Col. Hardy Murfree gave more than just his name


Hardy Murfree (1752-1809), son of William Murfree and the former Sally Brickell, was born into North Carolina aristocracy. His father was a prominent politician and the wealthy founder of Murfree’s Landing, a prosperous Atlantic port, incorporated in 1787 as Murfreesboro, N.C.

William Murfree was serving in the North Carolina Provincial Congress in 1775-76 when the Continental Army was being organized to support the rebellion against British rule. Young Hardy Murfree joined the North Carolina 2nd Regiment and was appointed a captain by the Provincial Congress.

Capt. Murfree proved to be an able officer in early battles including Brandywine, Germantown and Monmouth and was promoted to major. At Germantown, Maj. Murfree “chanced to be near at hand” when Gen. Francis Nash, the North Carolina commander, was mortally wounded. The major used his crimson sash to bind the wounds of his superior. The “strong, netted silk cords,” according to one account, served to convey the wounded officer to a nearby residence where he died. (Nashville, the Tennessee capital city, is named for Gen. Francis Nash.)

(It was reported in 1937 that Essie Hancock, one of Murfree’s descendants, was in possession of the sash still “heavily coated with blood” from the general’s wounds. Today the sash is part of the history collection at the national offices of the Society of the Cincinnati in Washington, D.C.)

In the summer of 1789, Maj. Murfree was selected to initiate the attack on the British fortifications at Stony Point, N.Y. In this engagement, the North Carolina battalion, led by Murfree, suffered significant casualties, including two of Murfree’s lieutenants. Murfree was captured. The losses and capture notwithstanding, historians attribute Murfree with a key role in this American victory. North Carolina histories even describe Murfree as the “hero of the Revolutionary attack on Stony Point.”

Stony Point was a rocky and wooded promontory that rose 150 feet at its highest point and projected into the Hudson River for more than half a mile. It was heavily fortified and protected to the north and south by marshes. These tidal marshes at low tide still had 2 to 3 feet of water and soft bottoms. The inland side of the point was protected by gates and barriers, as well as artillery.

The fortifications and firepower of Stony Point controlled the river and forced the Continental Army to rely on lengthy overland routes for both communication and troop movement between the New England and Mid-Atlantic colonies. The British referred to Stony Point as their “little Gibraltar in America.”

Gen. George Washington selected Brig. Gen. Anthony Wayne to plan and lead the assault on Stony Point. The plan called for a midnight frontal attack as a diversionary tactic drawing the British forces out of the fort while others crept through the marshes flanking the Point. Knowing that progress would be slow through the marshes, Wayne relied on darkness and the diversionary attack to give his flanking forces an element of surprise.

On June 19, 1779, Murfree lead the frontal attack and succeeded in drawing the entire British force and firepower out of the fort in an effort to repel and overwhelm what appeared to be a suicidal attempt to take the fort from the inland side. When Murfree fell back and submitted to capture (wisely sparing even greater casualties), the British commanders realized that they had been tricked and that the fort was exposed. The Redcoats were literally captured from behind by a superior force of muddy Americans.

Gen. Wayne, who did his own reconnaissance of Stony Point at great personal risk, and who was wounded leading the flanking forces, was hailed as a brilliant military strategist and given a larger command. Maj. Murfree’s bravery and discipline in carrying out his difficult assignment were also generally recognized. He was promoted to colonel.

After the war, Col. Murfree returned to North Carolina where he farmed and prospered as a shipping merchant. Within a year, Murfree was elected to the state legislature where he served on the committee concerned with land allotments for Revolutionary War veterans. He also became a charter member and treasurer of the North Carolina Society of the Cincinnati, a fraternal order for those who had served as commissioned officers with the North Carolina Line during the Revolution.

During this period, Murfree began purchasing land allocations from Revolutionary veterans who were not inclined to relocate in the western regions that later became Tennessee. . Adding to his own substantial allocation, Murfree accumulated thousands of acres in Middle and West Tennessee including major holdings in what became Williamson, Davidson and Rutherford counties.

In or about 1806, Murfree relocated to Franklin, Tenn, and began building a grand home in the image of his ancestral home in North Carolina. In the early stages of this project, his health failed. He died on April 6, 1809. In July of that year David Dickinson, a son-in-law, and William H. Murfree, the colonel’s eldest child, were appointed administrators of the Murfree estate. When the division of properties was finally recorded in January 1814, each surviving child was granted title to vast tracts of Tennessee land.

In November 1811, the Tennessee legislature specified that the new county seat for Rutherford County, wherever it was subsequently sited, would be called Murfreesborough in honor of the late colonel. It was customary at the time to assign place names honoring Revolutionary leaders. The financial and political leverage of the Murfree heirs likely influenced this decision. The naming legislation was submitted by the legislator from Williamson County.

Rutherford County Historian Greg Tucker can be reached at [email protected].

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