AMC’s Turn: The Real Major Hewlett and the Setauket Church

Our series of articles on the stories behind AMC's Turn continues with the real Major Hewlett and more!

In Turn Maj. Richard Hewlett, played by Burn Gorham, is the picture of British military rectitude. He’s a stickler for military and social rank. He complains of the disorder and anarchy in America. But he also demands discipline from his own men, going so far as to cashier a captain for getting involved a tavern brawl (although, historically, that would have required a formal court-martial).

As a traditional English gentleman, Hewlett is a common type in American popular fiction, especially stories set during the Revolution. He’s essentially decent but a short-sighted snob, easily gulled by the crafty Yankees. So far he’s twice spoken of winning the “hearts and minds” of the locals, a phrase from the Vietnam War that reminds us his efforts are doomed. The character is also extremely fond of his horses, keeping them in his office and patting them during business meetings—more on that later.

There was a Crown officer named Richard Hewlett on Long Island during the period of the Culper Ring, and his path crossed with that of Maj. Benjamin Tallmadge, the American officer who recruited and guided those spies in the second half of the Revolutionary War.

But the historical Richard Hewlett (1729-1789) wasn’t an Englishman. The Hewlett family had been established in Hempstead, Long Island, for generations, and Richard lived in East Rockaway. He fought in the French and Indian War as a captain from New York. Some of his relatives became Patriots when the Revolutionary War began, but Hewlett stayed loyal to the Crown. The troops that the real Lt. Col. Hewlett commanded on Long Island were also American Loyalists, not British regulars.

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The historical Hewlett could have been used to illuminate how in many parts of the American colonies the Revolutionary War was a civil war pitting one family against another, or dividing families. But Turn apparently needed a symbol of British military tradition, with an aristocratic accent and an impeccable wig.

The fictional Maj. Hewlett has taken over a church in Setauket, Long Island, using the interior as his office and meeting-room—and as a stable. He has placed cannon around the church and pressured Judge Richard Woodhull and other locals into giving up their family tombstones to shield those cannon. What’s the historical basis for those actions, if any?

The church represents the Setauket Presbyterian Church, where the minister starting in 1752 was the Rev. Benjamin Tallmadge, father of the Continental officer with the same name. The war disrupted normal churchgoing, and in 1777 Lt. Col. Hewlett took over that building. It was on high ground near Long Island Sound, and was almost certainly the biggest, best-constructed building around. Hewlett housed men inside the church and fortified the area around it.

On 22 August 1777 the Continental Army raided Setauket. Lt. Caleb Brewster, another major character in Turn, was part of that raid. Bringing along a six-pounder cannon, the Americans fired at the Loyalists’ fortified positions. Hewlett’s men fired back with four swivel guns, which were small cannon mounted on poles. Eventually the news of Royal Navy ships approaching made the Continentals withdraw, though they did carry off “a few” of the horses pastured nearby. No one was killed. One American was wounded. Despite its small scale, this event has become known as the Battle of Setauket.

That fighting didn’t do the Setauket Presbyterian Church and grounds any good, of course, but the building survived the war well enough to be refurbished and used until 1811, when it burned down. One of the Continental raiders, Zechariah Greene, became the minister of the church in 1797. He wrote the following in its records:

The tombstone of Rev. George Phillips and those of many others were destroyed by the British army, who built a fort around the church and cast up the bones of the dead. They destroyed the pulpit and the whole inside work of the church. Colonel Richard Hewlett commanded this body of men.

Greene went on to describe the Continental raid in August 1777.

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Greene was an eyewitness to the fight over the Setauket church, he was in touch with people who lived on Long Island through the war, and he had every reason to report the worst about the Crown forces. So it’s interesting to note what Greene did not say about Lt. Col. Hewlett and the church.

Greene didn’t write that Hewlett’s men had used tombstones as part of their fortification—only that in constructing earthworks around the church they had dug up part of the graveyard and “destroyed” stones. Greene didn’t say that Hewlett had converted the church into a stable. In fact, that would have been smelly and unhealthy—there are good reasons that for hundreds of years humans have kept horses in stables instead of our homes and offices. The fact that the Continental raiders could grab some of Hewlett’s horses without being able to take over the church shows that those horses were outside.

Not until the twentieth century did local accounts of the Setauket raid add incendiary details like Hewlett stabling horses in the church or using tombstones as part of its fortifications. Some of those accounts also claimed that he had mounted cannon in the upper windows of the church, but contemporary records said that his men had only the swivel guns outside. In sum, the story of Lt. Col. Hewlett’s use of the Setauket Presbyterian Church is a tale that’s become more and more dramatic in the telling until we reach the Turn version of events.

J. L. Bell is proprietor of the Boston 1775 blog, which offers daily doses of history, analysis, and unabashed gossip about the start of the American Revolution in New England.