Book II. Alexander Hamilton
Chapter XVII
 

In January the convention of New York gave orders that a company of artillery be raised. Hamilton, through Colonel McDougall of the First New York regiment, at once applied for the captaincy, underwent an examination that convinced the Congress of his efficiency, and on the 14th of March was appointed Captain of the Provincial Company of Artillery. McDougall had already applied for "coarse blue cloth," with which to clothe in a semblance of uniform those who already had enlisted, and Hamilton took even better care of them. On May 26th he wrote a brief, pointed, and almost peremptory letter to the Congress, representing the injustice of paying his men less than the wages received by the Continental artillery, adding that there were many marks of discontent in his ranks, and that in the circumstances it was impossible for him to get any more recruits. "On this account I should wish to be immediately authorized to offer the same pay to all who may be inclined to recruit," he wrote. He then went on to demand ten shillings a head for every man he should be able to enlist, and that each man of his company be allowed a frock as a bounty.

Congress passed a resolution as soon as the letter was read, granting him all he asked for, but limiting his company to one hundred men. When it was recruited to his satisfaction, it numbered ninety-one, exclusive of himself and his four officers. Besides his Captain-Lieutenant, and first, second, and third Lieutenants, he had three sergeants, three corporals, six bombardiers, three gunners, two drummers, two fifers, a barber, and seventy-one matrosses, or assistant gunners.

He had his troubles, and Congress came to the rescue whenever it received one of his singularly unboyish letters, expressed, moreover, with little more diffidence than if he had been Commander-in-chief. But he knew what he wanted, and he never transcended courtesy; he was evidently a favourite with the Congress. On July 26th he wrote demanding a third more rations for his men, and on the 31st a resolution was passed which marked an end to the disposition to keep his little company on a level with the militia rather than with the regular army. Thereafter he had no further complaints to carry to headquarters; but he was annoyed to discover that one of his officers was a hard drinker, and that the Lieutenant Johnson who had recruited the larger number of his men before he assumed command, had disobeyed orders and enlisted them for a year instead of for the term of war.

Meanwhile, although the very air quivered and every man went armed to the teeth, if a war-ship fired a gun the streets were immediately filled with white affrighted faces; and although redoubts were building day and night, still Congress came out with no declaration, and the country seemed all nerves and no muscle. The English fleet arrived and filled the bay,--a beautiful but alarming sight. Washington came and made New York his headquarters, called for more troops, and Brooklyn Heights were fortified, lest the English land on Long Island and make an easy descent on the city.

It is doubtful if the Americans have ever appreciated all they owe to Lord Howe. He sat out in the harbour day after day, while they completed their preparations, practically waiting until they announced themselves ready to fight. But no man ever went to the wars with less heart for his work, and he put off the ugly business of mowing down a people he admired, hoping from day to day for an inspired compromise. It was not until after the Declaration of Independence by the Congress, the wild enthusiasm it excited throughout the colonies, and the repeated declination of Washington to confer with Howe as a private citizen, that our Chief received word the British Commander was landing troops on Long Island, near Gravesend.

Several thousand troops were ordered across to reinforce the Brooklyn regiments, and Hamilton's artillery was among them. He stood up in his boat and stared eagerly at the distant ridge of hills, behind which some twenty thousand British were lying on their arms with their usual easy disregard of time, faint, perhaps, under the torrid sun of August. But they were magnificently disciplined and officered, and nothing in history had rivalled the rawness and stubborn ignorance of the American troops. Hamilton had not then met Washington, but he knew from common friends that the Chief was worried and disgusted by what he had seen when inspecting the Brooklyn troops the day before. Greene, second only to Washington in ability, who had been in charge of the Brooklyn contingent, knowing every inch of the ground, was suddenly ill. Putnam was in command, and the Chief was justified in his doubt of him, for nothing in the mistakes of the Revolution exceeded his carelessness and his errors of judgement during the battle of Long Island.

There were still two days of chafing inactivity, except in the matter of strengthening fortifications, then, beginning with dawn of the 28th, Hamilton had his baptism of fire in one of the bloodiest battlefields of the Revolution.

The Americans were outgeneralled and outnumbered. Their attention was distracted by land and water, while a British detachment, ten thousand strong, crept over the ridge of hills by night, and through the Bedford Pass, overpowering the guards before their approach was suspected. At dawn they poured down upon the American troops, surprising them, not in one direction, but in flank, in rear, and in front. The green woods swarmed with redcoats, and the Hessians acted with a brutality demoralizing to raw troops. Hamilton's little company behaved well, and he was in the thick of the fight all day. The dead were in heaps, the beautiful green slopes were red, there was not a hope of victory, but he exulted that the colonies were fighting at last, and that he was acting; he had grown very tired of talking.

He was driven from his position finally, and lost his baggage and a field-piece, but did not take refuge within the redoubts until nightfall. There, in addition to fatigue, hunger, a bed on the wet ground, and the atmosphere of hideous depression which pressed low upon the new revolutionists, he learned that Troup had been taken prisoner. Then he discovered the depths to which a mercurial nature could descend. He had been fiercely alive all day; the roar of the battle, the plunging horses, the quickening stench of the powder, that obsession by the devil of battles which makes the tenderest kill hot and fast, all had made him feel something more than himself, much as he had felt in the hurricane when he had fancied himself on high among the Berserkers of the storm. In his present collapse he felt as if he were in a hole underground.

Washington arrived on the scene next morning, and for forty-eight hours he barely left the saddle, encouraging the wretched men and exercising an unceasing vigilance. For two long days they were inactive in the rain. The Chief, having assured himself that the British aimed to obtain command of the river, determined upon the retreat which ranks as one of the greatest military achievements in history. On the night of the 29th, under cover of a heavy fog, the feat of embarking nine thousand men, with all the ammunition and field-pieces of the army, and ferrying them across the East River with muffled oars, was accomplished within earshot of the enemy. Washington rode from regiment to regiment, superintending and encouraging, finally taking his stand at the head of the ferry stairs. He stood there until the last man had embarked at four in the morning. The last man was Hamilton. His was one of the regiments, and the rear one, detailed to cover the retreat, to attract fire to itself if necessary. His position was on the Heights, just outside the intrenchments, at the point closest to the enemy. For nine hours he hardly moved, his ear straining for the first indication that the British heard the soft splashing of bare feet in the mud. The fog was so thick that he could see nothing, not even the battalions of retreating Americans; the forms of his own men were vague and gray of outline. He never had fancied an isolation so complete, but his nerves stood the strain; when they began to mutter he reminded himself of Mr. Cruger's store and St. Croix. There was a false summons, and after turning his back upon his post with a feeling of profound relief, he was obliged to return and endure it for two hours longer. Did the fog lift he would never see another. It was dawn when a messenger came with the news that his turn positively had come, and he marched his men down the slope to the ferry stairs. He passed close enough to Washington to see his dejected, haggard face.

On the 15th of the following month, after much correspondence with Congress, discussion, and voting, it was determined to abandon New York City, and intrench the army on the Heights of Harlem. Hamilton was bitterly disappointed; he wanted to defend the city, and so had three of the generals, but they were overruled, and the march began on a blazing Sunday morning. It was not only the army that marched, but all the inhabitants of the town who had not escaped to the Jersey shore. The retreat was under the command of General Putnam, and guided through all the intricacies of those thirteen winding miles by his aide-de-camp, Aaron Burr. The last man in the procession was Alexander Hamilton.

"So, you're covering again, Alexander," said Fish, as he passed him on his way to his own regiment,--the New York, of which he was brigade-major. "You can't complain that your adopted country doesn't make use of you. By the way, Troup is in the Jersey prison-ship, safe and sound."

"Can't we exchange him?" asked Hamilton, eagerly, "Do you think General Washington would listen to us?"

"If we have a victory. I shouldn't care to approach him at present. God! This is an awful beginning. The whole army is ready to dig its own grave. The only person of the lot who has any heart in him to-day is little Burr. He's like to burst with importance because he leads and we follow. He's a brave little chap, but such a bantam one must laugh. Well, I hate to leave you here, the very last man to be made a target of. You won't be rash?" he added anxiously.

"No, granny," said Hamilton, whose gaiety had revived as he heard of Troup's safety. "And I'd not exchange my position for any."

"Good-by."

Handshakes in those days were solemn. Fish feared that he never should see Hamilton again, and his fear was close to being realized.

It was a long, hot, dusty, miserable march; some lay down by the wayside and died. Hamilton had been bred in the heat of the Tropics, but he had ridden always, and to-day he was obliged to trudge the thirteen miles on foot. He had managed to procure horses for his guns and caissons, but none for himself and his officers.

It was on the Hoagland farm at the junction of the Kingsbridge and Bloomingdale roads that a serious skirmish occurred, and Hamilton and his men stood the brunt of it. The tired column was almost through the pass, when a detachment of British light infantry suddenly appeared on the right. Fortunately the cannon had not entered the pass, and were ready for action. Hamilton opened fire at once. There was a sharp engagement, but the British were finally driven off. Then the defenders of the column made good their own retreat, for they knew that by now the redcoats were swarming over the island.

Toward night a cold wind and rain swept in from the ocean. When the little army finally reached Harlem Heights they were obliged to sleep on the wet ground without so much as a tent to cover them, then arise at dawn and dig trenches. But by night they were men again, they had ceased to be dogged machines: the battle of Harlem Heights had been fought and won. The British had begun the battle in the wrong place and at the wrong time, and all the natural advantages of that land of precipices, forests, gorges, wooded hills, and many ravines, were with the Americans. Again Hamilton worked in the thick of the fight during the four hours it lasted, but like everybody else he went to sleep happy.