Martin Hurley’s Last Charge

"The Attack Upon the Chew House" by Howard Pyle. Source: Scribner's Magazine, June 1898

By the time he arrived in Boston with the 44th Regiment of Foot, Martin Hurley was an experienced soldier. He’d joined the army in 1767, and learned the military trade well enough to be put into the regiment’s grenadier company, men distinguished by their martial competence as well as their tall stature.[1] The 44th was in Ireland when tensions were building in America, and was one of four regiments that embarked in Corke in early May 1775 – after hostilities had broken out, but before news of it reached Great Britain.

The ten transports carrying four regiments into Boston arrived piecemeal in late June and early July, just after the battle of Bunker Hill.[2] Inspected by the commander in chief and called “a prodigious fine Regiment,” they were integrated into the military routine of manning the defensive positions around the city.[3] Boston was surrounded by an ad hoc American army, and the British garrison in Boston not only lacked the strength for offensive operations, but also good strategic objective; there was no single objective nearby which would bring an end to hostilities if captured. So the army maintained defensive positions while waiting for the political situation to become clearer.

The static situation led to some discontentment among the soldiers. A few took the drastic step of deserting. Desertion had been a great problem for the Boston garrison before the war began, when soldiers could be easily tempted by the alluring New England countryside or waylaid by cheap liquor and conniving local inhabitants. But Boston’s peninsular location made it difficult to abscond after the city was besieged. A few nonetheless managed to do so. One of them was Martin Hurley. On the night of 16 November 1775 he was placed as a sentry at an outpost in front of the British lines on Boston Neck, and he disappeared into the darkness.[4]

He did not, of course, actually disappear; he made his way to the American lines. He was quickly spirited away, far away from Boston and any chance of recapture. He was soon in New Jersey. Needing work, he took the most obvious job available: the Continental Army was hiring, and Martin Hurley had experience as a soldier. He enlisted in the 1st New Jersey regiment then being raised in the eastern part of that colony on 11 December.[5] This was not an unusual move; deserters from each side flocked to the ranks of their former enemies, probably not out of any passion for one cause or the other but for the simple pragmatic reason of employment.

Hurley’s military skills were quickly recognized. Having served for eight years in the world’s best-trained army, Hurley was able to teach much to his new comrades. He was appointed to the rank of sergeant on 25 December.[6] In that capacity, assuming he wasn’t detached on recruiting service or some other duty, he spent the first months of 1776 with his regiment in the New York City area working on the region’s defenses.

In May the regiment marched north to reinforce the American army that had occupied posts between Lake Champlain and Quebec, but they didn’t stay long in Canada. A strong British counterattack pushed the Americans back to Lake Champlain. By October the 1st New Jersey was part of the garrison of Fort Ticonderoga, where they built an earthwork called the Jersey Redoubt as part of the post’s outer defenses.

When 1776 came to an end, so did the enlistments of many Continental soldiers. The 1st New Jersey Regiment was effectively disbanded and raised anew in January 1777, a new regiment from an administrative perspective but including many of the same officers. One change was that Martin Hurley received a commission as an Ensign, a significant rise from a non-commissioned post to a commissioned rank.[7]

Battle of Germantown and Benjamin Chew's house. Source: National Archives
Battle of Germantown and Benjamin Chew’s house. Source: National Archives

The 1st New Jersey Regiment was heavily engaged in the battle of Brandywine on 11 September 1777, but Ensign Hurley’s own experience there is not known. His next chance to distinguish himself came at the battle of Germantown on 4 October 1777. In this famous action, the Continental Army successfully surprised a large portion of the British army encamped outside of Philadelphia. Complete victory seemed to be at hand, but a British contingent took refuge in the Chew house, a large stone structure that provided strong defense. The Americans could have bypassed this isolated force, but, in a decision that is debated to this day, diverted a substantial portion of their troops to try to dislodge the stubborn redcoats. Among the units charged with this task was Hurley’s 1st New Jersey Regiment.

The ensign took to his role with great zeal – he drew his sword, and with a flourish he led his troops onto the lawn and right to the very walls of the stone mansion. Hurley probably didn’t know that the British troops inside the house were from the 40th Regiment of Foot, a regiment that had accompanied his own 44th Regiment from Ireland to Boston two and a half years before. He may have known some of the men. They certainly noticed him, perhaps not as a former British soldier but as the only officer with a drawn sword attacking them.

If you look up Martin Hurley in many sources, they’ll tell you he was killed in this battle.[8] In fact, that’s what American casualty returns said. But he wasn’t; he met a much worse fate for someone in his position. He was wounded. That alone would not have been so bad, but when his comrades retreated they left him on the battlefield near the Chew House. British reinforcements arrived. The entire American attack faltered, and then failed; American forces withdrew from the area. With the siege on the Chew house lifted, the beleaguered soldiers inside filed out to inspect the carnage on the grounds.

A corporal from the 40th Regiment, William Yates, came upon the bleeding Hurley; in spite of the officer’s blue coat with red facings, he remembered Hurley from their days in Ireland and Boston. Yates questioned Hurley, who denied being a deserter, but Yates took him into custody. He was put on trial two days later, “accused of having deserted from the said Regiment, when Centinel at an outpost, and of having borne Arms in the Rebel Army.”[9]

The trial was short. The 44th Regiment was in the area, so officers and soldiers were available to testify very explicitly to Hurley’s enlistment and desertion. Soldiers of the 40th testified to seeing him on the Germantown battlefield and finding him afterwards. The court was shown the commission from the Continental Congress, taken from Hurley’s pocket, appointing him an Ensign in the Continental Army; Hurley acknowledged that it belonged to him.

When called to testify, Martin Hurley offered what was perhaps the worst defense given in any court martial during the war. He “said that he had nothing to offer in his defence, but that he never had been guilty of such crimes before.” That’s a line that occasionally evoked sympathy for young soldiers accused of being absent from their posts, but for those who joined the enemy army, obtained an officer’s commission, then led a charge against their former comrades, it just wasn’t effective to point out that it was the first such offense. The court found Hurley guilty. He was executed on the morning of 8 October 1777.[10]

 


[1] Muster rolls, 44th Regiment of Foot, WO 12/5637, British National Archives.

[2] “The Kemble Papers,” Collections of the New York Historical Society (New York: printed for the Society, 1884), 45, 49.

[3] “The Kemble Papers,” 52.

[4] Muster rolls, 44th Regiment of Foot.

[5] “Muster roll of Capt. Andrew McMyers Company and first Regiment of New Jersey Troops,” 11 January1776, New Jersey Revolutionary War Rolls, National Archives, viewed on fold3.com, January 2015.

[6] Ibid. This roll indicates that he was appointed sergeant “in Craig’s stead,” referring to another sergeant who was discharged on 14 December; the service record index card for Martin Hurley, however, incorrect states that he enlisted “in Craig’s stead.” Revolutionary War Service Records, National Archives, viewed on fold3.com, January 2015.

[7] Revolutionary War Service Records.

[8] See, for example, Francis B. Heitman, Historical Register of Officers of the Continental Army during the War of the Revolution (Washington, DC: Rare Book Ship Publishing, 1914), 311.

[9] Trial of Martin Hurley, WO 71/84, 337-342, British National Archives. This was the same court that heard the case of Corporal Roger Thorne of the 16th Light Dragoons; see Don N. Hagist, “It wasn’t Billy the Ram,” Journal of the American Revolution, 12 January 2015, http://allthingsliberty.com/2015/01/it-wasnt-billy-the-ram/

[10] G. D. Scull, ed., “The Montresor Journals,” Collections of the New York Historical Society (New York: printed for the Society, 1881), 463.

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8 Comments

  • I wonder if Pyle had Hurley in mind (though he might not have known his name) when doing his famous painting of the battle. Although im sure NO accounts mention a battering ram….

  • Odd, it never occurred to me that there was NOT a battering ram or two…or, many. How else were they to get inside? Cannon balls were bouncing off the stone walls – they couldn’t simply run up to the house and get inside using their bare hands. They may have had scaling ladders for access to upper story windows, too.

    • I dont recall the specifics of the attack, but the guns employed by the Americans were sufficient to knock down the doors and windows although little else. The door existed until lost in fire in the early or mid 1900s…i actually just finished the Osprey series on the Philadelphia Campaign which has a picture of the door before its demise, showing clear artillery damage (probably light guns from the extent of the damage, not likely anything above a 12 pdr).

      Some of the Jersey regiments i believe got in the door but were immediately KIA, WIA, and the remainder repulsed within moments. Perhaps someone who knows more than i do about this campaign (im a Hudson Valley guy mostly) might weigh in and correct me? Thomas McGuire has a two volume book on the campaign.

  • Mr. Hagist,

    I still don’t know if I read your captivating stories because you’re a good story teller or because you write about facts that are in themselves captivating. I just can’t get enough of it. There is a major difference between relating or describing a fact and organizing it in a fluid story. It seems obvious to you. It’s not to me. I don’t even breathe while reading your stories. I noticed also that you tell a story through a central hero, a person that we follow from the start to the end. It could be one factor that explains why your stories are captivating. Thank you.

    • Thank you very much for this great feedback. I, too, find the stories fascinating, and culling the information out of archival collections is an exciting journey of discovery – the research is the fun part! I wish I could say that the writing comes naturally, but it has taken quite a bit of effort to develop that skill. It’s worth it, though, when the result is that people get to enjoy these remarkable accounts of real people.

  • I looked up the artillery compliment; Col. Procter’s 4th Artillery attacked the house with four 3 & 6 pounders, later on another four joined on the otherside of the house for a total of eight guns, all a mixture of 3 and 6 pdrs as they seem to all have been battalion guns (attached to a battalion or a brigade for infantry fire support). This is from McGuire’s “The Surprise of Germantown”, chapter 9.

  • “world’s best-trained army”,
    Ummm……My opinion is: probably the Prussian army. The French and Austrian armies weren’t too shabby either. Von Steuben didn’t hold the British Army in the highest regard, from what I’ve read.
    Although I might agree the British army was the best trained at things like land/sea combined operations — they had a LOT of experience in that regard in several theaters throughout the hemisphere. Or perhaps in counter insurgency.

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