Most American college students today spend the day after Christmas doing not much of anything. And why shouldn't they? It's winter break, and the return to school and classes is still comfortably in the distance.
For twenty-one-year-old Alexander Hamilton, however, things were a bit different on the day after Christmas in 1776. Yes, he, too, was on a break from his studies as a student at King's College in New York. But he hadn't left school for a holiday; instead he'd volunteered to fight in the American Revolution, and he never did return to complete his degree.
Hamilton became a captain in command of an artillery company in the Continental Army. Unlike his counterparts with the British forces, he hadn't received any formal training in artillery (the large-caliber guns that were used in ground warfare). Instead he'd learned about cannon and their employment in the same fashion he'd learned everything else: he'd read voraciously, devouring everything he could find on the subject until he'd been able to rely on knowledge to overcome his initial lack of experience.
By the winter of 1776, he'd acquired that field experience. He'd fought in - and survived - the army's battles in New York City and their costly losses, and he and his company had been an integral part of the defense of Gen. Washington's retreat across New Jersey that fall. He'd also begun to attract attention for his skill, his bravery, and his daring.
"I noticed a youth, a mere stripling, small, slender, almost delicate in frame," another officer recalled years later, "marching beside a piece of artillery, with a cocked hat pulled low down over his eyes, apparently lost in thought, with his hand resting on a cannon and every now and then patting it, as if it were a favorite horse or pet plaything."
Although no one ever doubted Hamilton's courage, his "slender...frame" wasn't always up to the rigors that that courage demanded, and there are mentions throughout the war of him being ill, doubtless brought on by exhaustion and stress. At the beginning of Christmas Day, he wasn't with the army, but recuperating in a nearby farmhouse. Yet later in the day he rallied, and he and his company joined the rest of Washington's troops as they made the perilous midnight crossing of the Delaware River, enduring bitter cold and blowing snow, and dodging chunks of ice in the dark water.
Their goal was the town of Trenton, NJ, where 1,400 Hessian troops - mercenary allies of the British - had made their winter encampment. Washington planned to attack early in the morning of December 26, and he was counting on the Hessians to be still recovering from their Christmas celebrations the night before. With a depleted force of less than 2,000 men, surprise would be the Americans' greatest weapon against an unsuspecting enemy.
It was. By 8:00 am, Washington's troops had surrounded Trenton. The Hessians were unprepared and confused by the unexpected attack, stumbling from their quarters in disarray while their officers furiously attempted to mount a counterattack.
At one end of King Street (what an appropriate name!), the Hessians were met by Hamilton and the two cannon that he and his company had dragged through the snow. As the Hessians fired upon them, Hamilton and his company set the cannon to aim down the narrow street. At his order, the guns fired rounds of grapeshot and solid shot into the Hessian infantry and artillery, creating deadly havoc, disorganization, and panic in the blowing snow.
By 9:30 am, the Hessians had surrendered. The Hessian forces had lost 22 men killed in action, 83 wounded (including their commander, who would later die of his wounds), and 896 taken prisoner. The Americans were also able to seize the gunpowder and other supplies that the Hessians had stockpiled for the winter - supplies the ragtag Continental Army desperately needed. Best of all, the battle was a much-needed victory that buoyed American spirits and energy, and renewed enthusiasm for the war.
There aren't any contemporary paintings or drawings of the battle, and the 19thc images created long afterwards focus on Gen. Washington, not the little captain from New York. But in the lower corner of the painting, above, you'll see artillerymen pushing and pulling their cannon through the snow towards the river. And somewhere in the middle of them was Alexander Hamilton.
Above: Passage of the Delaware by Thomas Sully, 1819, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.
Read more about Alexander Hamilton and his wife Eliza Schuyler Hamilton in my latest historical novel, I, Eliza Hamilton, now available everywhere.