The Whaleboat wars of the Revolution

The New Jersey whaleboat men who braved the might of the Royal Navy to carry the war to the enemy.


New Jersey was unique in having the British so close throughout the war.In the summer of 1776 the British took New York City and Staten Island, and stayed through the war. This put the enemy within sight of the New Jersey patriots. Soon the British found themselves assaulted on land and sea by men coming to them in whaleboats from New Jersey.

A whaleboat is a large boat, with pointed bow and stern, long and narrow. Think of the TITANIC lifeboats, but longer. They were 36 feet long or more, and sometimes carried several cannon and swivel guns. They were open boats, oared in pairs, but could step a mast or two. They would carry many men. They could be moved quickly and quietly by the men at the oars.


Everything needed by the British and their Hessian hired men had to be brought by ship to New York. At first this was done by single merchant ships, but in 1775 the loses were too high to the Americans, so the British thereafter tried to always convoy ships in groups escorted by warships.

Once they arrived at New York, they would often hold near Sandy Hook for a time, or sometimes off Staten Island, where they were out of the worst weather and protected by both large Naval ships and shore guns.

To capture these merchants ships, privateers went out , usually in small ships, mostly sloops, to take them and their cargoes for resale. Privateers were privately owned ships that acted like official navy vessels. Their captures, called prizes, were then sold on the open market and the profits shared out to officers and crew.

The Continental Army had a hard time getting men to enlist, but due to the prize money, seldom did the privateers suffer the same type of manpower shortage.

Privateers went out from all along the Atlantic seaboard, from New England to the Carolina's. New Jersey, being so close to the British, also had men who went out in whaleboats to capture shipping, or to make raids into enemy territory in New York.

From WHAT MANNER OF MEN by Fred J. Cook, William Morrow and Company, 1959, comes these accounts of some of the most famous whaleboat men.


start quote Page 278

The Americans had no ... important and influential prisoners to use as pawns in an exchange. They determined to get some.

A raiding force to strike the Long Island shore, where many prominent Tories had their country homes, was therefore organized under the command of Marriner and Capt. John Schenck, a leader of local militia. Schenck knew the region around Flatbush well as his family had relatives there whom he had visited since boyhood. With Schenck and Marriner went twenty-six picked men in two whaleboats. They set out from Matawan Creek on the southwestern shore of Raritan Bay as soon as night fell, and they hugged the dark shore line so that their boats would blend in with the land and escape observation by British patrols on the bay.

The night was dark, with an overcast sky, a sharp east wind blustering in from the open sea. An angry chop came surging across the wide-open reaches of the lower bay, slapping at the sides of the whaleboats and breaking in smothers of spray that drenched their crews. North of the mouth of the Raritan River, the boats sheered over to the Staten Island shore, hitting the coast just north of Princess Bay and creeping along once more close to land. Here one of Schenck's militiamen became seasick, and Marriner, fearful that the slightest sound might alert the enemy, growled a low-voiced, menacing order: "If that man lets out another yawp, heave him overboard."

Whether this threat scared the unfortunate soldier out of his seasickness hasn't been recorded, but the sounds he made in his misery weren't overhead. Undetected, Marriner and Schenck slanted across the Narrows, the deep thread of a channel that separates Staten Island on the west from Long Island on the east and that connects the upper and lower reaches of New York harbor. Grounding their boats on the Long Island shore not far from the spot where the New Utrecht ferry road came down to the bay, the whaleboatmen leaped ashore. They hid the boats in a thicket, stationed a guard over them, and placed three pickets on roads leading down to the beach to guard against surprise. Then they set off inland on their raid.

Marriner and Schenck had drawn up a list of prominent Tories whom they hoped to capture. Top priority was given to David Matthews, the Tory Mayor of New York. After him in order of importance came Miles Sherbrook, a personal foe of Marriner; the wealthy Jacob Suydam; Colonel Axtell; and Theophylact Bache, president of the New York Chamber of Commerce, whose brother, Richard, had married a daughter of Benjamin Franklin.

Marching their men into the shadows of a neighborhood church, Marriner and Schenck divided their little band into four raiding squads. Each was equipped with a heavy timber for use as a battering ram. Each squad would hit a selected home at the same time. If they were lucky, they would seize their prisoners quickly, return to the church, unite there and go back to their boats in a body.

The four groups of raiders disappeared into the night on their separate missions. At the outset, they encountered misfortune. The British in New York led a gay existence, with almost nightly parties, and sometimes, as on this particular night, this method of waging war had its advantages. Marriner's men quickly found that Mayor Matthews and Colonel Axtell were attending a night-long revel in the city and probably wouldn't get home before dawn. Unable to wait, the raiders swept on to the homes of other prospective prisoners Here they had better luck.

In the Suydam home, they found Capt. Alexander Gradon, an American officer who had been captured in the fall of Fort Washington the previous November. He had been billeted with the Suydams, waiting for exchange, and Marriner's raiders promptly freed him and took him with them.

Then they began to have some success in their original objective, the taking of prisoners. Bache was found asleep in bed and dragged away, a captive. In the nearby home of George Martense, Marriner tracked down Sherbrook, who was hiding in a garret behind a large Dutch chimney, his breeches in his hands. Not even giving him time to put them on, Marriner hauled his prisoner off to the rendezvous at the church. There, while they waited for the other squads to join them, Sherbrook managed to struggle into his pants before being led with Bache down to the waiting whaleboats.

So swiftly had the raid been conducted that there had been no alarm, no opposition. The boats were quickly launched and headed straight across the bay for home. The wind and choppy seas that they had bucked on the way to the raid were slanting from behind them now, the tide was favorable, and the little boats fairly flew across the wide reaches of the lower bay. It took them only an hour and a quarter, phenomenal time, to reach Keyport, and by 6 A.M., they were docking at Matawan.

While the Americans hadn't captured as many Tories as they had hoped to, the raid had been a daring and successful one-so successful that Marriner was lured into repeating it several times in the next few months. On one raid, he captured Lieutenant Forrest and Major Moncrieff, whose daughter, Marguerite, was to become the first love of Aaron Burr. On another, he landed again at New Utrecht, seized the noted Tories, Simon and Jacques Cortelyou, and made off with specie and property valued at five thousand dollars. All of the prisoners taken in these raids were brought back to New Jersey and subsequently exchanged for patriot leaders or officers of the Continental Army.

Marriner, as versatile as he was able, did not confine himself to these forays along the Long Island coast. When he was not raiding inland, he was leading his whaleboat crews against British shipping on the bay. On one occasion on, when a fleet of small craft huddled in the cove behind Sandy Hook to seek protection from the weather, Marriner led a whaleboat fleet across the bay and captured three sloops and an armed schooner. An adverse wind and tide forced the sloops ashore, where Marriner stripped them of cargo and gear and set fire to them. While they burned, he made off in the schooner, which turned out to have a valuable cargo. His men received one thousand dollars each in prize money for one night's work.

Another cruise of Marriner's was even more striking-and rewarding. On the night of April 18, 1780 he dropped down the Raritan from New Brunswick in a single whaleboat. He had with him just nine men. They crossed the bay to Sandy Hook. Inside the tip of the hook, protecting the anchorage in the cove, lay a powerful British guardship, a three-decker named the Volcano. Nearby was a saucy little brig, the Blacksnake. She had been fitted out as a privateer by Rhode Islanders and mounted a sizable battery of eight-pounders, but she had been overtaken by the British frigate Galatea and sent in as a prize. She lay at anchor now, supposedly untouchable under the mighty broadsides of the Volcano. She drew and held Marriner's covetous eye.

Approaching through the night with the utmost stealth, the oars of his whaleboat muffled in the oarlocks, Marriner glided undetected under the stern of the Blacksnake. The brig was manned by a prize crew of twenty men under Capt. Cornelius French, but the disparity in numbers was more than offset by a difference in alertness. French and his crew were asleep; Marriner and his men definitely were not. They swarmed in a rush over the counter of the prize, seized and disarmed the lone and sleepy lookout, battened down the hatches, imprisoning the crew in the forecastle, and stationed a guard at the entrance of the after cabin. All had been accomplished in seconds, without resistance, without a sound.

Having captured the privateer, Marriner determined to bring her off. Quickly he cut her anchor cable, quietly shook out some sail. The Blacksnake began to move through the water, ghosting out of the anchorage. Nearby the powerful watchdog of the British fleet slept on; the volcano did not erupt.

Daylight found Marriner and his nine whaleboatmen well out to sea, almost out of sight of land, a stout little warship under their feet and the shipping lanes leading into New York wide-open for their hunting. Almost at once a plump pullet of the sea fell into their seeking hands. About six A.M., Up from the south, scudded the schooner Morning Star, lightly armed with swivels and cohorns, but packed with a crew of thirty three men commanded by Capt. Richard Campbell.

Marriner, bold as the captain of a seventy-four, brought the Blacksnake ranging alongside. With his nine followers manning the eight-pounders in the little brig's broadside, there was nobody left to work the sails, but Campbell and the crew of the Morning Star did not know that. The Blacksnake looked formidable to them, and they surrendered. Once the two ships had crunched together, however, and Marriner's men started to board, the British captain saw how few they were and called on his crew to fight. He and several of his followers were promptly cut down, and the rest, cowed by their fate, ratified the original surrender.

Marriner, who had started out the previous night with one whaleboat and nine men, now had a brig and schooner to handle and fifty prisoners to keep quiet in their holds. He knew that he had to get his prizes into port quickly before weariness overcame his men and the prisoners rose up and recaptured their vessels.

Running swiftly down the coast well away from the heavily patrolled waters around New York, Marriner ducked in through Cranberry Inlet (now no longer in existence) and brought his prizes into Toms River, where they were condemned and sold. This was his last major success as a privateers man. Shortly afterward, on another raid into Long Island, he was surprised, surrounded and captured. Paroled, he returned to tavern-keeping in New Brunswick. From there, on April 24, 1780, just a year after his capture of the Blacksnake and the Morning Star, he wrote a letter to British officials. Rumor evidently had credited him with another raid in the bay, and Marriner wanted to set the record straight.

"In a New York paper it is said I was concerned in taking a sloop," he wrote. "Such a report is without foundation. I am on parole, which I shall give the strictest attention to. She was taken by Hyler and Dickie."

This is one of the first mentions of the man whose achievements with the whaleboat flotilla were to surpass even those of Marriner.

Adam Hyler was the son of Philip Hiler, who came to New Brunswick from Baden, Germany, about 1752. Adam was born in Germany, probably about 1735. He early learned the ways of the sea, and, according to one version of the story, was impressed for a time in the British Navy. When the Revolution broke out, he was a man of about forty and a citizen of some standing in New Brunswick. He operated his own small fleet of sloops and trading vessels between his home town and New York, and he lived in comfortable circumstances in a large, one-and-a-half story, log-and-frame house. His first wife, Christina Auble, had died, and on November 13, 1777, he married pretty, twenty-three-year-old Ann Nafey.

This is all that is known about the personal life of Adam Hyler before he burst with meteoric suddenness upon the Revolutionary scene, an unparalleled leader of small-boat men. He was, by all accounts, a shorter, chunkier man than Marriner, with powerful arms and torso. He had probably been active in the earlier years of the war in Marriner's whaleboat fleet, but nothing is known of these activities. His name did not begin to appear in the newspapers of the day until after Marriner's capture and enforced retirement, but then it quickly became a synonym for startling and ceaseless activity. Into one eleven-month span, beginning in October, 1781, Adam Hyler packed a lifetime of action.

A few desultory references to Hyler dot the record of the previous year. In November, 1780, he led the whaleboatmen in a successful foray along the Staten Island coast, snatching the sloop Susannah from her anchorage. In the spring of 1781, he and his raiding companion Captain Dickie evidently captured another sloop in the action for which Marriner had been incorrectly blamed. And on August 5, 1781, Hyler took a leaf out of Marriner's book by crossing to the Long Island shore in a prisoner-hunting raid. A correspondent in New Brunswick reported to the New Jersey Gazette in Trenton that Hyler had "marched three miles and a half into the country, and made Captain Jeromus Lott, a Lieutenant-Colonel of Militia, and one John Hankins, a Captain of a vessel, prisoners, and brought them safe to New Brunswick."

These actions were little more than tuneups for the main career of Adam Hyler. It began on a Friday night, October 5, 1781. Early in the afternoon, a patriot courier had brought word to Marriner's tavern in New Brunswick that a fat covey of potential prizes nestled inside the sheltering arm of Sandy Hook. Hyler hastily rounded up his whaleboat crews and set out, leading a tiny armada down the tortuous, shoal-cluttered Raritan. In the van was a little sloop that Hyler had christened the Revenge; trailing, were two whaleboats. The tiny flotilla reached South Amboy at the mouth of the Raritan, and there Hyler waited for night to fall. When an inky blackness at last shrouded shore and bay, he set out, heading east for the scene of action.

The Revenge, towing the whaleboats, ghosted silently toward Sandy Hook. Hyler knew that he was challenging the most astronomical odds that the whaleboatmen had ever faced. Out near the point of the hook, cannon rising in tiers up her black sides, lay the guardship, a powerful British ship-of-the line. Five smaller vessels rocked gently on the waters of the cove, secure under the protecting flank of this behemoth. Three of the anchored craft were merchantmen, but the other two were armed and either one should have been more than a match for the Revenge and her whaleboats. The smaller, a sloop, mounted a three-pounder cannon and six swivels; the larger carried four six-pounders, two to a side. These guns afloat were supplemented by guns ashore, for a log redoubt, manned by Tories, squatted at the base of the Sandy Hook lighthouse, barely a half-mile from the scene of impending action.

Off the anchorage Adam Hyler brought the Revenge up into the light wind. Like a gull, the sloop drifted, black hull blending into black water. Softly Hyler called one of his whaleboat crews about him and instructed them to reconnoiter the anchored ships. The men departed on their mission, dropping overside into one of the trailing whaleboats as noiselessly as cats. The leather-wrapped o~s moved noiselessly in their padded tholepins as the whaleboat faded off into the night, leaving not the slightest ripple of a wake. Impatiently, Hyler waited.

His men were gone a long time, but when the reconnoitering whaleboat stole back at last out of the opaque night, the word it brought was encouraging. The merchantmen looked deserted; apparently, most of their crews had gone ashore. There were men on the privateers, but their watch was lax. Hyler's whaleboatmen had nudged up almost under their counters without being detected; nobody had cried a challenge or an alarm. The whaleboatmen had not gone so close to the mighty guardship, but they reported that aboard her, too, nobody seemed to be stirring, everyone seemed drugged with sleep.

Listening to this report, Hyler decided to waste no more time but to swoop down on the anchorage at once. He assigned one whaleboat crew to board the three nearly deserted merchantmen. The second whaleboat would attack the smaller privateer. He and his men in the Revenge would attempt to take the stronger vessel.

The whaleboats stole off in the night. Hyler waited a few minutes to let them get in position; then he put the Revenge's helm over and sent her coasting down upon the anchorage. Closer and closer the little sloop groped through the night toward the indistinct shadow of her foe. The shadow grew in size, began to take shape as a ship, and the Revenge~, hardly a ripple at her forefoot, narrowed the gap to yards, to feet, to inches. Gently she bumped against the counter of the Tory craft, and in that instant grapnels swung, biting into bulwarks, welding the two vessels fast. And in that instant, too, Hyler leaped for the enemy deck, his men pouring up and over the side behind him.

The pounding feet of the boarders woke the enemy at last. The sleeping deck watch screamed an alarm, then went down in the rush. In the forecastle, startled sailors grabbed cutlasses and pistols and tried to sally forth. Only the first few made it. Hyler and his men charged up beside the hatch, standing guard with their cutlasses and threatening to lop off the first head that showed itself. Not attracted to that fate, the rest of the crew huddled safely below.

Seeing this, the few who had gained the deck fled aft. A couple dived overboard; the others dropped into the longboat trailing by a painter off the stern and started to row frantically for shore. Resistance was over, the ship was carried-all in the space of seconds, without the loss of a man.

Elsewhere in the anchored fleet, Hyler's whaleboatmen had struck with equal swiftness and equal success. The smaller privateer had been carried, only a few of her crew escaping in the ship's yawl. The merchantmen had been virtually deserted. Aboard them, the whaleboatmen found only the sleeping watches and, in the cabin of one, a mother with four children clutching at her nightclothes.

The entire fleet of five ships had been captured with breathtaking rapidity, but the real danger lay ahead. The Tories who had fled ashore in the boats would give the alarm, the log redoubt would come to life, the huge cannon aboard the massive guardship would begin to thunder. Hyler and his men would have to work fast.

They did. Cargo from the captured vessels was trundled across the deck and dumped into the Revenge and the whaleboats. Guns, sails and cordage were swiftly plundered. As the whaleboat men worked furiously, guns ashore began to speak. The first of the refugees had reached the log fort, and the garrison there started to blaze away with twelve swivel guns. The range was too great, the night too dark for the shots from the little popguns to find their mark and do any damage. But the noise they made was dangerous in itself. The whole anchorage was coming to life. Out near the point that slumbering watchdog, the Royal man-of-war, was at last arousing himself. Lights flashed from the portholes; shouted commands rang across the water. Adam Hyler, surveying the turmoil he had caused, knew that it was time to leave.

Sparing the one ship on which the woman and her four children huddled, he fired the others, shook out every rag of sail the Revenge~ could carry, and towing his whaleboats behind him flitted toward the safety of the bay's enveloping darkness. Behind him the pyres of burning vessels lit the sky; behind him, finally, the huge cannon of the guardship roared out. The waters of the bay spouted, frothed with the plunging, ricocheting round shot; but the little Revenge was moving fast, she faded away like a ghost ship in the night.

Hyler's return to New Brunswick in the bright of day was triumphal. The New Jersey Gazette's correspondent reported gleefully that his small ships had come back laden with prisoners, with sails and cordage stripped from the captured vessels and with other booty that included "250 bushels of wheat, a quantity of cheese, several swivels, a number of fazes, one cask of powder and some dry goods."

End quote, page 287

Hyler went on to an amazing career as a privateer. He was accidentally injured in 1782, and died of complications in September, 1782.


There were other whaleboat men in New Jersey, and indeed along Long Island Sound as well. They served their states and country well, taking the war to the British , capturing vitally needed supplies and war material. On land and sea, the war was fought with intensity and sometimes a dire bitterness. Braving the hazards of men and sea, the whaleboat men did their share to protect our Independence.



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I recommend also Captain John Outwater's Co. of Bergen county Militia web page.


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