Privateers of the Revolutionary War – Part 1

American Privateer Scorpion 2One of the rewards of hanging out at the maritime museum is the opportunity to meet and learn from some very knowledgeable history buffs. Among the most gifted and most prolific is Tom Farner. Tom has been writing the “200 Plus” column for the Sandpaper for over 40 years. I have written to Tom on several occasions when I am doing research on some ship, captain or maritime event. My note will start out with “Tom, have you ever encountered anything about _______ ?” Within a day, he will respond with one or more articles he has written about the subject containing more facts than I could find in a dozen books.

Earlier this year, Tom got me hooked on the Revolutionary War battles at Chestnut Neck on the Mullica River. This is an area about 10 miles southwest of the museum. While driving to Atlantic City on the Parkway, look down as you cross the Mullica River. That’s the spot. George Washington had a rag-tag army of volunteers who could go home after 90 days of service. His navy was even worse; practically non-existent. To compensate, the Continental Congress contracted with skilled patriot mariners to become privateers. The privateers captured British merchant ships moving along the Jersey shore, plundered the cargo, confiscated or burned the ship and took the crew hostage to be traded for Patriots imprisoned by the British. Most of the cargo was turned over to fund the Revolution. But the privateers kept enough to become very wealthy themselves. Many of these privateers used Little Egg Inlet and the Mullica River to hide their ships and their booty.

The British grew weary of the harassment from these privateers and sent a flotilla down from New York to vanquish this nest of scoundrels for good. The privateers were warned and most fled the area. A few stayed back to make the conquest costly for the British. But the invasion generally succeeded in capturing some cargo back, burning the village and some of the Patriot ships. This incursion could have been a total success but for the loss of HMS Zebra, the flagship of the invading British fleet. Zebra was hopelessly grounded when the ships were departing. Zebra was stripped of sails and set fire. Several surveys show where the wreckage is thought to be. But to this day, poor Zebra lies buried and undiscovered in the shifting mud and sand of the Mullica River.

Even though Chestnut Neck was known as a hot bed of privateer activity, there seems to be very few individual pirates whose notoriety rose to the top as daring rebels. One patriot who does appear to qualify as a humble hero is Samuel Brown of Forked River. Brown led a local militia which took part in several skirmishes to harass the British forces that tried to occupy the Jersey shore. Armed with a commission from the state he was also building a gunboat which he would use for privateering. When finally finished, the gunboat – Civil Usage –patrolled Barnegat Bay and the waters near Long Beach Island looking for any opportunity to engage the British. Capt. Brown had some success with privateering. But his most notable action was against Loyalist operating out of Clam Town (Tuckerton). After victory, Brown moved to Manahawkin and rebuilt his life. Capt Samuel Brown was one of many American patriots who answered the call and sacrificed all they had to the revolutionary cause. This is a chapter in Jersey Shore history that should be read more often.

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  • Leanne Keefer Bechdel

    The Pennsylvania Evening Post of January 18, 1777, told of the burial of one of the patriots whose bodies were laid here :

    ” Yesterday the remains of Captain William Shippen, who was killed at Princeton the third instant, gloriously fighting for the liberty of his country, were interred in St. Peter’s Churchyard. His funeral was attended by the Council of Safety, the members of Assembly, officers of the army, a troop of Virginia light horse, and a great number of inhabitants. This brave and unfortunate man was in his twenty-seventh year, and has left a widow and three children to lament the death of an affectionate husband and a tender parent, his servants a kind master, and his neighbors a sincere and obliging friend.”

    Captain Shippen, before joining Washington’s army, was captain of the privateer Hancock, which, between July 1 and November 1, 1776, sent to American ports ten prizes captured at sea. Would love to verify this

    • Mort

      Leanne, thank you for the comment on Capt. William Shippen. You have collected far more information on Capt Shippen than we have. I can’t verify his successes but I do have records that his privateer ship was “Hancock”. I am doing Revolutionary War research on British ships lost near Long Beach Island. If I find anything on Capt. Shippen, I’ll pass it on. You might also check the books written by Donald G. Shomette. He has published several books on that era. Good luck and please share what you might find.

  • Alan Flenner

    While researching Joseph Sleigh, a sailor on the Philadelphia privateer “Hancock” in 1776, and who lived in Northern Liberties, Philadelphia County, PA, I found the below account of an action by the “Hancock”. This account appeared in “Intelligence From Boston”, which I found in the Northern Illinois University Digital Collection. Joseph Sleigh died in December 1785. His will is on record in Philadelphia. I believe he is the great-grandson or great-great-grandson of the Quaker Joseph Sleigh of Dublin, Ireland who had a patent for land in the “Irish Tenth” in West Jersey but died in 1682 before leaving Dublin for America. His presumed grandson Joseph Sleigh was received into the Chester, PA meeting in 1734 from Cork, Ireland, but was later disowned. This Joseph Sleigh spent time in Chester County, PA and South Jersey. Joseph Sleigh the sailor had a brother John Sleigh who served in the Philadelphia militia in 1776 and who relocated to St. Mary’s, Georgia. John Sleigh’s daughter Polly married Capt. James Chevalier who skippered the privateer sloop “John Sleigh” operating out of St. Mary’s, Georgia and venturing as far north as New York Harbor during the War of 1812. Now, back to the “Hancock”:

    “Boston, August 15, 1776: We hear that on Wednesday last was sent into Portsmouth, by the privateer “Hancock”, of Philadelphia, the “Reward”, of six hundred tons, a large ship (formerly a twenty-gun ship) now mounting fourteen guns, bound from Tortola for London, having on board seven hundred and fifty hogsheads of sugar, two hundred hogsheads of rum, five thousand weight of cotton, and a number of pieces of cannon. We hear she was taken by the following stratagem, viz: Just before dusk the evening the “Hancock” came across her, the Captain of the prize [the “Reward”] taking the “Hancock” to be one of the tyrant’ s pilferers, very much rejoiced to fall in with her, and doubtless vice versa, when the “Hancock” at night threw out a light for a pilot. At daylight the next morning, the vessels being near together, the Captain of the ship invited the Captain of the “Hancock” [Capt. William Shippin] to come on board and take a breakfast; who replied, his hands were so few and sick, that he had not enough to man his boat and work the vessel; and in his turn, invited the Captain of the ship to come on board him, which he readily complied with by ordering his boat out, when he and about a dozen of his hands went on board the “Hancock”, and were taken as good care of as men in such circumstances could be. The “Hancock” then sent an equal number of her own hands on board the ship, when alas! she fell into the hands of the United States of America. The letters by her inform us that every sort of provision was very high; flour, scarce a barrel to be had at any price; butter at £6 12s. currency per firkin; — all wishing the dispute settled with America, and in great expectation that matters would be accommodated by the discretionary powers of Lord Howe. This ship was taken in latitude 28° north, longitude 62°. The prize-master, Mr˙ Barton, informs us that the “Hancock” had taken a brigantine from the West Indies just before this ship, and sent her to Egg Harbour, and was in chase of a ship, supposed to be a Jamaicaman, and almost within gunshot, when he left her.”

    Note that the correct spelling is Shippin, not Shippen for Capt. William Shippin. An online memorial for Capt. William Shippin is on “Find A Grave” at:

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