Living History Part 2: Hamilton and Washington were brothers-in-arms

Hamiliton's First Meeting with George Washington by Alonzo Chappel.
Hamiliton's First Meeting with George Washington by Alonzo Chappel.
The March to Valley Forge by William Trego.
The March to Valley Forge by William Trego.

The Continental Army during the Revolutionary War faced long odds against the most powerful military machine in the western world. England’s Army and Navy dwarfed those of America. Alexander Hamilton joined an artillery unit in New York to fight the British and was later made Captain of a group of about 60 troops. General Washington knew that the chances for success for America were questionable from the start. Even though he felt it was possible to defeat the British, he surmised that selective guerilla-style tactics- rather than direct attacks- would serve him best. It is perhaps not a coincidence that as early as 1775 Alexander Hamilton supported this type of approach. The plan would later be termed the Fabian strategy after the third century Roman General Fabius, who used similar maneuvers facing daunting odds against Hannibal during the invasion of Italy.

By June of 1776- more than a year after shots were fired on Lexington Green, American forces were disillusioned after a disastrous attack on Quebec. Defeated and sorely in need of a victory, the Continental Army was about to experience the fury of British military might. “On July 12, 1776, Britain tested New York’s defenses by sending two warships… up the Hudson River past the city. According to Hercules Mulligan, ‘Capt. Hamilton went on the Battery… and… commenced a Brisk fire upon the Phoenix and Rose passing up the river… .” The next wave of British forces would overwhelm the entire American Army. The Americans had only 19,000 troops against William Howe’s impressive 32,000 man force, which would dominate the fighting and gain control of New York.

Washington knew he was outgunned and started to withdraw despite the possibility that his entire army could be captured. Then it seemed… a miracle happened. Heavy rains and fog slowed the progress of Howe’s forces and allowed Washington to engineer the most successful retreating maneuver of the entire war, safely evacuating to Manhattan. Reconnoitering on Harlem Heights, Hamilton and the rest of the army built earthworks in preparation for British attacks. Hamilton’s skill in constructing these defenses caught the attention of the commander-in-chief. This was likely the first time Washington was on the field of battle viewing Hamilton’s work. It would prompt him to consider Hamilton a skilled soldier, worthy of recognition. The subsequent interactions between the two men would form one of the most important relationships of the American Revolutionary War.

In early December, 1776, as enemy forces were approaching the main body of Washington’s Army along the Raritan River, Alexander Hamilton and his unit opened fire, halting their attempt to thwart the Continentals. On December 22, 1776 Washington convened a council of war. He knew that roughly 1,500 of the enemy were stationed at Trenton, just across the river. He decided on a bold strategy- a direct attack beginning on Christmas night, facing a well armed group of Hessians. The next day- the words exchanged between the Americans were ‘Victory or Death’.

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Washington’s troops endured a bitterly cold night filled with stinging sleet, along with dangerous currents while crossing the Delaware River. Here again the unseemly weather produced an unexpected advantage- the storm led the Germans to let down their guard. As the Americans entered Trenton, the Hessians were caught totally by surprise. Alexander Hamilton commanded an artillery unit in this critical battle, blasting away at the Hessians. The Americans suffered just a handful of casualties. This marked the first time that Alexander Hamilton served directly alongside Washington’s troops- and the result was a resounding success.

A few days after the victory at Trenton, Washington moved his forces towards Princeton. Hamilton’s unit participated in the Battle at Assunpink Creek nearby. Washington again caught the British by surprise in early January, 1777. Hamilton and his cannon contributed to this spectacular victory. This second of two remarkable successes gave the Continental Army a much needed boost in spirits. Washington asked Hamilton to join his staff just two weeks later.

Hamilton was thrilled to become aide-de-camp to General Washington. Beginning on March 1, 1777 he attacked his duties with exuberance. Hamilton performed important tasks including ordering supplies, writing official correspondence with officers and the Continental Congress and managing daily affairs for the army. The troops were not aware that in a few months they would experience the largest land battle ever fought in America. A British armada sailed into Chesapeake Bay to Head of Elk, Maryland (today’s Elkton), unloading troops for a march. The British thought by taking the capital city of Philadelphia, the war would be over. Yet they were mistaken. The cause of independence was not in a city, but in an idea- one which inspired thousands of citizen farmers to grab their guns and fight. By the morning of September 9th, Washington received news that the British were moving with a large force towards the village of Chadds Ford. Not wanting to provoke an immediate confrontation, troops encamped along the banks of Brandywine Creek. Colonel Hamilton was serving on Washington’s staff at the Benjamin Ring house- ready for a fight.

On the morning of September 11th, Washington received two conflicting reports: one that said the British were marching with their main army to the north- and a later one that directly contradicted the first report. Being a very cautious man, Washington decided not to make any substantial changes to his troop positions. The main body of British troops under Howe later flanked Washington’s forces. The Continentals included the young Marquis de Lafayette, wounded in his first battle fighting around the Birmingham Meeting House. The Americans were overwhelmed, suffering approximately 1,300 casualties (killed, wounded and captured/missing in action) while the British saw well under half that amount. It was a bitter and humiliating defeat.

Washington and his army found a safe place to regroup at Valley Forge, but living conditions were horrendous. Rampant disease and lack of supplies caused the men to nearly revolt. The army was at its lowest point. Washington desperately needed a positive catalyst. He arrived in the form of Baron von Steuben. Referred in a letter by Benjamin Franklin, von Steuben was formerly a General in Prussia. However, he spoke only German and French. Hamilton was fluent in French and translated von Steuben’s commands for the troops to obey. The resultant months of drilling transformed Washington’s army from a ragged crew to a disciplined fighting force. Here Hamilton’s insights, his writing ability, organizational skills and military acumen helped Washington survive to fight another day.

Hamilton made several critical recommendations to Washington for the improvement and restructuring of the army, changing it into the most efficient machine ever to fight on American soil. He served Washington admirably six months later in the crucial victory at the Battle of Monmouth Court House in New Jersey. Although he and Washington later had a falling out over an argument leading to his leaving Washington’s staff in early 1781, Hamilton remained close, writing letters and providing service up through the decisive Battle of Yorktown in October of that year. Hamilton successfully assaulted redoubt #10 for the decisive victory that ended the Revolutionary War. Washington praised his valor: “Few cases have exhibited stronger proofs of Intrepidity, coolness and firmness than were shown upon this occasion.” Hamilton and Washington were brothers-in-arms throughout the most daunting times of the early republic. Their mutual respect and trust would endure, subsequently prompting Washington to ask Hamilton to help him lead the struggling colonies to become the most successful nation on Earth.

Gene Pisasale is an historian, author and lecturer based in Kennett Square, Pennsylvania. His nine books and historical lecture series focus on the heritage of the Mid-Atlantic region. Gene’s current project is as a “Living Biographer” of Alexander Hamilton, dressed in full Continental Army officer’s uniform. His website is www.GenePisasale.com. He can be reached at Gene@GenePisasale.com.