4 Shipwrecks Found in New Jersey River Tell Tale of Epic Revolutionary War Battle

by Braxton Taylor

Beneath an unassuming Garden State Parkway bridge over the Mullica River is a hidden piece of history — the remnants of an epic battle launched by the British in October 1778 in one of the first South Jersey attacks from the water during the Revolutionary War.

Today, the remains of the historic battle — fought 245 years ago this Friday — are found in four shipwrecks in the river uncovered by local researchers, scuba divers and Stockton University students.

It’s been a fight with time, decay and tidal currents for Steve Nagiewicz, a researcher who has spent almost a decade documenting and preserving what’s hidden in the Atlantic County river from the little-known Battle of Chestnut Neck.

Nagiewicz, an adjunct professor of marine science at Stockton University, began teaching an underwater archaeology course and working with students in 2015 to collect and process information needed to reconstruct the sunken ships from the battle.

The history is still out there, but the shipwrecks are breaking up in the river, said Nagiewicz, who is also a trustee with the New Jersey Maritime Museum.

“We’re trying to document them so that when people come here to see the battle, they’ll know what the ships look like before they disappear,” he said.

So far, researchers have identified four centuries-old schooners at depths ranging from 14 to 40 feet underwater in the Mullica River about 10 miles from Atlantic City. Divers have also been able to retrieve artifacts from the decaying ships including beads, glass bottles and bricks.

The relics can be traced back to October 6, 1778, when two British fleets arrived in South Jersey to seize and attack privateers operating out of a port in Little Egg Harbor during the fight for American independence.

“It’s probably one of the most unknown historic battles where a fleet of 10 British ships, 400 British marines came in to destroy a town and a privateering harbor that had been plaguing British shipping for the early part of the Revolutionary War,” said Nagiewicz.

Privateers were essentially government-sanctioned pirates, according to Nagiewicz. They obtained letters of marque, or permission from the local government, to capture British ships and sell them at auctions to support George Washington’s Continental Army.

Chestnut Neck was the largest privateering port between Boston and Charleston at the time, according to Norman Goos, a historian with the Atlantic County Historical Society.

“As crazy as it sounds, a little hole in the wall just did devastating damage to the British supply chain and tripled the insurance on shipping things in the British Empire,” Goos said. “The British came to Chestnut Neck to try to salvage their supply routes.”

The British burned about ten captured merchant ships, then moved into the village and killed nearly 50 men– bayoneting them in their sleep — in an attack known as the Little Egg Harbor Massacre, according to local historians.

The battle was a loss for the Continental Army, but the port was so resilient that within a month after the British departed the area on October 15, 1778, it was fully operational again, Goos said.

Today, in Port Republic, there is a 50-foot monument built in 1911 to commemorate the Battle of Chestnut Neck.

Over the past four decades, researchers have uncovered four shipwrecks from the historic battle: the Bead, the Cramer, the Phoel and the recently discovered Mullica.

There are at least 4,000 shipwrecks scattered along the New Jersey coast, according to Nagiewicz. However, the Revolutionary War schooners found in the Mullica River are the oldest, along with others located in Crosswicks Creek in Burlington County.

“The only thing that remains are the old bones of the very bottom of the sailing ships,” Nagiewicz said. “Yet, those wrecks are historic because of their age and what they did during the time.”

In the mid-1980s, a group of local New Jersey divers located the shipwrecks of the Bead and the Cramer. The Bead was named after the dozens of glass trading beads found on the boat that were likely used to trade with Native Americans, according to local historians

The vessel researchers called the Phoel was discovered in 2008 and named after Stockton researcher William Phoel, who died unexpectedly on an expedition in the Amazon. In 2015, Nagiewicz picked up where Phoel left off and a few years later he and Stockton marine field station students used sonar technology to “see” and measure the wreck.

The Phoel is the largest of the discovered schooners — about the length of 1 1/2 school buses.

Nagiewicz, 70, has been on thousands of dives investigating wrecks around the world. He is a member of an international explorers’ club where Amazon founder Jeff Bezos serves as honorary chair.

As one of the first divers to explore the Phoel, he said diving into the Mullica River is like diving into a coffee cup because the water is so murky. Yet, he and fellow explorers managed to recover dozens of glass shards from centuries-old beer and water bottles near the bow, as well as bricks near the stern, likely remnants of the ship’s hearth or oven.

The artifacts and information about the Battle of Chestnut Neck are on display at New Jersey Maritime Museum on the southern end of Long Beach Island.

Nagiewicz’s classes use the shipwreck area, which is a New Jersey Historic Site, as a hands-on learning experience, focusing on mapping the ships and collecting environmental data every six months.

“And we’re always looking for new wrecks,” he said. “There were ten, supposedly, that burned and sank during that battle in 1778. So far, we’ve worked on three and we just started to work on the fourth.”

Atlantic County historian, Norman Goos, has a unique familial connection to the Battle of Chestnut Neck.

He is a member of the South Jersey chapter of the Sons of the American Revolution, a congressionally chartered organization established in 1889 to preserve American history and promote education for future generations. To become a member of this organization, individuals must prove their lineage through documents connecting them to ancestors who played a role in or supported the Revolutionary War.

Goos, 77, was able to prove that Jeremiah Leeds — the first permanent settler of Atlantic City — was his ancestor. Leeds served in the 3rd Battalion of the Gloucester County militia during the Revolutionary War and participated in the defense of Chestnut Neck.

At Atlantic and Michigan avenues in Atlantic City there’s a historic marker dedicated to Leeds. His grave is oddly nestled in the center of a traffic circle inside the entrance of a residential neighborhood in Northfield.

As historians mark the 245th anniversary of the Chestnut Neck battle, Goos said people should reflect on their forefathers and remember that “we have something worth preserving.”

“The people in southern New Jersey felt so oppressed by the British government system … that they were willing to risk their lives and their fortunes to do what nobody actually really probably expected to work — and that was to fight the greatest military power in the world,” Goos said.

“And they did. And they won,” he added.

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