The winter of 1780 was a difficult one for the Continental Army. The weather was exceptionally cold, provisions and shelter for the men were in short supply, and the war did not appear to be favoring the American cause. (You can read more here about the army’s winter at Jockey Hollow, near Morristown, NJ.)
But for at least one young officer, the frigid, snowy months couldn’t have been more delightful. Lt. Col. Alexander Hamilton, an aide-de-camp (the 1777 miniature portrait, left, shows him wearing the green sash of an aide-de-camp) of Commander-in-Chief General George Washington, had fallen in love with Elizabeth Schuyler, the daughter of another general from Albany, NY. Eliza had come to visit her aunt, Gertrude Cochran, for the duration of the winter, and her courtship with the young colonel moved swiftly. Before long, he had become a frequent caller at the Cochran lodgings, and when his duties or the weather kept him at headquarters, he wooed Eliza with romantic letters.
At some point during that winter, he also wrote her a love sonnet. The whereabouts of the little handwritten poem are now unknown, but Allan McLane Hamilton, the grandson of Alexander and Eliza and the son of their youngest child Philip, had it amongst family papers in the early 20thc. In his 1910 family memoir, The Intimate Life of Alexander Hamilton, he described the poem’s significance to Eliza:
“Few letters remain which enable us to mark the advance of Alexander’s wooing, but a little verse is in my possession which was found in a tiny bag hanging from his wife’s neck after her death, and which she had evidently always worn, and it was quite probably given to her when they were together this winter [1779-1780]. What is apparently a sonnet was written upon a piece of torn and yellow paper, fragments of which had been sewn together with ordinary thread.”
The sonnet is romantically conventional for an 18thc suitor, but it’s still easy to see why Eliza treasured it so:
Answer to the Inquiry Why I Sighed
Before no mortal ever knew
A love like mine so tender—true—
Completely wretched—you away—
And but half blessed e’en while you stay.
If present love [illegible] face
Deny you to my fond embrace
No joy unmixed my bosom warms
But when my angel’s in my arms.
Given that their courtship likely began in late January, could this poem have been a February Valentine from Alexander to Eliza? While there’s now no way of knowing for sure, it is possible. In the days before commercially printed cards and heart-shaped boxes of chocolates, gentlemen often composed poems like this as Valentines for their sweethearts. While Alexander did write a handful of other poems in the course of his life, this is the only surviving example written to Eliza. Valentine or not, it must have held special significance to her, enough that she still kept it close until her death over seventy years later.
Above: Miniature of Lieutenant-Colonel Alexander Hamilton by Charles Willson Peale , 1777, Museum of the City of New York.