During the early years of the American Revolution, the Continental Army struggled to match up against the might of the British Army. In nearly every engagement, from Brooklyn Heights to Brandywine, Pennsylvania, the superior leadership, firepower and discipline of the Redcoats proved decisive. However, in the winter of 1777-78, a stunning transformation in the American ranks occurred in the unlikeliest of places. Valley Forge, Pennsylvania would be the crucible for that change. Baron von Steuben is often seen as the driving personality behind the transformation, but he was not the only one responsible. A young American officer, who had recently settled in the colonies, assisted in turning the Continentals into a cadre of professionals. More importantly, once the groundwork was laid, this newly-minted officer turned the tide from certain defeat into celebrated victory at one of the defining battles of the American Revolution. His name was Alexander Hamilton. He is well known as one of America’s foremost Founding Fathers, but this is the story of how he helped lead the Continental Army to victory at the Battle of Monmouth Courthouse, New Jersey.
Alexander Hamilton’s lifelong commitment to the United States stemmed from a love for the land that offered him a second chance in life. Born on the island of Nevis in the British West Indies in January 1755 (though he later claimed it was 1757), he was the illegitimate offspring of a Scottish immigrant father and a mother who had separated from her husband. Such a heritage not only barred Alexander from society but also ensured he was denied his inheritance upon his mother’s death in February 1768, which followed fast on the heels of his father’s abandonment. Then in July 1769 his cousin, who had become his guardian, failed to provide for the fourteen-year-old boy in his will before committing suicide. Now alone and penniless, Hamilton clerked for the mercantile company of Beekman and Cruger on the island of St. Croix. He was a capable administrator and gained valuable knowledge of global commerce. Still, he desired to rise above his humble, some would say shameful, origins. He became self-educated, and with financial support from sponsors, he departed for college in America. Hamilton settled in Elizabethtown, New Jersey to attend preparatory school, and to his delight, he quickly entered the town’s social scene. Circumstances like one’s birth no longer seemed to matter, as proven by his blossoming friendships with such wealthy and influential leaders as William Livingston, Elias Boudinot and William Alexander, called Lord Stirling due to his claim to a Scottish earldom. After graduating from Elizabethtown Academy, he applied to Princeton but was rejected. With help from Lord Stirling, Hamilton entered King’s College, today’s Columbia University, and soon found a home in the burgeoning community of New York City.
Following his arrival in New York in late 1773, Alexander Hamilton joined the patriots and committed himself to the “glorious cause” of liberty. He devoured books by Enlightenment authors like John Locke and David Hume, and he participated in discussions about the colonies’ deteriorating relationship with Britain. On July 6, 1774 the nineteen-year-old collegian attended a rally on the grounds of the New York Common where he viciously denounced the “Intolerable Acts,” which closed Boston Harbor and placed Massachusetts under military control in response to the December 1773 Boston Tea Party. Realizing Britain had to be stopped, he advocated for colonial unity and a boycott of British goods so as to prevent “fraud, power, and the most odious oppression [from rising] triumphant over right, justice, social happiness, and freedom.” Having taken the first step toward rebellion, Hamilton proceeded to publish a series of essays defending American liberty from fall 1774 to spring 1776. Simultaneously, he enlisted in the militia, and in August 1775 he braved fire from British ships to transport artillery from Fort George at the base of Manhattan Island to safety near King’s College. In March 1776 the twenty-one-year-old West Indian immigrant was commissioned a captain in a New York artillery company and was ordered to participate in the Continental Army’s defense of New York against an imminent British invasion.
Although he apparently took no part in the crucial Battle of Brooklyn Heights, Captain Hamilton was instrumental in protecting the American rear after British troops invaded Manhattan at Kip’s Bay on September 15th and gained control of the city. As the Continental Army fell back, he led his artillerists against the British at White Plains, New York and along the Raritan River in New Jersey. Desiring to hit back, he accompanied George Washington in the crossing of the Delaware River on December 25th for the attack on the Hessians encamped at Trenton, New Jersey. On January 3, 1777 he participated in a second assault on nearby Princeton. These victories brought young Hamilton to Washington’s attention, and as the army settled into winter quarters at Morristown, New Jersey, the commander-in-chief appointed the artillery officer as his aide-de-camp with the rank of lieutenant colonel. Hamilton quickly became Washington’s chief secretary and proved a valued member of the general’s “military family.” He remained by Washington’s side during the battles around Philadelphia in the fall of 1777, and during the ensuing winter at Valley Forge, he worked diligently alongside Baron von Steuben to transform the ragtag Continental Army into a band of professional soldiers capable of bringing about American victory. It was a massive and risky undertaking, but the potential benefits were huge. By late spring 1778 Hamilton believed the army was ready to face the British in open combat, and he determined to be part of the coming fight.
As June began, Hamilton and the rest of the American army learned British General Sir Henry Clinton was preparing to abandon Philadelphia and return to New York in anticipation of the arrival of French forces, following an alliance between France and the United States. At the same time, General Charles Lee returned to American lines after fifteen months spent in British captivity following his careless personal actions which led to his capture. Hamilton, like other Continental officers, greeted Lee with barely-concealed hostility. Convinced of his own martial superiority, the general had been a long-time critic of Washington, saying the commander-in-chief “was not fit to command a sergeant’s guard.” Lee also belittled Hamilton and Steuben’s efforts to instill professionalism among individual soldiers. Hamilton’s antipathy for Lee increased after a council of war on June 24th during which Lee vocally opposed Washington’s proposed strike on the British rear guard as the enemy marched toward New York. Lee argued the army would be soundly defeated. To Hamilton’s dismay, numerous Continental officers agreed with Lee, but he watched in pride as Washington chose to proceed. The young officer spent the next three days scouting enemy positions and reporting his observations to his superiors. On the night of June 27th he rode into Lee’s camp with orders for Lee to move into position the next morning and skirmish with the British long enough for Washington and the main army to arrive.
On June 28, 1778 American troops struck their enemy outside the village of Monmouth Courthouse, New Jersey. Upon hearing the sounds of battle, Colonel Hamilton raced forward to ascertain Lee’s progress. Arriving on the scene, shock and horror rippled through him as he saw American troops falling back in confusion. It looked like his efforts to prepare the army for this kind of fight had been for naught. Suddenly the horror gave way to fierce determination, and he resolved to reverse the situation. Looking around, he spotted General Lee and dashed over. As Hamilton later testified at Lee’s court-martial, he berated Lee for lacking the moral courage to see the assault through. He then exclaimed, “I will stay here with you, my dear general, and die with you! Let us all die rather than retreat.” Lee was flabbergasted this young aide would speak to him as an equal, but Hamilton was not done yet. Seeing British cavalry approach, he directed the clearly shaken Lee to send General Lafayette to attack the enemy. Lee did so just as George Washington, who had learned of the retreat, rode up. Much like Hamilton, the commander-in-chief was outraged his strategy appeared to be undone. As Hamilton and others looked on, Washington lost his temper for one of the few times in his life and, according to one observer, swore “till the leaves shook on the trees.” The general ordered Lee to the rear and took command of the troops himself. As Washington rallied the men and led them against the British, Hamilton charged forward to do his part.
Starved for combat, the twenty-three-year-old colonel plunged into the fight in a “sort of frenzy of valor,” according to Lee. As he raced across the field, Hamilton came upon a brigade, which was falling back and leaving its artillery without support. With “heat and effervescence,” in the words of General Henry Knox, Washington’s artillery commander, Hamilton seized command of the troops and promptly restored order. He then led the brigade in a bayonet charge against the Redcoats. As he rode forward, he was so focused on the enemy he paid little attention when his hat fell off and he was exposed to the scorching sun. Like many soldiers, he began suffering the effects of heat exhaustion — not surprising with the temperatures in the high nineties. Still, he pressed on until his horse was shot out from under him, and he toppled to the ground badly injured. He was removed from the field, but his actions had helped turn the tide of battle. Shortly thereafter, the British army withdrew, giving Hamilton and the Continental Army the satisfaction of driving the enemy from the field. It proved to be a turning point in the war for independence.
Following the much-needed victory, Hamilton returned to being Washington’s de facto chief-of-staff, and in that capacity, he witnessed such events as Benedict Arnold’s 1780 plot to turn over West Point to the British. Fluent in French, he also served as a liaison officer to French forces. Still, he yearned for a field command, and in July 1781 he took charge of a New York light infantry unit. In October he led the American attack on British fortifications at Yorktown, Virginia which forced General Lord Charles Cornwallis to surrender. With the war all but over, Hamilton retired from the army and settled in New York in early 1782 to pursue a legal career.
Still a young man, in November Hamilton took a seat in the Continental Congress, now the Confederation Congress following adoption of the Articles of Confederation. Along with fellow Congressman James Madison, he saw the need to strengthen the government’s authority, particularly in financial matters, and he became an outspoken champion of centralized power. His was one of the loudest voices calling for the 1787 Constitutional Convention, and as a delegate there he insisted the government possess sovereignty over the states as well as the power to levy taxes on the states. After signing the document on September 17th, Hamilton energetically campaigned to see the Constitution ratified, collaborating with Madison and John Jay to author the Federalist Papers and serving as a delegate to New York’s ratifying convention. In late July he watched as New York became the eleventh state to ratify the Constitution, and he was subsequently lauded for his role in the victory.
As the new government took shape under President Washington, Hamilton became the first Secretary of the Treasury and set about restoring the nation’s public credit. In this capacity, he established a Customs Service and, after a long and bitter fight, gained congressional approval for federal assumption of state debts left over from the Revolution. He also convinced Congress to charter a national bank and mint and to pass a series of taxes, including one on whiskey that led to the 1794 Whiskey Rebellion he helped suppress. These efforts, along with his opposition to the French Revolution, drew the ire of Thomas Jefferson’s Democratic-Republican Party. Still, Hamilton remained Washington’s right-hand man until he left government service in early 1795. Even afterwards, he exercised leadership during national emergencies, as shown by his fierce defense of John Jay’s 1794 treaty with Britain and assuming command of the American army in 1798 as war loomed with France. Then in 1800 he clashed with President John Adams during the presidential election and divided the Federalist Party, thereby ensuring Thomas Jefferson’s election. The race also brought Hamilton into conflict with fellow New Yorker Aaron Burr who tied with Jefferson in electoral votes. With the decision now up to the House of Representatives, Hamilton chose to support the principled Jefferson over the man he believed was devoid of any. He took satisfaction in denying Burr the presidency and looked on as Burr was largely excluded from official business. The two antagonists attacked each other in newspapers over the next few years, and their private war climaxed in mid-1804 when Burr challenged Hamilton to a duel. On July 11, 1804 Alexander Hamilton met Aaron Burr at Weehawken, New Jersey and was mortally wounded in the ensuing gunfire. He died the next day and was subsequently buried in New York City’s Trinity Church graveyard. He was mourned by the grateful nation he helped create.
Throughout his life, Alexander Hamilton continually placed himself at the service of his adopted country. In war or peace, he was always in the thick of the action. During the eight-year War of Independence, he never shirked his duty — whether it was enduring the miserable conditions of camp life at Valley Forge and other places, preparing the soldiers for battle, handling administrative functions, or rallying the troops to ensure victory at the pivotal battle of Monmouth Courthouse. Then, when the Revolution ended, he dedicated himself to advancing the cause of freedom by helping to establish a national government capable of surviving political infighting as well as external threats. Through his extraordinary actions, Alexander Hamilton has certainly earned a privileged place in the hallowed pantheon of America’s Founding Fathers.