How Alexander Hamilton's Men Surprised the Enemy at the Battle of Yorktown
Hamilton's leadership in the war's last major land battle would deliver the future Secretary of the Treasury his long-sought glory.
Alexander Hamilton, the first Secretary of the Treasury, known for his famous, fatal duel with Aaron Burr—and his ability to draw sold-out crowds to a hit musical examining his life—played a key role in a battle that brought an end to the American Revolutionary War. And in fighting the key battle, Hamilton and his men employed what might seem like a risky strategy—unloading their weapons before their advance.
Appointed by George Washington in 1781 to command a light infantry battalion in Marquis de Lafayette’s Division, Hamilton helped lead the attack at the Battle of Yorktown in Yorktown, Virginia, which would become the war’s last major land battle. The siege lasted from September 28 to October 19, 1781, with the French attacking the British fort at Redoubt 9 and Hamilton attacking Redoubt 10 simultaneously. The double-pronged advance led British General Charles Cornwallis to surrender.
“In Hamilton's day, showing courage on the field of battle was one of just a few ways for an unknown person to win fame,” says historian Michael E. Newton, author of Alexander Hamilton: The Formative Years. “Hamilton had a genius and was hard-working but did not come from an illustrious family like most of the Founding Fathers. He knew that winning glory in battle would make him famous and help him further his career.”
Brendan McConville, professor of history at Boston University, adds that Hamilton had always been sensitive about his humble roots so it was important to him to prove himself during the war. “He had been with Washington as a key aide throughout most of the war, but wanted glory on the battlefield,” he says. Hamilton “saw victory on the battlefield as a way to win reputation.”
Initially, according to Newton, command of the assault on Redoubt 10 was given to someone else. Hamilton objected, claiming it was his turn and that he had seniority. “When Washington overturned the previous decision and gave Hamilton the command, Hamilton rushed to his friend and second in command, Nicholas Fish, and exclaimed ‘We have it! We have it!’ ”
Hamilton's unit was an integrated group of men, including Black soldiers from the 1st Rhode Island Regiment, widely regarded as the first Black battalion in U.S. military history.
The Patriot strategy in the attack was to approach the redoubts “in silence with guns unloaded, encircle the enemy and force them to surrender quickly with few casualties,” according to Newton.
“It was a surprise night assault on a moonless night—they did not want to give themselves away with flashes and the sound of guns,” McConville adds. “Bayonets were to be used to avoid giving away specific locations and silence was ordered.”
The plan worked: Hamilton’s troops took control of the redoubt within 10 minutes and with few American deaths. And the victory earned Hamilton the reputation he sought.
“Hamilton's report of the assault on Redoubt 10 was published in newspapers around the country, but Hamilton made no mention of his own accomplishments that day despite heaping praise on those who served under him,” Newton says. “Lafayette's report of the assault was also printed in these newspapers and he heaped abundant praise upon Hamilton for his actions at Yorktown. As a result, the entire country heard about Hamilton's bravery and leadership.”