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NJ researchers search for lost Revolutionary War ships

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Researchers at Stockton University are in the middle of a project to look for lost Revolutionary War-era ships in one of New Jersey’s rivers.

This week marks the 240th anniversary of a little-known Revolutionary War battle known as the Battle of Chestnut Neck.

Underwater archeology Professor John Nagiewicz and his team has spent the last two years searching for pirate ships that sunk during the battle in the Mullica River in Atlantic County.

“I don't like the term pirates, but the reality is they had a license to steal by John Hancock,” Nagiewicz says.

The professor says that the Battle of Chestnut Neck was the first time the British made an amphibious assault in southern New Jersey.

Nagiewicz says that during the Revolutionary War, sailing captains were enlisted as privateers to capture British vessels and take what they wanted. The spoils became a key source of supplies for Gen. George Washington's troops.

According to experts, the privateers in southern New Jersey were so good at capturing the British vessels, that in October 1778, British General Henry Clinton sent a fleet of nine ships to "clean out that nest of rebel pirates" at the town called Chestnut Neck. Over 50 people were killed and the British burned everything.

Historians believed that there were one or two ships in the Mullica River in the years following the battle. But Nagiewicz and his team set to find out more, armed with powerful sonar technology.

“We started looking at other part of the river and we started finding other shipwrecks. What was one historic shipwreck before, is now five,” he says. 

Dive teams have recovered bits of evidence, such as charred wood, beads and glassware. The researchers say that there could be five to 10 other ships still down there. 

“We're trying to recreate that entire battle based on the sonar positions of all the shipwrecks we can find,” the professor says. 

Nagiewicz says that the ultimate goal is to get the newly discovered Chestnut Neck shipwrecks listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

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