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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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But Washington decided to leave the city unharmed when he decamped. Before he could do so, however, the British attacked again, at Kip’s Bay on the East River between present- day 30th and 34th Streets, two miles north of Hamilton’s hill fort, leaving his company cut off and in danger of capture. Washington sent Gen. Israel Putnam and his aide-decamp, Maj. Aaron Burr, to evacuate them. The pair reached Fort Bunker Hill just as American militia from Lower Manhattan began to stream past Hamilton heading north on the Post Road (now Lexington Avenue). Although Hamilton had orders from Gen. Henry Knox to rally his men for a stand, Burr, in the name of Washington, countermanded Knox and led Hamilton, with little but the clothes on his back, two cannons and his men, by a concealed path up the west side of the island to freshly dug entrenchments at Harlem Heights. Burr most likely saved Hamilton’s life.

The British built defenses across northern Manhattan, which they now occupied. On September 20, fanned by high winds, a fire broke out at midnight in a frame house along the waterfront near Whitehall Slip. Four hundred and ninety-three houses—one-fourth of the city’s buildings—were destroyed before British soldiers and sailors and townspeople put out the flames. Though the British accused Washington of setting the fire, no evidence has ever been found to link him to it. In a letter to his cousin Lund at Mount Vernon, Washington wrote: “Providence, or some good honest fellow, has done more for us than we were disposed to do for ourselves.”

By mid-October, the American army had withdrawn across the Harlem River north to White Plains in Westchester County. There, on October 28, the British caught up with them. Behind hastily built earthworks, Hamilton’s artillerymen crouched tensely as Hessians unleashed a bayonet charge up a wooded slope. Hamilton’s gunners, flanked by Maryland and New York troops, repulsed the assault, causing heavy casualties, before being driven farther north.

Cold weather pinched the toes and numbed the fingers of Hamilton’s soldiers as they dug embankments. His pay book indicates he was desperately trying to round up enough shoes for his barefoot, frostbitten men. Meanwhile, an expected British attack did not materialize. Instead, the redcoats and Hessians stormed the last American stronghold on ManhattanIsland, FortWashington, at present-day 181st Street, where 2,818 besieged Americans surrendered on November 16. Three days later, the British force crossed the Hudson and attacked Fort Lee on the New Jersey shore near the present-day GeorgeWashingtonBridge. The Americans escaped, evacuating the fort so quickly they left behind 146 precious cannons, 2,800 muskets and 400,000 cartridges.

 

In early November, Captain Hamilton and his men had been ordered up the Hudson River to Peekskill to join a column led by Lord Stirling. The combined forces crossed the Hudson to meet Washington and, as the commander in chief observed, his 3,400 “much broken and dispirited” men, in Hackensack, New Jersey.

Hamilton hitched horses to his two remaining 6-pound guns and marched his gun crews 20 miles in one day to the RaritanRiver. Rattling through Elizabethtown, he passed the ElizabethtownAcademy where, only three years earlier, his greatest concern had been Latin and Greek declensions.

Dug in near Washington’s Hackensack headquarters on November 20, Hamilton was startled by the sudden appearance of his friend Hercules Mulligan, who, to Hamilton’s great dismay, had been captured some three months earlier at the Battle of Long Island. Mulligan had been determined a “gentleman” after his arrest and released on his honor not to leave New York City. After a joyous reunion, Hamilton evidently persuaded Mulligan to return to New York City and to act, as Mulligan later put it, as a “confidential correspondent of the commander-in-chief”—a spy.

After pausing to await Gen. Sir William Howe, the British resumed their onslaught. On November 29, a force of about 4,000, double that of the Americans, arrived at a spot across the Raritan River from Washington’s encampment. While American troops tore up the planks of the NewBridge, Hamilton and his guns kept up a hail of grapeshot.

For several hours, the slight, boyish-looking captain could be seen yelling, “Fire! Fire!” to his gun crews, racing home bags of grapeshot, then quickly repositioning the recoiling guns. Hamilton kept at it until Washington and his men were safely away toward Princeton. Halfway there, the general dispatched a brief message by express rider to Congress in Philadelphia: “The enemy appeared in several parties on the heights opposite Brunswick and were advancing in a large body toward the [Raritan] crossing place. We had a smart cannonade whilst we were parading our men.”

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