Posts Tagged ‘General George Washington’

In our world, there are lots of famous pairs.  There are a lot of things that just work really well together, like they were meant to be.  And as we start the fifth year of Today’s History Lesson, let’s name some.

Chocolate and peanut butter.
Donnie and Marie.
Spaghetti and meatballs.
The Lone Ranger and Tonto.
Calvin and Hobbes.
Blue Falcon and Dog Wonder.
Abbott and Costello.
Sonny and Cher (ok…admittedly, they worked slightly less well together).
Starksy and Hutch.
Brooks and Dunn.

You get the picture.  In the political world, there have famous pairings, too.  We immediately think of duos like Thomas Jefferson and James Madison, or maybe John and Abigail Adams.  Lexington and Concord.  Valley Forge and Baron von Steuben.  Republicans and tax breaks for the wealthy…I jest, I jest!!!  Hmmm…Democrats and deficits…there, does that even it out?  Anyways, we could go on and on, but I’ll focus instead in one.

George Washington and Alexander Hamilton.  We’ve talked about both of these immensely influential Founders on many occasions, but it’s time we put them together.

Hamilton and Washington were a team for the better part of twenty-five years.  Washington, the first President, was the calm, steady leader.  Hamilton, the first Treasury Secretary, was the impetuous, forceful subordinate.  It fact, it’s very safe to say that during Washington’s first term (and much of his second), Alexander was the second most powerful man in America.  He was more powerful than Vice President Adams.  He was more powerful than Secretary of State Jefferson.

Hamilton’s influence made him a lot of enemies, and Washington’s deference to Hamilton made a great many exceedingly jealous.  Thomas Jefferson, in particular, came to believe that Washington was little more than a marionette, dancing on the strings manipulated from above by a power-maddened Hamilton.

But George Washington’s trust in Hamilton was built on years of experience in close proximity to the man.  Whether you like Hamilton or hate him (or are completely indifferent), you must know that Washington was a pretty good judge of people, and he knew Hamilton better than most.

Their collaboration began on this day in history…March 1, 1777.  George Washington was a General…in fact, he was the General of the army.  Alexander Hamilton was an artillery company Captain, who had distinguished himself in the Battle of White Plains and the Battle of Trenton.  His leadership abilities and good performance under pressure (and under fire) had made him something of a desirable commodity.  General Nathanael Greene had requested his services.  Henry Knox (at that time a Brigadier General) had also sought out Hamilton to be an aide.  Hamilton had refused both, preferring to earn his Revolutionary glory on the field of battle.

But when General Washington invited Hamilton to join his staff as an aide-de-camp, it was an offer he simply couldn’t refuse.  He accepted the General’s offer and joined his staff on this day with the elevated rank of Lieutenant Colonel.  And that’s where this “dynamic duo” got its start.

Speaking of Captains, our son learned today that he has been promoted to the rank of Captain.  Congratulations to him!!

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As I type this morning, folks in New York City are preparing for the annual Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade.  And if it’s anything like previous spectacles, there will be floats and bands, convertibles with people waving to the crowds, and probably a celebrity or two.  It’s a big deal.  But Macy’s hasn’t been around forever.  Neither has Thanksgiving, for that matter.  And if you had been in New York City 227 years ago, it would have looked nothing like it will this morning on TV.

But there was a parade…of sorts.

The end of the American Revolution and American victory meant that the remaining British soldiers needed to get out of town.  And New York was one of the last major towns where pro-British sentiments were strong.  But things were changing.  As spring warmed to summer in 1783, those who considered themselves loyal to the British Crown began leaving.  Government personnel, businessmen, and families all headed to Canada or back across the Atlantic.  The loss of businesses was particularly hurtful, as lots of money and jobs were removed from New York’s economy.  By the thousands they pulled up stakes and left.

And what’s more, since the British military had taken control in 1776, New York had been under martial law and had been left in a terrible state of disrepair.  Much of the damage done by the fire in September of that year had never been cleaned up.  Fences and trees had been chopped up for firewood.  The skeletal remains of homes and businesses testified to a much better past, while the cattle roaming the streets and piles of garbage were the reality of the present.  Looking at the harbor, one visitor (probably holding his nose) said, “Noisome vapors arise from the mud left in the docks and slips at low water, and unwholesome smells are occasioned by such a number of people being crowded together in so small a compass, almost like herrings in a barrel, most of them very dirty and not a small number sick of some disease.”  It had become a shantytown.

But on November 25, 1783, there was a parade…a military parade.  Evacuation Day it was called.  The day the last of the British soldiers left town, and new ownership arrived.  The incoming group was led by General Henry Knox, whose first act was to raise the American flag on a brand new flag pole (British soldiers had taken down their flag and greased the pole on their way out).  He was followed by General Washington and Governor George Clinton and their guard.

The remaining citizens of New York were ecstatic.  Seven long years under the thumb of the British was more than long enough, and the day was one of celebration.  And now, the last British outpost was under the flag of freedom.  America was truly independent.  Ron Chernow summarizes by writing, “America had been purged of the last vestiges of British rule.  It had been a long and grueling experience – the eight years of fighting counted as the country’s longest conflict until Vietnam – and the cost had been exceedingly steep in blood and treasure.”  Indeed, it has been estimated that upwards of 25,000 soldiers had been killed in the Revolution.  This amounted to about 1% of the nation’s population, a ratio only surpassed by the Civil War.

Macy’s or no, a parade was most appropriate.

Have a wonderful, and safe, Thanksgiving.

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Our drive back from Estes Park was good, and it’s good to be home, but it’s also a bit sad to see a vacation end.  It was like that back in August when we returned from a couple days in Phoenix.  I’m well aware of the need to come home…work awaits, and we’re not celebrities that possess bank accounts overflowing with disposable income.  But still, I wish vacations, wherever we enjoy them, didn’t have to end.


The fall of 1777 saw the Continental Army in a pretty bad state.  General Horatio Gates stunning victory at Saratoga (which I promise we’ll discuss at some point) was the lone high point in an autumn of despair and defeat.  For General George Washington, it was one defeat after another.  Losses at Cooch’s Bridge and Chadd’s Ford had left the capital of Philadelphia open to  General William Howe’s British Redcoats…and the Second Continental Congress booking the fastest flights out of town.

But as bad as their military results were, it was the general condition of Washington’s men that was most appalling.  The soldiers were destitute.  Many were sick, many more were hungry, and most all of them were inadequately clothed.  In his book Washington’s Secret War, Thomas Fleming recounts the Commander-in-Chief’s words to Alexander Hamilton, then a Lt. Colonel.  Writing in mid-September, Washington lamented, “The distressed situation of the army for want of blankets and many necessary articles of clothing is truly deplorable.”

There was no relief in sight.  The Congress, which was busy “committee’ing” itself to death, was broke.  Many Colonists, unwilling to accept I.O.U.’s from a bankrupt government while becoming increasingly convinced of eventual British victory, found it easier to sell their goods to the British, who actually paid for stuff.  So the Continental Army went without, which made it more difficult to fight, which made British success more sure, which made Colonists fearful of supplying its Army, which…well, you see the vicious circle.  General Washington was within his right to simply take from the people what his men needed, but Fleming correctly asserts that “he was always aware that he was fighting a war for the civilian hearts and minds as well as for military victory.”  Washington used this power very sparingly and with much delicacy.

Against this backdrop, it’s probably easy to understand how Washington’s defeat in the Battle of Germantown was almost inevitable.  Philadelphia had fallen in late September (just days after Washington’s lament to Hamilton), and General Howe had divided his forces, leaving some to defend the captured city while moving a sizeable group (about 9,000 strong) north to Germantown.  General Washington saw his opponent’s division of forces as a chance to strike back.

Early in the morning of October 4, 1777, he divided his 11,000 men into 4 columns and prepared for battle.  But just as at Chadd’s Ford, foggy conditions created confusion among the Continentals, and 2 of the columns got lost.  In a couple of hours, the fighting was over.  The Continental Army retreated from the field suffering 152 killed, 521 wounded, and 400+ captured.  The British held their positions at the cost of 71 dead and 450 wounded.

Washington had shown pretty good battlefield tactics, and a victory here (coupled with the victory at Saratoga) may have caused the British the reconsider their stake in the Colonies.  But his men lacked the necessary training (and they certainly lacked the necessary support and equipment) to deliver a knockout blow at this point.  And what’s more, members of Congress now began to doubt that their military leader had the moxie to successfully engage the British.  Whispers of a replacement, one General Horatio Gates (hero of Saratoga), were now being heard.

The Continental Army would engage the British in minor skirmishes over the next two months, but the Battle of Germantown left General Washington’s men with little choice but to find a place close enough to keep tabs on the British, but far enough to keep a major engagement off the table.  That place?…Valley Forge.

Recommended Reading:  Washington’s Secret War

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This evening’s (brief) edition of Today’s History Lesson begins with a “thank-you” to Frances Hunter.  Frances Hunter’s American Heroes is a terrific website devoted to the story of the Lewis & Clark Expedition.  Yeah, you know, the two guys that discovered the Pacific Ocean.  Well, if that’s all you think there is to the story, you have no idea how deep the rabbit hole goes.  If you haven’t been, go visit.  It’s like Morpheus offering you “the red pill.”  While writing about Andre Michaux, Frances held a contest which I happened to win, earning me a copy of Hunter’s latest book, The Fairest Portion of the Globe (and it just arrived yesterday).  It’s historical fiction that includes Meriwether Lewis, William Clark, the afore-mentioned Michaux, and a host of other historical characters.  I’m super-excited to dig in.


Thomas Hickey.  A member of General George Washington’s Life Guard and conspirator in the plot to either kidnap or kill the General.  When we visited him last week, he had just been caught and arrested.  But June 28, 1776 would see no declaration for independence for this young Sergeant.


He was to be made an example for other soldiers who would might consider acting against their uniform.  He was taken to a field and hanged on a gallows.  But his sentence was not witnessed by only a few, as may have been the case of Major John André.  Instead it was done in front of 20,000 Continental Army soldiers.  And while there were 20 or so arrests made in the case, no one else received the death penalty, as they turned “state’s evidence” to further implicate Hickey.

As mentioned before, the actual plot to kill General Washington is a bit murky, but there is little doubt that it existed.  The fact that everyone turned on Thomas Hickey may be the cause of the glorification of the story down through the years.  The famous “Poisoned Peas” tale is likely just a tale, and may come out of the sensationalism.  As it goes, Hickey made an arrangement with one of Washington’s servant girls to lace his peas with arsenic.  The servant girl warned the General who, rather than eat the peas, threw them out to the chickens roaming in the yard.  They ate the peas and promptly died, leading to Hickey’s arrest.

That certainly doesn’t coincide with what we discussed last week, but as we know, stories get bigger over time.  Anyways, there you have it.  Hickey’s hanging and some vegetables that most kids already believe to be poisoned.

I happen to love peas, as long as they’re not from a can…those are deadly.

Recommended Reading: Thomas Hickey – This is some good information. Keep in mind that records of this incident (now more than 230 years old) are murky. But I think this is interesting reading.

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During the American Revolution, New York City was very much a center for British sympathizers.  That’s not especially surprising, as we’ve mentioned it on a couple of occasions.  And what’s more, the violence and persecution (I think the term is appropriate here) against them was widespread, as the pro-independence Colonists there had little trouble finding Loyalists to torment.

So when General George Washington arrived on the scene in April of 1776 to oversee military preparations, it doesn’t take much imagination to figure out that the Loyalists might target him in order to exact a bit of revenge.  The British, still stinging from the loss of Boston in March, probably would have welcomed a change of leadership at the head of the Continental Army.

On June 21, 1776, a plot to convince Patriot soldiers to defect to the British was uncovered.  It was orchestrated by William Tryon, New York’s former governor, who had been ousted from his position by the Patriots.  David Matthews, New York City’s current mayor and a Tory, was accused of funding the operation, which involved bribes to Continental Army soldiers.  And while it was never completely proven, Matthews spent some time in prison.

But most shocking was the discovery that members of Washington’s guard, most notably, Sergeant Thomas Hickey, were involved.  Having been assigned to his position in March, he was caught passing counterfeit money.  While in prison, he told a fellow soldier that his crimes were part of a much larger plot.

Evidence seems to suggest that included in the plans was the capture or assassination of General Washington and other members of his staff.  There doesn’t seem to be 100% consensus on whether a plot to kill the General actually existed.  Some historians seem to think so, while others are doubtful.  In his biography of Alexander Hamilton (which I’ve quoted dozens of times), Ron Chernow writes of a definite assassination plot.  So I’m inclined to believe that one existed.

How far-reaching such a plan reached is hard to say, but we know for sure that only Thomas Hickey’s neck would feel the bite of the hangman’s rope, as his execution was carried out a week later.

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The winter of 1779-1780 was a pretty bad one for thirteen Colonies struggling to free themselves from cross-Atlantic control.  First off, the weather was miserable.  “Washington’s army, encamped at Morristown, New Jersey, suffered more than it had at Valley Forge from severe frosts and six-foot banks of snow.”  Those words, from Ralph Ketcham’s extensive biography of James Madison, succinctly summarize some of the worst conditions anyone could remember.  Even the British, with a recent run of successes, called a halt to operations.

A young Madison (shown above), snowbound in Virginia, took the time to investigate the Colonies’ second problem:  money.  The Colonies had lots of money floating around…roughly $200 million in paper currency.  The real issue was that it wasn’t worth the paper on which it was printed.  The previous couple of years had seen currency values fall, in some cases, to less than 1% of their face value.  And James Madison came to some interesting conclusions.

After extensive reading, he determined that the value of money…well, let’s just quote him directly.  “…does not depend on its quantity.  It depends on the credit of the state issuing it, and on the time of its redemption; and is not otherwise affected by the quantity, than as the quantity may be supposed to endanger or postpone the redemption.”

Of course, a good many people disagree with that premise, even today.  Many times, we’ll say things like, “If the government has trouble paying its bills, they’ll just print more money.”  It’s a derisive statement that implies the following:  if the government prints more money, there are more dollars in the system for the same amount of goods and services.  This serves to make dollars less valuable and, by extension, goods and services more expensive.  I’m no economist, so while that line of thinking resonates with me and seems to make sense, I have no idea as to whether things really operate like that.

Anyways, Madison’s thoughts flew in the face of conventional wisdom during the Revolution as well.  So it’s not surprising that he disagreed with the rest of the Continental Congress when, on March 18, 1780, that body resolved to reduce the $200 million of outstanding currency to just $5 million with a 1:40 reverse monetary split.  Ketcham writes, “It was hoped the new currency would escape depreciation and thus stabilize Congressional finances…Yet the act stopping the Continental currency presses took power from Congress precisely when it needed more to prosecute the war.”

James Madison was despondant.  Writing to Thomas Jefferson, his new (and eventual life-long) confidant, his depressed pen would write, “It is to be observed that the situation of Congress has undergone a total change from what it originally was.  Whilst they exercised the indefinite power of emitting money on the credit of their constituents they had the whole wealth and resources of the continent within their command, and could go on with their affairs independently and as they pleased.  Since the resolution passed for shutting the press, this power has been entirly given up and they are now as dependent on the States as the King of England is on the Parliament.”

General Washington, from his vantage point in an army that, to this point, was largely unpaid and very poorly-provisioned, said, “I see one head gradually changing into thirteen…I see the power of Congress declining for the consideration and respect which is due to them as the grand representative body of America, and am fearful of the consequences.”

A twenty-something Alexander Hamilton, now part of Washington’s military staff, pored over the situation and partially agreed with Madison, though he strongly believed that foreign loans were the best solution.  He would write, “The quantity of money in circulation is certainly a chief cause of its decline.  But we find it is depreciated more than fives times as much as it ought to be. … The excess is derived from opinion, a want of confidence.”  These words were part of a letter, more than six-thousand words in length, that outlined a financial system and was composed under a pseudonym and sent to a congressman (Robert Morris).

But for the time being, the devaluation of the currency was a painful decision, and wiped out the savings of many Americans.  And 1780 was only 3 months old, and much more hardship was in the works.

Recommended Reading:  Alexander Hamilton’s letter to Robert Morris – It’s hard to believe he was just 23 years old when he penned this.

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On February 18, 1776, a young Alexander Hamilton sent a letter to the Royal Danish-American Gazette that he was joining the military.  Big news?  I’m not sure it was at the time and, in the subsequent 235 years, millions of men and women have made the same honorable decision.

Hamilton, having arrived in the Colonies less than four years before, was now a student, a writer, and a budding revolutionist.  He was entrenched at King’s College and, as a young man of just 19 (or so, depending on his exact date of birth), had already studied enough to receive a bachelor’s degree and begin advanced law studies.  He was also an avid writer, publishing a series of articles (anonymously) called “The Monitor” in the New-York Tribune from November of 1775 to early February 1776, as the Colonies were by now in a declared (by the Crown) state of rebellion, and full-out war loomed.

So his decision may have come as a surprise to some, but Hamilton was fascinated with the order of the military, its command structure, the drills, and the precision of it all…even though he saw much more of those things in the British Redcoat formations than in the Colonial militias.  In fact, he was already serving in a volunteer militia company.  And when New York’s Provincial Congress announced the formation of an artillery company to defend New York, Hamilton jumped at the chance to join.

In his letter, which he did not sign, he wrote, “It is uncertain whether it may ever be in my power to send you another line…I am going into the army and perhaps ere long may be destined to seal with my blood the sentiments defended by my pen.  Be it so, if heaven decree it.  I was born to die and my reason and conscience tell me it is impossible to die in a better or more important cause.”

And on March 14, 1776, Hamilton was assigned to lead the artillery company with the rank of Captain.  The (good) fallout from this event is extensive.  Alexander Hamilton trained his men well, he dressed them well (partly at his own expense), and he worked them into a cohesive unit that served with distinction as open conflict with the British heated up.

His conduct got him noticed by General George Washington, who eventually added the young Captain to his staff (with a new rank of Lieutenant Colonel).  And of course, the rest is history, as the two would go on to form one of the strongest tandems in the Revolution and in the formation of a young America.

And it all began with Hamilton’s good work as the “Captain of a Company of Artillery.”

Recommended Reading: Alexander Hamilton

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More than a year ago, we talked about Valley Forge, Pennsylvania.  I wrote back then that it needed no introduction as it was a sacred place in American history.  I likened the winter of 1777-78 to being placed on an anvil, where heat, and hammer blows, and high pressure work together to create a strong finished product.  In my mind, Valley Forge fits well into that analogy.

The stunning victory by the Continental Army over General Burgoyne’s British at Saratoga in September of 1777 could only be celebrated momentarily, as fresh forces swept over Cooch’s Bridge, Chadd’s Ford, and into Philadelphia, scattering the Second Continental Congress and putting General Washington’s men “on the anvil”.

Of course, for the analogy to work completely, an anvil needs a hammer, and I contend that it arrived in Valley Forge on February 23, 1778, in the form of Friedrich Wilhelm Augustin Ludolf Gerhard von Steuben. Ron Chernow paints our “hammer” as “a Prussian soldier with a drooping face and ample double chin.”  He goes on:  “He billed himself as a German baron and acted the part with almost comical pomposity.  Although the baron and the honorific ‘von’ were likely fictitious, Frederick William August von Steuben came from a military family and had served as an aide to Frederick the Great.”

Much like the Marquis de Lafayette, the government was suspect of promising to pay a foreign addition to the army, especially when it couldn’t really pay the guys already on the payroll.  But like Lafayette, Baron von Steuben arrived at his own expense and said he would dispense with pay unless the Americans were ultimately victorious.  The government liked these no-cost additions.

His goal, to quote a favorite movie of mine, was to “put backbone into young jellyfish”, and he set about doing so immediately.  His coursework included intense drillwork, formation marching, musket loading, and bayonet fixing.  I’m not sure if he offered up (like Sally Struthers) the optional degrees in Business Management or Accounting, but he rewrote the army’s drill manual and created a training guide for company commanders.

Those in command of the army at Valley Forge had little doubt that von Steuben was a potent elixir for the flagging Continental Army.  He brought precision and order to the formations.  His goals for the men, once accomplished, gave them confidence and a greater cohesion.  They learned to work together in battle.  His hammer blows were helping to create a more powerful weapon.

One private would write, “Never before or since have I had such an impression of the ancient fabled god of war as when I looked on the baron.  He seemed to me a perfect personification of Mars.”  General Washington and his staff recognized it as well, and by May, not only was the Continental Army very different from the soggy, defeated force that had staggered into Valley Forge, but Baron von Steuben was sporting a new rank…that of (honorary) Major General.

Hammer indeed.

Recommended Reading: Washington’s Secret War

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The loss of Fort Washington in mid-November and the subsequent surrender of Fort Lee meant that the Colonies had not only lost control of Manhattan and the Hudson River, but they had lost New York altogether.  General Washington’s forces were bedraggled, defeated, and in full retreat.

For the last couple of weeks (since the Mahattan disaster), the order of the day was to avoid all major conflicts with the British Army, which was following close behind.  Instead, the Continental Army engaged in rearguard actions that were meant to harass the Redcoats and keep them constantly uncomfortable while, at the same time, presenting little risk to the men.

As Washington’s men approached the Raritan River near New Brunswick, New Jersey, their General gave thought to turning and facing his pursuers.  But the condition of his forces put paid to that hope.  So other than a heavier-than-usual rearguard action, the trudging retreat in the cold and snow continued.

On December 8, 1776, his forces crossed the Delaware River and entered Pennsylvania, effectively giving up New Jersey without a fight.

It’s not recorded anywhere, but one is left to wonder if General Washington looked back across the ice-choked Delaware to the New Jersey shore and said, MacArthur-style, “I shall return.”

Indeed, three weeks later, with the bells of Christmas still ringing, Washington’s forces would re-cross the Delaware River attack the still-chemically-altered British and Hessian troops camped at Trenton.

But on this day, morale in the Continental Army was at as low a point as it would be during this increasingly difficult struggle for freedom.

Recommended Reading:  Washington’s Secret War

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By mid-November of 1776, the reality of their rebellion against the King George III was beginning to slap the Colonists in the face…hard.  The excitement of July 2nd’s Declaration of Independence had, in the ensuing months, been replaced a new truth.  A sobering, more immediate truth, stronger than the flush of breaking from the Crown.  The Colonies were now faced with an angry motherland, a motherland which had a pretty good army and an overwhelming navy.

The colonial militia was inexperienced, poorly equipped, lacked proper training, and simply wasn’t prepared to deal with an organized fighting machine like the one populated with Redcoats.  Early engagements verified it.  New York City’s fall in September was truly embarrassing to General Washington, who looked in anger at the men turning tail and shouted, “Are these the men with whom I am to defend America?”

September’s humiliation became October’s embarrassment at White Plains where, despite holding the high ground and inflicting more casualties than they took, the colonials were forced to retreat.  Desertion was becoming a problem, as were drunkeness and carousing.  Looking across the battlefields at the polished muskets, crisp uniforms, and strict discipline, it’s not hard to imagine Washington’s growing despair.

The White Plains debacle left the colonials with the barest of grips on Manhattan.  Fort Lee and Fort Washington, both constructed in early 1776, were built on opposite sides of the Hudson River, and constituted the last best positions that Washington’s men could hold in the area.  But that was fleeting as well.

On November 16, 1776, General Washington watched from Fort Lee’s observation post as Fort Washington was overrun by a combined force of British soldiers and Hessian mercanaries.  This loss was particularly painful because a large amount of supplies (muskets, gunpowder, etc.) were captured, as were more than 2,800 prisoners.

But even worse, Fort Lee was left in an indefensible position.  Four days later, it would be surrendered.  Washington was forced to retreat from New York with what was left of his “army”.  It was during the retreat that Thomas Paine would write that “These are the times that try men’s souls.”

General Washington, unanimously chosen to lead the militias, was now being heavily criticized for the loss of Fort Washington.  The army was a mess, dissension was growing, and the war for independence was looking more and more like a mismatch of comical proportions.

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In their 25-year relationship, George Washington and Alexander Hamilton didn’t disagree on very many things.  But the differences they had were pronounced.  Over time, we’ll look at a couple of them.  Today, we’ll look at one.

The disposition of Major John André.

If you recall, André had been found with plans to the fort at West Point which had been given him by Benedict Arnold.  And once the Continental Army’s leadership discovered that it indeed was Arnold who committed treason and eluded capture, there was a combined feeling of intense sadness and rage at his actions.

But André was the guy they had captured, not Arnold himself.  A letter, likely originating from Hamilton’s pen, was quietly sent to the British requesting a trade of the popular André for Arnold, but that was refused.  Benedict Arnold probably heaved a sigh of relief, as he probably would have been lynched before he ever went to trial.

The disagreement between Washington and Hamilton had nothing to do with Major André’s fate…his execution was certain.  It had everything to do with its implementation.  If John was considered a spy, he would hang.  If he was categorized as an officer, he would be shot…a much more honorable death.

Hamilton argued that the Major had been lured behind enemy lines by Arnold against his wishes, and had not intended to take on the role of a spy.  Washington argued that John André had come ashore secretly, crossed enemy lines, worn civilian clothes, and used a pseudonym, all traits of a spy.

Washington won the argument.

Major André, for his own part, had little doubt of his fate.  He considered himself a loyal officer and preferred to die as one, but death is death, and he faced it like a man.

At 5:00pm, the prisoner was led from Yoast Mabie’s Tavern in Tappan, and mounted the wagon under the scaffold.  He placed the noose around his own neck and donned his own handkerchief.  When asked if he had anything to say, André reportedly replied, “Nothing but to request you will witness to the world that I die like a brave man.”

The wagon pulled away and, a short time later, Major John André was dead.  More than one Continental officer was impressed with André…his rapid ascent in the British Army surprised few that met him.

Alexander Hamilton would later recall his disagreement with the future First President with a certain amount of resignation when he wrote, “The death of André could not have been dispensed with, but it must still be viewed at a distance as an act of rigid justice.”

Recommended Reading: Alexander Hamilton

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It seems like every major city has, at some point, a major fire to go with it.  London had one, Chicago had one, and Washington, D.C. had one.  San Francisco had one, but that that more to do with the big earthquake that preceded it.  Still, fire is fire, and when it rages uncontrolled, it’s a pretty devastating experience.

Citizens of the small community of New York City also experienced a fire.  I say “small community” because, by today’s standards, the city was more townish in size.  But by 1776 standards, it was pretty large.  It was also about to be occupied by the British, so there’s been some speculation that Colonials or members of Washington’s Continental Army set the blaze.  And the General certainly had motive.

He didn’t have the manpower or firepower to stop the British from taking the city, so he packed his troops and headed for the higher ground of Harlem Heights.  There certainly was discussion amongst his staff about burning the city to deny its supplies and warehouses to the enemy, but that doesn’t seem to have been Washington’s style.  At any rate, history doesn’t really name a culprit.

History does show that on September 21, 1776, the fires started.  Fanned by high winds and fueled by closely packed wooden structures, they quickly overwhelmed any defensive measures taken.  The populace could do little but grab what they could, run into the streets, and watch the conflagration, which burned all day, all night, and into the 22nd.  All told, one quarter of the city’s homes and businesses were destroyed.

In our minds, that sounds like a massive fire, but that’s because we think in a 21st-century mindset…New York City…10 million people.  In 1776, one fourth of the buildings was 500 buildings.  A lot, yes, but not the destruction our mind’s eye might conjure.

The British certainly didn’t start the fires and, in fact, they were the ones who expended the most effort to put them out.  They questioned a bunch of people concerning the fire (including a young spy named Nathan Hale), but never found a suspect.  The buildings that survived became British hospitals and prisons.  The homes still standing (and not owned by British sympathizers) were taken over by Redcoat officers.

Under British control, New York City became a Loyalist enclave, and would remain so for many years.  It was many of these “Loyalists” to the Crown that, years later, would make the push to ratify the Constitution in New York such a struggle.

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The trip from Cooch’s Bridge in northern Delaware to Chadds Ford spans but 30 miles, give or take.  But in 1777, General Washington certainly wished that distance had at least one more zero at the end.  He needed space between himself and the British army coming at him.

The loss of Cooch’s Bridge the week before, while not a major engagement, opened the Colonial gates to Philadephia, and now the infant country’s capital was threatened.  And while the Redcoats and Hessians that made up Howe’s army didn’t have the convenience of Interstate 95 to speed them along, there was only token military resistance to impede their progress…

…until Brandywine Creek.  Meandering through southeast Pennsylvania, the Brandywine blocked access to the more navigable Schuylkill River (though it was less so at this time due to recent rains).  The Brandywine was Washington’s “line in the sand”, and the higher ground on the opposite site of the creek near Chadds Ford the chosen defense point.

In the cool, damp autumn mornings, fog is often thick in lower-lying areas, particularly around rivers and streams.  The Brandywine was no exception, and the morning of September 11, 1777 saw heavy fog in the area, which General William Howe used to his advantage.  Even though he outnumbered the Continental Army, he knew he didn’t want to attempt a full-on frontal assault (Bunker Hill had taught that messy lesson early on).

So Howe used the reduced visibility the morning provided to divide his troops, and sent the greater part of his forces to the left in a flanking maneuver.  By mid-afternoon, the pieces were in place and the guns began firing, with Howe’s flanks attacking first.  Washington’s forces in place were unable to cope with the onslaught, so the General sought to reinforce them.

It was at this time that Howe unleashed his 5,000-man attack straight up the middle.  Very quickly, the battle turned against Washington and his army.  A retreat order probably didn’t have to be given, because it was a naturally-occuring phenomena along the front.  The speed of the retreat meant the cannon, critical to future defense and normally pulled by horses (many of which were killed in the battle) had to be abandoned.

Also left behind were nearly 1,300 killed, wounded, and captured…twice the number of casualties inflicted on the Redcoats.  General Washington didn’t need to consult his maps or his subordinates to know that Philadephia was now in real trouble.  He sent runners (including the intrepid Alexander Hamilton and Robert E. Lee’s father Henry) ahead to destroy flour mills along the Schuylkill and to warn the Second Continental Congress that the British were bearing down on the capital.

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The Marquis de Lafayette may not have been a Colonist, but it didn’t take him long to become something of a celebrity in the Colonies.  His arrival in South Carolina was a story of heroism, daring escape, and swashbuckling action on the high seas.

His youth, good looks, royal upbringing, wealth, and penchant for finery warmed him to the people in short order.  But most of all, his love of freedom, a willingness to share his military knowledge with a fledgling Colonial army, and his desire to fight the British made him most welcome in this time of Revolution.

His stay in South Carolina last only a couple weeks before he began his month-long journey north to Philadelphia, where he met his first roadblock, the Second Continental Congress.  For them, LaFayette was yet another French “glory seeker” foisted on them by Silas Deane (an envoy to France).  Thomas Jefferson thought the French lad possessed “…a canine appetite for popularity and fame“, a charge that may have been true to a degree.

But when the Marquis offered to fight without pay, well, the men who wrote the checks (but had no money to do so) suddenly saw him as a valuable asset (of course, it didn’t hurt to have the unfailing support of Benjamin Franklin, either).

On July 31, 1777, the Marquis de LaFayette was commissioned into the Continental Army as an honorary Major General.  General Washington was encouraged, by Franklin, to befriend his new subordinate, but that was unnecessary advice, as the two found an instant connection.  The man who would become the nation’s first President was something of a father-figure to LaFayette throughout the War.

He also became a close compatriot with Alexander Hamilton, then a young 20-something Lt. Colonel serving on Washington’s staff who could communicate with the Army import in fluent French.  The two, along with Hamilton’s close companion John Laurens, were something of a Revolutionary “Three Musketeers”.

In his impressive work on Alexander Hamilton, Ron Chernow writes that the Marquis was a bit temperamental and was given to some of the foibles stereotypical of French aristocracy of the day.  But Chernow is quick to add that LaFayette “proved to be a valiant officer of surprisingly mature judgement and more than rewarded the faith of his admirers.”

We’ll see some examples of that in the future.

And a Happy Birthday to my older brother!!

Recommended Reading: Alexander Hamilton

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I hope you’ve all had a wonderful Christmas.  Ours has been very good.  My wife gave me one of those shiatsu back massage pad thingys, and it’s great.  I’m thinking I’ll probably take it to the office…or I may never leave the house again.  Since we’re all (or at least some of us are) filled with good food and treats and such, maybe Today’s History Lesson should be kept brief.

Let’s talk river crossings.  We’ve all done it at one time or another (likely hundreds of times).  You’re driving in your car, you come to a bridge, and you know what to do.  It all comes naturally.  Unless it’s one of those gigantic bridges, then you might gawk for a moment and feel your heart race just a bit.  But you cross the river and get to the other side and life goes on.

But (in Rudolph-style) do you recall the most famous river crossing of all?  It happened on Christmas night when General George Washington left Pennsylvania, crossed the Delaware River, and landed in New Jersey.  It was December 25, 1776, and the General had a date in Trenton…with the Hessians.

Who were the Hessians?  They were not the guys for whom that famous college football trophy is named.  The Hessians were German soldiers who had been conscripted (forced) to join the British ranks to fight against the Continental Army.  Since most of them came from the German state of Hesse,…you get the picture.

This all-boat crossing, which began at 3:00pm, would take 12 hours to complete, and featured all of the winter conditions you’d expect…ice floes, strong winds, cold, and sleet.  But Washington’s army crossed safely and proceeded to ruin the Hessian Christmas, although it’s pretty safe to say that citizens forced to fight in a foreign country probably didn’t feel a whole lot like fighting the day after the biggest holiday of the year.  The Continental Army suffered 3 killed and a half-dozen wounded.  The Hessians?…20-some killed and about 100 wounded.

If only all the battles of the Revolution had been this easy…

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Valley Forge.  The name is instantly recognizable.  The images we conjure are probably pretty similar, because we all know at least part of the story surrounding this most famous of places.  They are images of suffering, intense hunger, disease, cold, and death.  We see soldiers, feet wrapped in rags and their bodies shrouded in tattered uniforms or torn blankets, huddled around campfires in a desperate struggle to survive.

Valley Forge.  The name is instantly appropriate.  It was a crucible of fire, a place of harsh refinement that helped to strengthen the Army.  In his book Washington’s Secret War, Thomas Fleming contends that the American Revolution was won here.  Valley Forge is hallowed ground in American history, and many of the soldiers that walked it had no shoes to remove.

The Colonists’ fight for freedom had started to produce some good results.  A huge victory at Saratoga in October of 1777, led by General Horatio Gates, stunned the British and gave the Army and the people a big boost in confidence.  In addition, it convinced the French to openly align itself with the Colonies. 

But not all the news was good.  A month before Saratoga, General William Howe’s army had captured Philadelphia from General Washington’s outnumbered troops, forcing the fledging government to leave.  After trying unsuccessfully to push the British out of the capital, Washington settled his forces 20 miles away, arriving there December 19, 1777.  Washington chose Valley Forge with good reason.  It was close enough to keep an eye on the British, but far enough away to discourage a full assault in the dead of winter.

But his troops were in bad shape.  Food was scarce, the government had little money to pay for it, and the money they did have was largely worthless.  Many citizens were undoubtedly wary of selling supplies to a government that, right now, could only pay with I.O.U.’s.  The soldiers’ clothes were in tatters and, again, there was little money for replacements.  And while the men would be able to build reasonable shelters, and the winter would be pretty average, the constantly damp conditions would turn the camp into a giant petri dish.  Typhus, pneumonia, and other ailments would serve to decimate the Army, with mortality rates approaching 20%.

But such were the times, when a poverty-stricken (and sometimes divided) Congress, together with a suspicious (and sometimes divided) populace, served to put the nation’s Army on the anvil…an anvil that created an Army of fighting men.

Recommended Reading: Washington’s Secret War: The Hidden History of Valley Forge – See how General Washington really became a leader of men and country in Valley Forge…an outstanding read.

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The Siege of Yorktown had begun in late September of 1781.  General Charles Cornwallis, having first arrived earlier in the year with a handful of troops, now held charge of a garrison numbering more than 7,000 soldiers.  Located in southeastern Virginia, Yorktown sat (and still sits) at the mouth of the Chesapeake Bay just northwest of Norfolk.

With such a large force of British soldiers, it was bound to attract the attention of the Continental Army.  Even so, General Washington had originally wanted to launch attacks in New York, where his forces held a numerical advantage.  But it was the Navy that would have the last word…the French Navy.

The Navy, under the command of Admiral de Grasse, notified the American commander in August that his force of warships, with 3,000 additional soldiers, was headed for Virginia and suggested the American forces join them there.  In late September, everyone was in place.  The British fleet, sent to attack the French, was bested in the Battle of the Chesapeake and Washington, de Lafayette, and Rochambeau had nearly 20,000 men on station at Yorktown.

As September turned into October, the siege was on.  While subjecting the trapped British soldiers to constant shelling from both the French warships and hundreds of artillery pieces, the squeeze was slowly put on Yorktown.  Cornwallis sent messages for help, but the promised relief from New York (Washington’s original target) was late in arriving.  With ammunition almost gone and food just as scarce, the British commander was left with little choice but to sue for peace, which he did on October 17th.

General Cornwallis and Captain Thomas Symonds (representing the British Navy) both signed the instrument of surrender on October 19, 1781…five days before the promised relief forces arrived from New York.  Though it would be nearly two years before the Treaty of Paris was signed, the Revolution was, for all intents and purposes, over.  British rule in the American Colonies was finished.

Recommended Reading: His Excellency: George Washington – In the last 3 or 4 years, I’ve become a real fan of Ellis’ works.

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