Chestnut Neck at the beginning of the Revolutionary War, was a busy thriving trade center. Local vessels made regular trips to New York and elsewhere, carrying mail and local products, and returning with needed merchandise. With the coming of the War, the same harbor facilities which made it a seaport, made it a rendezvous of the Privateers. Privateering (the arming of privately owned vessels to prey on enemy shipping, and also, to protect the shipping of their own country) was an international custom. British Privateers constantly raided our coast and attacked our shipping. Our Privateers brought their captured prizes into Chestnut Neck, unloaded, and stored their cargoes in the storehouses. These cargoes and the captured vessels were sold, and frequently the captured vessels were fitted out and used as Privateers.
With the British holding Philadelphia and New York, during that awful winter of 1777-78, General Washington at Valley Forge had his source of supplies cut off. Supplies were then brought into Little Egg Harbor, unloaded at Chestnut Neck, taken up the river on flat boats to the Forks, carted across the state to Burlington, and on to Valley Forge. Many cargoes intended for Sir Henry Clinton in New York, because of our privateers, reached General Washington at Valley Forge. Thus, Little Egg Harbor and Chestnut Neck proved a real life line during that darkest period of the War. Chestnut Neck was indeed an active place during that time. It is said that as many as thirty vessels were usually there, bringing in captured prizes, unloading them, selling them, and again sailing out. Captain Micajah Smith brought in the large British freighter Venus, of London, in August, 1778. She is said to have been one of the most valuable taken during the War.
Sir Henry Clinton became so exasperated by this constant loss of his ships, that he decided to "clean out that nest of Rebel Pirates." Accordingly, on September 30, 1778, a fleet of nine British ships and transports, under command of Capt. Henry Collins, with 300 British Regulars and 100 New Jersey Loyalists, under Capt. Patrick Ferguson, sailed from New York, bound for Chestnut Neck.
Governor Livingston learned of their sailing, and sent Express Riders to warn the people. General Washington dispatched Count Pulaski and his Legion to assist the patriots. Count Pulaski, however, did not arrive until the day following the battle.
There are no official records as to what men helped to defend Chestnut Neck. From John Tilton's pension papers, we have learned that Capt. Zephaniah Steelman's Company (said to have numbered about 60 men) was ordered with others to help defend Chestnut Neck. From records of men serving in Capt. Joseph Conover's Company, it would seem that his Company, likewise, was there; and, of course, the company stationed at the Forks to protect the iron works at Batsto, would be there - also every man and boy, irrespective of age, who had a musket and could use it, would be there; in all, probably about 200 or more men. They had only their muskets for defense against British cannon. The cannon which Elijah Clark and Richard Westcott had purchased for the fort at Chestnut Neck, evidently, were more needed elsewhere. We all know the dire needs of the patriot army at every point in New Jersey at that time. While those cannon in place at Chestnut Neck would have meant a different story for the patriots there, their use, probably, was equally effective where they were used, and may have meant more to our cause.
The British fleet, because of bad weather, did not arrive off Little Egg Harbor until late in the afternoon of October 5th. Then the weather prevented their getting over the bar. Knowing the people had been warned, and the Count Pulaski was on the way, all haste was made to get up the river to Chestnut Neck. The troops were put aboard the galleys and armed boats, and left at daybreak on October 6th. Again they were delayed; two boats grounded "for want of pilots." They reached Chestnut Neck at four o'clock, in a heavy fog.
We have no official records of this Battle. Again, we are grateful to General Stryker for the British records. While biased, they are no doubt, accurate, - even though they call our patriots "skulking banditti" and "rebel freebooters."
An abstract of Capt. Collins report is as follows:
"___________ intelligence of our intentions had reached the rebels several days preceding our arrival (which enabled them to get four privateers to sea), so no time was to be lost in proceeding up the river: _______ got up with the galleys, and the Nautilus and Experiment's tenders, about four in the afternoon, to Chestnut Neck, where the rebels had several vessels and storehouses. They ranged themselves in numbers in a breastwork they had erected on an eminence, and showed themselves in a battery (which we afterwards found had no guns) on the beach, but were soon disordered by a well-managed fire from the galleys, the troops landing immediately under the protection of the gunboats, and cannonade of the galleys soon drove them from their works, and made them disperse to the woods without loss. The vessels at this place, amounting to ten in number, we found were mostly British, which had been seized upon by the rebel cruisers; amongst them was the Venus, of London, and others of considerable size, which they could not carry higher up; as all of them were scuttled and dismantled, and some sunk, it was impossible (notwithstanding my solicitude to recover the property of the King's subjects) to get down here; I therefore, ordered them destroyed and fired. The storehouses and settlements here, so particularly adapted to the convenience of the nest of freebooters, I was of the opinion, with the commanding officer of the troops, should also be destroyed; which was accordingly done, also the battery, and the work on the hill."
Capt. Ferguson reported that had they arrived by surprise, they had "meant to push on with celerity to the Forks." There is a tradition that they did attempt to reach the Forks by roadway, but the Patriots, in a heavy wooded narrow section, attacked and drove them back.
Having demolished, burned, and laid waste all they could not stealing, knowing that Count Pulaski was due to arrive (Tory spies kept them informed) they hastily left at noon on October 7th, stopping at the mouth of Bass River to destroy the salt works and mills of Eli Mathis. They burned all of the houses on his plantation, his home and barns; then they rejoined their ships.
Count Pulaski on arriving at Chestnut Neck, immediately marched on to the Forks, crossed the river and marched to Tuckerton, arriving there on October 8th. Here he and the British watched each other until October 15th when, through the treachery of a deserter, the British were able to surprise an outpost of fifty of Pulaski's men, bayonet the sentry and almost the entire number of men. It is said that the order for "no quarter" had been given. Capt. Ferguson reported that "it being a night attack, but little quarter could be given." There were 200 of the British and 50 of Count Pulaski's men. This is known as the "Massacre of Little Egg Harbor." The site is marked by a monument erected by the Sons of the Cincinnati. The British then sailed back to New York.
From this massacre, it is evident what would have been the fate of Chestnut Neck, had the British been able to make a surprise attack. What did not happen is as significant as what did happen. They did not kill or capture any of our men. Neither did they capture any of our Privateers, nor were they able to take back any of the captured British Prize vessels.
Word from Gov. Livingston's express riders had reached 'the Neck' on October 2nd, so it is not likely the British found much of value to steal. The men had dismantled and scuttled the larger vessels, and evidently all smaller boats had been loaded and taken up the river and hidden. While the men had been doing this, those capable women would not have been idle. From tradition, we learn that they habitually buried their pewter and silver when a raid was imminent. They know this was no mere raid. There were relatives and friends with large plantations and homes inland, who would take care of them and their possessions. We can picture them on the morning of October 6th (we also had spies to keep us informed) loading the last of their possessions on the farm wagons, and leaving the men to see to it the British got no farther than Chestnut Neck. They did just that.
They fell back to 'the woods' and, according to tradition, fired from behind trees as they went. There is a tradition that William Johnson fired the shot from behind a tree, that killed the British Officer that, it is claimed, was killed. The British reported one man wounded. He could have died from the wound. The British did not pursue the Patriots into the woods.
In the Newspaper Extracts of the New Jersey Archives is found this item from "The Pennsylvania Evening Post" of October 9, 1778:
"_________ The British came up the Little Egg Harbor river as far as Capt. Pain's house, which they burnt with several vessels scuttled in that part of the river, the owners not having time to move them higher up. _______ None of the stores, public or private were destroyed, being moved at the first alarm, and Capt. Pain had fortunately carried off his stock and household furniture."
Our Privateers continued to operate until the close of the War. As we look through the Newspaper Extracts in the New Jersey Archives, we find many advertisements of captured vessels and their cargoes for sale at Chestnut Neck and at the Forks. It does not seem that the British profited much by this marauding expedition.
Chestnut Neck never again became a trade center. Three of the large land owners, Micajah Smith, John Mathis, and Joseph Sooy, did return and rebuild their homes. The others eventually build new homes in present Port Republic. It is said that the Joseph Johnson house was not destroyed. (For the tradition concerning this house, see Yearbook, Volume 1, No.1, page 9.)
Mr. Paul C. Burgess had made a pen sketch of Chestnut Neck from the early deeds and surveys which he has in his possession, showing the homes of the land owners living at Chestnut Neck at the time of the battle. The Foundation of Payne's tavern is still discernible, and John Adams Landing and the fort are accurately located. John Adams purchased 300 acres here in 1711, and John Mathis acquired this 300 acres in 1769. The foundation of his house is still there. The Sooy house, built after the battle, is still standing. Edward Bowen did not return to Chestnut Neck. He had married Sarah, daughter of John Smith and a sister of Micajah Smith. There are still Bowens living in Port Republic. All early plantation owners had to have homes for their workmen on their plantations. These houses may have been occupied at that time by seamen or others needed in War time work. We have no way of learning about this.
Edward Blake, in 1804, married Mary, daughter of Micajah Smith. In 1807, she received from her father by will, all lands he had "purchased of David Stephens, Abraham Davies, and David Gifford at Chestnut Neck." Deeds then refer to these lands as the Blake Plantation. The Edward Blake home stood on the right side of the road, about half way between the house of the late John W. Johnson and the monument. I remember the house well.
In 1836 my grandfather, John Collins, a grandson of Dr. Richard Collins, Atlantic County's first physician, of Collins Mills on the Moss Mill Road, purchased the Smith plantation from John Smith, son of Micajah Smith. Grandfather lived in what Micajah Smith in his will called his "Mansion House" until it was destroyed by fire. I have a table and sideboard saved from that fire. He then built the house in which I was born, on the opposite side of the road. Eventually that too was destroyed by fire. Now fire has claimed all buildings, including the huge barns. A few of the lovely cedar and osage orange trees that lined both sides of the long roadway from the main road to his home, are all standing.
The Rose family purchased property on Chestnut Neck in the early 1800's, and lived there until a few years ago, when they built their new house in Port Republic. The families of Johnson, Blake, Mathis, Sooy, Rose and Collins made up Chestnut Neck for a number of years. Descendants of the Johnson and Sooy families still live on the original estates. The Mathis plantation passed to the Lippincott branch of the family, and from them to the French branch, near where the house stood, can easily be found and is well cared for. The Smith-Collins plantation now belongs to the heirs of the late Judge William C. French, who was a grandson of John Collins and a great-great-grandson of Micajah Smith.
A monument erected through the efforts of General Lafayette Chapter, Daughters of the American Revolution, marks the site of the Battle of Chestnut Neck. The Minute Man at its top faces the river, still guarding the shore against the approaching enemy. It is a beautiful monument, worthy of the men it honors.
Monument honoring the men who defended Chestnut Neck at the "Battle of Chestnut Neck" on October 6, 1778. Erected through General Lafayette Chapter Daughters of the American Revolution. Dedicated October 6, 1911.
Georgiana C. Blake