersey Presbyterians, the Revolution was a "righteous cause," to which the stalwarts of God and the American liberties sallied forth in full armor. At first, the Presbyterian clergy preached caution, even restraint, as affairs were warming toward warfare. But when war came, and the British position proved to be intractable, Presbyterian preachers in South Jersey joined loudly in the call for independence from Great Britain. The time for restraint had passed!
Five Presbyterian ministers from the southern counties enlisted as military chaplains. John Brainerd implored Presbyterians to enlist and fight for their country. He moved an audience to tears at Timber Creek (Blackwood) in 1776 with a patriotic sermon, after which those with "stout hearts and strong wills" joined the Continental Army. Enoch Green, the Deerfield pastor, addressed the troops about to embark on the Canadian campaign with the words, "This Contest is glorious, this cause is just, and your Resolution to support and defend it does you Honour -- the Resistence of this Land will be celebrated by future Ages, and Generations unborn will arise and call you blessed. You fight to defend us from ye Jaws of Tyranny, to save a mighty Empire from ye Yoke of Oppression. The Prosperity of Millions unborn will be ye Fruits of your Bravery. If you Conquer you will be crowned with unfading Laurels, but if it be your Lot to fall, you will fall with Glory." Some Presbyterian pastors who did not join the chaplaincy were forced from their pulpits because of the fervor of their patriotic preaching.
With deaths like that of Philip Fithian, South Jersey Presbyterians paid a terrible price for their involvement in the Revolution. The stronger churches survived the crisis, shaken but still alive. Few of them had pastors. The weaker congregations collapsed. The meeting houses along the Egg Harbor Rivers fell into disuse and disappeared, or were taken up by Methodist circuit riders. Presbyterian itinerant preachers were no longer assigned to travel to the Pine Barrens and along the shore.
At the beginning of the Revolution, Methodism in America was little more than an infant. The first known Methodist in New Jersey was John Early, who emigrated from Ireland to Gloucester County in 1764. The first preachers sent by John Wesley, the founder of Methodism, arrived in 1769. Francis Asbury came in the fall of 1771.
American Methodism was dealt a stunning blow early in the war when Wesley openly declared himself in sympathy with the British side in the conflict, and most of his preachers in America returned to England. Asbury, who remained, was forced into temporary retirement in Delaware when he refused to take an oath of allegiance to the revolutionary government. Methodist fires were kept alight during the war by dedicated American laymen. In many quarters, all Methodists were branded as Tories, despite the patently patriotic services of a number of them. Benjamin Abbott, the most prominent Methodist lay preacher in South Jersey during the period, tried to remain neutral. When confronted with a draft for military service, he paid for a substitute, explaining, "as I had a call to preach, I could not think of going out to fight."
Under such a cloud, Methodism spread little throughout South Jersey until 1780, when the theater of war had shifted from New Jersey to other parts of the country. Then the Methodists began extensive preaching and the organizing of classes and societies in the southern counties. By the end of the 18th century, it was well on its way to becoming the predominant religion of the people of South Jersey.
The two Swedish Lutheran congregations, at Swedesboro and Penn’s Neck, were almost evenly divided as to pro-American and pro-British sentiment. Pastor Nicholas Collin, a Swedish citizen, tried to remain aloof from the fray, regarding it as their fight, not his. He was seized twice by American militiamen on suspicion of holding pro-British sympathies, an accusation shown in numerous ways to have been unwarranted.
The congregations suffered terribly from the marauding and confiscation by both armies. Collin described the attitude of his people, and their anxiety, when the fall of New York brought the British forces into New Jersey: "Formerly all had been eager to take part, but now as the fire drew closer, many drew away, and there was much dissension among the people. Many concealed themselves in the woods, or without their houses. . . . The people were afraid to visit the church, because the authorities took the opportunity to get both horses and men." Services were interrupted frequently during the autumn of 1777, when with the British in possession of the river, straying parties and the militia were marching up and down the highway. That winter, Swedesboro was occupied for several months by the militia. Some of them were quartered in Collin’s house, so crowded at one time that only one room was free of soldiers.
Decline of the Swedish character of the congregations and the disruption of communication with Sweden during the war prompted the Swedish government to withdraw from their mission to the Delaware, which they had been supporting for a century and a half. In 1789, when the Protestant Episcopal Church in the United States was formed, the Swedish congregations joined, thus ceasing to be Lutheran.
South Jersey Anglicans, generally supportive of the American cause, were numerically weak throughout the Revolutionary era. The church at Salem, without a pastor during the last half of the 18th century, was occupied and wrecked by the British in retaliation against the congregation, many of whom were patriots. Three-fourths of the active American sympathizers in Salem County were Anglicans. Robert Blackwell, the rector of the Gloucester County parishes, became a chaplain and surgeon with the Continental Army after the mission headquarters in London declined to pay him his salary. The Anglicans, too, became members of the Protestant Episcopal Church when it was created in 1789.
There are no records to reveal the attitudes of South Jersey Roman Catholics toward the Revolution, but it is a reasonable assumption that they followed their fellow religionists in the other colonies in standing up for independence. The heroic efforts of the unsung ironworkers at Batsto, forging cannon for the Continental Army, were as decisive in forwarding the American cause as the more noted achievements of the privateers and the militiamen, and the moving oratory of the Presbyterian parsons. The outlawed Catholics of South Jersey had even more oppression to resist, as South Jerseymen of most religious persuasions answered the call to arms in defense of their God-given liberties.