In every era and in every generation there are crucial moments when a significant decision has to be made, and the consequences of that decision can changed the course of history. Many times the full impact of such a choice does not become clear at once, but in the long run things will never be quite the same. In Days of Destiny I will attempt to write a dramatization of events leading up to such a judgement. The following stories are fictional, but based on historical facts.
A CHRISTMAS STORY
DECEMBER 25, 1776
The young Captain dismounted and tied his horse to a picket fence. He pulled his ice covered cloak closer, and stomped his feet on the icy road. He’d been ordered to come to McConkey’s Inn, and had just spent the last hours of fading winter sunlight finding it. He’d been stopped by three different cavalry patrols during his journey, and this was not his idea of how spend Christmas Day.
He walked through the sleet, rain and snow to the front door of the Inn, where two sentries snapped their muskets across the door and demanded that he state his business. He was just before losing his famous temper, when the door opened and an older man in the uniform of a Lt. Col of the Continental Line ordered the sentries to allow him to enter the Inn.
“Good evening, Captain Hamilton. Sorry to call you out on such a miserable night, but before dawn we will all have our fill of it. My name is Lt. Col William Grayson, and I’m an aide to General Washington. The General and the staff are having dinner and celebrating a late Christmas, and he requests that you join them.”
Grayson led the young officer into the main room of the Inn, where a dozen or so officers were seated at a large table. The room fell silent when they entered and Grayson said,
“Gentlemen, may I present Captain Alexander Hamilton.”
Hamilton was the youngest and lowest ranking officer in the room, and no one stood, but all acknowledged him with nods and welcomes. General Washington, who stood at the head of the table said,
“Captain Hamilton, please join us,” and several officers pushed their chairs apart and made a place for him.
Hamilton took his place and replied,
“Thank you General Washington. I’m honored to join you.”
Washington remained standing and continued,
“I’ve invited Captain Hamilton here for two reasons. First, in recognition of his valor while capturing the British battery before we withdrew from Manhattan, and second, to announce his promotion to Lt. Colonel and his appointment to my staff. As many of you know, Colonel Richard Cary has been granted leave to go home and marry his lovely bride to be. When Richard returns to duty, it will be as Brigadier General Cary of the Continental Line.”
Washington raised his wine glass and said,
“To General Cary and Colonel Hamilton.”
All stood and joined in the toast, and many shook Hamilton’s hand and offered congratulations. Hamilton was dumbstruck. He had no idea why he been summoned, and had assumed it would be some special mission for his company in support of tonight’s attack. When everyone had resumed their seats, Washington continued,
“Gentlemen, when we cross the river and hit the enemy in New Jersey, we can be assured that we will have the element of surprise on our side.” He paused a moment and pointed to a middle aged man in civilian dress sitting across the table.
“We can thank the Honorable John Honeyman for this advantage. Mr. Honeyman is a veteran of The Battle of the Plains of Abraham during the Seven Years War, and a prominent supporter of King George’s cause. He was “captured” last week and brought directly to my headquarters. John has been in our service since the Battle of Lexington, and has given us a complete order of battle for our Hessian foes.”
The General raised his glass again and said,
“To a loyal patriot and a fearless friend, John Honeyman.”
Again all rose and joined in the toast. Washington smiled and said,
“Later this evening, Mr. Honeyman will be confined to our stockade, but will manage to escape during the confusion of our attack. If any of you ever see Mr. Honeyman, remember his service to our cause, and give him free passage.”
“Now, I’d like to ask General Greene to speak as to our plans for tonight.”
Maj. General Nathaniel Greene stood and said,
“Good evening Gentleman, most of you already have your orders, but let me go over the plan one more time. At the stroke of midnight we will mount three attacks. Gen. John Cadawalader will launch a diversionary attack against the British garrison at Bordentown to block any reinforcements from coming to the Hessian’s aide.”
“Simultaneously, Gen. Ewing will cross the river at Trenton and capture the bridge across Assunpink Creek and hold it until our main force arrives. General Washington will command the bulk of our army, some 2400 infantry, and we will cross the river nine miles to the north. We’ll attack the Hessian garrison with two forces. One led by General Sullivan and the other half under my command. The key to victory will be surprise and follow through. Once we hit them we’ll have to roll them up and finish the job. If all goes well in Trenton, we may be able to hit them again in Princeton.”
Greene paused to give anyone a chance to ask a question. Hamilton had many questions, but he wasn’t about to open his mouth. Greene continued with his briefing.
“Major General John Glover’s 14th Continental Regiment, the boys from Marblehead, will provide the boats and barges for both of the river crossings. John is there anything you’d like to add?”
A weather beaten man in his mid-forties, with slightly graying hair, stood and said,
“Thank you General Greene. Tonight the Delaware is choked with free flowing ice, and it will be essential that your troops stay in their seats and remain as still as possible. My boys can handle the ice, but they can’t handle some one capsizing the boat. The trickiest part will be moving General Knox and his artillery across to support the infantry. This will begin as soon as the last boat lands and before the march to Trenton begins. That’s all I’ve got. Good luck, God speed, and Merry Christmas to you all.”
“General Glover mentioned the artillery, and General Knox’s units are already at the crossing points. Lt. Colonel Hamilton will be the staff liaison with General Knox, and it will be his duty to see that the guns are in place to support our attack. Are there any other questions? If not, we’d best return to our troops. Good luck, and let’s give the Hessians a taste of a Yankee Christmas.”
All of the officers around the table began to gather their personal gear and staffs. One by one they filed out into the freezing night. General Washington held Hamilton by the arm and said,
“Colonel, may I have a word before you leave to join General Knox?”
“Of course, Sir,” Hamilton replied.
“I only want to remind you of the importance of artillery support to our attack. Henry Knox is an excellent officer and an artillery expert, but sometimes his sense of urgency might be a little flagging. Tonight I want you to provide that sense of urgency in as diplomatic manner as possible, but I want those guns ready when Generals Greene and Sullivan start their attacks. Do you understand your orders Colonel?”
“Yes Sir, completely.”
“Excellent. Now I’m going hand you a highly confidential order. Only Lt. Col. Grayson and I have knowledge of its contents, and you will be the third. I want you take it over to those candles and carefully read it, then return to me.”
Hamilton took the folded paper from Washington and did as ordered. He moved to the fireplace and stood under the candle on the mantel. He unfolded the paper and read the handwritten order,
December 25, 1776
Order 689, Headquarters, Continental Army
The bearer of this of this order, Lt. Col. Alexander Hamilton, of my staff is fully authorized to remove any officer in the chain of command of the Army’s artillery at his discretion. This includes the General commanding the artillery and any of his subordinates as Lt. Col Hamilton might deem necessary.
If Hamilton had been stunned by his appointment to Washington’s staff, he was flabbergasted by the contents of the order. Such a thing was totally unheard. To give a junior officer the authority to sack a senior general was not only unprecedented, but completely outside the chain of command. The shock must have shown on his face because Washington came over and said,
“Col. Hamilton, I can see your surprise at your orders. I can understand it and I hope neither of us will ever have to see this order implemented, but I firmly believe that tonight is our last opportunity to keep our cause alive. Our soldiers are suffering in their winter quarters, and many enlistments are soon to expire. We need a decisive victory to keep our army in the field.”
“In addition to the problem of enlistments, we are seeing flagging support in Congress to continue the struggle. We need to shore up those who support us with some positive results. A victory over seasoned veterans from a major European power will help our diplomats as we seek support in the capitals on the continent. There are many things to gain tonight, and a country to lose. I am determined to do whatever it takes to make tonight a success.”
“Colonel, I personally chose you for this mission. I believe you can keep General Knox on schedule, and neither of us will ever see that order again, but if you have to use it, don’t hesitate. Take command and do here what you did at the Battery.”
“General Washington, I fully understand the urgency of our position, and I give you my pledge that I will do all I can short of removing General Knox or any of his officers, but if I feel it necessary, I’ll do as you wish and bear full responsibility for the outcome.”
“I’m sure you will. Good luck, and get started to the ferry site. General Knox is expecting you.”
Hamilton snapped to attention and saluted Washington and said,
“General, may God smile on our work tonight, and may our army give our citizens a great Christmas present.”
Hamilton wrapped his clock tightly about him and ran into the freezing night. He mounted his horse and headed toward the ferry thinking:
Well Alex, you wanted more responsibility, and you sure got a full measure tonight.