The Conqueror by Gertrude Franklin Horn Atherton
Book II. Alexander Hamilton
He rose at dawn the next morning, and rousing his men, set them at work throwing up redoubts. He was standing some distance from them, watching the sun rise over the great valley they had been forced to abandon, with its woods and beautiful homes, now the quarters of British officers, when every nerve in his body became intensely aware that some one was standing behind him. He knew that it was a man of power before he whirled round and saw Washington.
"This is Captain Hamilton?" said the Chief, holding out his hand. "General Greene spoke to me, weeks ago, about you, but I have been in no mood until to-day for amenities. I know of your part in the retreat from Long Island, and I noticed you as you passed me on the ferry stairs. What a lad you are! I am very proud of you."
"I had asked for no reward, sir," cried Hamilton, with a smile so radiant that Washington's set face caught a momentary reflection from it, and he moved a step nearer, "but I feel as if you had pinned an order on my coat."
"I have heard a great deal more about you," said Washington, "and I want to know you. Will you come up and have breakfast with me?"
"Oh, yes, I will," said Hamilton, with such seriousness that they both laughed. Hamilton's personal pride was too great to permit him to feel deeply flattered by the attentions of any one, but the halo about Washington's head was already in process of formation; he stood aloft, whether successful or defeated, a strong, lonely, splendid figure, and he had fired Hamilton's imagination long since. At that time he was ready to worship the great Chief with all a boy's high enthusiasm, and although he came to know him too well to worship, he loved him, save at intervals, always. As for Washington, he loved Hamilton then and there, and it is doubtful if he ever loved any one else so well. When they were alone he called him "my boy," an endearment he never gave another.
On that September morning they breakfasted together, and talked for hours, beginning a friendship which was to be of the deepest consequences to the country they both were striving to deliver.
During the following month Hamilton had much leisure, and he spent it in the library of the Morris house, which its owner, a royalist, had abandoned on the approach of the American troops, fleeing too hurriedly to take his books. The house was now General Washington's headquarters, and he invited Hamilton to make what use of the library he pleased. It was a cool room, and he found there many of the books he had noted down for future study. He also wrote out a synopsis of a political and commercial history of Great Britain. As the proclivities and furnishing of a mind like Hamilton's cannot fail to interest the students of mankind, a digression may be pardoned in favour of this list of books he made for future study, and of the notes scattered throughout his pay book:--
Hamilton was nineteen at this time, and while there are many instances of mental precocity in the history of mankind, it is doubtful if there is a parallel case of so great a range of intellectual curiosity, or such versatility combined with pursuit of knowledge as distinct from information. But the above notes are chiefly significant as showing that long before he could have dreamed of directing the finances of the United States, while he was wild with delight at the prospect of military excitement and glory, a part of his mind was imperiously attracted to the questions which were to become identified in American history with his name.
Washington often came in and sat for an hour with him; and although they talked military science and future campaigns invariably,--for Washington was a man of little reading and his thoughts moved in a constant procession to one tune,--this was perhaps the happiest period of their intercourse. The Chief demanded nothing, and his young friend was free to give or not, as he chose. In that interval nothing gave Hamilton such pleasure as to see Washington come into the cool library, his face softening.
"You have a streak of light in you that never goes out," said the man of many burdens once. "When I catch a spark of it, I am cheered for the rest of the day. When I am close to it for a time, I can feel the iron lid on my spirits lifting as if it were on a bubbling pot. I believe you are something more than human."
During the first of these conversations Hamilton suggested the advisability of keeping up the spirits of the raw troops by drawing the enemy in separate detachments into constant skirmishes, a plan in which the Americans were sure to have every advantage; and this policy was pursued until Washington fell back into Westchester County.
The American troops under Washington numbered about nineteen thousand men, in one-third of whom the Chief felt something like confidence. Many were grumbling at the prospect of a winter in the discomforts of camp life; others were rejoicing that their time of service drew to a close; all were raw. Nevertheless, he determined to give the British battle on the shore of the Bronx River, where they were camped with the intention of cutting him off from the rest of the country.
Both armies were near White Plains on the morning of the 28th of October. Most of the Americans were behind the breastworks they had thrown up, and the British were upon the hills below, on the opposite side of the Bronx. On the American side of the stream was an eminence called Chatterton's Hill, and on the evening of the 27th Colonel Haslet was stationed on this height, with sixteen hundred men, in order to prevent the enfilading of the right wing of the army. Early the next morning McDougall was ordered to reinforce Haslet with a small corps and two pieces of artillery under Hamilton, and to assume general command.
At ten o'clock the British army began its march toward the village, but before they reached it, Howe determined that Chatterton's Hill should be the first point of attack, and four thousand troops under Leslie moved off to dislodge the formidable looking force on the height.
Hamilton placed his two guns in battery on a rocky ledge about halfway down the hill, and bearing directly upon that part of the Bronx which the British were approaching. He was screened from the enemy by a small grove of trees. The Hessians, who were in the lead, refused to wade the swollen stream, and the onslaught was checked that a bridge might hastily be thrown together for their accommodation. Hamilton waited a half-hour, then poured out his fire. The bridge was struck, the workmen killed, the Hessians fell back in a panic. Leslie appealed to the loyalty of the British, forded the river at another point, and rushed up the hill with bayonets fixed, resolved to capture the guns. But the guns flashed with extraordinary rapidity. Both the British and the watching Americans were amazed. There were no tin canisters and grape-shot in the American army, even the round shot were exhausted. Loading cannon with musket balls was a slow process; but Hamilton was never without resource. He stood the cannon on end, filled his three-cornered hat with the balls, and loaded as rapidly as had he leaped a century. His guns mowed down the British in such numbers that Leslie fell back, and joining the Hessian grenadiers and infantry, who had now crossed the stream, charged up the southwestern declivity of the hill and endeavoured to turn McDougall's right flank. McDougall's advance opposed them hotly, while slowly retreating toward the crown of the eminence. The British cavalry attacked the American militia on the extreme right, and the raw troops fled ignominiously. McDougall, with only six hundred men and Hamilton's two guns, sustained an unequal conflict for an hour, twice repulsing the British light infantry and cavalry. But the attack on his flank compelled him to give way and retreat toward the intrenchments. Under cover of a heavy rainstorm and of troops despatched in haste, he retreated in good order with his wounded and artillery, leaving the victors in possession of a few inconsiderable breastworks.
Fort Washington was betrayed, and fell on the 16th of November. Then began that miserable retreat of the American army through the Jerseys, with the British sometimes in full pursuit, sometimes merely camping on the trail of the hapless revolutionists. For Washington's force was now reduced to thirty-five hundred, and they were ragged, half fed, and wretched in mind and body. Many had no shoes, and in one regiment there was not a pair of trousers. They left the moment their leave expired, and recruits were drummed up with great difficulty. Washington was obliged to write eight times to General Lee, who was at North Castle with a considerable force, before he was able to hope for relief in that quarter.
Hamilton had a horse at times, at others not. But his vitality was proof against even those endless days and nights of marching and countermarching, through forests and swamps, in the worst of late autumn and winter weather; and he kept up the spirits of his little regiment, now reduced from bullets, exposure, and the expiration of service to thirty men. Nevertheless, he held the British in check at the Raritan River while the Americans destroyed the bridge, and when Washington, after having crossed the Delaware, determined to recross it on Christmas night and storm Trenton, he was one of the first to be chosen, with what remained of his men and guns.
As they crossed the Delaware that bitter night, the snow stinging and blinding, the river choked with blocks of ice, Hamilton for the first time thought on St. Croix with a pang of envy. But it was the night for their purpose, and all the world knows the result. The victory was followed on the 3d of January by the capture of Princeton; and here Hamilton's active military career came to an end for the present.