Alexander Hamilton’s Commission

For the past year or more, just about everything having to do with Alexander Hamilton has taken off due to—do I even have to mention it?!—the musical about his life.

The fact that he was an artillery officer has not escaped my notice. The best place to start then, is probably at the beginning–Hamilton’s commission as an artillery officer.

On 14 March 1776 (I know, I missed posting this on the actual anniversary!), the Committee of Safety of the New York Provincial Congress appointed Hamilton “captain of the Provincial company of artillery of this colony.”[1]

Hamilton’s commission seems to have had its roots in his friendship with Alexander McDougall, a Scottish immigrant and successful businessman. Hamilton had known McDougall since a meeting of the Sons of Liberty on 6 July 1774 on the Common near King’s College (now Columbia University). McDougall chaired the meeting, and Hamilton gave a stirring, pro-Patriot speech that is remembered as the first significant piece of political oratory in Hamilton’s life.[2]

Hamilton’s interest in military service first took form in 1775, when he joined a group of volunteers in a pro-Patriot militia called the Hearts of Oak, which drilled in a cemetery. In August 1775, Hamilton and the Hearts of Oak took part in a raid on the Battery, stealing some two dozen British cannons.[3]

In early 1776, now a commissioned officer in the Continental Army and prominent member of the New York Provincial Congress, McDougall recommended Hamilton for a commission.[4] Though this recommendation was made on 23 February, and the Committee of Safety was supposed to approve the recommendation on the next day, no action was taken until 14 March.

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Alexander McDougall recommends Alexander Hamilton for a commission in the artillery (from the journals of the New York Provincial Congress for 23 February 1776).

On that date, the Committee read a letter from Stephen Badlam, a captain of artillery, testifying that Hamilton was fit for duty as an artillery officer. Then, the Committee appointed Hamilton commander with James Gilleland as second lieutenant. Later, Hamilton’s friend Hercules Mulligan supposedly said that Hamilton’s commission depended on recruiting 30 men, and that in the very first day he and Hamilton had recruited 25. From other parts of the Committee’s journal, it seems like an artillery company typically had 5 officers and 95 enlisted men. Supposedly, 68 men were eventually recruited for Hamilton’s company.[5] Hamilton was 21 years old at the time he was commissioned.

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Alexander Hamilton is appointed captain in the New York Provincial Company of Artillery (from journals of the New York Provincial Congress for 14 March 1776).

Characters on the periphery of this story have their own interesting stories. Badlam became a cabinet and furniture maker whose work is held by the Met in New York and displayed in the Yale University Art Gallery. Gilleland (also spelled Gilliland) would leave the artillery, become an officer of sappers later during the Revolution, and earn Hamilton’s praise for removing obstacles during the Battle of Yorktown in 1781.[6]

Badlam Cabinets YUAG

1791 chest with cabinets made by Stephen Badlam. Now in the Yale University Art Gallery.

The “Provincial company of artillery” that Hamilton would eventually command was originally formed two months prior. On 6 January, the Committee members “took into consideration the defenceless state of this Colony and the capital thereof, and that they have not any proper persons to use and manage the field artillery of the Colony…” Therefore, the Committee resolved “That it will be useful and necessary for the general defence of the Colony to raise and employ an artillery company…”[7]

Under Hamilton, the New York Provincial Company of Artillery took part in the Battles of White Plains, Trenton, and Princeton. According to Princeton University lore, Hamilton’s gunners shot a cannonball through a window of the university’s main building, Nassau Hall, and decapitated a portrait of King George II. When Hamilton accepted a position on George Washington’s staff in March 1777, command was turned over to Lt. Thomas Thompson, a former sergeant in the unit whom Hamilton commissioned. The U.S. Army’s Center of Military History traces the lineage of the New York Provincial Company of Artillery down to the 1st Battalion, 5th Field Artillery, making it the oldest active unit in the regular U.S. Army.[8]


Alexander Hamilton (1757-1804) in the Uniform of the New York Artillery by Alonzo Chappel.

[1] Journals of the Provincial Congress, Provincial Convention, Committee of Safety and Council of Safety of the State of New-York. 1775-1776-1777 (Albany: Thurlow Weed, 1842), vol. 1, 359.

[2] Ron Chernow, Alexander Hamilton (New York: Penguin, 2004), 55.

[3] Robert K. Wright, Jr., and Morris J. MacGregor, Jr., Soldier Statesmen of the Constitution (Washington, D.C.: U.S. Army Center of Military History, 1987), 94-96; Willard Sterne Randall, “Hamilton Takes Command,” Smithsonian Magazine (Janaury 2003), accessed March 26, 2017,

[4] Journals of the Provincial Congress, 321.

[5] Chernow, Alexander Hamilton, 73; Journals of the Provincial Congress, 239.

[6]“General Orders, 13 March 1779,“ Founders Online, accessed March 26, 2017,

[7] Journals of the Provincial Congress, 239.

[8] Randall, “Hamilton Takes Command”; Organizational History (Fort McNair, D.C.: U.S. Army Center of Military History, 1999), 29.

Recent Artillery Posts From Around The Web

Two recent blog posts about historical cannons caught my attention, so I thought I would share them.

From The New York History Blog: “17th Century Cannon Returned To New York.” A cannon dredged from the St. Lawrence River, which saw service in the French and Indian War and American Revolution, is returned from loan to the Canadian War Museum to the Sackets Harbor Battlefield State Historic Site in New York.

From the Heinz History Center Making History Blog: “A Closer Look: An 18th Century Cannon.” Living History Coordinator Justin Meinert conducts a detailed autopsy of the British 6-pounder cannon, detailing its engravings and parts, from muzzle to cascabel. A reproduction is located at the Fort Pitt Museum, and an original is on display at the Heinz History Center in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. This is very similar to what I did with an 18th century French cannon that found its way to Galesburg, Illinois.

A 17th century cannon excavated from the St. Lawrence River is prepared to return to New York after being on loan to the Canadian War Museum.

A 17th century cannon excavated from the St. Lawrence River is prepared to return to New York after being on loan to the Canadian War Museum.

Cannons & Current Events: Spanish Armada Cannons Raised Off Irish Coast

Ships from the 16th century Spanish Armada have come to light off the west coast of Ireland, allowing excavation and the recovery of many artifacts. This included cannons from the infamous navy, which were raised from the sea off Streedagh Strand, County Sligo, Republic of Ireland, around 15 June. In 1588, storms and squalls dashed the Armada against the rocky coasts of Ireland, and dashed King Philip II of Spain’s hopes of invading England. Nowadays, storms are pushing pieces of the ships onto the coast, prompting calls for excavation and preservation.

A cannon from La Juliana on the sea bed before it was raised.

A cannon from La Juliana on the sea bed before it was raised.


Cannons & Current Events: Oldest Cannonball in England?

A piece of a lead cannonball has been discovered in the fields of Northampton, United Kingdom, and dated to the Battle of Northampton in 1460 during the Wars of the Roses between the Houses of York and Lancaster. It is believed to be the oldest surviving cannonball in England.

Northampton Cannonball


Medal of Honor Recipient, First Lieutenant John R. Fox

The Serchio River Valley in the province of Lucca, region of Tuscany, Italy.

The Serchio River Valley in the province of Lucca, region of Tuscany, Italy.

On Christmas night 70 years ago , German units in civilian clothes began infiltrating the town of Sommocolonia, Italy in the Serchio River valley of the Tuscany region. Then, before dawn on 26 December 1944, artillery and mortar fire began raining down on the mountain-top village as a prelude to a German assault. All across Italy, the Germans and Italians were beginning a campaign to push back the Allies’ thrust into Italy, which had already liberated Rome. The Axis forces were hoping to initiate a counteroffensive that would parallel their compatriots at the Battle of the Bulge, who at that very same time were fighting back against the Allies’ successes in northern Europe. The Germans titled their efforts in Italy Unternehmen Wintergewitter, “Operation Winter Storm” (not to be confused with a 1942 operation of the same name, during the Battle of Stalingrad).

But as the indirect fire landed that morning, First Lieutenant John R. Fox in Sommocolonia with his observation team and a couple dozen Italian Partisans, did not know that he was at the forefront of a major enemy counteroffensive.


Cannons & Current Events: Civil War Artillery Round Found At College of Charleston

Somehow, I missed these two articles, from South Carolina’s College of Charleston newspaper as well as a local ABC station. This also gives me an opportunity to unveil the renaming of “Artillery in the News” to “Cannons & Current Events,” because everyone enjoys alliteration.

In perfect timing for St. Barbara’s Day, on 3 December construction workers laboring on an expansion to the College of Charleston’s Sylvia Vlosky Yaschik Jewish Studies Center unearthed an artillery round belonging to the Civil War. The round is described as being a foot in length; my knowledge of Civil War ordnance is such that by the description and the photograph (included below), I cannot determine what kind of round this is or to what kind of gun it belonged. If any readers have ideas, they would be greatly appreciated.

An Air Force Explosive Ordnance Unit ensure the artifact was safely handled and removed, and no one was injured.

A Civil War artillery round found at the College of Charleston in South Carolina.

A Civil War artillery round found at the College of Charleston in South Carolina.