at Mr. Bayards Greenwich Wednesday Morn July 11, 1804 My dear Brother, I have the painful task to inform you that General Hamilton was this morning wounded by that wretch Burr, And we have every reason to hope that he will recover. May I advise that you repair immediately to my father as perhaps he may wish to come down. My dear sister bears with saintlike fortitude this affliction. The Town is in consternation, and there exists only the expression of Grief & Indignation. Adieu my dear Brother. Remember me to Sally. Ever Yours, A. Church
There's nothing quite like an original letter from the past. The majority of surviving letters related to the Hamiltons and Schuylers have been transcribed and are available online on various sites. There's no doubt that this is convenient. It's much easier to read a modern transcription than to decipher the often-faded handwriting of long ago, with its dips and swirls and often-idiosyncratic spelling and punctuation. It also helps preserve the originals from the wear and tear of being removed from preservation storage and studied.
There's so much more to be learned from a handwritten letter than the words alone. Handwriting can reveal the writer's emotions, fears, and wishes, the urgency with which they wrote or the care that they took in choosing just the right word or phrase. I can't think of a better example than the letter above.
The author of this letter was Angelica Schuyler Church, the eldest sister of Eliza Schuyler Hamilton, wife of John Barker Church, and sister-in-law to Alexander Hamilton. Angelica was a well-read, well-traveled, and well-educated 18thc woman, and most of her letters are filled with ideas and thoughts, descriptions of where she has visited and whom she has met, and, depending on her correspondent, often a dollop of flirtation as well. But not here.
Angelica wrote this letter on the morning of July 11, 1804, shortly after Alexander had been rowed back across the Hudson River from NJ back to NY. His duel with Aaron Burr had gone disastrously wrong, and left him gravely injured. I've written another blog post that gives all the details of the duel, so I won't repeat them here. But when Angelica wrote this letter to her brother Philip, she had clearly just arrived at the house of Alexander's friend William Bayard, where the injured Alexander had been brought. Given the severity of his wounds and the amount of blood he'd already lost, it's hard to understand her optimism for her recovery, but perhaps the attending physician was putting the best face on the situation for Angelica and Eliza.
Or perhaps Angelica did know. The letter was clearly written in haste and anxiety, the words dashed across the page. The two passages that she underlined - wretch Burr and expression of grief - are probably the most revealing ones in the entire letter. And because we know what happened after the letter was written, they're also among the saddest.
This letter belongs to The Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History, and is currently on loan and on display in the exhibition Hamilton: The Constitutional Clashes that Shaped a Nation at the National Constitution Center in Philadelphia, PA. The exhibition has been recently extended, and now runs until December 31, 2019 ; see here for more information. Many thanks to Jessie Serfilippi of the Schuyler Mansion for her assistance with this post.
Read more about Eliza Schuyler and Alexander Hamilton in my latest historical novel, I, Eliza Hamilton, now available everywhere. My next historical novel, The Secret Wife of Aaron Burr, will be published on September 24, 2019. Pre-order now here.