A Biography of Alexander Hamilton (1755-1804)

Aide-de-camp to Washington (1777-1781)

As Hamilton was settling in at headquarters in New Jersey in the early spring of 1777, Washington was resisting General Howe's attempts to engage his forces in open battle. Washington moved his headquarters numerous times around New York State and Pennsylvania, trying to second-guess Howe's next move, which was to be on Philadelphia rather than New York as he had anticipated. After parrying with Howe most of the summer, Washington engaged him, and was defeated, at Brandywine Creek in September.

On September 18, Hamilton led a small force to destroy a flour warehouse before the advancing British troops could confiscate it, and was almost killed when British scouts fired on his party. His horse was shot, and Hamilton was forced to swim across the Schuylkill river to safety. He then dashed off a note to the Continental Congress advising them to abandon the capitol, which they did.

The British marched into Philadelphia on September 26 unopposed, and Washington's army was defeated again at Germantown in early October.

That same month, General Horatio Gates, who led the American forces in the north, accepted the surrender of General Burgoyne's entire army at Saratoga in a brilliant and morale-boosting victory. Gates was hailed as the hero of the revolution, and there were grumblings among the troops, and in congress, that Gates should take Washington's place as Commander-in-Chief. Gates himself challenged Washington's position by sending notification of his victory directly to Congress, rather than through Washington as was proper protocol.

More hurt than indignant, Washington found himself in the embarrassing position of needing Gates' assistance. With the northern positions secure, he needed extra troops to defend the area around Philadelphia. Knowing the delicacy of the mission, the General sent Hamilton to request the troops from Gates.

Although feigning cheerful compliance with the order delivered by the young aide (Hamilton was twenty-two at the time), Gates apparently tried to take advantage of Hamilton's youth by passing off his smallest and weakest brigade. Hamilton, wise beyond his years, was not so easily fooled. He demanded that Gates hand over better men:

"When I preferred your opinion to other considerations, I did not imagine you would pitch upon a brigade little more than half as large as the others; and finding this to be the case I indispensibly owe it to my duty, to desire in His Excellency's name, that another brigade may go instead of the one intended."