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The Capture of the Blue Mountain Valley off Sandy Hook

January 1776

By the start of 1776, the Continental Army had surrounded the British Army in Boston and invaded Canada. One of the bloodiest battles of the American Revolution had been fought at Breed’s Hill (Bunker Hill) outside of Boston. Rebelling Americans were also growing increasingly bold in their attacks on vulnerable British ships

The Blue Mountain Valley was a 100-foot British vessel that had sailed as part of a 24-ship convoy from London to Boston to supply the British Army camped there. The heavily-loaded vessel was blown off course during a storm and grounded on the Jersey shore, six miles south of Sandy Hook.  

On January 21, 1776, the pilot at Sandy Hook, William Dobbs, alerted the New York Committee of Safety about the ship’s vulnerable position. The New York Committee of Safety, knowing that the ship was in New Jersey waters, alerted New Jersey’s top Continental Army officer, Lord Stirling (William Alexander). The New Yorkers warned Stirling that the vessel had six cannon and a crew of at least 20 men. They also suggested that it was heavily loaded with ammunition. The Council of Safety concluded, “It would greatly serve the public cause if she could be seized.” 

Lord Stirling (William Alexander) was alerted to the vulnerable position of the Blue Mountain Valley south of Sandy Hook and led a flotilla of small boats to capture it.

Stirling, with 40 Continental Army volunteers, left in a pilot boat from Perth Amboy; they were soon joined by 80 more volunteers from the Essex County militia in several small boats. One of those volunteers, a man named William Marriner, would go on to lead a number of successful maritime raids against British shipping between 1778 and 1780. Together, the motley flotilla headed for the stranded ship. 

Stirling’s small boats, according to antiquarian accounts, were apparently mistaken for fishing vessels by the captain of the Blue Mountain Valley. The ship did not fire upon Stirling’s boats as they rowed closer. The New Jersians came up on the ship and climbed aboard. Stirling’s men were too numerous to be resisted by the small crew of the Blue Mountain Valley. “We boarded her and took her without opposition,” Stirling would report.  

Stirling’s timing was fortunate. The prior day, some of the Blue Mountain Valley’s crew went to New York in a boat to seek help, lessening the ship’s ability to resist Stirling’s attack. One antiquarian narrative of the capture also suggests that the vessel had just floated off a sand bar when Stirling’s party arrived; the vessel might have escaped with just a little more time.  

Stirling reported to the Continental Congress that the Blue Mountain Valley carried: “107 tons of coal, 100 butts of porter, 15 tons of potato, 112 tons of bean, 10 casks of sour krout [sic] and 8 hogs.” He predicted that more British vessels would seek to supply the British and recommended stationing “four or six small vessels” near Sandy Hook to pick them off. This did not happen, but the state of New York would soon assign two sloops to cruise the New Jersey shoreline.

Stirling’s time off Sandy Hook also exposed him to something troubling – he apparently witnessed locals illegally trading with British naval vessels in New York Harbor. He wrote: “Attempts have been made in this Province to break through the prohibition ordered by Congress to the shipping of lumber and provisions [to the British]. I have taken every step in my power to prevent it, and have laid the whole proceedings before the Convention of this Province.” Curbing illegal trade and emigration between the Monmouth shore and British interests would remain a problem for the next seven years. 

On January 29, the New Jersey Provincial Congress affirmed the seizure of the Blue Mountain Valley as legal, and the Continental Congress concurred two weeks later. The capture of the Blue Mountain Valley was reported in New York and Philadelphia newspapers. Word of the capture spread--even the Virginia Gazette in far off Williamsburg noted the capture. 

The British retaliated, if half-heartedly. On March 27, a British warship sailed into Elizabeth harbor and set fire to the Blue Mountain Valley and Lord Stirling’s personal vessel. But locals rallied to defend the harbor; the fires were extinguished and ships repaired after the British withdrew. The cargo had long since been unloaded. 

British ships would also soon attack Continental ships along the New Jersey shore.

Sources: Calendar of New York Historical Transcripts, (Albany, NY: privately printed, 1868) vol. 1, 220; Benson Lossing, Pictorial Fieldbook of the Revolution (reprint: Kessinger Publishing, NY, 2006) v1, p328-9; David Paul Nelson, The Life of William Alexander - Lord Stirling (Tuscaloosa: U of Alabama Press, 1987) p71; Peter Force, American Archives, (Force and Clarke: Washington, DC, 1837) Series 4, vol. 4, 1064; New Jersey State Archives, Dept of Defense, Military Records, Revolutionary War Copies, box 28, #6; "Peter Force, American Archives: Documents of the American Revolution, 1774-6 (digitized:, v3: p 867; Larry R. Gerlach, Prologue to Independence: New Jersey in the Coming of the Revolution (New Brunswick, N.J., 1976), p 304; Coldham, comp., American Loyalist Claims (Washington, D.C.: National Genealogical Society, 1980), p 9;  Franklin Kemp, The Capture of Enemy Vessels by Ground Troops in New Jersey 1775 – 1783, (privately printed: Egg Harbor, NJ), p 19; National Archives, Papers of the Continental Congress, reel 179, item 162, #384; Virginia Gazette, February 10, 1776; Fehlings, Gregory E. “ 'Act of Piracy': The Continental Army and the Blue Mountain Valley,” New Jersey History vol. 115, 1997, pp. 61-6; Peter Force, American Archives, (Force and Clarke: Washington, DC, 1837) Series 4, vol. 4, P851; Library of Congress, NY Gaz & Weekly Mercury, reel 2904; Carl Prince, Papers of William Livingston (New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 1987) vol. 1, p 39 note; Peter Force, American Archives,  v4: 913.

Related Historical Sites: Sandy Hook Light House; New Jersey Maritime Museum

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