Long before Cape May became associated with vacations and Victorian gingerbread, it had strategic significance. To appreciate it, forget everything we take for granted about traveling between New York City and Philadelphia.
In George Washington’s day, the most efficient route, especially for moving large amounts of men and materiel, was by ship. The British occupied both cities for part of the war. Like it or not, they had to sail around or past Cape May.
As J.P. Hand and Daniel P. Stites make clear in their deeply researched new book, “The Cape May Navy: Delaware Bay Privateers in the American Revolution” (Arcadia Publishing, $21.99), the seafaring men of Cape May succeeded in making that trip costly and dangerous for British merchant and naval vessels.
As the authors write, “Any British vessels attempting to resupply British troops in Philadelphia or sailing along the Jersey coast coming from the Caribbean or the Southern colonies towards New York were inviting targets for our privateers.”
Privateers? Not to be confused with pirates.
The former were patriots. The fledgling U.S. government issued what were called Letters of Marque, authorizing their holders to use their own ships to attack and capture British vessels or the vessels of British allies, including those of Tory sympathizers among the colonists.
Both authors are South Jersey natives descended from notable Cape May privateers. Stites, who grew up in Margate, is a descendant of privateer officer Matthew Hand. J.P. Hand, a lifelong resident of Cape May County, is a descendant of privateer captains Colonel Elijah Hand and Lieutenant Colonel Enoch Stillwell.
Stillwell is credited with the most valuable captures attributed to the privateers—that of the British brig Lyon and Schooner Henry, both loaded with rum and Madeira. The Lyon and its cargo sold at auction for 173,000 pounds. The equivalent in today’s dollars “is difficult to approximate,” says Hand, “but it is safe to say that 173,000 pounds was a large fortune.”
The most strategically important victory was the capture of the British brig Triton by privateer Captain Yelverton Taylor, commanding the schooner Mars. “On board the Triton,” the authors write, “was close to a regiment of [German mercenary] Hessian soldiers who were later exchanged for American soldiers and privateer crewmen held in the British prison ships in New York.”
Conditions on those docked prison ships, the authors note, were hideous. Being chained below decks with no facilities, barely any food or water, amounted to an agonizing death sentence.
During the Revolution, Cape May County had a population of only about 2000. The authors estimate that the county provided at least 24 privateer captains and more than 100 officers and crewmen.
“…within two generations,” they write, “the men of Cape May County had transitioned from hunting whales to hunting British merchant vessels and, when possible, British naval vessels as well. Just as their fathers and grandfathers had fished the waters of the Atlantic Ocean and the Delaware Bay for whales, Cape May’s privateers searched for a different kind of prey in those same waters.”
The book, to be published in May, will be available at Dellas 5 & 10, 501-503 Washington Street, in Cape May. For more information, see arcadiapublishing.com.
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