Dear Mr. History:
Everyone knows Alexander Hamilton was the first Secretary of the Treasury, and let’s be honest, this nation is more of his vision than any other Founder’s. But beyond the financial stuff– wasn’t he a pretty brave soldier, too? Didn’t he figure at White Plains and Yorktown? Sincerely, a reader from Warren, Pennsylvania.
Dear Warren Reader:
You bet your sweet Weehawken Heights he was a brave soldier. During the Revolutionary War, twenty years before he became the revered Founder that gazes from our 10-dollar bills, Alexander Hamilton was a dangerous man.
Hamilton was a 20-year old student at King’s College (now Columbia University) in New York City when the Revolution opened in April, 1775. A strong supporter of the American cause, he joined a militia company known as the “Hearts of Oak,” studied the military arts, and achieved the rank of lieutenant. That August Hamilton led a successful raid to seize the British artillery located on the south end of Manhattan, and the Hearts of Oak became an artillery company by virtue of the fact that they had the guns. It was a simpler time. But the science of using artillery was definitely not simple, and it is a testament to Hamilton’s intelligence that over the next few months he studied and mastered this highly technical field. Probably because of his new skills, as well as political connections, the rebel government of New York appointed him a captain with command of the New York Provincial Company of Artillery in March 1776.
About a month after receiving his new assignment, Capt. Hamilton attached his company to the Continental Artillery when Gen. Washington’s army arrived in New York to defend the city against the expected British invasion. Hamilton was a good commander who took genuine interest in the welfare of his soldiers, shared their hardships, but ruled with an iron hand – an impressive feat for a 21-year-old. Well-led, his company competently handled their guns in the battles for Long Island and New York City, and Gen. Nathaniel Greene noted Hamilton as a solid young officer. At White Plains on October 28, Crown forces under Gen. William Howe tried to force a crossing of the Bronx River. Hamilton positioned his guns on Chatterton’s Hill where they overlooked the river and blasted the crossing Redcoats and Hessians, though Howe eventually forced the Americans to retreat. On December 1, when the Continentals retreated across New Jersey before the British, Hamilton’s company helped the Army escape across the Raritan River when they dueled with Redcoat artillery to protect a crossing site at Brunswick. Washington praised the “smart canonade” to Congress, but his letter gives the impression that he inwardly felt, “Holy cow that was a close one.” About this time an officer observed Hamilton as a “mere stripling, small, slender, almost delicate in frame, . . . with a cocked hat pulled down over his eyes, . .. with a hand resting on a cannon, and every now and then patting it as if it were a favorite horse or a pet . . . ..”
As the year 1776 neared its close, Hamilton had proven himself to be a capable leader and artilleryman. But he deeply desired military fame, and the Continental Army had a lot of young, ambitious rising stars. His chance to outshine others came in late December. By that time, battle deaths and disease had reduced his company by half. Hamilton himself was sick on Christmas Day, but he rallied to join the Army as they crossed the Delaware River to attack the Hessian garrison at Trenton, New Jersey. He and his company swarmed into Trenton alongside the Continental infantry, surprising the Hessians. Hamilton was perhaps at his deadliest in this battle. He set up two guns under fire, leaned into the blowing snow, and ordered his men to blast Trenton’s streets clear of the counterattacking Hessian infantrymen and artillery gunners. In minutes the American guns raked King Street with round after round of grapeshot and solid shot that smashed the enemy guns and cut through Hessians as they ran out of their barracks. If that doesn’t make you re-think that image from the 10-spot then I don’t know what will. A week after Trenton, Washington squared off against Gen. Cornwallis at the battle of Princeton and Hamilton’s company put in an another admirable showing, as his guns pounded at Redcoats that holed up in the college’s Nassau Hall.
His performances at Trenton and Princeton gained him the notoriety he desired. In March 1777, Washington offered him an assignment as one of his aides with a promotion to lieutenant-colonel. It was an offer Hamilton couldn’t – and didn’t – refuse.
Aide-de-camp to Washington is probably Hamilton’s most remembered military role and other authors have addressed this topic very well, so I won’t spend much ink on it here. Suffice to say that Hamilton handled Washington’s correspondence and helped manage the headquarters for four years, but began to feel that his talents exceeded the staff role. His desire for a field command to gain glory and fame made matters worse. But Washington declined assigning him a command because his writing and French language skills made Hamilton a vital staff member. Washington also considered Hamilton less qualified for command than other officers with more seniority and experience. With his requests for command unfulfilled, Hamilton resigned his aide-de-camp role in February 1781 and returned to his wife in Albany, New York.
Sitting around the hearth did not dampen his ambition, however, and since he still held a commission as a lieutenant-colonel, Hamilton continued badgering Washington for field service. In July 1781 Washington finally relented and assigned Hamilton as the commander of a battalion of light infantry, the Continental Army’s elite assault troops. Within a month he took charge of his new unit at their camp on the Hudson River.
In August, Washington began moving the Continental Army south in a combined campaign with the French that would eventually trap the British army under Lord Cornwallis at Yorktown, Virginia. Hamilton’s light infantry arrived at Yorktown in late September and on October 6, French engineers completed the first trench of the Allied siege of the British forces holed up in the town. Tradition called for a small celebration of the event, and Hamilton’s battalion marched into the trench with military pomp. The British responded with a salvo of artillery fire. Supposedly to demonstrate that his highly-skilled soldiers had no fear of British cannon, Hamilton moved his men into the open and put them through the manual of arms while enemy shells whistled through the air. Capt. James Duncan of his battalion wrote, “Colonel Hamilton gave these orders, and although I esteem him as one of the first officers in the American army, must beg in this instance to think he wantonly exposed the lives of his men.” For such blatant grandstanding, we might call Hamilton a “glory hound” in the modern Army, and that’s one of the more family-friendly terms.
The main factors that influenced Hamilton’s military service – ambition, desire for glory, and leadership skill, – all converged at Yorktown in mid-October. Two small British bastions known as “redoubts” numbered 9 and 10, blocked the advance of the Allied trenches. Washington decided to storm the obstacles. The Allied officers planned the attacks for October 14: that night, French infantry would seize Redoubt #9 while American troops, including Hamilton’s battalion, would seize Redoubt #10. Gen. Lafayette originally assigned command of the American column to Lt. Col. De Gimat, leader of another light infantry battalion in Lafayette’s division, but Hamilton objected, claiming seniority in rank. He took his complaint to Washington, who overrode Lafayette and assigned the attack to Hamilton.
A fog settled over the battlefield on the evening of October 14, as Hamilton readied his men. A quarter mile away stood Redoubt #10: a square-shaped stronghold surrounded by a deep ditch with a high, sandbagged parapet that literally bristled with cannon and an abatis. About 70 British and Hessian soldiers manned the guns. An artillery bombardment earlier that day ploughed the field with shell holes but left this formidable target intact, and Hamilton’s men were about to storm it with their bayonets fixed and muskets unloaded. Gen. Washington gave the troops a short address. A captain in the 1st Rhode Island regiment recalled “I thought then that His Excellency’s knees rather shook, but I have since doubted whether it was not mine.”
Around 7:00 PM a French mortar hurled six shots in the air – the signal for attack – and the Americans surged out of their trenches and rushed towards the redoubt. British artillery fire lit up the night as it ripped into the Hamilton’s ranks, but the Yankees rushed over the pockmarked field. At the redoubt, the Americans scrambled down into the ditch and cut through the abatis. Redcoat musket fire rained on the Light Infantrymen, and Hamilton later dryly reported, “As it would have attended with delay and loss to await the removal of the abatis and palisades, the ardor of the troops was indulged in passing over them.” Hamilton jumped over the parapet and into the redoubt, yelling for his men to follow. Glory hound or not, the guy had guts. Another column led by Lt. Col. John Laurens rushed to the rear of the redoubt and cut off the British retreat. The timing of the attack was almost perfect, as Hamilton recorded, “The redoubt was in the same moment enveloped and carried on every part.” The operation took less than 10 minutes.
Hamilton prepared to defend against an expected counterattack, but none came. The action cost his force 9 men killed and 25 wounded. The British lost 8 men killed and wounded and about 20 captured, though the rest escaped. The French also successfully took Redoubt #9. Washington reportedly watched from the American lines, and said to his aides, “The work is done, and well done.” Hamilton was hailed as a hero, and the way was open for the siege’s final stages. Gen. Cornwallis surrendered his army on October 19, 1781.
About a week after the British surrender Hamilton returned home to Albany. He resigned his commission In March 1782, as the Revolution was clearly drawing to its end. Hamilton began studying law and was admitted to the New York bar in 1783. After that he fought his wars with words.
So this is my long-winded way of saying yes, Hamilton was a heroically brave officer during the Revolution. But the war produced plenty of heroes. I think the more important legacy of his war service is that as an aide-de-camp, he closely observed Washington’s struggles with Congress and the various states, and learned the difficulties of managing such a large nation. “We must have a government with more power. We must have a tax in kind. We must have a foreign loan. We must have a bank – on the true principle of a bank. We must have an administration distinct from Congress, and in the hands of single men under their orders,” he wrote in 1780; concepts that he later applied in designing the structure of the new U.S. government.
Alexander Hamilton was an extremely complex, controversial, and interesting character. To read further, I recommend Alexander Hamilton, by Ron Chernow, or Alexander Hamilton: Writings, edited by Joanne B. Freeman.
And you may be interested to know that I’ve spent some time in Warren, PA. There used to be a Greek café there with the best chili dogs I’ve ever had. Alexander Hamilton would have loved chili dogs.
Lastly, the life of Alexander Hamilton, minus his Revolutionary War contributions, was the subject of Broadway star Lin-Manuel Miranda’s White House Poetry Jam performance in 2009. Check it out: