The end of 1777 was both an exciting and dark time for Hamilton. As Washington’s aide, Hamilton was exposed to the darker side of the Continental Congress. He also experienced the struggle of American soldiers and foreign allies against a bitter winter with limited supplies. Hamilton found this period, when the American victory was far from certain and when factions within Congress and the Continental Army were turning against General Washington, to be extremely frustrating. However, the lessons he learned in this time shaped his political philosophy and his distrust of some of the institutions of the pre-Constitution government.
“Alexander Hamilton in the Uniform of the New York Artillery” by Alonzo Chappel (1828-1887)
In November 1777, a month before the planned moved to the Valley Forge encampment, Washington sent Hamilton on a sensitive diplomatic mission to General Horatio Gates. Washington wanted Hamilton to borrow a “sizable body of troops” for an attack upon British forces in New York or Philadelphia. Washington trusted Hamilton’s discretion and gave his young aide a tremendous amount of power. Washington gave a letter to Hamilton to show Gates, which laid out “the absolute necessity that there is for [Gates] detaching a very considerable part of the army at present under [Gates’s] command.” However, Gates had no intention of cooperating with Washington. Prior to Hamilton’s arrival, Gates had won a series of important battles, culminating in the September and October 1777 battles at Saratoga in which he defeated British General John Burgoyne. As Gates grew more famous, Washington suffered a series of defeats and struggled to hold major cities. Gates was entrenched as the hero of the Eastern States while Washington was being criticized for his inability to protect the North.
Nineteenth Century historian John William Wallace sets this scene:
“In short, it could not be reasonably doubted that Gates, who of necessity, was sufficiently acquainted with the great need which Washington had of reinforcements, meant to retard as much as possible the possession by him of such knowledge concerning operations as the North as would authorize a second demand by him for reinforcements for the benefit of Fort Mifflin. The matter could no longer be trifled with, and on the 30th of October 1777…Washington…send the man whose wonderful ability he early discovered and ever confided in–Alexander Hamilton, then at the age of twenty years–direct to the new-made hero of the North, with instructions, obviously of a very strong kind, and which Hamilton omitted to carry out in their full extent only from a conviction of the power and malignity of the cabal–to forward an immediate reinforcement from the northern army.”
In a letter to Washington upon his arrival in Albany, Hamilton described his first encounter with Gate:
“I arrived here yesterday, at noon, and waited upon General Gates immediately, on the business of my mission ; but was sorry to find his ideas did not correspond with yours for drawing off the number of troops you directed. I used every argument in my power to convince him of the propriety of the measure ; but he was inflexible in the opinion, that two brigades, at least, of Continental troops should remain in and near this place.
…all I could effect, was to have one brigade despatched, in addition to those already marched. I found myself infinitely embarrassed, and was at a loss how to act. I felt the importance of strengthening you as much as possible ; but, on the other hand, I found insuperable inconveniences in acting diametrically opposite to the opinion of a gentleman, whose successes have raised him into the highest importance.”
Given Gates’s hero status in the East, Hamilton felt that any attempt he made to strong-arm Gates on Washington’s behalf would result in an embarrassment for Washington because it would not be enforced. In fact, such an attempt could further weaken Washington’s position as commander-in-chief.
Imagine Hamilton’s frustration! Gates’s refusal to supply Washington with troops at a critical moment was characterized by Wallace as a major cause in the fall of Fort Mifflin the same month.
“No reinforcements ever came in time to be of value in saving Fort Mifflin- it fell on the night of the 15th of November….The delay in the arrival of certain of the troops was owing to the imbecility of General Putnam; but there is no ground to suppose that it was his purpose to cause the fall of the fort. Had Gates wished to aid Washington there would have been little trouble in the case. But if Washington could drive Howe from Philadelphia and reduce him to where General Burgoyne was, what became of the immeasurable superiority of Gates what of the sublime wisdom which characterized Conway and his fellow-conspirators in their estimate of Washington? They all had, therefore, a specific problem to prove, and that Fort Mifflin should fall was a necessary thing to get their Q.E.D. IT did fall, as Gates intended that it should.”
After Hamilton returned from his meeting with Gates, he fell violently ill and had to take bedrest for a few weeks before he joined Washington at Valley Forge for the rest of the winter. Hamilton’s experience trying to push Congress to provide supplies for the hungry, weary, and cold soldiers stationed there shaped his frustration with Congress and his view that an energetic central government, rather than a confederacy of states was required to maintain stability. (More on this soon!)
I think of Hamilton’s struggle with Gates as a “Valley Forge” moment, a moment of adversity and embarrassment, that ultimately made him more attuned to the political machinations around him and ultimately contributed to his political beliefs.