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
-- a little-known but authentically documented naval encounter during
the Revolutionary War -- took place on June 29, 1776.
The importance of Philadelphia to the Colonies as a
port made it absolutely essential that merchant ships bound there with
supplies be given safe conduct. To accomplish this, a constant effort to
elude the British blockade of Delaware Bay was carried on by the ships
of the Continental Navy, ably assisted by the sloops and brigs native to
the area of Cape May. The pilots of these small boats knew the region
well and were especially adept at dodging in and out of the small
harbors and inlets to escape capture by the British. It was at one of these inlets -- Turtle Gut -- that a naval
battle was fought. On Friday, the 28th of June, 1776, the brigantine
Nancy was sighted off the coast of Cape May. Under the command of
Captain Hugh Montgomery, she was bound from the Virgin Islands with a
cargo of munitions for the Continental Army. As the Nancy came into
view, an urgent message was sent to Captain John Barry of the
Continental frigate Lexington, anchored near the mouth of the Delaware
Bay, that two British warships were already pursuing her.
The Lexington, accompanied by
the continental frigate Wasp, set out to aid the Nancy, anchoring close
to Cape May to wait out the night. In the early light of dawn, Captain
Barry sighted the Nancy heading in for shore with the British warships
in hot pursuit. Realizing the necessity for quick action, Barry ordered
out the barges from the Lexington and Wasp and, taking personal command
of the expedition, directed his oarsmen toward the Nancy. They found the
brigantine hard aground in Turtle Gut Inlet and under heavy fire from
the British warships. Barry and his men boarded the Nancy and began the
double operation of manning the Nancy's guns to ward off the attack of
the warships, while at the same time unloading the valuable cargo of
munitions and storing it safely ashore.
The Nancy was taking a terrific
bombardment from the enemy guns, but somehow managed to return enough
fire to discourage a boarding party from the warship Kingfisher. Barry
knew, however, that he and his men were already on borrowed time. Though only about two-thirds of the precious cargo of
gunpowder had been unloaded, Captain Barry ordered the men to abandon
the ship, but not without leaving a calling card for the British. He
ordered about fifty pounds of gunpowder to be poured in the ship's
mainsail and wrapped as tightly as possible. This would act as a fuse
leading to the remaining powder below deck. With their men safely in a
boat alongside, the two Captains set fire to the mainsail and jumped
over the side, but the last to leave the ship was reportedly a seaman
who stayed behind to retrieve the ship's flag. They made the few hundred
yards to shore safely, stopping only to pull the seaman and his precious
flag into the boat.
Meanwhile the long boats from
the Kingfisher had taken the lowering of the flag as a sign of surrender
and closed in quickly to board the ship. The first seven British sailors
who reached the Nancy raised a cheer of victory as they climbed aboard,
but at that moment the gunpowder exploded with a roar that, according to
record, "was heard forty miles above Philadelphia". Thus by
noon on June 29 the Battle of Turtle Gut Inlet had ended. The enemy
ships retreated and the precious gunpowder was loaded onto the frigate
Wasp and sent safely up the Delaware Bay.
It was a proud moment in the
history of our country, and an important step forward in the career of
young Captain John Barry. By 1794 he would be known as Commodore Barry,
"the father of the American Navy".
A marker commemorating the Battle of Turtle Gut Inlet stands today at
Miami and New Jersey Avenues, across from
Sunset Lake, in Wildwood Crest.