Give me a command (Hamilton Musical, 20)

Alexander and Eliza were married in December, 1780 (see last week’s post). A month earlier, with the prospect of a wife and family to support, Hamilton wrote to George Washington to remind him that he urgently wanted a military command. Hamilton suggests which regiments the men could be drawn from without offending his fellow officers, and lays out an objective for the newly created force, plus an alternative.

Ironically (with 20/20 hindsight, much of history is ironic), the knowledge, clarity, and breadth of vision that made Hamilton able to sketch out this plan also made him far too valuable for Washington to send out into the field.

November 22. 1780

Dear Sir,
Sometime last fall when I spoke to your Excellency about going to the Southward, I explained to you candidly my feelings with respect to military reputation, and how much it was my object to act a conspicuous part in some enterprise that might perhaps raise my character as a soldier above mediocrity. You were so good as to say you would be glad to furnish me with an occasion. When the expedition to Staten Island was on foot a favourable one seemed to offer. There was a batalion without a field officer, the command of which I thought, as it was accidental, might be given to me without an inconvenience. I made an application for it through the Marquis, who informe me of your refusal on two principles—one that giving me a whole batalion might be a subject of dissatisfaction, the other that if an accident should happen to me in the present state of your family, you would be embarrassed for the necessary assistance.

The project you now have in contemplation affords another opportunity. I have a variety of reasons that press me to desire ardently to have it in my power to improve it. I take the liberty to observe that the command may now be proportioned to my rank, and that the second objection ceases to operate, as during the period of establishing our winter quarters there will be a suspension of material business; besides which, my peculiar situation will, in any case call me away from the army in a few days and Mr Harrison may be expected back early next month. [NOTE: Hamilton was taking leave to travel to Albany, to marry Eliza.]

My command may consist of an hundred and fifty or two hundred men composed of fifty men of Major Gibbs’s corps, fifty from Col Meig’s regiment, and fifty or an hundred more from the light infantry: Major Gibbs to be my Major. The hundred men from here may move on friday morning towards [          ], which will strengthen the appearances for Staten Island to form a junction on the other side of the Passaick.
I suggest this mode to avoid the complaints that might arise from composing my party wholly of the light infantry, which might give umbrage to the officers of that corps, who, on this plan, can have no just subject for it.

The primary idea may be, if circumstances permit to attempt with my detachment Bayard’s Hill. Should we arrive early enough to undertake it, I should prefer it to any thing else, both for the brilliancy of the attempt in itself and the decisive consequences of which its success would be productive. If we arrive too late to make this eligible (as there is reason to apprehend) my corps may form the van of one of the other attacks; and Bayards Hill will be a pretext for my being employed in the affair, on a supposition of my knowing the ground, which is partly true.

I flatter myself also that my military character stands so well in the army as to reconcile the officers in general to the measure. All circumstances considered, I venture to say any exception which might be taken would be unreasonable.

I take this method of making the request to avoid the embarrassment of a personal explanation. I shall only add that however much I have the matter at heart, I wish your Excellency intirely to consult your own inclination; and not from a disposition to oblige me, to do any thing that may be disagreeable to you. It will, nevertheless, make me peculiarly happy if your wishes correspond with mine. I have the honor to be very sincerely and respectfully Yr Excellencys Most Obed. servant

A. Hamilton  (Whole letter here)

I have some friends: Laurens, Mulligan, Marquis de Lafayette

Hamilton and Lafayette became close friends while working at Washington’s headquarters. When Alexander Scammell resigned as adjutant general, Lafayette wrote to Washington recommending Hamilton for the position.

11/28/1780

As you have been pleased to consult me on the choice of an adjutant-general, I will repeat here, my dear general, that though I have a claim upon General [Edward] Hand, in every other point of view, his zeal, obedience, and love of discipline, have given me a very good opinion of him.

Colonel [William Stephens] Smith has been by me wholly employed in that line, and I can assure you that he will perfectly answer your purpose.

Unless, however, you were to cast your eye on a man who, I think, would suit better than any other in the world. Hamilton is, I confess, the officer whom I should like to see in that station. With equal advantages, his services deserve from you the preference to any other. His knowledge of your opinions and intentions on military arrangements, his love of discipline, the superiority he would have over all the others, principally when both armies shall operate together, and his uncommon abilities, are calculated to render him perfectly agreeable to you. His utility would be increased by this preferment; and on other points he could render important services. An adjutant-general ought always to be with the commander-in-chief. Hamilton should, therefore, remain in your family, and his great industry in business would render him perfectly serviceable in all circumstances. On every public or private account, my dear general, I would advise you to take him. (Quoted here)

Just before Hamilton set off for Albany, Lafayette relayed his recommendation to Hamilton.

Paramus [New Jersey] Novr. 28. 1780

Dear Hamilton,

Here I arrived last night and am going to set out for Philadelphia. Gouvion goes strait to New Windsor and by him I write to the General, I speak of Hand & Smith whom I recommend [for the adjutant general position] and add—

“If however you was to cast your-eye on a Man who I think would suit better than any other in the World Hamilton is, I confess the officer whom I would like best to see in my ____  [blank in manuscript] .” Then I go on with the idea that at equal advantages you deserve from him the preference, that your advantages are the greatest, I speak of a cooperation, of your being in the family, & conclude that on every public & private account I advise him to take you.

I know the general’s friendship and gratitude for you, My Dear Hamilton, both are greater than you perhaps imagine. I am sure he needs only to be told that something will suit you and when he thinks he can do it he certainly will. Before this campaign I was your friend and very intimate friend, agreable to the ideas of the World. Since my second voyage, my sentiment has increased to such a point, the world knows nothing about. To shew both from want and from scorn of expressions I shall only tell you. Adieu   Yrs

La Fayette (Full letter here)

He dismisses me out of hand

Brigadier General Edward Hand was chosen for the position of adjutant general.

You and your words

I tend to look for primary sources – a historian’s turn of mind. I realized this past week that I haven’t been commenting on the lyrics to the musical, because I’m not sure I can do it without lapsing into bone-dry academic prose. I’ve been working not to sound academic for … Hmphf. Nearly as long as Lin-Manuel Miranda has been alive.

But I do like a challenge, and one of the reasons I’m addicted to the musical is the way Miranda weaves words together: so let’s see if I can share my delight without suffering an academic relapse.

“Give me a command”: in the musical, Hamilton’s passionate desire to lead men in the field is the reason he leaves Washington’s staff. Washington’s a very sympathetic character and features prominently in both acts, so the motive for Hamilton’s break with him has to be established early and made completely believable. And here it is in “Helpless,” high on the list of material advantages that Hamilton doesn’t have:

Eliza, I don’t have a dollar to my name
An acre of land, a troop to command, a dollop of fame

At the wedding feast, Hamilton greets Burr with:

Congrats to you, Lieutenant Colonel.
I wish I had your command instead of manning George’s journal.

In “Stay Alive,” Hamilton asks Washington to let him lead men in the field:

And ev’ry day
“Sir, entrust me with a command,”
And ev’ry day

WASHINGTON:
No

HAMILTON:
He dismisses me out of hand

HAMILTON:
Instead of me
He promotes
Charles Lee
Makes him second-in-command

Given this set-up, when we get to “Meet Me Inside,” it’s not a surprise that Washington’s refusal to give Hamilton a field command is the reason Hamilton leaves Washington’s staff.

If you gave me command of a battalion, a group of men to lead,
I could fly above my station after the war

WASHINGTON:
Or you could die and we need you alive

HAMILTON:
I’m more than willing to die

WASHINGTON:
Your wife needs you alive, son, I need you alive

HAMILTON:
Call me son one more time

WASHINGTON:
Go home, Alexander
That’s an order from your commander

We have letters from Hamilton explaining why he left Washington’s staff (coming up in this series in a couple weeks); he doesn’t cite the lack of command as the reason. But Hamilton: An American Musical is a drama, not a history book. For it to work on stage, the characters’ actions have to be justified to the point of seeming inevitable. If you think that repetition of “command” is accidental, then you’ll never write a musical that’s nominated for 16 Tonys.

More

  •  Amazon popped up a recommendation for Nathaniel Philbrick’s Valiant Ambition. I’m enjoying it very much – like the Vidal book on Aaron Burr (see this post), it makes me shift perspective and get a better understanding of the whole. I’ve always focused on Washington’s actions during the Revolutionary War. Philbrick (who writes very well) is filling in my knowledge of topics such as the Battle of Saratoga and the Conway Cabal. If you finish it before I do, don’t tell me the ending. Seriously! Facts are facts, and history is history, but where a historian or biographer ends his story makes an enormous difference. (I already said that, when explaining why the finale of Hamilton affects my attitude to the whole musical: here, in the “My Heart Went ‘Boom'” section.)
  • A recent article in the Wall Street Journal attempted to show how similar the Hamilton lyrics are to rap. If you read the words rather than listen to the rhythm and stare cross-eyed at the multicolor graphics, all the article “proves” is that the Hamilton lyrics are miles above rap’s usual level. (HT Iris Bell for the article.)
  • 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 twentieth 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.
  • Keep in touch! Members of my email list get a weekly message with four recommendations in fields such as sculpture, painting, literature, nonfiction, movies, architecture, and decorative arts (sample here). To be added, send your email to DuranteDianne@gmail.com. You can also sign up for the RSS feed of this blog, follow me on Twitter @NYCsculpture, or friend the Forgotten Delights page on Facebook.

About Dianne L. Durante

I’m an independent scholar and freelance writer /lecturer on art and art history, with forays into food, history, politics, and publishing. My most recent projects are *Innovators in Sculpture¸* a survey of 5,000 years of art in two hours, and *Monuments of Manhattan,* a videoguide app by Guides Who Know that’s based on my book *Outdoor Monuments of Manhattan: A Historical Guide.*

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