Continuing our week of themed blog posts focussing on West Sussex links with America, today’s focus is on Royal Naval Officer (later Vice-Admiral) Sir George Murray, a Chichester local who saw service throughout the American War of Independence, as well as the French Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars.
A few days prior to the signing of the Declaration of Independence, on 28th June 1776, Midshipman George Murray, aged just 17, was serving on HMS Bristol, Commanded by Sir Peter Parker, in an attack on Sullivan Fort, the key defence bastion of Charles Town in South Carolina.
Parker had 9 British ships in his squadron, anchored just inside the bar crossing the approach to Sullivan Island and the main channel leading to Five Fathom Hole. Once inside, the British ships would be assured of a warm welcome from Fort Moultrie’s 33 cannons at either end of Sullivan’s Island, all manned by patriots. General Clinton, with 3,000 British troops, 10 artillery pieces, 3 men-of-war with 24 naval guns, and 15 armed flat-boats was encamped across a narrow and supposedly shallow channel at the end of Long Island, too far to be of any great help when hostilities began.
Parker’s ships gathered at Five Fathom Hole from early June, but attacks on the Fort were delayed by calm winds. Meanwhile, the enemy strengthened its entrenchments and mounted pieces of heavy cannon on the eastern end of Sullivan’s Island, thereby inhibiting cooperation between British ground and naval forces. More troops arrived on the transports but had to land at Spencer’s Inlet, some five miles from Sullivan’s Island. The harbour nearer the fort had still to be surveyed for possible wrecks left to obstruct passage, and for the British to lay buoys. Clinton was invited to use the Bristol as his HQ to facilitate cooperation, but he declined due to his propensity for sea sickness. He became somewhat isolated and frustrated, stuck on land and unable to contribute.
A flag of truce was sent to the Fort but that was fired at, so a hostile welcome was clearly inevitable, and expected every day until the 26th when the larger Experiment under Captain Scott arrived from Antigua. They crossed the bar in the evening of 27th and her cannons prepared for an attack. On 28th the Commodore gave the signal for an attack on Sullivan Fort with nineteen 32 pounder guns. The waiting was over. Midshipman Murray was about to experience bloody warfare for the first time.
The rebels inflicted significant damage on the Bristol. Two springs were shot away, causing her to swing in the ebb tide into the line of raking fire. The enemy fire was said go through and through the vessel and its crew. The vessels continued to attack the Fort, but the ground troops were too far away to help, (although reports on distance varied from 4 – 900 yards). By mid-afternoon, the Fort was silenced.
On the Bristol, Parker took stock. Having suffered considerable damage to the hull and masts, with knees and timbers shot through and smashed, together with a large number of 44 men killed and another 30 wounded, he decided to withdraw. It was said that if the water had not been so smooth it would have been impossible to keep her from sinking. The Captain lost his left arm above the elbow (he was sent back to England the next day) while the Commodore’s breeches were torn off and his ‘backside laid bare’, with his thigh and knee wounded, he was able to walk only when supported by two men’. The Bristol spent the next few days in Five Fathom Hole, with all available carpenters, unrigging the main mast, and removing the stump of the mizzen mast.
Murray survived his baptism of fire, but the Bristol suffered significant and almost catastrophic damage. She was twice in flames, her quarter-deck was completely cleared of both officers and men, excepting the Commodore, and no individual escaped being killed or wounded. Her Captain, after losing his right arm, and several other wounds, died later from the vast ‘infusion of blood which had thus occasioned’; American losses were also considerable. In such a baptism, in what transpired to be an unsuccessful attack, Murray was said that like Nelson ‘he knew not fear nor its heat and severity were such as might have deterred him from the further pursuit of a profession so hazardous as that of the Navy’.
In the Days following the battle, the Declaration of Independence was adopted by the Second Continental Congress, announcing that the thirteen American colonies were now an independent nation from British rule. The Revolutionary War continued, as did Murray, who followed his mentor Peter Parker to HMS Chatham in September 1776 and survived action on several other occasions along the eastern seaboard of America. After further naval and bloody adventures from East to West Indies and with Nelson in the Mediterranean, Murray reached the rank of Vice Admiral. He was made a Knight Commander of the Most Honorable Military Order of the Bath (KCB) in 1815. Sir George became the Mayor of Chichester in the same year. He died in 1819.
Barry Aldridge and Noel Castiglia
Find out more about Admiral Sir George Murray by contacting West Sussex Record Office, or The Murray Club online- https://admiralsirgeorgemurray.club/
To purchase a copy of Barry Aldridge’s book ‘My Dear Murray: A Friend of Nelson’ please contact West Sussex Record Office, or the Novium Museum, Chichester