Battle of Turtle Gut Inlet in Wildwood Crest, NJ in 1776.

 Turtle Gut Inlet, once located in the vicinity of Toledo Avenue in today’s Wildwood Crest, was at one time the division between Five Mile Beach to the north and Two Mile Beach to the south. Filled in by the county in 1922, it has long been forgotten, but its history has given us much to remember.

The Battle of Turtle Gut Inlet (June 29, 1776) was an important, early naval victory for
the Continental Navy and the future “Father of the American Navy”, Captain John
Barry.  It was the first privateer battle of the American Revolutionary War.  The battle
resulted in the first American casualty of the war in New Jersey, Lieutenant Richard
Wickes, brother of Captain Lambert Wickes.  It was the only Revolutionary War battle
fought in Cape May County.

To prevent the Americans from receiving war supplies through the port of
Philadelphia, the British Navy established a blockade of the Delaware Bay. This fleet
included over 240 cannons.  The Americans then fortified the river with
cheveaux-de-frise in the shipping channel.  To transport gunpowder and arms, Robert
Morris of the Pennsylvania Committee of Safety chartered the newly built brig, also
called brigantine, Nancy and her captain, Hugh Montgomery on March 1, 1776.  On
March 14, 1776, John Barry was commissioned Captain of the fourteen-gun Lexington
in the Continental Navy.  In early June, the privateer Nancy loaded supplies in the
Caribbean islands of St. Thomas and St. Croix.  She then sailed for Philadelphia with
“three hundred and eighty-six barrels of gunpowder, fifty fire-locks, one hundred and
one hogsheads of rum, and sixty-two hogsheads of sugar, &c, on board”.  In mid-June,
Barry was alerted by Morris that Nancy was headed his way, and would need
protection since she had only an eleven-man crew and six cannons.  Barry was soon
joined by the eighteen-gun Reprisal, captained by Lambert Wickes, and the eight-gun
Wasp, captained by William Hallock, and headed for Cape May.  The British blockade
forces were led by the 28-gun HMS Liverpool, captained by Henry Bellew, and
included the 32 gun HMS Orpheus, captained by Charles Hudson, and the sixteen
gun HMS Kingfisher, captained by Alexander Graeme.  Also at this time, the vanguard
of the British fleet of over one hundred ships was set to enter New York Harbor on the
morning of June 29.

The Battle
Late on the afternoon of June 28, a lookout on Kingfisher spotted Nancy sailing
toward Cape May and began chase, followed by Orpheus.  Nancy, and the pursuing
British, were spotted by the American lookout at Cape May.  Captain Barry, on
Lexington, received a message by flag code from Nancy that she needed help.  Barry
in turn signaled Reprisal and Wasp and then met with their captains to plan a
response. Longboats from Lexington, Wasp, and Reprisal, led by Lieutenant Richard
Wickes, set out to assist Nancy.  In the early hours of June 29, pursued by the British
Orpheus and Kingfisher and blocked from entering the Delaware Bay, Nancy headed
for the nearby Turtle Gut Inlet in a heavy fog.  She soon ran aground, while the larger
British ships were kept to deeper waters.  Although still out of range but sailing closer,
the British shelled Nancy, while the Americans attempted to salvage the cargo,
especially the gunpowder kegs. Barry organized the crews into two operations. One
group returned cannon fire to keep the British from boarding. The other transferred
the cargo onto longboats and rowed to shore where local residents helped unload and
secure it behind the dunes.  By late in the morning of June 29, 265 to 286 kegs of
gunpowder had been removed, and the British bombardment had heavily damaged
Nancy. Barry ordered the main sail wrapped around fifty pounds of gunpowder to
create a long fuse running from the nearly 100 gunpowder kegs remaining in the hold
to the deck and over the side. The fuse was lit as the crew abandoned ship, while one
last sailor climbed the mast to remove the American flag. The British thought the
lowering of the flag was a sign of surrender and quickly boarded Nancy. By then the
fuse had reached the hold. The gunpowder exploded with a huge blast felt for miles
which killed many British.  Captain Graeme reported the loss of his master’s mate and
six men on longboats from Kingfisher.  Lieutenant Richard Wickes, brother of Captain
Lambert Wickes of Reprisal, was killed by British cannon fire near the end of the battle.

The battle demonstrated the resourcefulness of the American forces to the British. As
a result, the British Navy moved their blockade of Philadelphia further away from the
Cape May area.  The heroics of Captain John Barry in salvaging most of the
gunpowder cargo and driving off two Royal Navy ships was quickly noted, an
important step in his career.  Following the battle, Captain Wickes on Reprisal,
continued with his mission to the West Indies.  Lieutenant Richard Wickes is buried at
the Cold Spring Presbyterian Church cemetery. A section of the cemetery, Veterans
Field of Honor, is dedicated to his memory.  The Seal of Wildwood Crest and the Seal
of the Wildwood Crest Historical Society each contain a drawing of the brigantine
Nancy in honor of the battle.  In 1922, Cape May County filled in Turtle Gut Inlet.  The
site is now remembered by a small park.

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