Book III. The Little Lion
Chapter XI
 

Little Mrs. Hamilton was delighted with the course affairs had taken, and pleaded for resignation from the army. But to this Hamilton would not hearken. Anxious as he was for the war to finish, that he might begin upon the foundations of home and fortune, he had no intention of deserting a cause to which he had pledged himself, and in which there still was a chance for him to achieve distinction. So far, his ambitions were wholly military. If the profound thought he had given to the present and future needs of the Republic was not wholly impersonal; if he took for granted that he had a part to play when the Revolution finished, it was little more than a dream at present. His very temperament was martial, the energy and impetuosity of his nature were in their element on the battlefield, and he would rather have been a great general than the elder Pitt. But although there is no reason to doubt that he would have become a great general, had circumstance favoured his pet ambition, yet Washington was a better judge of the usefulness of his several abilities than he was himself. Not only had that reader of men made up his mind that a brain like his favourite's should not be wasted on the battlefield,--left there, perhaps, while dolts escaped, for Hamilton had no appreciation of fear or danger,--but he saw in him the future statesman, fertile, creative, executive, commanding; and he could have no better training than at a desk in his office. Phenomenally precocious, even mature, as Hamilton's brain had been when they met that morning on the Heights of Harlem, these four years had given it a structural growth which it would not have acquired in camp life, and to which few men of forty were entitled. Of this fact Hamilton was appreciative, and he was too philosophical to harbour regrets; but that period was over now, and he wanted to fight.

On April 27th he wrote to Washington, asking for employment during the approaching campaign, suggesting the command of a light corps, and modestly but decidedly stating his claims.

Washington was greatly embarrassed. Every arbitrary appointment caused a ferment in the army, where jealousies were hotter than martial ardours. Washington was politic above all things, but to refuse Hamilton a request after their quarrel and parting was the last thing he wished to do. He felt that he had no choice, however, and wrote at once, elaborating his reasons for refusal, ending as follows:--

My principal concern rises from an apprehension that you will impute my refusal of your request to other motives than those I have expressed, but I beg you to be assured I am only influenced by the reasons I have mentioned.

Hamilton knew him too well to misunderstand him, but he was deeply disappointed. He retired into the library behind the drawing-room of the Schuyler mansion, and wrote another and a more elaborate letter to Robert Morris. He began with a reiteration of the impotence of Congress, its loss of the confidence of this country and of Europe, the necessity for an executive ministry, and stated that the time was past to indulge in hopes of foreign aid. The States must depend upon themselves, and their only hope lay in a National Bank. There had been some diffidence in his previous letter. There was none in this, and he had a greater mastery of the subject. In something like thirty pages of close writing, he lays down every law, extensive and minute, for the building of a National Bank, and not the most remarkable thing about this letter is the psychological knowledge it betrays of the American people. Having despatched it, he wrote again to Washington, demonstrating that his case was dissimilar from those the Chief had quoted. He disposed of each case in turn, and his presentation of his own claims was equally unanswerable. Washington, who was too wise to enter into a controversy with Hamilton's pen, did not reply to the letter, but made up his mind to do what he could for him, although still determined there should be no disaffection in the army of his making.

Meanwhile Hamilton received letters from Lafayette, begging him to hasten South and share his exile; from Washington, asking advice; and from members of the family, reminding him of their affection and regret. Tilghman's is characteristic:--

Headquarters, 27th April.

MY DEAR HAMILTON: Between me and thee there is a gulf, or I should not have been thus long without seeing you. My faith is strong, but not strong enough to attempt walking on the waters. You must not suppose from my dealing so much in Scripture phrase that I am either drunk with religion or with wine, though had I been inclined to the latter I might have found a jolly companion in my lord, who came here yesterday. We have not a word of news.... I must go over and see you soon, for I am not yet weaned from you, nor do I desire to be. I will not present so cold words as compliments to Mrs. Hamilton. She has an equal share of the best wishes of

Your most affectionate

TILGHMAN.

The following was from Laurens:--

I am indebted to you, my dear Hamilton, for two letters: the first from Albany, as masterly a piece of cynicism as ever was penned; the other from Philadelphia, dated the second March; in both you mention a design of retiring, which makes me extremely unhappy. I would not wish to have you for a moment withdraw from the public service; at the same time my friendship for you, and knowledge of your value to the United States, makes me most ardently desire that you should fill only the first offices of the Republic. I was flattered with an account of your being elected a delegate from New York, and am much mortified not to hear it confirmed by yourself. I must confess to you that at the present stage of the war, I should prefer your going into Congress, and from thence becoming a minister plenipotentiary for peace, to your remaining in the army, where the dull system of seniority, and the tableau, would prevent you from having the important commands to which you are entitled; but, at any rate, I will not have you renounce your rank unless you entered the career above mentioned. Your private affairs cannot require such immediate and close attention. You speak like a paterfamilias surrounded with a numerous progeny.

On the 26th of May he had an appreciative letter from Robert Morris, thanking him for his suggestions, and assuring him of their acceptability. He promises a bank on Hamilton's plan, although with far less capital; still it may afterward be increased to any extent.

The northern land was full of amenities, the river gay with pleasure barges. The French gardens about the Schuyler mansion were romantic for saunterings with the loveliest of brides; the seats beneath the great trees commanded the wild heights opposite. Forty of the finest horses in the country were in General Schuyler's stables, and many carriages. There was a constant stream of distinguished guests. But Hamilton, who could dally pleasurably for a short time, had no real affinity for anything but work. There being no immediate prospect of fighting, he retired again to the library and began that series of papers called The Continentalist, which were read as attentively as if peace had come. They examined the defects of the existing league of states, their jealousies, which operated against the formation of a Federal government, then proceeded to enumerate the powers with which such a government should be clothed.

Hamilton did not wait with any particular grace, but even the desired command came to him after a reasonable period of attempted patience. At Washington's request he accompanied him to Newport to confer with Rochambeau. Although the Chief did not allude to Hamilton's last letter, their intercourse on this journey was as natural and intimate as ever; and Washington did not conceal his pleasure in the society of this the most captivating and endearing of his many young friends. After the conference was over, Hamilton returned to Albany for a brief visit, then determined to force Washington to show his hand. He joined the army at Dobbs Ferry, and sent the Chief his commission. Tilghman returned with it, express haste, and the assurance that the General would endeavour to give him a command, nearly such as he could desire in the present circumstance of the army, Hamilton had accomplished his object. He retained his commission and quartered with General Lincoln.

When Washington arrived at Dobbs Ferry and went into temporary quarters, he gave a large dinner to the French officers, and invited Hamilton to preside.

His graceful manners and witty speeches provoked universal admiration [runs the pen of a contemporary]. He was the youngest and smallest man present. His hair was turned back from the forehead, powdered, and queued at the back. His face was boyishly fair, and lighted up with intelligence and genius. Washington, grave, elegant and hospitable, sat at the side of the table, with the accomplished Count de Rochambeau on his right. The Duke de Luzerne occupied a seat opposite. General Knox was present, and so was Baron Steuben.

Shortly afterward, Hamilton attended a council of war, at Washington's invitation. The squadron of De Grasse was approaching the coast of Virginia. For the second time, Washington was obliged to give up his cherished scheme of marching on New York, for it was now imperative to meet Cornwallis in the South. The Chief completely hoodwinked Clinton as to his immediate plans, Robert Morris raised the funds for moving the army, and Hamilton obtained his command. To his high satisfaction, Fish was one of his officers. Immediately before his departure for the South he wrote to his wife. He had attained his desire, but he was too unhappy to be playful. A portion of the letter is as follows:--

A part of the army, my dear girl, is going to Virginia, and I must, of necessity, be separated at a much greater distance from my beloved wife. I cannot announce the fatal necessity without feeling everything that a fond husband can feel. I am unhappy;--I am unhappy beyond expression. I am unhappy because I am to be so remote from you; because I am to hear from you less frequently than I am accustomed to do. I am miserable because I know you will be so; I am wretched at the idea of flying so far from you, without a single hour's interview, to tell you all my pains and all my love. But I cannot ask permission to visit you. It might be thought improper to leave my corps at such a time and upon such an occasion. I must go without seeing you--I must go without embracing you:--alas! I must go.

The allied armies moved on the 22d of August and arrived within two miles of the enemy's works at York Town, on the 28th of September. Hamilton's light infantry was attached to the division of Lafayette, who joined the main army with what was left of his own. Laurens was also in command of a company of light infantry in the young French general's division. He had acquitted himself brilliantly in France, returning, in spite of all obstacles and the discouragement of Franklin, with two and a half million livres in cash, part of a subsidy of six millions of livres granted by the French king; but he felt that to be in the field again with Washington, Hamilton, Lafayette, and Fish was higher fortune than successful diplomacy.

The allied army was twelve thousand strong; Cornwallis had about seventy-eight hundred men. The British commander was intrenched in the village of York Town, the main body of his troops encamped on the open grounds in the rear. York Town is situated on a peninsula formed by the rivers York and James, and into this narrow compass Cornwallis had been driven by the masterly tactics of Lafayette. The arrival of De Grasse's fleet cut off all hope of retreat by water. He made but a show of opposition during the eight days employed by the Americans in bringing up their ordnance and making other preparations. On the 9th the trenches were completed, and the Americans began the bombardment of the town and of the British frigates in the river. It continued for nearly twenty-four hours, and so persistent and terrific was the cannonading, that the British, being unfortunate in their embrasures, withdrew most of their cannon and made infrequent reply. On the night of the 11th new trenches were begun within two and three hundred yards of the British works. While they were completing, the enemy opened new embrasures, from which their fire was far more effective than at first. Two redoubts flanked this second parallel and desperately annoyed the men in the trenches. It was determined to carry them by assault, and the American light infantry and De Viomenil's grenadiers and chasseurs were ordered to hold themselves in readiness for the attack. Laurens, with eighty men, was to turn the redoubt in order to intercept the retreat of the garrison, but Hamilton, for the moment, saw his long-coveted opportunity glide by him. Washington had determined to give it to our hero's old Elizabethtown tutor, Colonel Barber, conceiving that the light infantry which had made the Virginia campaign was entitled to precedence. Hamilton was standing with Major Fish when the news of this arrangement was brought to him. He reached the General's tent in three bounds, and poured forth the most impetuous appeal he had ever permitted himself to launch at Washington. But he was terribly in earnest, and the prospect of losing this magnificent opportunity tore down the barriers of his self-possession. "It is my right to attack, sir!" he concluded passionately, "I am the officer on duty!" Washington had watched his flushed nervous face and flashing eyes, which had far more command in their glances than appeal, and he never made great mistakes: he knew that if he refused this request, Hamilton never would forgive him.

"Very well," he said. "Take it."

Hamilton ran back to Fish, crying: "We have it. We have it;" and immediately began to form his troops. The order was issued to advance in two columns, and after dark the march began, Hamilton leading the advance corps. The French were to attack the redoubt on the right.

The signal was a shell from the American batteries, followed by one from the French. The instant the French shell ascended, Hamilton gave the order to advance at the point of the bayonet; then his impatience, too long gnawing at its curb, dominated him, and he ran ahead of his men and leaped to the abatis. For a half moment he stood alone on the parapet, then Fish reached him, and together they encouraged the rest to come on. Hamilton turned and sprang into the ditch, Fish following. The infantry was close behind, and surmounting the abatis, ditch, and palisades, leaped into the work. Hamilton had disappeared, and they feared he had fallen, but he was investigating; he suddenly reappeared, and formed the troops in the redoubt. It surrendered almost immediately. The attack took but nine minutes, so irresistible was the impetuosity of the onslaught. Hamilton gave orders at once to spare every man who had ceased to fight. When Colonel Campbell advanced to surrender, one of the American captains seized a bayonet and drew back to plunge it into the Englishman's breast. Hamilton thrust it aside, and Campbell was made prisoner by Laurens. Washington was delighted. "Few cases," he said, "have exhibited greater proofs of intrepidity, coolness, and firmness than were shown on this occasion." On the 17th, when Washington received the proposition for surrender from Cornwallis, he sent for Hamilton and asked his opinion of the terms. To Laurens was given the honour of representing the American army at the conference before the surrender. Tilghman rode, express haste, to Philadelphia with the first news of the surrender of Cornwallis and his army.

Hamilton's description of his part in the conquest that virtually put an end to the war is characteristic.

Two nights ago, my Eliza [he wrote], my duty and my honour obliged me to take a step in which your happiness was too much risked. I commanded an attack upon one of the enemy's redoubts; we carried it in an instant and with little loss. You will see the particulars in the Philadelphia papers. There will be, certainly, nothing more of this kind; all the rest will be by approach; and if there should be another occasion, it would not fall to my turn to execute it.

"It is to be hoped so," she said plaintively to her mother. "Else shall I no longer need to wear a wig."