Hamilton Joins Washington’s Staff (Hamilton 16)

Washington asks Congress for help

Commander-in-Chief George Washington to John Hancock, President of the Continental Congress:

New York July the 11th 1776

As I am truly sensible the time of Congress is much taken up with a variety of Important matters, It is with unwillingness and pain I ever repeat a request after having once made It, or take the liberty of Enforcing any opinion of mine after It is once given, but as the establishing of some Office for auditing accounts is a matter of exceeding importance to the public Interest I would beg leave once more to call the attention of Congress to an appointment competent to the purposes. Two motives induce me to urge the matter, first a conviction of the utility of the measure—Secondly that I may stand exculpated, If hereafter It should app⟨ear⟩ that money has been improperly expended and necessa⟨ries⟩ for the army obtained upon unreasonable Terms. For me whose time is employed from the hour of my rising, till I retire to bed again, to go into an examination of the amounts of such an Army as this, with any degree of precision and exactness, without neglecting other matters of equal importance is utterly impracticable …

A prisoner belonging to the 10th Regimt taken yesterday, Informs that they hourly expect Admiral Howe and his Fleet, he adds that a Vessell has arrived from them, and the prevailing Opinion is that an Attack will be made immediately on their arrival.

By a Letter from Genl Ward I am Informed, that the small pox has broke out at Boston and Infected some of the Troops. I have wrote him to place the Invalids under an Officer to remain till they are well, and to use every possible precaution to prevent the Troops coming from thence bringing the Infection. The distresses and calamities we have already suffered by this disorder in one part of our Army, I hope will excite his utmost care that they may not be Increased. I have the honor to be with sentiments of the greatest esteem Sir Yr Most Obed. Servt.

Charles Wilson Peale, George Washington as Commander in Chief, 1776 (or 1779?). Brooklyn Museum of Art. Photo: Wikipedia

Charles Wilson Peale, George Washington as Commander in Chief, 1776. Peale’s diary notes that he was working on this portrait when Congress passed the Declaration of Independence. Brooklyn Museum of Art. Photo: Wikipedia

Two weeks later, Washington wrote to Congress that he needed to increase the number of men on his staff.

New York July 25th 1776

Disagreeable as it is to me, and unpleasing as it may be to Congress to multiply Officers, I find myself under the unavoidable necessity of asking an Increase of my Aid de Camps—The augmentation of my Command—the Increase of my Correspondance—the Orders to give—the Instructions to draw, cut out more business than I am able to execute in time, with propriety. The business of so many different departments centering with me, & by me to be handed on to Congress for their information, added to the Intercourse I am obliged to keep up with the adjacent States and incidental occurrences, all of which requiring confidential (& not hack) writers to execute, renders it impossible in the present state of things for my family to discharge the several duties expected of me with that precission and dispatch that I could wish—what will it be then when we come into a more active Scene, and I am called upon from twenty different places perhaps at the same Instant?

Congress will do me the justice to believe, I hope, that it is not my Inclination or wish to run the Continent to any unnecessary expence. and those who better know me, will not suspect that shew, and parade can have any Influence on my Mind in this Instance. A Conviction of the necessity of it, for the regular discharge of the trust reposed in me is the Governing motive for the application, and as such is Submitted to Congress by, Sir Yr Most Obedt & Most Hble Servt

Go: Washington

Washington had 33 aides-de-camp over the course of the Revolutionary War. Alexander Hamilton joined their number early in 1777, nine months after Washington wrote the letter above.

Head-Quarters, Morristown [New Jersey] March 1, 1777.

Alexander Hamilton Esquire is appointed Aide-De-Camp to the Commander in Chief; and is to be respected and obeyed as such.

Extract of General Orders

Alexd Scammell   Adjt. Genl.

Washington's study at the Ford Mansion in Morristown, NJ, his headquarters from December 1779 to June 1780. Photo: Wikipedia

Washington’s study at the Ford Mansion in Morristown, NJ, his headquarters from December 1779 to June 1780. Photo: Wikipedia

Have I mentioned how much I adore Paul Johnson’s brief biography of Washington? More than most historians I’ve read, Johnson (a Brit) puts Washington and the American Revolution into a worldwide context. Here are Johnson’s comments on Washington’s staff.

In Alexander Hamilton, a lawyer from the West Indies and a fierce and brilliant field commander, Washington discovered a superb chief of staff from 1777 to 1781 (his nominal position was secretary), who presided over a score of aides-de-camp, half of them Virginians. These young men, each ranked a colonel, he called his military family, the martial equivalent to his personal family at Mount Vernon. He treated them with love and tenderness, and they worshipped him and (with one or two exceptions) served him with fanatical loyalty. Thus Washington, entirely as a result of his personal qualities – not too much to say his charisma – possessed, for the first time in history, a first-class general staff, who understood his mind and methods and could carry out his intentions religiously. This was something none of the British commanders had; indeed, it was denied to the two outstanding generals of the next generation, Napoleon and Wellington. But, in strict military terms, it was all Washington had. In all other respects he was outnumbered, outgunned, and outfinanced.


  • There’s a charming illustration of how crucial protocol can be in Washington’s letter of July 14, 1776, in which he reports that he has refused to accept a letter from newly arrived General Howe because it was addressed to “George Washington Esqr.”
  • Washington knew the value of art for reminding people of their values. He ordered that his favorite play,  Addison’s Cato, be performed for the troops at Valley Forge in April and May 1778. Cato is credited with inspiring famous lines by Patrick Henry, Nathan Hale, and Washington. (Quotes from it at the end of this week’s post on the Pergamon exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum.) Congress, disapproving of  such “frivolities,” in October 1778 passed a resolution: “Whereas frequenting play houses and theatrical entertainments has a fatal tendency to divert the minds of the people from a due attention to the means necessary for the defence of their country, and the preservation of their liberties: Resolved, That any person holding an office under the United States, who shall act, promote, encourage or attend such plays, shall be deemed unworthy to hold such office, and shall be accordingly dismissed.” Fascinatingly detailed article on Congress’s opposition to the theater here.
  • Mount Vernon commissioned reconstructions of Washington at  ages 19, 45, and 57. Here there are lined up at StudioEIS, where they were created.
Forensic reconstructions of George Washington at ages 57, 19, and 45, by StudioEIS. Mount Vernon ___. Photo: StudioEIS

Forensic reconstructions of George Washington at ages 57, 19, and 45, by StudioEIS for Mount Vernon. Photo: StudioEIS

For more on these reconstructions, see the New York Times article from 2006, “Coming Soon to Mount Vernon, 3 Georges” and Jeffrey Schwartz’s excellent article “Putting a Face on the First President,” in Scientific American, February 2006 (available by subscription).

  • In Hamilton, Washington refers to himself as “the very model of a modern major general,” a reference to the famous patter song from Gilbert & Sullivan’s 1879 operetta Pirates of Penzance. This video shows the lyrics (you’ll need them the first 5 times or so) and has the traditional ending, where the singer sees how fast he can do the song before his tongue falls out. Rap isn’t new in that respect. The 1983 movie features Kevin Kline as the Pirate King (signing up right now, I am), Angela Lansbury, Linda Ronstadt, and Rex Smith. My particular favorite among the patter songs is from Ruddigore (here with Vincent Price!). But I digress. Basingstoke.
  • I’ve occasionally added comments based on these blog posts to the Genius.com pages on the Hamilton Musical. Follow me @DianneDurante.
  • The usual disclaimer: This is the sixteenth in a series of posts on Hamilton: An American Musical Other posts are available via the tag cloud at lower right. The ongoing “index” to these posts is my Kindle book, Alexander Hamilton: A Brief BiographyBottom line: these are unofficial musings, and you do not need them to enjoy the musical or the soundtrack.
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About Dianne L. Durante

I constantly seek out art that's inspiring, thought-provoking, skillfully executed, and/or beautiful so I can share it (in jargon-free language) with others who need and enjoy such art, but don't have time to search for it themselves. As an independent scholar, writer, and lecturer, I focus on art history and history, with forays into food, history, politics, and publishing. My most recent projects are three volumes on Alexander Hamilton, From Portraits to Puddles, Central Park: The Early Years, Innovators in Sculpture (a survey of 5,000 years of art in 2 hours), and videoguide apps by Guides Who Know. Click on the Books & Essays tab for a list of all books. For upcoming projects, see my Patreon page.

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