The auction of an heirloom will fund college scholarships.
By Edward Colimore
Inquirer Staff Writer Source http://www.philly.com
Standing along the earthworks of Fort Mercer, overlooking the Delaware River at National Park, Mark English pointed to the place a few hundred feet offshore where a crucial battle was fought 230 years ago today.
"It would have been right over there," English said, scanning the waters as an airliner descended to nearby Philadelphia International Airport. "Back then, you could've heard the huge explosion 18 miles away."
While Americans were fighting off Hessian troops at the fort - in what became known as the Battle of Red Bank - the mighty British navy was trying to force its way up the river to Philadelphia in the fall of 1777.
The 64-gun HMS Augusta came under heavy fire, struck the shoals, caught fire, and blew up.
But the Augusta's voyage didn't end there.
The ship was raised a century later, put on public display, and dismantled. Pieces of it washed ashore in the 1920s at Gloucester City, where they were retrieved by English's great-aunt, Jennie English, a Camden schoolteacher.
She donated 13 carved staircase pedestals and kept one, which was handed down through the family to Mark English.
"When it came to me, I was in my 30s and treasured it as a family heirloom," English, 56, of Haddon Township, said while looking over at a cannon recovered from the Augusta and displayed at Fort Mercer. "But I came to appreciate the pedestal more as time went on and I learned more about the ship and what happened here."
The Augusta was one of about a dozen ships trying to resupply and reinforce British-occupied Philadelphia in October 1777.
But the vessels first had to pass American fortifications along the river, including Mercer and Fort Mifflin on the Pennsylvania side, as well as dodge underwater defenses called chevaux-de-frise, long poles tipped with iron and designed to puncture ship hulls.
The British sent Count Carl Emil Kurt Von Dunop and 2,000 Hessian troops to eliminate Mercer but the attack failed on Oct. 22. Von Dunop was mortally wounded and 600 Hessians were killed in the battle (reenacted Oct. 14 at the historic site).
The Augusta, a frigate and one of the newest and finest vessels in the English navy, opened fire on Fort Mercer Oct. 23 but "it seems it ran aground" on the shoals, said Megan Giordano, curator at the Red Bank Battlefield.
Helpless, the Augusta was blasted by the forts and smaller American vessels. It caught fire by 10:30 a.m. and the blaze spread to a powder magazine below deck, causing a tremendous explosion by about noon.
"The British considered it a major loss," Giordano said as she walked through a room at the James and Ann Whitall House, where wounded troops were treated. "This was a premier, brand-new ship of the line."
Nearly a century later, the wreck of the Augusta - though still partly visible in the river - had been largely forgotten. Then, rumors surfaced that there was gold on board.
A group of investors, according to a contemporary newspaper account, recovered tableware, a watch, coins and three cannons, but no stash of gold. They proposed moving the ship up the Schuylkill for display as part of the national Centennial Exposition held in Philadelphia in 1876, English said.
Two vessels, one on each side of the Augusta, were needed to convey her, but the three were too wide to make it up the river, and the ship was again grounded - this time intentionally - at Gloucester City, according to newspaper accounts.
The owners decided to fence in the vessel and charge admission. But their venture failed after a few years and a heavy storm later washed the frigate to a nearby beach.
Giordano said the Daughters of the American Revolution took the bulk of wood from the ship to its headquarters in Washington, where it was used to re-create a dining room from the English era of William and Mary. Ship-rail pedestals, like English's, were used as candlesticks.
But other pieces of the Augusta remained in the river and washed up at Gloucester City. English said Jennie English, who lived in Paulsboro, recovered 14 pedestals and donated 12 to the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, one to the Gill Library in Paulsboro, and kept one for herself.
Violet Valentin, librarian at the Gill Memorial Library in Paulsboro, said Jennie English's donation was still highly prized and matched the pedestals the DAR recovered from the Augusta. "We have no doubt it's from the Augusta," Valentin said.
"When [Jennie English] died, the pedestal she had went to her brother Joseph [English], and when he died, his wife - my grandmother - gave it to me," said Mark English, owner of a glove and safety company.
He said he now planned to sell the relic through a local auction house and establish college scholarship funds to be controlled by a committee in the communities where they will be awarded.
"I don't know what it's worth," English said. "It has not been appraised. I guess it's worth whatever someone is willing to pay for it."
He said he would create two funds in the names of Jennie English and his grandmother Marie English in the Paulsboro area for students "who have gone above and beyond the call of duty in serving their community."
English also said he would create another fund in Haddon Township in the name of his wife, Anne, to help students "who volunteer or choose a profession to help children - possibly a teacher or social worker."
A fourth scholarship fund in Audubon will be established in the name of English's ex-football coach, Tom Curley, and given to the student "who has shown the most improvement academically and athletically."
"As far as original items from the Augusta, I have an actual part of the ship and want to do something good with it," English said. "I look at the mentors in my life and see how people - like my football coach - can change lives for the good.
"The pedestal has been a corner conversation piece at my house, but I said, 'Let's do some good with this.' "
To view a 3-D replica of the HMS Augusta created by students at Drexel University, go to http://go.philly.com/augusta