The Conqueror by Gertrude Franklin Horn Atherton
Book III. The Little Lion
In May and July there were illustrious additions to Washington's family,--John Laurens and Lafayette. Both became the intimate friends of Hamilton, the former one of the few passionate attachments of his life. Although Hamilton was by no means indifferent to the affection he inspired in nine-tenths of the people he met, he did not himself love easily. He was too analytical, he saw people too precisely as they were, and his acquaintance with human nature had made him too cynical to permit the flood gates of his affections to open except under uncommon stress. He dreaded disappointment. For Troup, Fish, Stevens, Meade, and Tilghman he had a deep affection and served their interests ardently; for Washington a contradictory budget of emotions, which were sometimes to be headed "respectful affection," at others "irritated resentment," now and again a moment of adoration. While he could not pay sufficient tribute to Washington's magnanimity and generosity, he had by now seen him in too many tempers, had been ground too fine in his greedy machine, to think on him always with unqualified enthusiasm. Lafayette, brilliant, volatile, accomplished, bubbling with enthusiasm for the cause of Liberty, and his own age within a few months, he liked sincerely and always. There was no end to the favours he did him, and Lafayette loved no one better in his long and various career. Women, Hamilton fancied sharply and forgot quickly.
But Laurens, the "young Bayard of the Revolution," fresh from the colleges and courts of Europe, a man so handsome that, we are told, people experienced a certain shock when he entered the room, courtly, accomplished to the highest degree, of flawless character, with a mind as noble and elevated as it was intellectual, and burning with the most elevated patriotism,--he took Hamilton by storm, capturing judgement as well as heart, and loving him as ardently in return.
Like Hamilton, Laurens was of Huguenot descent; he was born in South Carolina, of a distinguished family. Against the expressed wish of his father he had returned to America, made his way to Headquarters and offered his services to Washington, who immediately attached him to his military household. The unhappiest of men, praying for death on every battlefield, he lived long enough to distinguish himself by a bravery so reckless, by such startling heroic feats, that he was, beyond all question, the popular young hero of the Revolution. He worshipped Washington as one might worship a demi-god, and risked his life for him on two occasions. But Hamilton was the friend of his life; the bond between them was romantic and chivalrous. Each burned to prove the strength of his affection, to sacrifice himself for the other. Laurens slaved at Washington's less important correspondence, and Hamilton's turn came later. The age has passed for such friendships; but at that time, when young men were nurtured on great ideas, when they were sacrificing themselves in a sacred cause, and had seen next to nothing of the frivolities of life, they were understandable enough.
Hamilton was obliged to share his room with both the young men, and they slept on three little cots in a small space. When the nights were insufferably hot they would go out and lie on the grass and talk until they were in a condition to sleep anywhere. Hamilton would forecast the next movement of the enemy; Laurens and Lafayette would tell all they knew about military science in Europe; and then they would discuss the future of the liberated country and the great ideals which must govern her. And when men can be idealistic while fighting the Jersey mosquito, it must be admitted that they are of the stuff to serve their country well.
But all this delightful intercourse was interrupted in August. Washington gave battle to the British at Brandywine, was defeated, and in the following month surprised them at Germantown, and was defeated again. Nevertheless, he had astonished the enemy with his strength and courage so soon after a disastrous battle. To hold Philadelphia was impossible, however, and the British established themselves in the Capital of the colonies, making, as usual, no attempt to follow up their victories.
Washington went into temporary quarters near the village of Whitemarsh. His own were in a baronial hall at the head of a beautiful valley. Old trees shaded the house, and a spring of pure water bubbled in a fountain before the door. The men were encamped on the hills at the north.
There was a great hall through the centre of the mansion, and here Washington held his audiences and councils of war. The house throughout was of extreme elegance, and much to the taste of the younger members of the family, particularly of Hamilton, who spent the greater part of his leisure in the library. But his enjoyment of this uncommon luxury was brief.
Washington must have reinforcements or his next engagement might be his last. There was but one source from which he could obtain a considerable supply, and that was from the army of Gates in the North. But Gates was swollen with the victory of Saratoga and the capture of Burgoyne, and was suspected to be in the thick of an intrigue to dethrone Washington and have himself proclaimed Commander-in-chief. At the moment he was the idol of the army, and of the northern and eastern States, for his victories were tangible and brilliant, while Washington's surer processes were little appreciated. Therefore to get troops from him would be little less difficult than to get them from Lord Howe, short of a positive command, and this prerogative Washington did not think it politic to use. He called a council of war, and when it was over he went to his private office and sent for Alexander Hamilton.
He looked haggard, as if from sleepless nights, and for a moment after Hamilton entered the room, although he waved his hand at a chair, he stared at him without speaking. Hamilton divined what was coming--he attended all councils of war--and sat forward eagerly. The prospect of a holiday from clerical work would alone have filled him with youth, and he knew how great a service he might be able to render the cowering Republic.
"Hamilton," said Washington, finally, "you are as much in my secret thoughts as I am myself. If I attempted to deceive you, you would divine what I withheld. It is a relief to speak frankly to you, I dare not demand these troops from Gates, because there is more than a possibility he would defy me, and that the Congress and a large part of the army would sustain him. He has given sufficient evidence of his temper in sending me no official notice of the battle of Saratoga. But unless I am to meet with overwhelming disaster here, I must have reinforcements. It may be possible to extract these by diplomacy, and I have selected you for the mission, because I feel sure that you will not forget the issues at stake for a moment, because you never lose your head, and because you will neither be overawed by Gates's immediate splendour, nor will you have any young desire to assert the authority which I give you as a last resort. There is another point: If you find that Gates purposes to employ his troops on some expedition, by the prosecution of which the common cause will be more benefited than by their being sent down to reinforce this army, you must suspend your consideration for me. God knows I am tender of my reputation, and I have no wish to be disgraced, but we are or should be fighting for a common cause and principle, and should have little thought of individual glory. However, I do not believe in the disinterestedness of Gates, nor in his efficiency on a large scale. But I leave everything in your hands."
Hamilton stood up, his chest rising, and stared at his Chief.
"Sir," he said, after a moment, "do you appreciate that you are placing your good name and your future in my hands?" For a moment he realized that he was not yet of age.
"You are the only being to whom I can confide them, and who can save this terrible situation."
"And you have the magnanimity to say that if Gates has a chance of other victories to let him go unhindered?" He had one of his moments of adoration and self-abnegation for this man, whose particular virtues, so little called upon in ordinary affairs, gave him so lonely a place among men.
Washington jerked his head. There was nothing more to say. Hamilton's head dropped for a moment, as if he felt the weight of an iron helmet, and his lips moved rapidly.
"Are you saying your prayers when your lips work like that?" asked Washington, crossly.
Hamilton threw back his head with a gay laugh. His eyes were sparkling, his nostrils dilating; his whole bearing was imperious and triumphant. "Never mind that. I'll undertake this mission gladly, sir, and I think I'll not fail. My old friend Troup is his aide. He will advise me of many things. I'll bring you back those regiments, sir. One way or another a thing can always be managed."
The light in Hamilton's face was reflected on Washington's. "You are my good genius," he said shortly. "Take care of yourself. You will have to ride hard, for there is no time to lose, but be careful not to take cold. I shall give you orders in writing. Come back as soon as you can. I believe I am not lacking in courage, but I always have most when you are close by."
There is a print somewhere representing Hamilton setting forth on this mission. He is mounted on a handsome white horse, and wears a long green cloak, one end thrown over a shoulder. His three-cornered hat is pulled low over his eyes. In the rear is an orderly.
He started on the 30th of October, riding hard through the torn desolate country, toward Newburg on the Hudson. He was three days making the distance, although he snatched but a few hours' rest at night, and but a few moments for each meal. From Newburg he crossed to Fishkill and, acting on his general instructions, ordered Putnam to despatch southward three brigades; and on his own account despatched seven hundred Jersey militia on the same expedition.
He then started hot and hard for Albany, a dangerous as well as exhausting journey, for neither savage tribes nor redcoats could be far in the distance. His mental anxiety by now wore as severely as the physical strain. None knew better than he that his talents were not for diplomacy. He was too impatient, too imperious, too direct for its sinuous methods. On the other hand, he had a theory that a first-rate mind could, for a given time, be bent in any direction the will commanded, and he had acquired an admirable command of his temper. But the responsibility was terrific, and he was half ill when he reached Albany. He presented himself at General Gates's headquarters at once.
Gates, like Lee, was a soldier of fortune; and low-born, vain, weak, and insanely ambitious. He had been advised of Hamilton's coming, and had no intention of giving Washington an opportunity to rival his own achievements and reestablish himself with the army and the Congress. He received Hamilton surrounded by several of his military family; and for the first time our fortunate hero encountered in high places active enmity and dislike. He had incurred widespread jealousy on account of his influence over Washington, and for the important part he was playing in national affairs. To the enemies of the Commander-in-chief he represented that exalted personage, and was particularly obnoxious. Never was a youth in a more difficult position.
"I cannot expose the finest arsenal in America," said Gates, pompously, "to the possibility of destruction. Sir Henry Clinton may return at any minute. Nor could I enterprise against Ticonderoga were my army depleted. Nor can I leave the New England States open to the ravages and the depredations of the enemy."
These statements made no impression on Hamilton, and he argued brilliantly and convincingly for his object, but Gates was inflexible. He would send one brigade and no more.
Hamilton retired, uneasy and dejected. Gates had an air of omnipotence, and his officers had not concealed their scorn. He hesitated to use his authority, for a bold defiance on the part of Gates might mean the downfall of Washington, perhaps of the American cause. That Washington was practically the American army, Hamilton firmly believed. If he fell, it was more than likely that the whole tottering structure would crumble.
Another reason inclined him not to press Gates too far. He had been able to order seventy-seven hundred troops from Fishkill, which was more than Washington had expected, although by no means so many as he needed. He therefore wrote to the Chief at length, sent for Troup, and threw himself on the bed; he was well-nigh worn out.
Troup was already in search of him, and met the messenger. Big and bronzed, bursting with spirits, he seemed to electrify the very air of the room he burst into without ceremony. Hamilton sat up and poured out his troubles.
"You have an affinity for posts of danger," said Troup. "I believe you to be walking over a powder-mine here. I am not in their confidence, for they know what I think of Washington, but I believe there is a cabal on foot, and that Gates may be in open rebellion any minute. But he's a coward and a bully. Treat him as such. Press your point and get your troops. He is but the tool of a faction, and I doubt if they could make him act when it came to the point. He wants to make another grand coup before striking. Look well into what regiment he gives you. Which are you to have?"
"I thought as much. It is the weakest of the three now here, consists of but about six hundred rank and file fit for duty. There are two hundred militia with it, whose time of service is so near expiring that they will have dissolved ere you reach Headquarters."
Hamilton had sprung to his feet in a fury. He forgot his pains, and let his temper fly with satisfaction in the exercise. "If that is the case," he cried, when he had finished his anathema of Gates, "I'll have the men;" and he dashed at his writing materials. But he threw his pen aside in a moment. "I'll wait till to-morrow for this. I must be master of myself. Tell me of Saratoga. You distinguished yourself mightily, and no one was more glad than I."
Troup talked while Hamilton rested. That evening he took him to call at the Schuyler mansion, high on the hill.
Philip Schuyler was the great feudal lord of the North. He had served the colonial cause in many ways, and at the outbreak of the Revolution had been one of its hopes and props. But brilliant as his exploits had been, the intrigues of Gates, after the fall of Ticonderoga, had been successful, and he was deprived of the army of the North before the battle of Saratoga. The day of exoneration came, but at present he was living quietly at home, without bitterness. A man of the most exalted character, he drew added strength from adversity, to be placed at the service of the country the moment it was demanded. Mrs. Schuyler, herself a great-granddaughter of the first patroon, Killian Van Rensselaer, was a woman of strong character, an embodied type of all the virtues of the Dutch pioneer housewife. She had a lively and turbulent family of daughters, however, and did not pretend to manage them. The spirit of our age is feeble and bourgeois when compared with the independence and romantic temper of the stormy days of this Republic's birth. Liberty was in the air; there was no talk but of freedom and execration of tyrants; young officers had the run of every house, and Clarissa Harlowe was the model for romantic young "females." Angelica Schuyler, shortly before the battle of Saratoga, had run off with John Barker Church, a young Englishman of distinguished connections, at present masquerading under the name of Carter; a presumably fatal duel having driven him from England. Subsequently, both Peggy and Cornelia Schuyler climbed out of windows and eloped in a chaise and four, although there was not an obstacle worth mentioning to union with the youths of their choice. It will shock many good mothers of the present day to learn that all these marriages were not only happy, but set with the brilliance of wealth and fashion. When Hamilton was introduced to the famous white hall of the Schuyler mansion on the hill, Cornelia and Peggy were still free in all but fancy; Elizabeth, by far the best behaved, was the hope of Mrs. Schuyler's well-regulated soul and one of the belles of the Revolution. Hamilton was enchanted with her, although his mind was too weighted for love. Her spirits were as high as his own, and they talked and laughed until midnight as gaily as were Gates's army marching south. But Hamilton was a philosopher; nothing could be done before the morrow; he might as well be happy and forget. He had met many clever and accomplished American women by this, and Lady Kitty Alexander and Kitty and Susan Livingston were brilliant. He had also met Angelica Church, or Mrs. Carter, as she was called, one of the cleverest and most high-spirited women of her time. It had crossed his mind that had she been free, he might have made a bold dash for so fascinating a creature, but it seemed to him to-night that on the whole he preferred her sister. "Betsey" Schuyler had been given every advantage of education, accomplishment, and constant intercourse with the best society in the land. She had skill and tact in the management of guests, and without; being by any means a woman of brilliant parts, understood the questions of the day; her brain was informed with shrewd common sense. Hamilton concluded that she was quite clever enough, and was delighted with her beauty, her charm of manner, and style. Her little figure was graceful and distinguished, her complexion the honey and claret that artists extol, and she had a pair of big black eyes which were alternately roguish, modest, tender, sympathetic; there were times when they were very lively, and even suggested a temper. She was bright without attempting to be witty, but that she was deeply appreciative of wit Hamilton had soothing cause to know. And he had learned from the admiring Troup that she was as intrepid as she was wholly and daintily feminine. Altogether, Hamilton's fate was sealed when he bent over her hand that night, although he was far from suspecting it, so heavily did duty press the moment he was alone in his rooms.
On the following morning he asked for an interview with General Schuyler and several other military men whom he knew to be friendly to Washington, and they confirmed the advice of Troup. In the afternoon he wrote to Gates a letter that was peremptory, although dignified and circumspect, demanding the addition of a superior brigade. He expressed his indignation in no measured terms, and in more guarded phrases his opinion of the flimsiness of the victorious General's arguments. Gates sent the troops at once, and despatched a volume of explanation to Washington.
Hamilton set out immediately for New Windsor, Troup bearing him company the greater part of the way, for he was feeling very ill. But he forgot his ailments when he arrived. To his fury he discovered that not a regiment had gone south. Two of the brigades, which had received no pay for eight months, had mutinied, and he was obliged to ask Governor Clinton to borrow $5000, with which to pay them off. He had the satisfaction of despatching them, wrote a peremptory letter to Putnam, who had other plans brewing, another to Gates, asking for further reinforcements, then went to bed in Governor Clinton's house with fever and rheumatism. But he wrote to Washington, apprising him of a scheme among the officers of the northern department to recover the city of New York, and denouncing Putnam in the most emphatic terms. Two days later he recovered sufficiently to proceed to Fishkill, where he wrested troops from Putnam, and ascertained that heavy British reinforcements had gone from that neighbourhood to Howe. He wrote at once to Washington, advising him of his peril, and endeavoured to push on; but his delicate frame would stand no more, and on the 15th he went to bed in Mr. Kennedy's house in Peekskill, with so violent an attack of rheumatism that to his bitter disgust he was obliged to resign himself to weeks of inactivity. But he had the satisfaction to receive a letter from Washington approving all that he had done. And in truth he had saved the situation, and Washington never forgot it.