On 23 October 1777, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, and the surrounding countryside were jolted by one of the most powerful blasts the area had experienced. “A furious cannonade was heard from the river yesterday, and a great explosion,” wrote one man on 24 October, giving his location as “16 miles from Philadelphia.” Author Thomas Paine, who was then “on the road between Germantown and White Marsh,” was “stuned [sic] with a report as loud as a peal from a hundred Cannon at once,” and said he had been able to see a large column of smoke as well. The sound also had been heard in Cape May County, in the southern part of New Jersey. Closer to the scene, witnesses said that the force of the detonation was enough to break windows at the Walnut Street Jail, inside the city of Philadelphia.1
Paine’s “peal from a hundred Cannon” marked the death knell of the 64-gun British warship HMS Augusta. Originally part of a small flotilla that also included the Roebuck, Pearl, Liverpool, Merlin, and Cornwallis, accompanied at some parts of the operation by the Isis and Somerset, the ships were dispatched up the Delaware River as part of British commander Sir William Howe’s campaign to secure Philadelphia. One of the largest cities along the Atlantic seaboard, it had been the seat of the rebelling colonies’ Continental Congress until its occupation by the Royal Army on 26 September. Howe, looking to resupply his new base of operations by water, hoped to quickly reduce the defenses guarding the river approach to Philadelphia.
No River Support for the Hessians
Contrary to his plans, Fort Mifflin, otherwise known as Mud Island Fort, continued to stubbornly withstand bombardment. Meanwhile, Continental forces in Fort Mercer, outnumbered five to one, repulsed a 22 October attack carried out by Hessian mercenaries, with great loss to the latter, in what was called the Battle of Red Bank.2
Under Howe’s strategy, the offensive would have been supported by a bombardment from the river, courtesy of the Royal Navy. Instead, things went horribly wrong, from the British point of view at least. The Augusta and Merlin, sent to provide naval support for the Hessian attack on Fort Mercer, ran aground as they threaded their way through chevaux-de-frise, additional defenses placed in the Delaware by Americans.
Although they successfully avoided the artificial obstructions, contemporaries believed the sandbar that entrapped the vessels was caused by the chevaux altering the river’s course, rather than an ordinary natural formation. The Isis had grounded nearby earlier—possibly even twice in the preceding three days, though she was successfully freed not long before the other ships began their movements. The three-year-old Roebuck, too, struck a sandbar on the day of the action, though British sailors were able to extricate her just in the nick of time.3
The Augusta and Merlin were not so lucky. Caught under the guns of the entrenched Continentals, the ships appeared to be easy targets for American cannoneers. As other Britons watched their comrades struggle to free the pair and move out of harm’s way, the garrison, eagerly seizing the opportunity, opened fire. Precisely what happened next is debated to this day, but at some point during the fight, the Augusta caught fire. The Roebuck signaled the remaining ships to move off to preserve them from further danger. The flames reached the Augusta’s magazine at about midday on 23 October, and she blew up, producing the loud explosion that so impressed itself on those who experienced it.4
The Merlin Factor
Somewhat lost amid the flutter of astonishment at the spectacular demise of the Augusta was the other unfortunate ship, the Merlin, which, when her companion blew up, was still held fast by the sandbar. Unlike the Augusta, whose only engagement ended in a fiery death, the Merlin had built a long and respectable résumé of service to the Crown, most recently in busily assisting the British effort to subdue the rebellion.5 A sloop built in the shipyards at Rotherhithe at the height of the Seven Years’ War, the Merlin was pressed into active service almost immediately upon launch.6
Sent to the Caribbean to help complete British conquests among the islands, she there entered into the pages of worldwide maritime history. Seen through the retrospective lens of succeeding generations, the most important honor ever afforded to the ship came in 1762, when she carried William Harrison and his father John’s fourth experimental chronometer back to England from Jamaica. The Harrisons spent years devising a clock that was both highly accurate and useful on board ship, to assist sailors in finding their longitude while at sea. Despite a stormy return passage, Harrison’s chronometer sustained its high degree of accuracy, and the model which sailed on the Merlin proved the worth of their design, ultimately allowing them to secure a £20,000 prize. She was back in the Caribbean that summer, in time to participate in the capture of Havana.7
The Merlin was ordered to North America in the earliest stages of her second war, with a writer from Boston in April 1775 reporting that the “Cerberus frigat [sic], and Otter and Merlin sloops, may be daily expected,” and was engaging in target practice there the following June. She remained in the northern colonies in subsequent months, performing convoy duty off Nova Scotia from the fall of 1775 until spring 1776, then appeared as the “Merlin ship of war” which attacked a Connecticut vessel in a “very warm engagement” several months later.
Perhaps ironically, given the circumstances of the Battle of Red Bank, she escorted a pair of transports from New York to Rhode Island in January 1777, one of which carried a large number of Hessians. Several months later, she turned her attention to American merchant shipping, bringing in three prizes that spring.8 Variously credited with carrying as few as 10 and as many as 20 guns, she probably in fact had approximately 16 cannon at her disposal in October 1777.9
The Mystery of the Second Explosion
This, then, was the seasoned veteran of a ship that lay awaiting her fate opposite Fort Mercer on the afternoon of 23 October. Contemporary sources reveal there were in fact two explosions in the Delaware River following the Red Bank engagement, the second of which signaled the end of the Merlin, though they differ in what they believe to have been the cause. General Nathanael Greene’s aide-de-camp heard from his intelligence sources that after the Battle of Red Bank, “the enemy quitted their ships, having first set them on fire, and they soon blew up.”10 Others confidently credited American efforts with victory over both the Merlin and Augusta. “Just as we arrived in sight of the Banks [sic],” said one soldier, Henry Wells, looking back on his march along the Delaware River, “two Brittish [sic] Ships of the Line were blown up by our victorious Countrymen.” Wells clearly believed both ships were sunk through the action of American cannon.11
George O’Neal “heard the blowing up of the British magazine ships,” as he called them, not giving a name or cause of destruction to either, and placing the event “a few days after” the Battle of Brandywine, 11 September 1777.12 An unnamed British sailor similarly declined to assign blame, saying merely that at “½ past 2 PM saw the Merlin blow up.”13 The Augusta made the most dramatic exit, but in the end, the Merlin too was ultimately unable to free herself from the sandbar and was lost, something noted by the more attentive eyewitnesses, including Wells and O’Neal.
A Sloop-of-War’s Self-Inflicted Wound?
Without doubt, the Americans stationed inside Forts Mifflin and Mercer discharged their duties well, defending their respective posts against vastly superior numbers and impeding the British ability to secure the Delaware River access to the city of Philadelphia. In that sense, the Battle of Red Bank was a victory, and a notable one at that, given the degree to which the Americans were outgunned. Yet, to accept the view that this particular engagement was an important, albeit small, American victory is to consider only part of the story. Two ships may have been destroyed, but when viewed in terms of the larger effort for control of Philadelphia, of course, the defensive operations ultimately failed. The Congressional capital became relatively comfortable winter quarters for the British Army in 1777–78, while their Continental Army counterparts shivered through the now-legendary months in camp at Valley Forge. By extension, the Red Bank engagement was thus in the end a defeat for the American army, making the Merlin, her crew, and the other Crown forces tasked with assisting in the reduction of the Delaware River forts participants in an ultimately successful campaign. Those who asserted otherwise either relied on erroneous information or wished to make the achievement loom larger in retrospect than it had in real life.
Furthermore, there is additional credible contemporary evidence to support the position that the Merlin was not lost to American shot, but was destroyed by her own crew, to deny Continental forces the future use of her. While the Augusta’s fire has been attributed to at least five different causes, in a debate that may never be solved, it appears extremely likely the Merlin’s fire was deliberately set. Highly placed military men on both sides accepted this explanation as fact not long after the battle’s end. General Greene’s source, as mentioned above, referred to intentional destruction of British ships. Continental commander-in-chief George Washington’s intelligence also led him to believe this was what had actually happened: “The [Merlin] getting aground and apprehending danger from the explosion of the Augusta, was set fire to by the crew and abandoned.”14 Perhaps most convincing are the words of the British commander himself. “On the 23d [of October],” wrote Howe, in his letter reporting to Lord George Germain, two days after the event, “the [two ships] in coming up the river […], got aground, and […] it became expedient to evacuate and burn [the Merlin] also,” indicating a decisive awareness of orders given to that effect.15
As the 19th century progressed, popular memory of the naval engagement at Red Bank underwent an almost total transformation in the United States. As previously noted, 18th-century sources described a bombardment in which the Continental rounds may (or may not) have directly resulted in the loss of two Royal Navy vessels. Decades later, for many American writers, Red Bank had become a great victory, with credit for the Augusta fire frequently going to heated shot from the forts. Recollections often were rather one sided; the loss of the Augusta and Merlin in 1777 had been something of an embarrassment, though not a blow of crucial strategic implications. Following the conclusion of the Revolutionary War, the Royal Navy’s attention was dominated by far larger geopolitical issues, including the onset of the Napoleonic wars, and it had forgotten about the incident almost immediately. Further passage of time did nothing to alter this perspective, and gradually even the Merlin’s role in the chronometer tests was overlooked.
Hunting for the Hessians’ Lost Gold
In 1869, a group of enterprising men calling themselves the American Dredging Company undertook to raise the Augusta, which had lain in more or less the same place for the better part of a century. The salvors no doubt accepted the thanks of area residents for removing a channel-obstructing public nuisance, though the idea that they were seized by the 19th-century fervor for relic hunting—surely even more appealing as the United States approached its 100th birthday in 1876—seems likely. Additional, and probably overwhelming, impetus was provided by a story then circulating that the ship had been carrying gold to pay Hessian mercenaries.
After high hopes for a rewarding return among the members of the American Dredging Company and its employees, the Augusta, disturbed from her grave and exhibited, failed either to yield chests of gold or net her new owners the fantastic profits for which they’d hoped. Stripped and deemed no longer useful, she was abandoned not far from Gloucester, New Jersey.16 Eventually, she was cut into smaller pieces and scattered among collectors across the country. Certain portions even made their way to other parts of the globe, if the walking stick made from her timbers that was sent to an anonymous English sailor by his American friend is any indication of her rediscovered fame.17 A large section of her surviving timbers may be seen today as paneling in the New Jersey Room at the national headquarters of the Daughters of the American Revolution. The Merlin, despite her longer record of service in the American Revolution and elsewhere, and loss by a similar method in the same engagement as the Augusta, received none of this attention.
Old myths about the Red Bank sinkings have continued to surface into the 21st century, sometimes with further embellishment. The post–Revolutionary War legend that both ships were destroyed by Continental shot has proven difficult to kill. One modern publication went so far as to imply the loss of both the Merlin and Augusta could be credited solely to the work of American cannoneers of African descent, ignoring other evidence that might be brought forward to the contrary about the circumstances of the losses as well as the identity of the soldiers who opposed the Augusta and the Merlin on 23 October 1777. One of the regiments inside Fort Mercer was indeed the First Rhode Island, later noted for accepting black soldiers, but the act endorsing their enlistment was not considered by the state’s legislature until several months after the Battle of Red Bank.18
Two Ships and the Vagaries of Remembrance
Thanks to a powerful explosion, a legend of gold, and a strangely relic-hunting, curio-seeking preservationist instinct, the Augusta has become the noted naval casualty of the Battle of Red Bank. The Merlin was smaller, the Merlin exploded later in the day, and most importantly, the Merlin never enticed enterprising adventurers as did the larger Augusta. The Merlin could not provide the opportunity to create mementoes of what could be passed off as an important American victory in the War for Independence, nor did rumor place chests full of treasure in the sloop. Her wider relevance should have been secured to posterity thanks to her role in proving the worth of Harrison’s chronometer design, once the value of his achievement was fully realized. Yet she, too, shared in the ambiguity of the nature of the British losses at Red Bank. After entering her second conflict, spending months dutifully patrolling Atlantic waters and capturing American merchant shipping, she met her fate at the hands of her own men, stuck on an obstruction in the Delaware. A sacrifice to necessity, the little Merlin was in the end both a victor and a victim, consigned to anonymity in New Jersey mud.
1. Jonathan Trumbull et al., The Trumbull Papers, Collections of the Massachusetts Historical Society, Seventh Series, Volume II (Boston: Massachusetts Historical Society, 1902), 172; Thomas Paine, Moncure Daniel Conway, ed., The Writings of Thomas Paine, Volume I (New York: G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 1894), 390; Jeffery M. Dorwart, Cape May County, New Jersey: The Making of an American Resort Community (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 1992), 54; John Thomas Scharf and Thompson Westcott, History of Philadelphia, 1609–1884, (Philadelphia: L. H. Everts and Company, 1881), vol. 3, 1828; and Kim Rogers Burdick, Revolutionary Delaware (Charleston, SC: History Press, 2016).
2. William M. Mervine, ed., “Excerpts from the Master’s Log of His Majesty’s Ship Eagle, Lord Howe’s Flagship, 1776–1777,” The Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography, (Philadelphia: The Historical Society of Pennsylvania, 1914), vol. 38, 221; Russell Frank Weigley, Philadelphia: A 300 Year History (New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 1982), 133, 135, 137; Maxine N. Lurie, ed., A New Jersey Anthology (New Brunswick, NJ: Rivergate Books/Rutgers University Press, 2010), 91; and George F. Scheer and Hugh F. Rankin, Rebels and Redcoats (Cleveland, OH: World Publishing Company, 1957), 249.
3. C. Stedman, History of the Origin, Progress, and Termination of the American War (Dublin, IE: P. Wogan, P. Byrne, J. Moore, and W. Jones, 1794), vol. 1, 338; Mervine, ed., “Excerpts from the Master’s Log,” 212, 220–21; and William G. Gates, Ships of the British Navy (Portsmouth, UK: W. H. Long, 1905), vol. 2, 210.
4. Mervine, ed., “Excerpts from the Master’s Log,” 222; Wallace McGeorge, “The Battle of Red Bank” (Camden, NJ: Sinnickson Chew & Sons Co. Printers, n.d. [c.1910]), 11; House of Parliament, Parliamentary Register, 438.
5. McGeorge, Red Bank, 11.
6. J. J. Colledge and Ben Warlow, Ships of the Royal Navy (Philadelphia: Casemate, 2010), 256.
7. George L. Craik and Charles Mac Farlane, The Pictorial History of England (London: Charles Knight and Co., 1841), vol. 1, 602–3; Cecil King, H. M. S.: His Majesty’s Ships and Their Forbears (New York: Studio Publications, 1940), 145; Pedro Jose Guiteras, Historia de la Conquista de la Habana [sic] (Philadelphia: Parry and McMillan, 1856), 44, n3; and Gates, Ships of the British Navy, vol. 2, 91.
8. “Boston, April 17,” Virginia Gazette, 6 May 1775; Daniel Vickers, ed., The Autobiography of Ashley Bowen (Peterborough, ON: Broadview Editions, 2006), 116; Julian Gwyn, Frigates and Foremasts (Vancouver, BC: UBC Press, 2003), 57, 59; “Newport, October 7,” Virginia Gazette 1 November 1776; Henry Edward Turner and Risbrough Hammett Tilley, eds., “Abstracts from the Newport Gazette, Published at Newport, R. I., During the Occupation of the Town by the British,” The Newport Historical Magazine, 4 no. 1 (Newport, RI: Newport Historical Publishing Co., 1883), 106; and Thomas Pownall, The Remembrancer, or Impartial Repository of Public Events (London: J. Almon, 1778), vol. 5, 234.
9. Colledge and Warlow, Ships of the Royal Navy, 256; James M. Volo, Blue Water Patriots: The American Revolution Afloat (Westport, CT: Praeger, 2006), 265; Paul H. Silverstone, The Sailing Navy, 1775–1854 (New York: Routledge, 2006), 89; Washington Irving, Life of George Washington (New York: G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 1857), vol. 3, 346; and George Washington, letter to John Augustine Washington, 26 November 1777, in John C. Fitzpatrick, ed., The Writings of George Washington from the Original Manuscript Sources (Washington, DC: Government Printing Office, 1976), vol. 10, 114.
10. “Extract of a letter from Major Clarke,” Virginia Gazette, 7 November 1777.
11. Pension application of Henry Wells, Washington County, PA.
12. Pension application of George O’Neal, Jessamine County, KY.
13. Mervine, ed., “Excerpts from the Master’s Log,” 222.
14. Fitzpatrick, ed., Writings of George Washington, vol. 10, 114.
15. United Kingdom House of Commons, The Parliamentary Register (London: J. Almon, 1779), 438.
16. McGeorge, Red Bank, 11; “Raising of a frigate sunk in the Delaware during the Revolution,” Mower County [MN] Transcript, 2 December 1869; C. Henry Kain, “Military and Naval Operations on the Delaware River in 1777,” Philadelphia History (Philadelphia: City History Society of Philadelphia, 1917), 188.
17. “An Historical Oak Stick,” The Antiquary (London: E. W. Allen, 1871), vol. 1, 81.
18. Willard Sterne Randall and Nancy Nahra, Forgotten Americans: Footnote Figures Who Changed American History (Cambridge, MA.: Perseus Publishing, 1998), 76; John Ward, A Memoir of Lieut.-Colonel Samuel Ward, First Rhode Island Regiment (New York: privately printed, 1875), 12; “Greene, Christopher,” in F. B. Heitman, Historical Register of Officers of the Continental Army During the War of the Revolution (Washington, DC: W. H. Lowdermilk & Co., 1893), 200; and At the General Assembly of the Governor and Company of the State of Rhode-Island and Providence Plantations […] 1778 (Providence, RI: privately printed), 14–18.