The Infantry Career of a Naval Hero

Before Commodore Alexander Murray was one of the most highly regarded naval commanders of the early United States, he was an infantry officer in the Maryland Line, and one of the legendary “Maryland 400.”

In 1776, Murray was a seasoned merchant sailor, and wanted to command a ship in the Continental Navy, but there were no vessels available for him. As a result, Murray joined the infantry, accepting a commission as a second lieutenant in Captain Patrick Sim’s Second Company of the First Maryland Regiment. He served with the First Maryland Regiment for just over a year, helping the Continental Army fight the British, most notably at the Battle of Brooklyn.[1]

However, on April 10, 1777, when a ship was finally ready for him, Murray left the Army to join the Continental Navy as the captain of a privateer.[2] With a letter of marque, Murray, from 1777 until 1780, commanded a myriad of vessels of war, in the Atlantic Ocean along the Eastern Shore.[3] The letter of marque allowed him to attack and capture any ship “carrying Soldiers, Arms, Gun-powder, Ammunition, Provisions, or any other contraband Goods, to any of the British Armies or Ships of War employed against these colonies.” [4]

Murray fought in the Continental Navy for the rest of the war, serving with distinction and twice enduring captivity. After the war, he returned to private life, until 1798, when he rejoined the Navy, receiving a commission as a Captain, and took command of the U.S.S. Constellation. As the author Samuel Putnam Waldo wrote in 1823 about Murray, “…there was not a single American living who has passed through more arduous duty; faced more dangers-fought in more battles; or achieved more victories.”[5]

Yet even with his success, Murray ran into trouble with the U.S. Government in the early 1800s, when he seized a ship that did not belong to the enemy. Murray’s actions resulted in a Supreme Court case against him, entitled Murray v. The Charming Betsey (6 U.S. 64 (1804). In that case, Murray, commander of U.S.S. Constellation, seized the schooner The Charming Betsey, which had originally been an American vessel. The prior owners of the ship had sold it and its cargo of ammunition to Jared Schattuck, born in the United States, but then a Danish subject. The ship was thereafter captured by the French Navy and, in 1800, recaptured by Murray. Murray believed that the ship was trading with the French and, thus, was in violation of an Act of Congress. The law outlined that no ship was to partake in “the commercial intercourse between the United States and France…” As a result of Murray’s misjudgment, in 1804, the Supreme Court ordered that the vessel be returned to Schattuck.[6]

Murray died on October 6, 1821 from typhoid. After a grand ceremony, he was buried at Laurel Hill Cemetery in Philadelphia.[7]

To read more about Murray’s life, click here.

-Joshua Rifkin

Notes

[1] Find a Grave, “Alexander Murray”; Muster Rolls and Other Records of Service of Maryland Troops in the American Revolution, Archives of Maryland Online, vol. 18, p. 13.

[2] Pension of Alexander Murray. The National Archives. Revolutionary War Pension and Bounty-Land Warrant Application Files. NARA M804 B.L.Wt. 2324-100, from fold3.com; Samuel Putnam Waldo, American Republic and the Kingdom of Great Britain, (Connecticut: Silas Andrus, 1823), 305.

[3] Sons of the American Revolution Membership Application, 1889-1970, Volume 71, (Philadelphia, 1901), SAR 14055, from ancestry.com

[4] Ernest McNeill Eller, Chesapeake Bay in the American Revolution, (Centreville, Maryland: Tidewater Publishers, 1981), 265.

[5] Waldo, 305.

[6] U.S. Coast Guard. Record of Movements: Vessels of the United States Coast Guard: 1790- December 31, 1933. (Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1934); William R. Wells II, US Revenue Cutters Captured in the War of 1812, American Neptune 58, No. 3, 225-241; Murray v. The Charming Betsey, 6 U.S. 64 (1804).

[7] Find a Grave, “Alexander Murray.”

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