Among the lush, thick green trees and beige houses used by the U. S. Park Service, it stands. A faded white sentinel, 103 feet tall, standing watch over New York Bay. That has been the job of the Sandy Hook Lighthouse in New Jersey, the oldest operating lighthouse in the country, for 232 years.
But that may not have been the case had things been different when citizens of the newly formed United States of America had to fight the British for their newfound freedom. Built in 1764 to guide ships into New York, the strategic value of Sandy Hook was obvious to both the Colonists and the British. With war fully underway by March of 1776, the New York Congress sought to put the lighthouse out of commission before the Royal Navy arrived to occupy it. The mission fell to a Major Malcolm, who successfully removed Sandy Hook's lamps and oil supply. However, the tower itself still stood, waiting for the British to put it to good use.
The job to prevent that fell to one Lt. Colonel Benjamin Tupper. In June of 1776, with a force of 300 men and two six-pound cannons, Tupper moved out under cover of night, slogging through the marshes and dense foliage that surrounded the Sandy Hook peninsula. However, the unfriendly terrain was only the beginning of the problems Tupper and his raiders would face.
"Halt!" was probably the word that doomed the attack. The challenge by enemy sentries confirmed Tupper's worst fear; the British were already on Sandy Hook.
Colonel Tupper pressed on. The peninsula lit up with angry orange and yellow flashes, accompanied by the distinct snaps of musket fire. With the raiders trying to keep the Redcoats pinned down, Tupper called forward his cannons, determined to bring down the lighthouse.
For an hour iron rounds the size of baseballs pelted the lighthouse as soldiers on both sides continued to exchange fire. But the cannonshot proved ineffective against the tower's 7-foot thick walls of stone and mortar. The six-pound balls simply bounced off the structure. With British reinforcements on the way, backed up by the guns of the frigate H. M. S. Phoenix offshore, Tupper and his men were forced to retreat under a hail of gunfire. The number of casualties Tupper's force suffered was left out of his report.
Tupper's unsuccessful raid proved to be the Americans' only determined assault upon the Sandy Hook Lighthouse during the Revolution, despite it's importance to the British. "The Americans, I don't think, could really fight out there," stated Thomas Hoffman, Park Ranger and Historian at the Sandy Hook Unit of Gateway National Recreation Area. "It'd be pretty hard to do. It was swampy, full of vegetation. Probably had poison ivy back then. And Sandy Hook back then was an island. The south end was a shallow inlet (which the Royal Engineers built a pontoon bridge over). There were no major battles here because of where it is. The peninsula is sandy. That's be rough on horses. Soft sand. Hot."
With the lighthouse firmly in the hands of the British, they and loyal Colonists (known as Tories) set about fortifying their position. Shore batteries were set up along the Hook, including some bristling out of the windows of the lighthouse itself. Getting those six-pounders into position there was no doubt a daunting task, considering the narrow, winding staircase inside the lighthouse. All the British and the Tories had to move the cannons with their own muscles. As for quarters, the 100 to 200 Tories from the New Jersey Royal Volunteeers (also known as the "Jersey Greens" for their coats) left to guard Sandy Hook most likely built log cabins with the overabundance of wood on the peninsula. "If they were over here in the winter time it was probably log huts," according to Hoffman, "because tents would eventually be blown apart if you get a bad storm. And it'd be too cold to live in tents."
Sandy Hook Lighthouse came under threat twice during the Summer of 1778. In the aftermath of the Battle of Monmouth, the surviving British forces beat a hasty retreat for the Hook. At their heels were General George Washington and his Continental Army, determined to make their retreat anything buy pleasant. Washington, at first, wasn't sure which place the British would evacuate their troops to New York form, Sandy Hook or Shoal Harbor. Washington's spies told him the Hook seemed the obvious place, given the number of ships anchored offshore. But soldiers familiar with the area warned Washington that the terrain surrounding the fortified lighthouse (now referred to by the Tories as "Lighthouse Fort") would make it nearly impossible for his troops to pursue the British and engage them while they were being ferried across the bay to New York. So evacuation from Sandy Hook went unmolested, while Washington marshalled his troops to march them to New York.
Weeks after the Monmouth battle, Sandy Hook Lighthouse faced danger from a possible naval confrontation between the British and the Americans' European ally, France. With Count d'Estaing's fleet, 12 two-deck ships and three frigates, newly arrived barely ten miles away in Sea Bright, the British were worried the French Navy would sail up the coast and forcibly extricate them from the Hook.
The British wasted no time beefing up their defenses. Warships ringed the bay, and 4 regiments of soldiers and sailors were brought to the peninsula, ready to fend off the attack.
The French never ventured to Sandy Hook. While the British built up, d'Estraing was still anchored off the coast, eliciting advice from his captains, gathering intelligence from spies on the shore, even building a hospital for sick and wounded sailors. The delay would cost him. As d'Estraing studied the British defenses, he noticed that their warships were stationed at the flanks of the Hook's tip. Coupled with British shore batteries on Sandy Hook itself, d'Estraing's 15 ships would have had to enter New York Bay through a murderous crossfire. Something he did not fancy.
As a result, Sandy Hook was spared from what would have been a major naval battle. And so was the lighthouse.
With the French fleet no longer a threat, the bulk of the British forces pulled out of the Hook, leaving its security in the hands of the Jersey Greens. Without the threat of Colonial attack, much of the Tories' time was spent drilling, chopping wood for heat, cooking and shelter, and sentry duty (which, according to Hoffman, can be "very boring duty"). However, the British and their Tory allies were able to alleviate that boredom on several occasions. They learned quickly that Sandy Hook was an ideal place to stage raids on nearby Colonial towns.
"One of the easiest transportation methods for centuries has been by water," explained Hoffman. "If you go due west from here, you can hit all these little towns along the Sandy Hook Bay Shore, right from the water. These little creeks formed little harbors here in the Bay Shore. You can sail south up the Shrewsbury River, and hit all the local towns all the way up to Red Bank and Oceanport. And the British warships can sail on the ocean down the Jersey Shore. All the way to Delaware Bay."
Some of the most successful raids launched from Sandy Hook included the Battle of Chestnut Neck, in which the British and Tories sailed to Southern Jersey and burned several ships used by privateers, who would capture British ships to help raise money for the Revolution.
The "Lighthouse Fort" was also the staging area for two raids into Colt's Neck, and later Toms River, to capture the infamous raider Captain Joshua Huddy. Huddy had made a name for himself for daring attacks on British and Tory positions all along the Jersey Shore. From Sandy Hook the Loyalists dispatched their first raiding party of 60 men to bring back Huddy in September, 1780. Alone in his house with the exception of his wife and a servant girl, Huddy nonetheless fought off the Tories. As the women leaded Huddy's collection of muskets, the Captain fired form different windows in the house, giving the impression there were several men instead of one. In the end, however, Huddy was forced to surrender when his house caught fire. But as the Tories started their trip back to the Hook by boat, they were attacked by American militiamen. Huddy was able to escape in the confusion of battle and swim safely back to shore.
Huddy wasn't so lucky the second time. He was captured when British soldiers attacked the Toms River blockhouse he commanded in March, 1782, and was hung weeks later. Huddy's capture and execution came as Britain's role at Sandy Hook Lighthouse and the rest of America was coming to an end. Five months after Lord Corwallis' surrender at Yorktown in October, 1781, the House of Commons agreed to cease all hostilities against the young United States. With that, the Tories abandoned their "Lighthouse Fort." It wasn't long after that the lighthouse resumed its original mission of guiding sailors safely into New York.
Where musket and cannon shots were exchanged and daring raids were staged more than 200 years ago now stands a park to be enjoyed by all. Whereas more than 200 years ago Americans wanted to destroy the lighthouse, today Americans seek to preserve this historic treasure that is older than the country.
This story appeared in the
November 1996 edition of Lighthouse Digest Magazine. The print edition contains more stories than our internet edition, and each story generally contains more photographs - often many more - in the print edition. For subscription information about the print edition, click here.
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