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Battle of Turtle Gut Inlet





Battle of Turtle Gut Inlet
29 June 1776



The brig Nancy was chartered in the winter of 1775 by Robert Morris,1 for the Pennsylvania Committee of Safety. She was owned by Joseph Shallcross, Joseph Tatnall and others, including her master, Hugh Montgomery.2 Under Morris’s directions, the Committee of Safety was sending out cargoes to Puerto Rico in the Spanish West Indies, and to St. Thomas in the Danish West Indies. These were to be sold and the proceeds invested in military stores and munitions. Following the sale of the cargo the munitions were to be shipped back to Pennsylvania in the Nancy. A supercargo and agent, one Stephen Ceranio [Caronio] was sent out with the cargoes to direct the operation.3


The two vessels involved were the Nancy and the brigantine Dolphin (Prole). On 12 February and 1 March 1776, Morris wrote instructions for Ceranio,4 who was going out in the Nancy. By early March 1776 Nancy was laying in the upper part of Delaware Bay, awaiting a chance to run the British blockade.5 The British learned of her intended voyage when a report reached England by 8 April 1776 indicating that she was ready to sail for the West Indies for gunpowder.6


Nancy sailed in March 1776 for Puerto Rico, where she landed Ceranio7 Ceranio conducted his business there and then proceeded in the Nancy to St. Thomas and St. Croix to load.8 Near the end of April 1776, Ceranio had sold the cargoes, although he had not been paid in cash for some things, but in West Indian produce for others. On 30 April Ceranio wrote to Morris, advising him of this. Morris presented the new information to the Pennsylvania Committee of Safety on 24 May 1776. The Committee of Safety agreed to accept the entire return cargo on its own account and risk.9


Ceranio was very cautious. He obtained his gunpowder at various places, including some from St. Eustatius in the Netherlands West Indies. This was shipped to St. Thomas and loaded on the Nancy at night. The ordinary produce of rum and sugar, typical of the West Indies, was taken aboard in the daytime.10


Nancy loaded with 386 barrels of gunpowder, fifty firelocks, 101 barrels of rum, fifty-two hogsheads of sugar, and dry goods. She was armed with six 3-pounders and had a crew of eleven men aboard as she prepared to sail for Philadelphia.11


As Nancy prepared to sail, Ceranio hosted an entertainment aboard the Nancy for the local officials and merchants. Montgomery, in her book, gives this account, but ascribes the wrong motive to the event: “The day they sailed the captain and Mr. A. S. had invited the Governor and suit, with twenty other gentlemen, on board to dine. A sumptuous dinner was cooked, and a sea-turtle being prepared gave it the usual name of a turtle feast. As the Custom-house barges approached with the company, they were ordered to lay on their oars while a salute of thirteen guns was fired. Amid the firing, this young man was ordered to haul down the English flag, and hoist the first American stars ever seen in a foreign port. ‘Cheers for the National Congress ;’ cries of ‘Down with the lion ; up with the stars and stripes,’ were shouted. This novelty caused great excitement to the numberless vessels then lying in the harbor, and to the distinguished guests it was a most animating scene. After the entertainment was hurried over, they returned in their boats, and the brig was soon under full sail.”12

The brig Nancy at St. Croix, flying the American flag. Painted by John Sartain and titled The Flag of the United States, First hoisted at the Island of St. Thomas by Capt. Hugh Montgomery, on the news of the Declaration of Independence, 1776. From Montgomery, Reminiscences. Painted about 1851. For a larger view click here.

 


By the evening of 28 June 1776 Nancy was approaching Cape May, New Jersey to enter Delaware Bay. The British warships and tenders on the Delaware patrol were off the Delaware Capes for the night. These were HM Sloop Kingsfisher (Commander Alexander Graeme) and HM Frigate Orpheus (Captain Charles Hudson), along with several tenders. Inside the bay was a small squadron of Continental Navy vessels: brig Reprisal (Captain Lambert Wickes), schooner Lexington (Captain John Barry), and sloop Wasp (First Lieutenant John Baldwin).


Kingsfisher was anchored seven or eight miles to the south southwest of Cape May, New Jersey on the morning of 28 June. At 0800 her lookouts counted eighteen sail of “Pirates and Merchant men” anchored off Cape May.13 These were the small Continental squadron and various merchant vessels waiting to sail when the blockaders disappeared. At 170014 Kingsfisher’s lookouts sighted a sail standing in from the north and steering for Cape May. Kingsfisher came to sail and steered for Cape May to intercept the stranger.15 At 1930 Orpheus stood north to join the Kingsfisher.16 joined by the tenders. By the time that Kingsfisher had gotten near Cape May a haze had developed on the water and night had fallen. The strange sail was lost in the haze. About 2200 Kingsfisher anchored offshore.17 Orpheus anchored further south, about twelve miles off Cape Henlopen.18


Meanwhile, American lookouts on Cape May sent warnings to the American squadron that a brig was standing along shore about twelve or fifteen miles east of the cape. At dusk the American captains received this warning.19 The Americans suspected that this was the long expected brig Nancy.20 The American captains evidently conferred and decided that the Lexington (Barry) and Wasp (Lieutenant Baldwin) should go out to assist the brig. Wickes, of the Reprisal, said that “it being light Winds & the Chance difficult we could not get out with the Ship.,” meaning the Reprisal. Wickes sent his barge to assist in getting the Lexington and Wasp out.  He was “strongly solicited by our Brother Richd, to let him go to command the Barge which I refused several Times but at las was prevailed on to let him go.” Lexington and Wasp got about three or four miles to the east of Cape May. The night was dark and nothing could be seen, so the two anchored for the night.21


At 0300 on 29 June Kingsfisher’s lookouts sighted the stranger again. Graeme weighed anchor and began chasing.22 Orpheus sighted the brig at 0400 and began chasing, joined by several tenders.23


Montgomery’s lookouts soon discovered they were being chased. As the fog lifted six sail were seen in pursuit, with an armed boat joining the chase. Nancy sailed along the coast and manned her guns. The tenders were driven back, but it was obvious that the way was closed to Cape May.24 Nancy was now close to Turtle Gut Inlet. Montgomery anchored in the shallow water,25 thinking that he could save some of his cargo by sending it ashore in boats. The tenders kept firing from a distance.26


Detail from William Faden’s North American Atlas, 1777, showing area of Turtle Gut Inlet. The inlet no longer exists, having been filled in by the state of New Jersey in 1922. For a larger view click here.

 


Montgomery gathered his small crew together, to “spirit them up,” as was said in those days. According to his daughter, “He assembled the crew, and stated his determination to defend the munitions of war at all hazards; he did not wish to conceal the imminent danger of contending with such a superior force. The officer said, ‘If there is a man fearful and faint-hearted, let him go. The boat is ready to take him on shore. These public stores must be protected to aid our destitute country in the dark hour of need, in the noble cause of liberty.’ There was a momentary and solemn silence when the young man who had made the flag stepped forward and said, ‘ Captain, I will stand by you.’ Then three cheers were given, and not a man flinched from duty.”27


At sunrise the lookouts on Reprisal sighted the Nancy anchored nine miles to the eastward with both warships and two tenders in chase. The Lexington and Wasp were obviously not going to be able to help the Nancy and made sail and returned to the anchorage under Cape May. Reprisal’s barge, commanded by Lieutenant Wickes, did not: “our Brother Richd pushed of[fl into thier Assistance & borded her in Defiance of the Man Awarr who was so near as to fire often at them . . .” After Wickes got aboard it was decided to cut Nancy’s cable and run her ashore. She was run ashore in Turtle Gut Inlet. Very soon after the Americans were joined by men from the Lexington with their Captain, John Barry.28 A boat from the Wasp also arrived, commanded by Lieutenant Joshua Barney.29


With the additional men they set about unloading the Nancy. Wickes and his men went ashore to guard the stores. [Montgomery, 155-156] Her stores were moved across the beach behind sand dunes. Guards were set up. More peoples from the country came down, aroused by the firing. Carts were brought up and the powder was moved across the cape to the Delaware Bay shore.


Meanwhile the tenders kept up a sporadic fire on the Nancy and the beach. By 0800 Kingsfisher had worked in close and anchored right abreast of the Nancy.30 She opened a very heavy fire, but also very inaccurate fire, on the Nancy and the beach. Most of the shot went overhead. The Americans worked steadily and landed the cargo as fast as possible.31


The British manned four boats, which joined the tenders, to advance and board the brig. Kingsfisher would provide the covering fire. “ . . . these Boats were soon beat of[fl & sent back from whence they came . . .” Captain Wickes later wrote. This provoked Kingsfisher to move in closer. A half an hour later the British ship warped in closer, anchoring three to four hundred yards from the beached Nancy. The Kingsfisher began firing again and kept it up for half an hour.32


Throughout this action the Americans continued to work on unloading the brig. But the British were hardly finished. They now manned five boats and sent them off toward the Nancy.33 Among these were two boats from the Orpheus which had been dispatched at 0900. 34 Lambert Wickes said “ . . . from the Time the 5 Boats left the Ship they keep up so constant a Fire from the Ship that they obliged our Men to leave the Brigg & take to the Beach  where they fought the five Barges for about half an Hour during which Time they killed several of their Men which they saw fall over bord besides others wounded . . .”35


By now the damage to the Nancy was accumulating: “The brig was so shattered that not a sail or a spar was spared, the caboose was shot away, and the hulk so perfect a wreck that it could be no longer safe. One tottering mast, with the national flag flying, seemed only left to guess her fate.”36 Even though not all the powder had been unloaded, it was time to abandon ship and fight from the beach.


Remaining aboard the Nancy were Montgomery and Captain John Barry, with their boats alongside.37 According  to one reporter, “the brigs people finding it impossible to keep her any longer, started 130 or 40 barrels of powder in the cabin, and about 50 weight in the main-sail, in which they wrapped some fire, with an intent to communicate to the powder, and quitted her.”38 Another report says “upon which they opened the remainder of the powder, and spreading some doubled canvass upon it they laid on the canvass live coals, and left her.”39 Montgomery credits the plan to Barry: “when Captain Barry, who commanded this little expedition, ordered a quantity of the powder to be thrown loose into the hold, with a billet of burning wood wrapped in the mainsail over the hatchway, and then directed a retreat . . .” to the boats.40


According to Montgomery’s daughter, “As the boat distanced the wreck, one man, John Hancock, jumped overboard, as he said, ‘to save the beloved banner or perish in the effort.,’ for the flag had been left flying on Nancy’s tottering mast. His shipmates looked on with “terror to see him ascend the shivering

mast and deliberately unfasten the flag, then plunge into the sea and bear it on shore.”41


The British in the boats, seeing the flag come down, pressed forward with cheers.42 They pressed forward and boarded amid a heavy fire from the shore. A witness reported that thousands of people had gathered by now. [James, 35] A few days later a reporter gave this account of the result: “One or two of the men of wars boats soon boarded her; one was close under stern, and the others very near. Those on board had given three cheers, and fired their arms at our people, when the fire took effect on the powder, and sent 30 or 40 of them (as is supposed) into the air. Some of them went 30 or 40 yards high, who soon returned to the water, unable to tell who hurt them. They have taken up eleven bodies, two laced hats, and a leg with a white spatter dash; they are both supposed to belong to officers. The water was covered with heads, legs, arms, entrails, &c. one of the boats was towed off in a shattered condition, with only 6 men;”43 Joshua Barney said later that “a few minutes after the men from their boats had boarded the stranded barque, the latent fire communicated with the loose powder, and a tremendous explosion followed, from which not one of the boarders escaped — the destruction was complete, and the loss to the enemy, in men and officers, must have been immense, judging from the number of dead bodies, mangled limbs, goldlaced hats, and other parts of an officer’s equipment, which continued to be thrown up on the shore for many days afterwards; for its extent was never otherwise ascertained.”44 Lambert Wickes, in his letter, was more concise: “they got Possession of the Brigg at last who blew up in about five Minutes after they borded her and allso blue up one of their Boats and a great Number of their Men  on this Accident happening the other 4 Boats made off as fast as possible in a shattered Condition weakly maned . . . we gage that they Lost from 40 to 50 Men at least & one of thier long Boats,”45 The explosion was heard in Philadelphia, and perhaps forty miles above that city, as Montgomery’s daughter states.46 Luke Matthewman, a Lieutenant on the Lexington, who was present, later said that she blew up “with about 30 of the British, who had boarded her.”47


The British simply stated “By some accident she blew up” killing a Master’s Mate and six men, and losing the muskets, swivels, pistols and oars for the long boat.48 The Orpheus admitted to one man wounded, and several oars lost. Hudson noted that Kingsfisher had lost seven men men and her long boat.49 Two men had their ribs broken, and all the oars of the boats were shattered.50


But the action was not over. The Kingsfisher, angrily began firing on to the beach. The Americans had obtained a few pieces of artillery and fired back at the sloop.51 Meanwhile, wreckage was drifting ashore. Against the backdrop of the gunnery, “A hogshead of rum floated on shore, where the men, who had suffered hunger and thirst for twenty-four hours, knocked in the head and turned the liquor into a well to assuage their burning thirst.”52


Captain Lambert Wickes arrived on the scene, bringing up reinforcements. He arrived in time to witness a personal tragedy. Captain Montgomery, “much fatigued, was seated on a chest, and as he drew away his leg, a ball entered the spot, which Lieut. Weeks handed to him, and the captain expressed his gratitude for the hair-breadth escape. The young man replied, ‘My brave officer, these balls were not made to kill you nor me.’ In the moment, a ball severed his head!”53 Lambert Wickes said that “the Loss sustained on our Side was the Life of our dear Brother who was shott through the Arm and Body by a Cannon Shott 4 or 5 Minutes before the Action ended. we have this Consolation that he fought like a brave Man & was fore most in every Transaction of that Day this is confessed by Captn Barry whome was present all the Time he is much regreted by all the Officers in our Fleet & particularly Captn Barry who says a braver Man never existed than he was, in him I have lost a dear Brother & a good Officer which I know not where or how to replace . ..” and “[I] arrivd just at the Close of the Action Time enough to see him expire a noble Contest in the Arms of Victrtory, . . .”54 Aside from Lieutenant Wickes, one man of Nancy’s crew was badly wounded.55


The action continued for a few more minutes, before Kingsfisher gave up and sailed away, at 1200.56


Wickes reported that “265 half Barrels of Powder 50 Muskets 2 three Pounders three Swivels & about £ 1000 wort[hl dry Goods out of her in about 4 Hours.”57 The action had lasted from about 0800 until 1200,58 perhaps longer if the attempts on Nancy from the night before are included. The salvaged goods were trundled across the peninsula to the bay shore, where they were placed aboard the Wasp. [Monty, 157] By 5 July 1776 the munitions were in Philadelphia, when Captain Charles Alexander was directed to turn them over to the Pennsylvania Committee of Safety.59


Lieutenant Wickes “was buried very decently the 30th June in the Meeting House Yard at Cape May when the Clergymen preached a very deacent Sermon . . .” Writing to his sister, Wickes cautioned her about the death of Richard: “ you1 disclose this Secret with as much Caution as possible to our Sisters Please give my Love to Nancy the Children & our Sisters & my Complyments to all our Relations from your affectionate Brothr.”60


By 8 July salvage operations were under way on whatever was left of the Nancy. Captain William Hallock of the Continental Navy Sloop Hornet, reported to the Pennsylvania Committee of Safety on that day: “I further Inform you that after the delivery of the Wreck &c into my Care; Captain Montgomery took the Liberty to allow George Taylor to go to the Beech & take what of the Wreck he Could get, the said Taylor

went with a number of hands & Quoild up the Rigging that the Captains, Wicks [Lambert Wickes], Barry, & myself saved the day before; next day by my orders, the Master & Six hands went over in my Boat, with the Mate & two hands belonging to the Brig Nancy with their Long Boat, in order to bring off all the Rigging, my Boat took in all the Rigging & Guns on the Sound side which Loaded her, the Mate & People refusing to take in the Rigging on the Sea Side & accordingly the Mate Sold it to the said George Taylor for Six Pounds - Contrary to my orders, said Taylor brought over a quantity of that.rigging which he sold for £ 11-13s-9d besides sending up to Philadelphia a Considerable Quantity in Ezekial Stevans & John Connors Boat.” Hallock also requested directions on settling the small accounts of various people for hauling the goods ashore and freighting the Wasp.61


On 12 July the owners of the Nancy presented a bill for her loss. The Pennsylvania Committee of Safety paid them *1457.10 for the loss.62

Summary Table

Vessel

Tons

Guns

Broadside

Men

Killed

%

Wounded

%

Total

%

American

6

9

>100

1

1

2

Kingsfisher

302

14

42

125

7

6%

7

6%

Orpheus

708

32

174

220

1

1

Time: 4 hours



1 Montgomery, Elizabeth, Reminiscences of Wilmington, in Familiar Village Tales, Ancient and New, Wilmington: Johnson and Bogia, 1872, p. 154

2 Montgomery, Wilmington, 154

3 NDAR, “Minutes of the Pennsylvania Committee of Safety,” V, 233-234

4 NDAR, “Minutes of the Pennsylvania Committee of Safety,” V, 233-234

5 Montgomery, Wilmington, 154

6 NDAR, “Bristol Journal Extraordinary, Monday, April 8, 1776,” IV, 1024-1025

7 Montgomery, Wilmington, 154

8 Montgomery, Wilmington, 154

9 NDAR, “Minutes of the Pennsylvania Committee of Safety,” V, 233-234

10 Montgomery, Reminiscences, 154

11 The Pennsylvania Evening Post [Philadelphia], July 11, 1776

12This is the story given by Montgomery, Reminisences, 154-155. There is some debate about whether this was the “First Salute.” I can only say that there is only a very minimal possibility that anyone in St. Croix knew of the resolution of Congress declaring independence. The flag in question was almost certainly the Grand Union flag.

13 NDAR, “Journal of H.M. Sloop Kingsfisher, Captain Alexander Graeme,” V, 792

14Clark, Wickes, 47, citing the log of the Kingsfisher

15 NDAR, “Journal of H.M. Sloop Kingsfisher, Captain Alexander Graeme,” V, 792

16 Clark, Wickes, 47, citing the log of the Orpheus

17 NDAR, “Journal of H.M. Sloop Kingsfisher, Captain Alexander Graeme,” V, 792

18 NDAR, “Journal of H.M.S. Orpheus, Captain Charles Hudson,” 818 and note

19 NDAR, “Captain Lambert Wickes to Samuel Wickes,” V, 882-884 and 884 notes

20 Barney, Memoirs, 39

21 NDAR, “Captain Lambert Wickes to Samuel Wickes,” V, 882-884 and 884 notes

22 NDAR, Journal of H.M. Sloop Kingsfisher, Captain Alexander Graeme,” 817-818 and 818 notes

23 NDAR, “Journal of H.M.S. Orpheus, Captain Charles Hudson,” 818 and note

24 The Pennsylvania Evening Post [Philadelphia], July 11, 1776

25 NDAR, “Captain Lambert Wickes to Samuel Wickes,” V, 882-884 and 884 notes

26 Montgomery, Reminiscences, 154

27 Montgomery, Reminiscences, 155

28 NDAR, “Captain Lambert Wickes to Samuel Wickes,” V, 882-884 and 884 notes

29 Barney, Memoir, 40

30 Journal of H.M. Sloop Kingsfisher, Captain Alexander Graeme,” 817-818 and 818 notes

31 NDAR, “Captain Lambert Wickes to Samuel Wickes,” V, 882-884 and 884 notes

32 NDAR, “Captain Lambert Wickes to Samuel Wickes,” V, 882-884 and 884 notes

33 NDAR, “Captain Lambert Wickes to Samuel Wickes,” V, 882-884 and 884 notes

34NDAR, “Journal of H.M.S. Orpheus, Captain Charles Hudson,” V, 818 and note

35 NDAR, “Captain Lambert Wickes to Samuel Wickes,” V, 882-884 and 884 notes

36 Montgomery, Reminiscences, 156

37 Barney, Memoirs, 40

38 NDAR, “Extract of a letter from Philadelphia, July 6,” V, 952

39 NDAR, “Pennsylvania Ledger, Saturday, July 6, 1776,” V, 951-952

40 Barney, Memoirs, 40

41 Montgomery, Reminiscences, 156

42 Montgomery, Reminiscences, 156

43 NDAR, “Extract of a letter from Philadelphia, July 6,” V, 952

44 Barney, Memoirs, 40

45 NDAR, “Captain Lambert Wickes to Samuel Wickes,” V, 882-884 and 884 notes

46 Montgomery, Reminiscences, 157

47 NDAR, “Captain Lambert Wickes to Samuel Wickes,” V, 882-884 and 884 notes

48 NDAR, “Journal of H.M. Sloop Kingsfisher, Captain Alexander Graeme,” 817-818 and 818 notes

49 NDAR, “Journal of H.M.S. Orpheus, Captain Charles Hudson,” 818 and note

50 Laughton, John Knox (ed.), Journal of Rear-Admiral Bartholomew James, 1752-1828, London: Navy Records Society, 1906, 35, available online here.

51 NDAR, “Extract of a letter from Philadelphia, July 6,” V, 952

52Montgomery, Reminiscences, 157

53Montgomery, Reminiscences, 157

54 NDAR, “Captain Lambert Wickes to Samuel Wickes,” V, 882-884 and 884 notes

55 NDAR, “Captain Lambert Wickes to Samuel Wickes,” V, 882-884 and 884 notes

56 NDAR, “Journal of H.M. Sloop Kingsfisher, Captain Alexander Graeme,” 817-818 and 818 notes

57 NDAR, “Captain Lambert Wickes to Samuel Wickes,” V, 882-884 and 884 notes

58 NDAR, “Captain Lambert Wickes to Samuel Wickes,” V, 882-884 and 884 notes

59 NDAR, “Minutes of the Pennsylvania Committee of Safety,” V, 938 and note

60 NDAR, “Captain Lambert Wickes to Samuel Wickes,” V, 882-884 and 884 notes

61 NDAR, Captain William Hallock to the Pennsylvania Committee of Safety,” V, 980-981 and 981 note

62 NDAR, “Minutes of the Pennsylvania Committee of Safety,” V, 1048


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