Alexander Hamilton - Ron Chernow (2005)
Chapter 8. GLORY
For a month after their feud, Washington and Hamilton performed their charade admirably, pretending that nothing had happened between them. Hamilton requisitioned two horses—one for him, one for his baggage—and rode off with Washington in early March to perform his last stint as interpreter in a conference with the comte de Rochambeau and other French officers at Newport. On March 8, Washington, Hamilton, and their French counterparts rode out on horseback for a sunset review of the French fleet, and that same day Hamilton drafted his last letter under Washington’s signature. A few days later, Washington departed for what he called “my dreary quarters at New Windsor,” and Hamilton headed off to the Schuyler mansion in Albany.1 One of the most brilliant, productive partnerships of the Revolution had ended.
If Washington expected relief from Hamilton badgering him for an appointment, he soon learned otherwise. Hamilton was fully prepared to become a pest. In mid-April, he found quarters for himself and Eliza in a brick-and-stone Dutch dwelling at De Peyster’s Point on the east bank of the Hudson, by no coincidence opposite Washington’s headquarters at New Windsor. He even ordered “a little boat which two people can manage” so that he could scoot back and forth on short notice.2 No sooner was Hamilton unpacked than he told General Nathanael Greene that he was scouting for “anything that fortune may cast up. I mean in the military line.”3 Hamilton seemed ubiquitous in New Windsor. One evening, a New England visitor, Jeremiah Smith, found himself discussing topical events with strangers at a local tavern. “I was struck with the conversation, talents…and with the superior reasoning powers of one who seemed to take the lead. It exceeded anything I had before heard and even my conceptions. When the company retired, I found it was Colonel Hamilton I admired so much.”4
On April 27, the amazingly persistent young colonel addressed a formal letter to Washington, requesting a position in the vanguard force to be sent south. Reminding Washington of his earlier exploits as artillery captain, he noted, “I began in the line and, had I continued there, I ought in justice to have been more advanced in rank than I now am.”5 One can almost feel Washington growing hot under the collar in his reply. He was still dealing with extreme discontent in the ranks; now he had to deal with Hamilton. “Your letter of this date has not a little embarrassed me,” he replied, referring to the upheavals produced in the past when he had jumped junior officers above those of higher rank. Lest Hamilton suspect that his intransigence stemmed from their contretemps, Washington cautioned: “My principal concern arises from an apprehension that you will impute my refusal of your request to other motives than these I have expressed.”6
While awaiting a military assignment, Hamilton, never idle, refined his thoughts about the financial emergency gripping the states. With the collapse of the continental currency, Congress conquered its fears of the centralized power that might be wielded by a finance minister. Power had begun to flow from congressional committees to individual department heads—for war, foreign relations, and finance—just as Hamilton had recommended to James Duane. General John Sullivan, now back in Congress, wanted to nominate Hamilton as the new superintendent of finance and sounded out Washington on his qualifications. However incredible it now seems, Washington confessed that he had never discussed finance with his aide, but he did volunteer: “This I can venture to advance from a thorough knowledge of him that there are few men to be found of his age who has [sic] a more general knowledge than he possesses, and none whose soul is more firmly engaged in the cause, or who exceeds him in probity and sterling virtue.”7 A glowing tribute from a man who had observed Hamilton at close range for four years.
In the end, Sullivan withheld Hamilton’s nomination due to overwhelming congressional support for Robert Morris, who took office in May 1781. A native of Liverpool, Morris had served in the Continental Congress and reluctantly signed the Declaration of Independence. He was an impressive-looking man with a wide, fleshy face, an ample paunch, and the sharp, shrewd gaze of a self-made merchant prince. He lived in a sumptuous Philadelphia mansion, tended by liveried servants, and reputedly was the richest man in town. He brought a somewhat mixed legacy to the new post. Lacking federal taxing power and a central bank, the patriots had to rely on private credit, and Morris, more than anyone else, had sustained the cause by drawing on his own credit to pay troops and even government spies. On the other hand, critics had accused him of exploiting his government connections for personal gain.
A lowly figure beside the august Morris, Hamilton wanted to establish his intellectual bona fides with the new superintendent of finance. Before writing to him, Hamilton brushed up on money matters and had Colonel Timothy Pickering send him some primers: David Hume’s Political Discourses, tracts written by the English clergyman and polemicist Richard Price, and his all-purpose crib, Postlethwayt’s Universal Dictionary of Trade and Commerce. On April 30, 1781, Hamilton sent a marathon letter to Morris—it runs to thirty-one printed pages—that set forth a full-fledged system for shoring up American credit and creating a national bank. Portions of this interminable letter exist in Eliza’s handwriting (complete with her faulty spelling), as if Hamilton’s hand ached and he had to pass the pen to his bride at intervals. Hamilton started out sheepishly enough: “I pretend not to be an able financier…. Neither have I had leisure or materials to make accurate calculations.”8 Then he delivered a virtuoso performance as he asserted the need for financial reforms to complete the Revolution. “’Tis by introducing order into our finances—by restoring public credit—not by gaining battles that we are finally to gain our object.”9
Hamilton forecast a budget deficit of four to five million dollars and doubted that foreign credit alone could trim it. His solution was a national bank. He traced the riches of Venice, Genoa, Hamburg, Holland, and England to their flourishing banks, which enhanced state power and facilitated private commerce. Once again, he plumbed the deep sources of British power. Where others saw only lofty ships and massed bodies of redcoats, Hamilton perceived a military establishment propped up by a “vast fabric of credit…. ’Tis by this alone she now menaces ourindependence.”10 America, he argued, did not need to triumph decisively over the heavily taxed British: a war of attrition that eroded British credit would nicely do the trick. All the patriots had to do was plant doubts among Britain’s creditors about the war’s outcome. “By stopping the progress of their conquests and reducing them to an unmeaning and disgraceful defensive, we destroy the national expectation of success from which the ministry draws their resources.”11 This was an extremely subtle, sophisticated analysis for a young man immersed in wartime details for four years: America could defeat the British in the bond market more readily than on the battlefield. Hamilton had developed a fine appreciation of English institutions while fighting for freedom from England. In the letter’s finale, he contended that America should imitate British methods and exploit the power of borrowing: “A national debt, if it is not excessive, will be to us a national blessing. It will be powerful cement of our union.”12
Clearly, Hamilton was in training to superintend American finance someday. In late May, Morris sent him a flattering reply, informing him that many of his opinions tallied precisely with his own. Congress had just approved Morris’s plan for the Bank of North America, a merchant bank that he hoped would be expanded after the war to encourage commerce. This exchange of letters initiated an important friendship. During the next few years, Hamilton and Morris were kindred spirits in their efforts to establish American finance on a sound, efficient basis.
Hamilton continued to stew about the Articles of Confederation, which had been ratified belatedly by the last state on February 27, 1781. Hamilton thought this loose framework a prescription for rigor mortis. There was no federal judiciary, no guiding executive, no national taxing power, and no direct power over people as individuals, only as citizens of the states. In Congress, each state had one vote, and nine of the thirteen states had to concur to take significant actions. The Articles of Confederation promised little more than a fragile alliance of thirteen miniature republics. Hamilton had already warned that if the ramshackle confederacy fostered the illusion that Congress had sufficient power, “it will be an evil, for it is unequal to the exigencies of the war or to the preservation of the union hereafter.”13 Again, Hamilton appealed for a convention to bring forth a more durable government.
That the thirteen states would someday coalesce into a single country was far from a foregone conclusion. Indeed, the states had hampered many crucial war measures, such as long-term enlistments, from fear that their troops might shed their home-state allegiances. People continued to identify their states as their “countries,” and most outside the military had never traveled more than a day’s journey from their homes. But the Revolution itself, especially the Continental Army, had been a potent instrument for fusing the states together and forging an American character. Speaking of the effect that the fighting had on him, John Marshall probably spoke for many soldiers when he said, “I was confirmed in the habit of considering America as my country and Congress as my government.”14 During the war, a sense of national unity seeped imperceptibly into the minds of many American diplomats, administrators, congressmen, and, above all, the nucleus of officers gathered around Washington. These men had gotten many dismaying glimpses of the shortcomings of the Articles of Confederation, and many later emerged as confirmed advocates of a tight-knit union of the states.
As a member of Washington’s family, Hamilton had stumbled upon the crowning enterprise of his life: the creation of a powerful new country. By dint of his youth, foreign birth, and cosmopolitan outlook, he was spared prewar entanglements in provincial state politics, making him a natural spokesman for a new American nationalism. As soon as he left Washington’s staff, he began to convert his private opinions into cogently reasoned newspaper editorials. In July and August 1781, he published a quartet of essays in The New-York Packet entitled “The Continentalist” that were signed A.B.—the same initials as in the letter written to Sir Henry Clinton, proposing the trade of Major André for Benedict Arnold.
These four articles seem spirited precursors to The Federalist Papers. Instead of carping at problems in random fashion, Hamilton delivered a systematic critique of the current political structure. He introduced a critical theme: that the dynamics of revolutions differed from those of peacetime governance; the postwar world had to be infused with a new spirit, respectful of authority, or anarchy would reign: “An extreme jealousy of power is the attendant on all popular revolutions and has seldom been without its evils. It is to this source we are to trace many of the fatal mistakes which have so deeply endangered the common cause, particularly that defect which will be the object of these remarks, a want of power in Congress.”15 Where revolutions, by their nature, resisted excess government power, the opposite situation could be equally hazardous. “As too much power leads to despotism, too little leads to anarchy, and both eventually to the ruin of the people.”16
Unless the central government’s hand was strengthened, asserted Hamilton, the states would amass progressively more power until the union disintegrated into secessionist movements, smaller confederacies, or civil war. He especially feared that populous states would indulge in separatist designs and take advantage of commercial rivalries or boundary disputes as pretexts to wage war against smaller states. To avert this situation, Hamilton listed a litany of powers that Congress needed to strengthen the union, especially the powers to regulate trade, levy enforceable taxes on land and individuals, and appoint military officers of every rank. Only unity could wring from skittish foreign creditors the large loans necessary to conclude the war. In closing, Hamilton applauded the national bank proposed by Morris, which would wed the “interest of the monied men with the resources of government.”17 This alliance would help to prop up a shaky government.
Hamilton’s life was to be all of a piece, and the kernel of many of his later theories first germinated in these essays. His views did not change greatly over time so much as expand in richness, depth, and scope. Vernon Parrington later observed of Hamilton, “Singularly precocious, he matured early; before his twenty-fifth year he seems to have developed every main principle of his political and economic philosophy, and thereafter he never hesitated or swerved from his path.”18 To a peculiar extent, his mind was already focused on the problems that were to dominate the postwar period.
During the spring and early summer of 1781, Hamilton never slackened in his efforts to wrest a field command from Washington. And yet he refused to admit his bulldog tenacity. In May, he told Washington, with no apparent irony, “I am incapable of wishing to obtain any object by importunity.”19 Eliza worried about his safety if he received a field command, while sister Angelica entered into Hamilton’s elaborate ambitions. When Angelica’s husband, John Barker Church, got wind of rumors that Hamilton might obtain an appointment, he coyly informed his brother-in-law that “a certain lady (who has not yet made her appearance this morning) is very anxious for your happiness and glory.”20
In early July, still panting for a combat role, Hamilton tempted fate by sending Washington a letter containing his commission, thus tacitly threatening to resign if he didn’t get his desired command. It says much about Washington’s high esteem for Hamilton that instead of bridling at this effrontery, he sent Tench Tilghman to him in an accommodating spirit. “This morning Tilghman came to me in his [Washington’s] name, pressed me to retain my commission, with an assurance that he would endeavor by all means to give me a command,” Hamilton told Eliza, who had gone to stay with her family in Albany. “Though I know my Betsey would be happy to hear I had rejected this proposal, it is a pleasure my reputation would not permit me to afford her.”21 Finally, on July 31, Hamilton succeeded in his long-standing quest when he received command of a New York light-infantry battalion and chose Nicholas Fish, his King’s College classmate, as his second in command. With the war nearing its climax, Hamilton knew that Washington had vouchsafed one last coveted chance for battlefield laurels.
If Eliza brooded about her husband’s well-being, Hamilton returned the favor, especially after learning in late spring that Eliza was pregnant with their first child. The New York frontier around Albany had been plundered repeatedly by Tory and Indian raids—in one infamous massacre in 1778, they had mutilated and dismembered thirty-two patriots—and General Schuyler lamented to his son-in-law in May 1781 that the area was “one general scene of ruin and desolation.”22 Schuyler himself was especially vulnerable. He had overseen a spy network with such efficiency that the British were plotting to kidnap him at home, as he learned that spring, and he made special arrangements to have an Albany guard hasten to his aid in case of emergency.
On August 7, about twenty Tories and Indians barged into the Schuyler mansion, overpowered the sleeping guards, seized weapons in the cellar, and surrounded the house. (Angelica had removed some weapons to the cellar when she found her little boy playing with them.) General Schuyler retreated to an upstairs bedroom, where, using a prearranged signal, he fired his pistol out the window to summon help. Mrs. Schuyler and her daughters were so horrified—“some hanging on [General Schuyler’s] arms and others embracing his knees in the most distressing terror and uncertainty,” reported one eyewitness—that the general was trapped by his clinging family.23 Then the women remembered that Mrs. Schuyler’s infant daughter, Catherine, had been left in a cradle by the front door. Since both Eliza and Angelica were pregnant, sister Peggy crept downstairs to retrieve the endangered child. The leader of the raiding party barred her way with a musket.
“Wench, wench! Where is your master?” he demanded.
“Gone to alarm the town,” the coolheaded Peggy said.24
The intruder, fearing that Schuyler would return with troops, fled in alarm.25 Legend maintains that one Indian hurled a tomahawk at Peggy’s head as she trotted up the stairs with the baby in her arms; to this day the mahogany banister bears what are thought to be scars from the blade. Hamilton was shocked by the news: “I have received, my beloved Betsey, your letter informing me of the happy escape of your father. He showed an admirable presence of mind…. My heart…has felt all the horror and anguish attached to the idea of your being yourself and seeing your father in the power of ruffians.”26
Until early August, Washington had been planning a siege of New York City, so Hamilton did not expect to be too distant from Eliza during her pregnancy. Then in mid-August, Washington learned that the comte de Grasse, admiral of the French fleet in the West Indies, planned to sail for Chesapeake Bay. This sensational piece of news dovetailed with another that promised a decisive military action: Lafayette informed him that General Cornwallis was now entrenched at Yorktown, surrounded by water on three sides. This made the spot, from one perspective, a perfect fortress—and from another a perfect trap. Washington had wanted to deal the coup de grâce to the British in New York and recoup his earlier losses by reclaiming Manhattan and Long Island. The comte de Rochambeau dashed this plan, citing problems posed by shallow waters outside New York harbor and the British fortifications on Manhattan. So with some reluctance, Washington agreed to hazard all by moving additional men to the Chesapeake to link up with Lafayette and de Grasse’s fleet in choking off Cornwallis’s army.
In late August, Hamilton informed Eliza indiscreetly that he and part of the army would be moving to Virginia. (The move was still a military secret.) He refused to quit his troops or request a leave to see his bride. “I must go without seeing you,” he wrote three days after the New York troops began to march south. “I must go without embracing you. Alas I must go.” He remained, however, the dreamy newlywed. “I am more greedy of your love” than a miser of his gold, he continued. “It is the food of my hopes, the object of my wishes, the only enjoyment of my life.”27 On September 6, he divulged to Eliza the army’s destination—“tomorrow we embark for Yorktown”—and sounded confident of victory. In a poetic conceit that he often played with but never acted upon, he toyed with abandoning worldly pursuits to luxuriate in her company: “Every day confirms me in the intention of renouncing public life and devoting myself wholly to you. Let others waste their time and their tranquillity in a vain pursuit of power and glory. Be it my object to be happy in a quiet retreat with my better angel.”28 Like other founders and Enlightenment politicians, Hamilton could never quite admit the depth of his ambition, lest it cast doubts on his revolutionary purity. In the midst of such rarefied goals as freedom and independence, who could admit to baser motives or any thoughts of personal gain?
Washington had also balked at the Yorktown plan because he wondered how he could move his hungry, bedraggled troops long distances along muddy roads without advertising his intentions to the British. He solved this dilemma ingeniously, marching foot soldiers southward in parallel lines, at staggered intervals, to mislead the enemy about his intentions. Washington knew that he had a singular chance to strike a mortal blow against the British if he could coordinate the massive movements of men and ships. With unerring precision, he guided his two thousand men and de Rochambeau’s four thousand so they would rendezvous in Virginia with twenty-nine large “ships of the line” and three thousand troops brought from the West Indies by Admiral de Grasse, supplemented by seven thousand Americans already in place under Lafayette. To Washington’s jubilation, Admiral de Grasse showed up even before he did, a fact that made the reserved Washington literally jump for joy. When Washington boarded the admiral’s flagship, the Ville de Paris—a resplendent triple decker with 120 guns—the Frenchman teased his towering American counterpart by calling him “Mon cher petit général!”29
In late September, Hamilton and his light infantry reached Williamsburg, the staging area for the Yorktown siege, where he enjoyed an exuberant reunion with a trio of old friends: Lafayette, then convalescing from malaria; John Laurens, just back from Paris with arms, ammunition, and a large French subsidy negotiated by Benjamin Franklin; and Lieutenant Colonel Francis Barber, his teacher from Elizabethtown days, who had been wounded at Monmouth and had fought valiantly throughout the war.
On September 28, Hamilton and his men trudged toward Yorktown, through deep woods that opened intermittently to reveal fields of corn and tobacco. When they arrived the next day, the siege had just commenced. Dug in on high ground, Cornwallis had been throwing up earthwork redoubts since early August, employing thousands of slaves who had defected to the British lines in expectation of earning their freedom. In all, he built ten outlying defensive strongholds; two would have caught the attention of Hamilton and his men at once: numbers nine and ten stood closer to allied troops than the others. It was here that Hamilton was finally to have his oft-postponed appointment with military glory.
By October 6, expert French engineers, aided by fine autumnal weather, began to carve out two deep, parallel trenches about six hundred yards from the British lines, to seal Cornwallis and his famished, fever-racked men inside a trap. Military custom dictated a small celebration when the first trench was completed. Hamilton and his men were drafted for this honor and had no sooner disappeared into the long ditch, amid swirling flags and thudding drums, than the British let loose cannon fire. With a bit of completely unnecessary bravado, Hamilton issued an outlandish order. Perhaps knowing his men were beyond the range of small-arms fire, he brought them out of the trench and onto exposed ground, where he put them through parade-ground drills before the flabbergasted British. Luckily, the British didn’t—or couldn’t—mow them down. Of this irresponsible performance, one subordinate, Captain James Duncan, wrote in his diary: “Colonel Hamilton gave these orders, and, although I esteem him one of the first officers in the American army, must beg in this instance to think he wantonly exposed the lives of his men.”30
By October 9, the allies began to bombard Cornwallis, with Washington himself touching off the first volley of cannon fire. Day and night, the cannonade exploded with such unrelenting fury that one lieutenant in the Royal Navy said, “It seemed as though the heavens should split.” As the din grew “almost unendurable,” this British officer saw “men lying nearly everywhere who were mortally wounded, whose heads, arms, and legs had been shot off. The distressing cries of the wounded and the lamentable suffering of the inhabitants whose dwellings were chiefly in flames” added to an omnipresent sense of danger.31
By October 14, the second parallel trench had been nearly completed and only redoubts nine and ten needed to be overrun to complete it. These defenses bristled with sharpened trees poised to impale any invading troops. Addressing his men on horseback, Washington explained that the siege could not advance farther unless these two positions were taken by simultaneous bayonet attacks. Any delay would only enhance the likelihood that British rescue vessels might arrive in time to evacuate Cornwallis. Washington fraternally decided that one redoubt would be taken by a light-infantry brigade commanded by the French and the other by the Continental Army under Lafayette. Lafayette tapped his personal aide, Jean-Joseph Sourbader de Gimat, to spearhead the charge, a selection that scarcely produced the bipartisan Franco-American amity intended by Washington.
For Hamilton, who had envisioned this moment since his clerkship on St. Croix, Lafayette’s choice of Gimat threatened to rob him of his last great chance to fight. Mustering all his fire and eloquence, he pleaded again with Washington by letter, pointing out that he had seniority over Gimat and that, as officer of the day projected for the attack, he enjoyed priority. At this point, Washington decided either that Hamilton was an implacable force or that Gimat was too French to represent the Continental Army. Nicholas Fish shared a tent with Hamilton at Yorktown and remembered his friend bursting in gleefully after visiting Washington. “We have it!” Hamilton shouted. “We have it!”32 Hamilton was to command three battalions led by Gimat, Fish, and Laurens.
Hamilton’s appointment at Yorktown has been shadowed by scurrilous gossip, mostly peddled by John Adams. Years later, Adams told his friend Benjamin Rush that Hamilton blackmailed Washington to get the command: “Hamilton flew into a violent passion and demanded the command of the party for himself and declared, if he had it not, he would expose General Washington’s conduct in a pamphlet.”33 It is true that Hamilton sometimes spoke disparagingly about Washington’s military abilities, but only in private. It is inconceivable that Hamilton would have resorted to threats against Washington or that the latter would have yielded to them or that their relationship would have survived such extortion for another eighteen years of the most intimate collaboration.
A portrait by Alonzo Chappell of Hamilton at the Yorktown siege presents him in an unexpected pose. He stands by a cannon in a plumed hat, sunk in thought, his arms folded, and his eyes downcast. More the man of thought than of action, he gives no clue to the theatrics he was shortly to perform in the frenzy of battle. Two days before exposing himself to enemy fire, Hamilton wrote to Eliza, now five months pregnant, a lighthearted letter that attempted to assuage her worries. He chided her for not matching his output of twenty letters in seven weeks and said she could make amends only one way: “You shall engage shortly to present me with a boy. You will ask me if a girl will not answer the purpose. By no means. I fear, with all the mother’s charms, she may inherit the caprices of her father and then she will enslave, tantalize and plague one half [the] sex.”34
To expedite the siege, Washington decided to seize redoubts nine and ten with bayonets instead of pounding them slowly into submission with cannon. French soldiers were to overrun the redoubt on the left while Hamilton’s light infantry stormed the one on the right. After nightfall on October 14, the allies fired several consecutive shells in the air that brilliantly illuminated the sky. Hamilton and his men then rose from their trenches and raced with fixed bayonets toward redoubt ten, sprinting across a quarter-mile of landscape pocked and rutted from exploding shells. For the sake of silence, surprise, and soldierly pride, they had unloaded their guns to take the position with bayonets alone. Dodging heavy fire, they let out war whoops that startled their enemies. “They made such a terrible yell and loud cheering,” said one Hessian soldier, “that one believed the whole wild hunt had broken out.”35 Hamilton and his men ran so fast that they almost overtook the sappers, who were snapping off the edges of the sharpened tree branches and opening a breach through which the infantry rushed. Hamilton, hopping on the shoulder of a kneeling soldier, sprang onto the enemy parapet and summoned his men to follow. Their password was “Rochambeau”—“a good one,” said one American, because it “sounds like ‘Rush-on-boys’ when pronounced quick.”36
Once inside the fallen redoubt, Hamilton assembled his men quickly in formation. The whole operation had consumed fewer than ten minutes. Hamilton had accomplished the capture handily, suffering relatively few casualties; the French brigade met stiffer resistance and suffered heavy losses. Hamilton was exemplary in his treatment of the enemy. Some of his men clamored for revenge against the captives, and one captain was about to run a British officer through the chest with a bayonet when Hamilton interceded to prevent any bloodshed. He later reported proudly, “Incapable of imitating examples of barbarity and forgetting recent provocations, the soldiers spared every man who ceased to resist.”37 Besides showing humanity, Hamilton in his leniency toward his prisoners expressed his belief that wars, like duels, were honorable rituals, conducted by gentlemen according to sacred and immutable rules.
The taking of the two redoubts enabled the allied troops to outfit them with howitzers and finish the second parallel trench. As Hamilton and Henry Knox inspected the captured redoubt, they engaged in an academic controversy that afforded a humorous interlude. Washington had given orders that whenever soldiers spotted a shell, they should exclaim, “A shell!” Hamilton didn’t think this order soldierly, whereas Knox thought it reflected Washington’s prudent regard for his men’s welfare. Amid this learned dispute, two enemy shells burst inside the redoubt. The soldiers present screamed, “A shell! A shell!” Instinctively, Hamilton sought shelter by grabbing the obese Knox, who had to wrestle him off. “Now what do you think, Mr. Hamilton, about crying ‘shell’?” Knox protested. “But let me tell you not to make a breastwork of me again!”38
Completion of the second trench snuffed out the last remnants of resistance among the British. Cornwallis had grown so desperate that he infected blacks with smallpox and forced them to wander toward enemy lines in an attempt to sicken the opposing forces. He knew that he lay in grave peril and wrote to Sir Henry Clinton, “My situation now becomes…critical…. [W]e shall soon be exposed to an assault in ruined works, in a bad position, and with weakened numbers.”39 After dark on October 16, Cornwallis tried to evacuate his men by sea, but a drenching midnight storm made that impossible. All the while, the allied artillery pummeled his position without mercy.
On the warm morning of October 17, a red-coated drummer boy appeared on the parapet, followed by an officer flapping a white handkerchief. The guns fell silent. Cornwallis had surrendered. “Tomorrow Cornwallis and his army are ours,” Hamilton rejoiced to Eliza on October 18. “In two days after, I shall in all probability set out for Albany and I hope to embrace you in three weeks from this time.”40 Tens of thousands of onlookers gaped in amazement as the shattered British troops marched out of Yorktown and, to the tune of an old English ballad, “The World Turned Upside Down,” moved between parallel rows of handsomely outfitted French soldiers and battered, ragged American troops.
Hamilton calmly surveyed the final ceremony on horseback. His chat with many defeated British soldiers left him with a bitter aftertaste. To the vicomte de Noailles he confided, “I have seen that army so haughty in its success[,]…and I observed every sign of mortification with pleasure.” He was outraged by the British soldiers’ taunts of future revenge against America: “Cruel in its vengeance, England will not believe that every project of conquest in America is vain.”41 Indeed, although the lopsided Franco-American victory at Yorktown put the eventual outcome of the war beyond dispute, the British still occupied New York City, fighting persisted in the West Indies, and the war was to drag on for another two years.
Within a week, Colonel Hamilton had sped off to join Eliza in Albany, riding so hard that he exhausted his horses and had to hire another pair. He was ill and fatigued from more than five years of fighting and spent much of the next two months recovering in bed. On January 22, 1782, Eliza rewarded him with a son, christened Philip in tribute to her father. “Mrs. Hamilton has given me a fine boy,” Hamilton wrote jovially to the vicomte de Noailles, “whose birth, as you may imagine, was attended with all the omens of future greatness.”42 In case further heavy fighting should flare up, Hamilton did not resign from the army right away and got a furlough from Washington. Only after visiting Washington in Philadelphia in March did Hamilton retire; he preserved his rank yet surrendered “all claim to the compensations attached to my military station during the war or afterwards.”43 Among other things, Hamilton renounced a pension that ultimately was to equal five years of full pay. His motives were certainly laudable—he wanted to remove the slightest conflict of interest as the army was demobilized and its members’ future compensation debated—but his widow and offspring were to one day rue his decision and work hard to reverse it.
Because of his valiant performance at Yorktown, Hamilton became a certified hero. Yet it rankled that Congress never honored his bravery as Louis XVI did the heroism of the Frenchman who seized the other redoubt. Though he lacked official recognition, Hamilton gained something infinitely more precious for his political future: legendary status. At Yorktown, Hamilton established his image as a romantic, death-defying young officer, gallantly streaking toward the ramparts. Take away that battle, and Hamilton would have gone down as the most prestigious of Washington’s aides, but not a hero. And without that cachet, he might never have been appointed a major general later on.
The American Revolution transformed Hamilton from an insecure outsider to a consummate insider who was married to the daughter of General Schuyler and stood on easy terms with the leaders of the Continental Army. In a eulogy that he later delivered for General Nathanael Greene, Hamilton talked about the personal opportunities that accompany revolutions. He said of them that “it has very properly been ranked not among the least of the advantages which compensate for the evils they produce that they serve to bring to light talents and virtues which might otherwise have languished in obscurity or only shot forth a few scattered and wandering rays.”44 Who could doubt that the comment had an autobiographical ring?