Note: “Ten Days of Hamilton” is explained here. Today is Day 6.
As a kid in the Caribbean I wished for a war
I knew that I was poor
I knew that it was the only way to
If they tell my story
I am either gonna die on the battlefield of glory or
I will fight for this land
Hamilton – “Right Hand Man”
As mentioned previously, Alexander Hamilton was born in the Caribbean, far from the fledgling American colonies, though he was tangentially involved in what was going on through his employment with a trading charter. He learned a lot about trade and how the world at the time functioned, but he also had a lot of free time and some very helpful folks that would give him things to read. He filled his free time with reading – and writing – and eventually made it to America and his destiny.
As indicated in the quote above, Hamilton knew that his upbringing would prevent him from attaining the height of society. (He was very prescient in that way). Based on his studies of history, however, he also understood that there were “shortcuts” to the leading class, and that was through the service in the military.* Hamilton arrived in America three years before what would become the Revolutionary War, and began training with a New York volunteer militia company at King’s College (now Columbia University) shortly after the events of Lexington and Concord and in advance of the Declaration of Independence.
*The character of Hamilton also mentions this to Aaron Burr the first time they meet in “Aaron Burr, Sir” – “God, I wish there was a war. Then we could prove that we’re worth more than anyone bargained for.”
Being the student that he was, he studied military tactics and history while drilling with his militia company, and he was eventually promoted to lead the company. As referenced later in “Right Hand Man,” Hamilton’s company was responsible for stealing the cannons in the British armory while under fire from a warship in New York harbor, which gained him some notoriety, as well as making his company a permanent part of the Revolutionary Army and participating in many of the battles around New York during the early part of the war.
His performance garnered the attention of many senior commanders within the Army, and Hamilton turned down the opportunity to be the aide or secretary to many of the senior colonial commanders. But Hamilton viewed that his key to further notoriety and success was as a battlefield commander, as referenced in the line “I am either gonna die on the battlefield of glory or rise up.” Obviously, he wanted to live through the war and use his successes to enhance his future career – he was only 21 at the outbreak of the Revolutionary War after all.
It wasn’t until George Washington came to Hamilton and offered him a position on his staff, a position he was reluctant to take at first, until perhaps realizing that hitching his wagon to Washington would be just as beneficial. Though he was one of many aides to Washington, he become the lead aide – more like a chief of staff than an aide-de-camp in current military parlance – and assisted General Washington in fighting the war, primarily corresponding with Congress about the state of the war from the front lines. But he continued to press Washington for a field command, especially as he saw others that he view as less qualified leading – and losing – on the battlefield instead of him.
He served Washington directly for over 4 years, but left amid his continuing frustration with his lack of command. He returned home for a bit, but was convinced to come back to the field with promise battlefield command. Hamilton and his French allies were tasked with capturing some small British forts during the Siege of Yorktown in 1781, and he led a bayonet charge at night to capture one, while the French troops captured the other. While not the last battle* of the Revolutionary War, it was the Continental victory that finally turned the tide, leading to the surrender of the entire British Army at Yorktown, effectively ending the Revolutionary War.
*John Laurens, who was Hamilton’s BFF and was with him at the Battle of Yorktown, died later at the Battle of the Combahee River in South Carolina, one of the last casualties of the Revolutionary War. It was fought in the intermediary period between Yorktown and the ratification of the Treaty of Paris in 1783.
One thing that I had kind of forgotten about the Revolutionary War over the years was how long it was, and that it wasn’t simply battle after battle. There were times that no fighting was really happening – Washington and his troops wintering at Valley Forge, for example – and that from Lexington and Concord to the Treaty of Paris was nearly 8 years total. This was partially because of the era when the War was fought, as troop movement took a lot longer than even the Civil War 90 years later. Troops were either marching overland or boarding ships to move around, and these ships were not yet powered.
After all, there was enough downtime during the War for Hamilton to go to parties hosted by the locals, including the one where he first encounter Eliza Schuyler. He would also leave “the front” and return home at other times to tend to his other affairs, and spent a lot of the war reading and writing, including some of the plans that he would eventually use as the foundation for his tenure as Treasury Secretary. This could have just been a senior officer able to take advantage of his station – the troops in the field probably weren’t afforded the same luxury of free time or returning home on leave – but it was definitely a different kind of war.
That said, even modern military engagements aren’t fought for days and weeks on end, so maybe not much has changed in the regard. Most militaries need some time to perform relief/repair-in-place and all that, and our military is obviously larger and more advanced than the glorified militia that Hamilton fought in 240 years ago.
Hamilton resigned his military commission after the Battle of Yorktown, and returned to New York to start working on building the government that would eventually come to be after the Revolution. However, Hamilton’s time in the Army was not over. During the John Adams’ administration, there was the Quasi-War fought against France, almost entirely at sea. However, on Washington’s recommendation, President Adams appointed Hamilton as the senior major general in the Army under Washington’s command, and after Washington died in 1799, Hamilton was the senior officer in the Army. Fortunately for our fledgling nation, Adams negotiated a peace with the French, thus preventing actual war, and we never had the opportunity to see Hamilton in command of the Army like his mentor Washington.
Like he always desired, Hamilton had used military service to advance his lot in life. However, had he remained a field commander and survived the war, instead of joining forces with Washington as his aide, he may not have reached the levels that he ultimately did. Hamilton knew that Washington was well-respected and that, if the Revolution was successful, Washington would hae a place in the new government whatever it was. For perhaps the first time, Hamilton relied on someone else to aid him in getting to the next level, and we as a country are probably better for it. It seems Washington was pretty magical in that regard.
Until next time…