J.P. Hand and Daniel Stites. The Cape May Navy: Delaware Bay Privateers in the American Revolution. Stroud: The History Press, 2018. 192 pages. 64 images. $21.99USD. ISBN: 9781467137966
By Dr. Jamie Goodall, Stevenson University
J.P. Hand and Daniel P. Stites, authors of The Cape May Navy: Delaware Bay Privateers in the American Revolution, weave together a complicated and fascinating tale about the men of Cape May and their role in disrupting British merchant and naval vessels sailing between New York City and Philadelphia during the American Revolution. The authors state “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.” This story, however, was almost lost to history. Esteemed naval historian of the American Revolution, Gardiner Allen, had previously argued that eleven of the thirteen states maintained armed vessels, but that New Jersey and Delaware were the exceptions. According to the authors, this was really a problem with analyzing the available evidence. Allen relied on official records like the Library of Congress’s Naval Records of the American Revolution 1775-1788 in which all of Cape May’s privateer owned vessels were listed as having masters and mates from Philadelphia. In their thoroughly researched book, the authors build on the work of U.S. Coast Guard historian, Dr. Robert L. Sheina, arguing that there is ample evidence to prove the existence of a naval force coming out of the Delaware Bay. Contemporary newspaper accounts, for example, list those same captains as being of “Cape May” or “[Great] Egg Harbour.”
One of the more unique aspects of the book is the authors’ relation to Cape May privateers. Daniel Stites is a direct descendant of the pilot and privateer Matthew Hand. And J.P. Hand is a direct descendant of privateer captains Colonel Elijah Hand and Lieutenant Colonel Enoch Stilwell. Both men are direct descendants of privateer officer Nathaniel Holmes Sr.
The major question of the book is just how much of an impact could the men and vessels of the Cape May Navy really have had “against the might of the world’s greatest naval force?” The authors clearly demonstrate how the county’s privateers took a substantial number of prizes during the American Revolution. But reveal that “in the grand scheme of things, that effort only represented a relatively minor financial burden to the British merchant fleet.” They liken the effects of the Cape May privateers to that of a dull toothache, “not life threatening, but more of a constant source of annoyance.” The story of the Cape May privateers is but one small part in the fight for Independence, but it is a story that the authors tell in remarkable detail.
An intriguing story told by the authors is that of the Wiederholdt Affair. Two New Jersey-Pennsylvania privateers captured Captain Andreas Wiederholdt, a Hessian soldier, and a large portion of his regiment. Wiederholdt was well known for his aid in capturing Fort Washington in New York. Wiederholdt’s regiment was then sent to picket near the town of Pennington, New Jersey where Washington’s army of 2,400 crossed the Delaware into New Jersey. Having underestimated Washington’s forces and resolve, the Hessians were defeated and Wiederholdt was one of many captured. Wiederholdt was returned to Philadelphia where he and other Hessians were exchanged for American prisoners. They then marched on to Cooper’s Ferry in Camden, New Jersey where they, too, crossed the Delaware. Here, the regiment was meant to sail from Sandy Hook, New Jersey to an undisclosed location. But Wiederholdt’s vessel was in poor condition and he was severely lacking in personnel to manage the ship. He soon became separated from the fleet and had to return to Sandy Hook where he was then ordered to sail to Quebec. But they were rapidly blown off course in a strong gale and soon the ship found itself in the midst of a severe northeaster with hurricane force winds. As a result of their misfortune, they were met by two privateers, the Mars and the Comet. The Mars was captained by the renowned American privateer, Yelverton Taylor, who was “one of the most prolific privateer captains from the Delaware Bay region.” And the Comet was captained by Stephen Decatur, Sr., who had commanded five privateer vessels during the Revolution. Wiederholdt and his Hessians were marched from Little Egg Harbor Bay to Pennsylvania across South Jersey. Ultimately, the Hessians were exchanged again and little is known of Wiederholdt’s ultimate fate. But his diary, which provided the bulk of evidence for this particular chapter, is rich with detail about Wiederholdt’s movements during the American Revolution and provides a unique window through which to observe the prowess of the Cape May privateers.
As mentioned, this book is thoroughly researched and makes excellent use of primary source materials where appropriate to narrate the story of the Cape May Navy. The book includes numerous images and primary source excerpts in which the reader is immersed in the history of the Delaware Bay privateers. I would strongly recommend this book to anyone with an interest in the naval history of the American Revolution or those who have a general interest in the war itself.
Dr. Goodall is an assistant professor at Stevenson University, Maryland. Her upcoming book Pirates of Chesapeake Bay: From the Colonial Era to the Oyster Wars will be published this year by The History Press.