Sunday, May 2, 2021

ARP199 Little Egg Harbor & Pulaski’s Legion

Last week I talked about the fighting around New York City as the British under the command of General Henry Clinton consolidated their position and shipped off soldiers to other parts of the empire. The ministry in London had ordered an end to major combat operations in the region, but expected the army and navy to continue coastal raids.

Adm. Howe Returns to England

The British Navy would take a primary role in the strategy of coastal raids.  The naval commander in North America, Admiral Richard Howe, was not really interested in doing this.  Lord Howe had been reluctant to take the command in North America back in early 1776.  In Parliament, he had opposed British policies toward the colonies.  The only reason he did take the command, was that his brother, General William Howe, was in command of the army in North America, and also because the ministry agreed to allow both of the Howe brothers to act as peace commissioners and try to negotiate a diplomatic end to the hostilities.

Admiral Richard Howe

Peace negotiations, of course, had been a complete failure, even after the ministry sent the Carlisle Commission with far broader authority to concede some authority to the Americans.  By the fall of 1778, Admiral Howe’s brother had been recalled to London and replaced by General Clinton.  Like his brother, Admiral Howe saw the mission as a failure, and that it would never succeed, because the ministry would not commit enough resources.  Admiral Howe had submitted a request to resign in November 1777.  After his brother went home in June, 1778, Admiral Howe was looking for an opportunity to follow.

Until he could leave, Howe remained active, keeping the French fleet under d’Estaing from attacking New York Harbor in July 1778, then following the French to Newport in August, where the two fleets were damaged by a storm while jockeying for position to fight one another.  The French sailed to Boston for repairs.  Howe’s fleet followed them, but found the defenses around Boston too extensive to justify the risk of a direct assault.  

With the French fleet not going anywhere for some time,  Howe sailed south, where he encountered the fleet carrying General Grey for the attacks at Buzzards Bay and Martha’s Vineyard that I discussed last week.  Howe had been trying to find his second in command, Vice Admiral John Byron, who had gone missing after the storms around Newport.

In early September, while Howe was providing backup for General Grey’s coastal raids in Buzzards Bay, he received a letter from Byron that he was in Halifax, but would be headed for New York.  Howe, left immediately, taking his fleet to New York even before Grey completed his raid on Martha’s Vineyard.

Knowing the French fleet would be under repair for quite some time, Howe saw this as his chance to turn over his command and return to London.  He had hoped that Byron would already be in New York, but Byron was nowhere to be found.

Admiral Byron was living up to his nickname: “foul weather Jack.”  He had only left England in June, dispatched to contend with the French fleet under d’Estaing.  When he left, Britain was scraping the bottom of the barrel for sailors.  A large number of his crew had been pulled out of jail for naval service.  Because food for prisoners was so bad, many of them were sick at the time they boarded the ship.  Sickness and scurvy quickly spread among the crew as it crossed the Atlantic.

To add to the problems, on July 3, while in the middle of the ocean, a brutal storm hit the fleet.  The ships were scattered.  On August 18, Byron arrived off Sandy Hook in New York Harbor aboard his flagship, the Princess Royal. There, he encountered several French ships from d’Estaing’s fleet.  Because he was separated from his own fleet, Byron sailed away, headed for Halifax.  Most of Byron’s fleet eventually made it to Sandy Hook.  The other ships stayed there because the French had moved on to Newport by that time.  Most of their crews were sick and many of the ships were badly damaged from the Atlantic storm they had encountered.

Meanwhile Admiral Howe was in New York Harbor and was in no mood to wait around for Byron to show up.  Instead, he turned over his command to Admiral James Gambier and prepared to set sail for London.

Howe’s rather sudden and impatient decision to turn over command to Gambier is a perplexing one.  Immediately after turning over command, Howe remained in New York for several days, but refused to consider any further operations, and forwarded to Gambier all dispatches that were sent to him.  Even after Byron finally showed up just off Sandy Hook on September 15, Howe made no effort to delay his departure.  Instead, he simply sent a note that he had left the more junior Admiral Gambier in command.

Byron’s ship got blown out to sea the following day and ended up sailing to Newport, rather than into New York Harbor.  A week later, Admiral Howe sailed out of New York and reached Newport the following day.  There, he met with Byron where he supposedly told him that Byron needed to get to New York right away and relieved Gambier.  The next day, Howe weighed anchor and left for London.

James Gambier

As far as I can tell, Admiral Byron never did relieve Gambier of command.  This is all the more perplexing because Gambier was not a leader who inspired much confidence.  Gambier’s father had grown wealthy by fleecing prisoners as warden of the notorious Fleet Prison.  James Gambier joined the navy in 1741 at age 18.  He managed to get command of a small sloop about five year later. 

About this same time, Gambier, stationed in Jamaica, started an affair with a woman about his age who was married to a 52 year old Admiral who was also governor of Jamaica at the time, Sir Charles Knowles.  A year later, Gambier brought his lover and her children back to Plymouth, England with him, the governor apparently still unaware of the affair they were having.

Adm. James Gambier
During the Seven Years War, Gambier took command of two different ships and was wounded.  He was not wounded in battle though.  In fact, it does not appear he ever even took either of the ships out to sea.  One night, while drinking in a Plymouth tavern, a riot broke out and he sustained an injury there.  

Later that year, his ten year long affair with Lady Knowles became public.  Gambier was tried and fined 1000 guineas for the crime of adultery.  The conviction, however, did not seem to slow up his career.  Gambier received another command and went to North America in time for the siege of Louisbourg during the Seven Years War.  Later, he served as commodore of a small fleet that was part of the Battle of Quiberon Bay.

Despite his combat achievements, Gambier did not have a particularly good reputation.  He was known as a bit of a ladies man, and also someone always looking to make a profit from his position.  He was, however, good friends with the Earl of Sandwich, who became First Lord of the Admiralty.  Lord Sandwich appointed Gambier to be commander of North America in 1770.

In three relatively uneventful years in Boston, Gambier pulled in a fair amount of money by fleecing the locals.  When it became clear that the colonies were headed for real problems in 1773, London recalled Gambier.  Rather than go after him for his corruption and incompetence, the Admiralty gave him new positions as Commissioner of the Navy at Portsmouth and Governor of the Royal Naval Academy.

In 1778, when it became clear that war with France was imminent, the admiralty wanted someone more competent in charge at Portsmouth.  So, once again, they promoted Gambier to rear admiral and sent him back to North America.  Admiral Howe told Gambier not to go to sea and to stay in New York City, where he did almost nothing.  

Byron should have taken command within days of Howe leaving. But for whatever reason, he did not, Byron remained at sea and in October headed for the West Indies.  To everyone’s horror, Gambier remained in command of the navy in North America for seven months, finally returning home in April 1779.

Patrick Ferguson

Shortly after Admiral Howe left for London, the British did conduct another raid.  However, it appears that it was not done at the behest of Admiral Howe, Admiral Gambier, or Admiral Byron.  Rather, ti was done at the behest of General Clinton.  Little Egg Harbor was a small inlet in southern New Jersey, about 80 miles south of New York City, just north of where modern day Atlantic City is today.  

American privateers were using the harbor as a base of operations.  They would capture British prizes, move them up the Mullica river, then unload the goods and cart them overland to Philadelphia for sale.  This avoided British patrols near the Delaware Bay, which would have been the more direct way to get goods to Philadelphia.  The small port took on increased importance when the British occupied Philadelphia and the Continentals needed to get supplies from Europe.  Even after the British left Philadelphia, the port remained an active base for privateers.

The British considered the American privateers to be pirates.  The group, in fact, was a pretty rough bunch of cut throats.  Even Continental leaders had to watch themselves when traveling through that area. At the request of General Clinton, Admiral Howe deployed a force of about 200 men to take out this group and put an end to their attacks on shipping.

Patrick Ferguson
In command of the British attack force was Captain Patrick Ferguson.  I’ve mentioned Captain Ferguson before.  He was the same officer who fought under General John Vaughn against Lord Stirling at the battle of Short Hills.  Later, he led the Hessian column at Brandywine where he allegedly declined an opportunity to kill General Washington.

Ferguson was the second son of a Scottish Laird. He had joined the army at age fifteen.  He saw active service in the Seven Years War, where a leg wound ended his service early and got him sent home.  According to some stories, his leg was the result of an illness, not enemy fire.  Whatever the case, it left him disabled.  In 1768, he purchased a captaincy and was deployed to the West Indies.  In 1772, he was back living in Britain, where General Howe was training units in light infantry training.  This was a new style of warfare that made much more active use of soldiers and did not require them to stand shoulder to shoulder in lines of battle.  General Howe and other officers with experience in North America were encouraging this new training.

As part of this effort, Ferguson developed what became known as the Ferguson rifle.  This was a breech loading weapon that had the accuracy of a rifle but could be reloaded faster than a musket.  It was also easy to load while lying on the ground.  

Ferguson had proven his rifle effective in battle at Short Hills and Brandywine in 1777.  However, he suffered a shot in the elbow during the Battle of Brandywine and spent eight months in Philadelphia struggling to heal.  He never did fully recover the use of his arm, but he did avoid it being amputated. He trained himself to shoot left handed and resumed active duty in the summer of 1778 in New York.  It was then that he took command of a small regiment of New Jersey loyalists.

Battle of Chestnut Neck

Eager to prove himself to General Clinton, Ferguson volunteered to clear out the American Privateer base at Little Egg Harbor.

As I said, the harbor had been a privateer base of operations for quite some time.  After the British seized several ships there in 1777, the Americans built a small fort to protect the harbor.  The small town around the fort, named Chestnut Neck, grew to accommodate the privateers.  Two taverns hosted prize courts, where captured ships and cargos were auctioned off to the highest bidder. In August 1778, the harbor was particularly busy, capturing at least thirty ships, including one rather large prize that sold for £16,000 sterling.

In response, General Clinton wanted this “nest of pirates” wiped out.  He deployed a force of 400 soldiers, a mix of regulars and loyalists, under the command of Captain Ferguson.  The force traveled down the coast in nine small ships.  Their mission was to disrupt the privateering operations, capture or destroy anything they found, and also to destroy a small iron works just upriver from the village.

Word of the raid got out even before Ferguson left New York.  New Jersey Governor William Livingston sent a courier to the area to warn the locals of the impending attack.  He also called on the Continental army to defend against the raid.

Due to poor weather, it took the British nearly five days to reach the harbor.  They arrived on October 4 to find the place nearly abandoned.  Privateers had taken their ships out to sea to avoid capture. Locals hid in the surrounding pine barons, taking their personal valuables with them.

Chestnut Neck
There was still a small garrison at the fort, but they had removed any cannons to prevent their destruction or capture.  When the British fleet arrived, the garrison simply fled into the woods.  The Americans had chosen Little Egg Harbor in part because it had many sandbars and shallow areas, making it difficult for attacking ships to navigate.

Ferguson had to crowd his men onto some of the smaller ships in this fleet to sail into the harbor.  Not facing any resistance, the men spent a day burning all the buildings and a few prize ships still in the harbor.  Because they could not navigate the harbor well, they had to burn the ships rather than sail them back to New York. They also destroyed a small salt works nearby.

After receiving word that a larger Continental force was on its way to confront them, Ferguson simply gathered his men back onto their ships and put out to sea again.

Casimir Pulaski

The Continental response to this attack was led by General Casimir Pulaski.  I gave more of an introduction to this polish-born officer back in Episode 159.  He was one of many European officers who came to America to offer their experience and leadership to the new army.  

Gen. Casimir Pulaski

Pulaski had served with Washington at the Battle of Brandywine, despite not having a commission at the time.  In fact, there is a story that Captain Ferguson saw two officers on Brandywine battlefield and had them in his rifle sight.  He declined to fire on them because their backs were turned to him.  According to some accounts, those officers were, in fact, George Washington and Casimir Pulaski.  Late in that battle Pulaski cobbled together a group of soldiers on horseback and led a charge that helped allow the Continentals to escape.

Anyway, in the days after Brandywine, Congress granted a general’s commission to Pulaski and made him Commander of Cavalry.  This may sound impressive, but the Continentals did not have a cavalry to command.  Although some soldiers had brought their horses when they joined the army, the army often ordered them to send the horses home because they could not afford to feed them.

During the winter at Valley Forge, Pulaski lobbied to put together an independent command of cavalry.  In March 1778 Congress finally authorized a legion of 68 cavalry and 200 light infantry to form Pulaski’s legion.  Pulaski would then have to recruit said soldiers and then train and equip them.

Pulaski set about selecting officers for his new legion, which he pulled mostly from other European officers who were already serving in the Continental Army.  His real trouble was enlisting soldiers.  Pulaski set up recruiting offices from Baltimore to Boston, offering signing bounties.  The problem was that most of the men willing to join the army had already joined.  Those who remained might be persuaded to join local leaders, but very few were inclined to join some European officer who was promising to form some strange legion they had never heard of.

Pulaski’s recruiters got into some disputes after allegations that they had recruited men that had already signed up for other units.  Pulaski also received permission to recruit one-third of his legion from Hessian deserters or prisoners of war.  In the end, the portions of Hessians serving in the legion was much more than that.  As a result, many were concerned about the loyalty of the legion.

Congress had given Pulaski $60,000 to recruit and outfit his new legion. But the inflation of paper money required him to spend more than that, which also led to criticism in Congress.  Pulaski finally had his legion assembled and trained in Wilmington, Delaware by August of 1778.  However, Congress would not activate the new corps.  

In response, Pulaski marched his legion to Philadelphia for a grand review.  He would march his legion through the streets of Philadelphia and get Congress to put the new unit into service.  Instead, Congress responded by calling on Pulaski to appear before the Board of War to explain financial irregularities that took place during his creation of the legion.  

On September 19, General Washington ordered Pulaski’s legion to join him in Fredericksburg, New York, as long as he got Congress’ permission to depart the city.  That was apparently slow in coming because ten days later, Pulaski was still in Philadelphia when he received orders to join Lord Stirling who was, at that time, trying to counter the British move into Bergen County, New Jersey that I discussed last week.

Again, before he could get permission to leave Congress once again summoned him to appear before the Board of War once again on October 3.  It seems the sheriff had tried to serve Pulaski with a lawsuit while he was marching at the head of his column.  Pulaski chased off the sheriff with his sword and continued his march down the thoroughfare. This led to a whole kerfuffle and accusations that the general was refusing to submit to civilian authority.  Pulaski had a second hearing before the board of war to explain himself again.  He essentially had to apologize and plead ignorance of American customs.  The lawsuit related to an unpaid debt incurred while setting up the legion, and the Board of War eventually settled with the creditor.

With all that finally settled, Congress ordered Pulaski to take his legion to Little Egg Harbor in order to defend against the expected British raid there.

Little Egg Harbor Massacre

Pulaski marched his legion across New Jersey but did not reach the harbor until after the British had burned everything and returned to their ships.  Captain Ferguson’s raiders were aboard ship just off the coast, but were awaiting favorable winds before sailing back to New York.  Pulaski billeted his men around the area just in case the British decided to land again.

It is not clear if Pulaski had his entire complement of about 330 men, or whether only some of them had arrived.  It is known that Pulaski scattered his units across several homes and barns in this very rural area.  

Pulaski Memorial
Ferguson received word of Pulaski’s arrival and got detailed intelligence on the location of the enemy.  On the night of October 14, Ferguson took 250 men in longboats and went ashore.  Guided by a local Tory, the soldiers found a group of perhaps at least 50 soldiers under the command of Lieutenant Colonel de Boze.  The British and loyalist force captured an enemy picket by surprise and killed him before he could fire a warning shot.  The attackers fell on the sleeping Americans and bayoneted them without quarter.  Ferguson had ordered no prisoners.  Reports indicate that between 30 and 50 Americans were killed and only five captured.  Following the massacre, the British withdrew.

General Pulaski was sleeping a few miles away when he received word of the attack.  The general mounted his horse and galloped off toward the sound of gunfire.  His cavalry and some of the light infantry with him followed.

The British had withdrawn across a creek and had pulled up the planks of the bridge so that the cavalry could not cross.  A few riflemen and light infantry managed to cross and fire on the retreating British.  Ferguson would later report three killed and three wounded on the raid.  It’s not clear if those casualties happened in the initial assault or during the withdrawal.  In any event, without the cavalry to support them, the American infantry pulled back to the creek and allowed the British to withdraw.

Ferguson’s men boarded their ships and began to sail back to New York. They arrived a week later on October 22.  At Little Egg Harbor, several locals were taken into custody as accused collaborators.  Pulaski’s men nearly beat one of the men to death before officers intervened.  Several of the accused admitted to guiding the British but said they were forced to do so under threat of death.  A court believed them and eventually released them to go home.

Pulaski’s actions were largely seen as a failure.  His remaining legion got deployed up in Northwestern New Jersey, near the Delaware River, far from any possible enemy. Pulaski seriously considered resigning his commission and returning to Europe, but in the end, opted to remain.

Next Week, Washington decides he really needs better intelligence about New York and forms the Culper Spy Ring.

- - -

Next Episode 200 Culper Spy Ring 

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Further Reading


Richard Howe, 1st Earl 4th Viscount:

James Gambier:

Hon. John Byron:

Foul weather hinders Byron’s pursuit of d’Estaing – June to December 1778:

Patrick Ferguson:

Patrick Ferguson:

Ruset, Ben “The Battle of Chestnut Neck” Nov. 27, 2007:

Casimir Pulaski:

Hymn of the Moravian Nuns of Bethlehem at the Consecration of Pulaski’s Banner:

Wroblewski, Joseph E. “Casimir Pulaski’s Difficulties in Recruiting his Legion” Journal of the American Revolution, August 28, 2017:

Wroblewski, Joseph E. “The Affair at Egg Harbor: Massacre of the Pulaski Legion” Journal of the American Revolution, October 4, 2017:

Little Egg Harbor Massacre:

The Affair at Little Egg Harbor:

The Egg Harbor Expedition:

Free eBooks
(from unless noted)

Barrow, John, The Life of Richard, Earl Howe, Admiral of the Fleet and General of Marines, London: Murray, 1838. 

Manning, Clarence A. Soldier Of Liberty Casimir Pulaski, New  York: Philosophical Society, 1945: 

Ferguson, Adam, Biographical sketch: or, Memoir of Lieutenant-Colonel Patrick Ferguson, Edinburgh: Printed by John Moir, 1817. 

Spencer, Richard Henry “Pulaski's LegionMaryland Historical Magazine, Sept. 1918. 

Stryker, William S. The Affair at Egg Harbor, New Jersey, October 15, 1778, Trenton: Naar, Day & Naar, 1894 (Google Books). 

Books Worth Buying
(links to unless otherwise noted)*

Braisted, Todd Grand Forage 1778, Westholme, 2016. 

Gruber, Ira The Howe Brothers and the American Revolution, W.W. Norton & Co. 1975. 

Kajencki, Francis C. Casimir Pulaski: Cavalry Commander of the American Revolution, Southwest Polonia Press, 2001. 

Willcox, William B. Portrait of a General;: Sir Henry Clinton in the War of Independence, Knopf, 1964. 

* As an Amazon Associate I earn from qualifying purchases.

1 comment:

  1. Fascinating! My 4th great-grandfather, Henry Jordan, was a Hessian soldier who fought with Pulaski at Little Egg Harbor. He was one of the riflemen who managed to shoot at the retreating British, as he recounted in his military pension application of 1836. For a man in his 80s, the details were quite accurate as far as I can determine: