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Hamilton Takes Command

In 1775, the 20-year-old Alexander Hamilton took up arms to fight the British. Soon the brash young soldier would display the courage and savvy that would take him to the apex of power in the new U.S. government

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In late May 1776, ten weeks after becoming an officer, Hamilton wrote to New York’s provincial congress to contrast his own meager payroll with the pay rates spelled out by the Continental Congress: “You will discover a considerable difference,” he said. “My own pay will remain the same as it is now, but I make this application on behalf of the company, as I am fully convinced such a disadvantageous distinction will have a very pernicious effect on the minds and behavior of the men. They do the same duty with the other companies and think themselves entitled to the same pay.”

The day the provincial congress received Captain Hamilton’s missive, it capitulated to all his requests. Within three weeks, the young officer’s company was up to 69 men, more than double the required number.

Meanwhile, in the city, two huge bivouacs crammed with tents, shacks, wagons and mounds of supplies were taking shape. At one of them, at the juncture of present-day Canal and Mulberry Streets, Hamilton and his company dug in. They had been assigned to construct a major portion of the earthworks that reached halfway across ManhattanIsland. Atop Bayard’s Hill, on the highest ground overlooking the city, Hamilton built a heptagonal fort, Bunker Hill. His friend Nicholas Fish described it as “a fortification superior in strength to any my imagination could ever have conceived.” When Washington inspected the works, with its eight 9-pounders, four 3-pounders and six cohorn mortars, in mid-April, he commended Hamilton and his troops “for their masterly manner of executing the work.”

Hamilton also ordered his men to rip apart fences and cut down some of the city’s famous stately elm trees to build barricades and provide firewood for cooking. In houses abandoned by Loyalists, his soldiers propped muddy boots on damask furniture, ripped up parquet floors to fuel fireplaces, tossed garbage out windows and grazed their horses in gardens and orchards. One Loyalist watched in horror as army woodcutters, ignoring his protests, chopped down his peach and apple orchards on 23rd Street . Despite a curfew, drunken soldiers caroused with prostitutes in the streets around TrinityChurch. By midsummer, 10,000 American troops had transformed New York City into an armed camp.

 

The very day—July 4, 1776—that the founding fathers of the young nation-to-be were signing the Declaration of Independence in Philadelphia, Captain Hamilton watched through his telescope atop Bayard’s Hill as a forest of ship masts grew ominously to the east; in all, some 480 British warships would sail into New York Harbor. One of Washington’s soldiers wrote in his diary that it seemed “all London was afloat.” Soon they had begun to disgorge the first of what would swell to 39,000 troops—the largest expeditionary force in English history—onto Staten Island. On July 9, at 6 o’clock in the evening, Hamilton and his men stood to attention on the commons to hear the declaration read aloud from the balcony of City Hall. Then the soldiers roared down Broadway to pull down and smash the only equestrian statue of King George III in America.

Three days later, British Vice Admiral Lord Richard Howe detached two vessels from his flotilla, the 44-gun Phoenixand the 28-gun Rose, to sail up the Hudson and probe shore defenses. The captain of the Rose coolly sipped claret on his quarterdeck as his vessel glided past the battery on Lower Manhattan—where an ill-trained American gun crew immediately blew itself up. The ships sailed unmolested up the river to Tarrytown as colonial troops abandoned their posts to watch. An appalled Washington fumed: “Such unsoldierly conduct gives the enemy a mean opinion of the army.” On their return, the two British ships passed within cannon range of Hamilton’s company at FortBunker Hill. He ordered his 9-pounders to fire, which the British warships returned. In the brief skirmish, one of Hamilton’s cannons burst, killing one man and severely wounding another.

On August 8, Hamilton tore open orders from Washington: his company was to be on round-the-clock alert against an imminent invasion of Manhattan. “The movements of the enemy and intelligence by deserters give the utmost reason to believe that the great struggle in which we are contending for everything dear to us and our posterity, is near at hand,” Washington wrote.

But early on the morning of August 27, 1776, Hamilton watched, helpless, as the British ferried 22,000 troops from Staten Island, not to Manhattan at all, but to the village of Brooklyn, on Long Island. Marching quickly inland from a British beachhead that stretched from Flatbush to Gravesend, they met little resistance. Of the 10,000 American troops on Long Island, only 2,750 were in Brooklyn, in four makeshift forts spread over four miles. At Flatbush, on the American east flank, Lord Charles Cornwallis quickly captured a mounted patrol of five young militia officers, including Hamilton’s college roommate, Robert Troup, enabling 10,000 redcoats to march stealthily behind the Americans. Cut off by an 80-yard-wide swamp, 312 Americans died in the ensuing rout; another 1,100 were wounded or captured. By rowboat, barge, sloop, skiff and canoe in a howling northeaster, a regiment of New England fishermen transported the survivors across the East River to Manhattan.

At a September 12, 1776, council of war, a grim-faced Washington asked his generals if he should abandon New York City to the enemy. Rhode Islander Nathanael Greene, Washington’s second-in-command, argued that “a general and speedy retreat is absolutely necessary” and insisted, as well, that “I would burn the city and suburbs,” which, he maintained, belonged largely to Loyalists.

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