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Monday, August 31, 2015

Alexander Hamilton, war hero



When we think of Alexander Hamilton, we think of his face on the ten dollar bill, and his death in a duel with Aaron Burr. A few of the geeks who actually read the Federalist Papers know he wrote the bulk of those essays urging support for the Constitution. But it was as an artillery officer in the Revolutionary War where Hamilton displayed his leadership, courage, and ambition. He proved his mettle and that made all the difference.

Just 20 and a graduate of King's College (now Columbia University) Hamilton organized an artillery company in the spring of 1775. As the Battles of Lexington and Concord, and Bunker Hill raged in Massachusetts, Hamilton studied artillery and learned military tactics. In those days, the organizer funded the outfit from out of his pocket. He had limited means and could not afford cannon. He knew where to get some cannon.

From the British.

On August 23, 1775, he led his band of volunteers to a British stockade in Manhattan, where they helped themselves to 21 cannon. He made a name for himself. In that unit, he also showed he was an able administrator, made sure he could pay his men well, and kept those cannon well-maintained. A year later, he used the cannon to protect General Washington during the Continental Army's retreat in the Battle of Long Island. This endeared him immensely to Washington.

Hamilton may have only been 21, but he learned how to impress important people. Born on January 11, 1755, in the West Indies, the bastard child of Rachel Faucette and James Hamilton, a Scotsman, Alexander Hamilton's father abandoned him, and his mother died when Hamilton was 13. His first move was to move his birthday up because he knew as an 11-year-old he stood a better chance of gaining a good apprenticeship.

His plan worked. He became a clerk and soon ran the import-export shop while his master was at sea. He showed promise and was able to get people of means to finance his trip to New York City to enroll in college. New York would remain his home for life, the exception of government work and the war.

But schmoozing only takes one so far. In a war, one proves himself on the battlefield and Hamilton did. He crossed the Delaware with Washington and in the Battle of Trenton, his artillery company made a difference. When Colonel Johann Rall marched his Hessian soldiers down King Street, Hamilton's cannon scattered them.

A week later, after a similar display of military prowess at the Battle of Princeton, Washington added Hamilton to his staff as his aide-de-camp, the most trusted officer who got to handle all the paperwork Washington despised. This meant he had no military command, but that did not mean he saw no action. He rode alongside Washington, and had a horse shot beneath him at the Battle of Monmouth on June 28, 1778. Many of Washington's young officers distinguished themselves that day. Then there was Major General Charles Lee, who was later court-martialed for his incompetence at Monmouth. Both Hamilton and his friend, Lieutenant Colonel John Laurens, testified against Lee.

This led to a duel on December 23, 1778, between Lee and Laurens, with Hamilton serving as the second to Laurens. Each man shot once, with Laurens grazing Lee.

"Upon the whole we think it a piece of justice to the two Gentlemen to declare, that after they met their conduct was strongly marked with all the politeness generosity coolness and firmness, that ought to characterize a transaction of this nature," Hamilton wrote the next day.

Not all duels end as pleasantly, as he later would discover.

Laurens -- who family owned a plantation in South Carolina -- and Hamilton formally proposed the creation of black regiments to fight the war. The proposal went nowhere. But the two found more success when they teamed up with Baron von Steuben, the Prussian who whipped the American Army into shape, to write the manual that guided the Army for the next 40 years.

Hamilton also was the toast of the social circuit despite his diminutive size. He was intelligent and a war hero. He met, fell in love with, and married the lovely met Elizabeth Schuyler. Her father, Philip Schuyler, was loaded, but they seem devoted to one another, although their marriage had to overcome a public sex scandal.

As the war wound down, Hamilton sought a command position, and Washington eventually relented and put Hamilton in charge of a light infantry battalion in the siege of Yorktown. Hamilton led a night raid which took Redoubt No. 10 with bayonets. The French took Redoubt No. 9. Cornwallis surrendered.

Only 26 when Cornwallis surrendered, Hamilton would be one of the men who helped shape the nation, not only in agitating for ratification of the Constitution, but establishing a national bank, a whiskey tax, and getting the nation's financial house in order, as the first secretary of the treasury. he also started what is now the Coast Guard, ostensibly to collect taxes.

But he was only human. A woman named Maria Reynolds beguiled him and her husband extorted money from him. James Monroe and House Speaker Frederick Muhlenberg investigated to see if government funds were used to pay the blackmailer. No government money was involved, but Monroe passed along what he knew to Thomas Jefferson, a political rival (as were John Adams and Aaron Burr), who leaked it to the press. Hamilton fought back and his wife stayed by his side, but his political career ended.

His duel with Burr on a rocky ledge in Weehawken, New Jersey, on July 11, 1804, ended his life, but likely Hamilton's emotional life ended when his eldest son, Philip, died two years earlier in a duel at the same spot.

Washington was a great judge of men. That he trusted Hamilton so -- Hamilton pretty much wrote Washington's Farewell Address -- drew jealousy from Jefferson and Adams, but also spoke well of Hamilton. The Little Lion's roar was the sound of those 21 cannon.

My first collection of "Exceptional Americans" is available here. And the Kindle version is here.

Volume 2's publication will be on Tuesday, September 1, my 62nd birthday. It will be available here, and on Amazon and Kindle.

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