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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Washington asked one of his aides to tell him which commander had halted his pursuers. The man replied that he had “noticed a youth, a mere stripling, small, slender, almost delicate in frame, marching, with a cocked hat pulled down over his eyes, apparently lost in thought, with his hand resting on a cannon, and every now and then patting it, as if it were a favorite horse or a pet plaything.” Washington’s stepgrandson Daniel Parke Custis later wrote that Washington was “charmed by the brilliant courage and admirable skill” of the then 21-year-old Hamilton, who led his company into Princeton the morning of December 2. Another of Washington’s officers noted that “it was a model of discipline; at their head was a boy, and I wondered at his youth, but what was my surprise when he was pointed out to me as that Hamilton of whom we had already heard so much.”

After losing New Jersey to the British, Washington ordered his army into every boat and barge for 60 miles to cross the Delaware River into Pennsylvania’s BucksCounty. Ashivering Hamilton and his gunners made passage in a Durham ore boat, joining artillery already ranged along the western bank. Whenever British patrols ventured too near the water, Hamilton’s and the other artillerymen repulsed them with brisk fire. The weather grew steadily colder. General Howe said he found it “too severe to keep the field.” Returning to New York City with his redcoats, he left a brigade of Hessians to winter at Trenton.

In command of the brigade, Howe placed Col. Johann Gottlieb Rall, whose troops had slaughtered retreating Americans on Long Island and at FortWashington on Manhattan. His regiments had a reputation for plunder and worse. Reports that the Hessians had raped several women, including a 15-year-old girl, galvanized New Jersey farmers, who had been reluctant to help the American army. Now they formed militia bands to ambush Hessian patrols and British scouting parties around Trenton. “We have not slept one night in peace since we came to this place,” one Hessian officer moaned.

Washington now faced a vexing problem: the enlistments of his 3,400 Continental troops expired at midnight New Year’s Eve; he decided to attack the Trenton Hessians while they slept off the effects of their Christmas celebration. After so many setbacks, it was a risky gambit; defeat could mean the end of the American cause. But a victory, even over a small outpost, might inspire lagging Patriots, cow Loyalists, encourage reenlistments and drive back the British—in short, keep the Revolution alive. The main assault force was made up of tested veterans. Henry Knox, Nathanael Greene, James Monroe, John Sullivan and Alexander Hamilton, future leaders of America’s republic, huddled around a campfire at McKonkey’s Ferry the frigid afternoon of December 25, 1776, to get their orders. Hamilton and his men had blankets wrapped around them as they hefted two 6-pounders and their cases of shot and shells onto the 9-foot-wide, 60- foot-long Durham iron-ore barges they had commandeered, then pushed and pulled their horses aboard. Nineteen-yearold James Wilkinson noted in his journal that footprints down to the river were “tinged here and there with blood from the feet of the men who wore broken shoes.” Ship cap tain John Glover ordered the first boatloads to push off at 2 a.m. Snow and sleet stung Hamilton’s eyes.

Tramping past darkened farmhouses for 12 miles, Hamilton’s company led Nathanael Greene’s division as it swung off to the east to skirt the town. One mile north of Trenton, Greene halted the column. At precisely 8 in the morning, Hamilton unleashed his artillery on the Hessian outpost. Three minutes later, American infantry poured into town. Driving back Hessian pickets with their bayonets, they charged into the old British barracks to confront groggy Hessians at gunpoint. Some attempted to regroup and counterattack, but Hamilton and his guns were waiting for them. Firing in tandem, Hamilton’s cannons cut down the Hessians with murderous sheets of grapeshot. The mercenaries sought cover behind houses but were driven back by Virginia riflemen, who stormed into the houses and fired down from upstairs windows. Hessian artillerymen managed to get off only 13 rounds from two brass fieldpieces before Hamilton’s gunners cut them in two. Riding back and forth behind the guns, Washington saw for himself the brutal courage and skillful discipline of this youthful artillery captain.

The Hessians’ two best regiments surrendered, but a third escaped. As the Americans recrossed the Delaware, both they and their prisoners, nearly 1,000 in all, had to stomp their feet to break up the ice that was forming on the river. Five men froze to death.

Stung by the defeat, British field commander Lord Cornwallis raced across New Jersey with battle-seasoned grenadiers to retaliate. Americans with $10 gold reenlistment bonuses in their pockets recrossed the river to intercept them. When the British halted along a three-mile stretch of Assunpink Creek outside Trenton and across from the Americans, Washington duped British pickets by ordering a rear guard to tend roaring campfires and to dig noisily through the night while his main force slipped away.

At 1 a.m., January 2, 1777, their numbers reduced from 69 to 25 by death, desertion and expired enlistments, Hamilton and his men wrapped rags around the wheels of their cannons to muffle noise, and headed north. They reached the south end of Princeton at sunrise, to face a brigade—some 700 men—of British light infantry. As the two forces raced for high ground, American general Hugh Mercer fell with seven bayonet wounds. The Americans retreated from a British bayonet charge. Then Washington himself galloped onto the battlefield with a division of Pennsylvania militia, surrounding the now outnumbered British. Some 200 redcoats ran to Nassau Hall, the main building at PrincetonCollege. By the time Hamilton set up his two cannons, the British had begun firing from the windows of the red sandstone edifice. College tradition holds that one of Hamilton’s 6-pound balls shattered a window, flew through the chapel and beheaded a portrait of King George II. Under Hamilton’s fierce cannonade, the British soon surrendered.

In the wake of twin victories within ten days, at Trenton and Princeton, militia volunteers swarmed to the American standard, far more than could be fed, clothed or armed. Washington’s shorthanded staff was ill-equipped to coordinate logistics. In the four months since the British onslaught had begun, 300 American officers had been killed or captured. “At present,” Washington complained, “my time is so taken up at my desk that I am obliged to neglect many other essential parts of my duty. It is absolutely necessary for me to have persons [who] can think for me as well as execute orders. . . . As to military knowledge, I do not expect to find gentlemen much skilled in it. If they can write a good letter, write quick, are methodical and diligent, it is all I expect to find in my aides.”

He would get all that and more. In January, shortly after the army was led into winter quarters at Morristown, New Jersey, Nathanael Greene invited Hamilton, who had just turned 22, to dinner at Washington’s headquarters. There, Washington invited the young artillery officer to join his staff. The appointment carried a promotion from captain to lieutenant colonel, and this time Hamilton did not hesitate. On March 1, 1777, he turned over the command of his artillery company to Lt. Thomas Thompson—a sergeant whom, against all precedent, he had promoted to officer rank—and joined Washington’s headquarters staff.


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