By: Tony Williams
When “Lighthorse Harry” Lee eulogized George Washington as “first in war, first in peace, and first in the hearts of his countrymen,” he was expressing an indisputable truth that General Washington was the “indispensable” man of the American Revolution. The war would have turned out very differently if he had not been the commander-in-chief of the Continental Army. But, the collaboration of Washington and his young aide-de-camp, Alexander Hamilton, was no less critical to victory.
One of Washington’s greatest strengths was his ability to judge character and recognize talent as well as to establish a meritocracy in the American leadership. Among the brilliant and courageous commanders that he surrounded himself with in his inner circle were Henry Knox, Nathaniel Greene, Marquis de Lafayette, Alexander Hamilton, and even Benedict Arnold (up until his betrayal).
Washington witnessed Hamilton’s stalwart courage in 1776 during the disastrous Battle of New York. The British had numerous advantages in terms of mobility with the Royal Navy and generalship. Washington narrowly averted disaster on Long Island and was driven across Manhattan. Washington probably noted how cool Hamilton was under fire as the army fled back to Harlem Heights as his artillery helped repulse a British attack. Eventually, the Americans crossed the Hudson and retreated safely across New Jersey with Hamilton again covering the army at key moments. When Washington and his army crossed the Delaware and attacked the Hessians at Trenton and the British at Princeton, Hamilton’s artillery stood firm and helped turn the tide in both battles. General Washington asked the young man to serve on his staff as an aide-de-camp shortly thereafter.
Washington and Hamilton fought together at the battles of Brandywine, Germantown, and Monmouth Courthouse, came under enemy fire, and watched young men shed their blood and die. Together, they suffered the privation at Valley Forge and the continued inability of Congress and the states to send adequate supplies throughout the war. Washington dispatched Hamilton on several vital missions including wresting troops away from Horatio Gates, the heroic victor at the Battle of Saratoga. Perhaps most importantly, Hamilton worked daily with Washington in the inner circle of aides and learned the General’s mind as he wrote key correspondence. They worked and dined together, conversed about personal and military matters, and developed a strong bond with a shared outlook.
Washington and Hamilton had a dramatic falling out when the former exploded at his protégé for keeping him waiting for a planned meeting. Hamilton’s honor was deeply wounded and actually refused a meeting Washington offered to clear the air. They parted until Hamilton won a command at Yorktown and courageously seized a redoubt that turned the tide of battle and led to the American victory in the American Revolution.
The wartime alliance of Washington and Hamilton was significant for its leadership in highest levels of the Continental Army. Washington and Hamilton abided by a deference to the civilian authorities even when they were corrosive to the war effort. Finally, Washington and Hamilton were at the center of those army leaders who developed a continental outlook and would strengthen the national government and the country by advocating and winning a new Constitution with a “more perfect Union.”
Tony Williams is the Program Director of the WJMI and the co-author of Washington & Hamilton: The Alliance that Forged America (Sourcebooks, 2015). (Buy it on Amazon: http://www.amazon.com/Washington-Hamilton-Alliance-Forged-America/dp/1492609838/).