hamilton’s military glory -- 6/24/24

Today's selection -- from Alexander Hamilton: The Illustrated Biography by Richard Sylla. Ever since he was a young boy growing up in the Caribbean, Alexander Hamilton had longed for military glory:

During his four years as Washington's aide de camp, he longed for a field command or other higher office. Others had recommended him for such appointments, but Washington needed the young man's knowledge, intelligence, and voice, so he never received any of the appointments. As Washington later wrote to John Adams, Hamilton's

“opportunities, as the principal and most confidential aid of the Commander in chief afforded him the means of viewing every thing on a larger scale than those whose attentions were confined to Divisions and Brigades, who knew nothing of the correspondences of the Commander in Chief or of the various orders to, or transactions with, the General Staff of the Army .... That he is ambitious I shall readily grant, but it is of that laudable kind which prompts a man to excel in whatever he takes in hand. He is enterprising, quick in his perceptions, and his judgment intuitively great: qualities essential to a Military character.

“Hamilton's ‘foreignness’ and dubious background also didn't help his cause—an irony considering the trajectory of his close friend Gilbert du Motier, Marquis de Lafayette, roughly the same age.

“The wealthy French nobleman hailed from a family with long military traditions, became captivated by the American revolt, and then joined it. He paid for the ship that brought him and other French volunteer officers to America in 1777. In gratitude, Congress appointed him—at age nineteen!—to the rank of major general. It may have been intended as an honorary appointment, but Lafayette took up arms and fought in the battles of Brandywine and Monmouth, and he too became one of Washington's favorites. In 1781, Washington sent Lafayette to Virginia to counter Arnold's havoc there. An outsider like Hamilton, Lafayette had risen to great heights in the Continental Army because of his noble birth, wealth, and formal military training. The equally if not more talented Hamilton remained a staff officer.

“But Hamilton was watching carefully for an opportunity. It came in February 1781 after he and his wife, Betsy, had returned to headquarters at New Windsor, New York. Passing Hamilton on the stairs, Washington asked to speak to him, and Hamilton replied that he would as soon as he delivered the letter in his hand to another aide. On his way back, Lafayette stopped Hamilton for a brief conversation—whereupon Washington accused Hamilton of keeping him waiting and disrespecting him. Hamilton replied: ‘I am not conscious of it, sir; but since you have thought it necessary to tell me so, we part.’

The Treason of Arnold by Charles Blauvelt

“Hamilton resigned. He remained on staff for more than two months, however, until Washington found a suitable replacement. In May, Hamilton entered the regular army, and at the end of July he obtained the line command of a light infantry battalion.

“In mid-August, Washington learned that Admiral Francois de Grasse's French fleet was moving from the Caribbean to Chesapeake Bay. At the same time, Cornwallis, following orders from General Clinton in New York, was building a defensive position at Yorktown, Virginia. The opportunity that Washington had wanted was presenting itself: a French fleet blocking British relief or escape and combined American and French forces to crush them on land. The only change in plan? The showdown would take place at Yorktown rather than New York City.

“The French fleet arrived at the mouth of Chesapeake Bay and prevented British attempts to evacuate Cornwallis's army. Washington and Rochambeau sailed and marched their armies to Virginia to surround Yorktown. From late September to mid-October, the opposing forces skirmished and traded bombardments. The British drew in their lines.

“By October 14, all that remained to make the British position totally untenable was capturing two redoubts, or outer fortifications, standing in the way of the American and French artillery. That night, under the command of Lafayette, French forces crept out to capture one of the redoubts. Hamilton's battalion went after the other. Hamilton led several hundred soldiers with unloaded bayonet rifles—to avoid an accidental discharge that might betray their actions—to the fortification, which they stormed and took in a matter of minutes. The French took a bit longer but also accomplished their mission.

“The Americans and French moved their artillery forward, which began heavy bombardments on October 15. On the night of the 16th, Cornwallis tried a last-gasp measure to save his army, ferrying them across the York River to Gloucester, from where they might escape. But bad weather scotched their plan.

“On the morning of the 17th, the British waved a white flag and entered negotiations to surrender. Parties from both sides signed the articles of capitulation on October 19, and that afternoon the British marched out and laid down their weapons. Capturing the redoubts had played a crucial role in winning the Battle of Yorktown. Hamilton finally achieved the military glory that he craved.”

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Richard Sylla


Alexander Hamilton: The Illustrated Biography


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