In the dead of a moonless night on October 14, 1781, 400 infantrymen crouched under cover of darkness, waiting for a signal. The British Army under General Lord Charles Cornwallis were just a quarter of a mile away, hunkered in at Redoubt 10, one of ten small forts Cornwallis had built in a complex to hold his position at Yorktown. With the British so close, the American unit had to be absolutely silent. Quietly, slowly, they unloaded their rifles and fixed their bayonets.
Without warning, several loud cracks and bright flashes of light split the night: the unit’s signal — allied shells fired under order of General Washington. Breaking cover, led by Alexander Hamilton, the men sprinted across the field to Redoubt 10. Dodging heavy fire, within minutes they were upon the British, whooping and yelling to intimidate their enemies. It was a risky strategy, but it paid off: the British were startled into surrender, and Redoubt 10 fell in under ten minutes.
Hamilton’s unit, which included men from the Rhode Island 1st Regiment, widely regarded as the first black battalion in the U.S. military, lost just nine men in the attack on Redoubt 10, with 30 injured. A French unit of another 400 men, which took Redoubt 9 in the same operation, lost a further 27 men with 109 wounded. The victorious allies surrounded the remaining eight redoubts in Cornwall’s compound. With the French fleet in Chesapeake Bay cutting off British aid from New York, the British began to lose heart.
Two nights later Cornwallis attempted a night-time evacuation by sea, but a storm thwarted the British efforts. With nowhere left to turn, Cornwallis was forced to accept defeat. On the morning of October 19, a red-coated drummer boy was sent forward by the British, followed by an officer waving a white handkerchief.
The British loss at Yorktown effectively ended the Revolutionary War. The British Prime Minister Frederick North is said to have exclaimed: "Oh God, it is all over!" when he heard of the defeat. The following March, the British Parliament passed a resolution calling for an end to the war. America was free to chart her own course through history.
Alexander Hamilton’s rise to greatness
While the victory at Yorktown was significant for America as a whole, it had particular significance for Alexander Hamilton. Born on the Caribbean island of Nevis, unlike many of the Founding Fathers, Hamilton did not come from a wealthy family. He had none of the advantages of money or connections to pave his way in the world.
Yet Hamilton had a sharp mind, and he had ambition. As an aide to General Washington he was respected, but he knew he needed a war victory to his name to really raise his profile. The attack on Redoubt 10 was exactly the sort of mission he was looking for. When he discovered that Major General Marquis de Lafayette had given the command to someone else, Hamilton appealed to Washington, who overturned Lafayette’s decision and awarded the mission to Hamilton.
“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,” says historian Michael E. Newton, author of Alexander Hamilton: The Formative Years. “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.”
Hamilton’s bravery and leadership would see him go on, in time, to become one of the chief architects of America’s political system and federal constitution. His vision of an America made up of unified states won out, allowing America to grow into the world power we know today.
As the first secretary of the treasury in Washington’s government, Alexander Hamilton saw a way to bake his political ideas into the fabric of the federal government, again influencing the direction of the newly formed America in a way that can still be felt today. There’s no doubt that Hamilton was a tour-de-force; someone who had great vision and the determination to see it through to fruition.
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