US

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]

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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, http://www.smithsonianmag.com/history/hamilton-takes-command-74722445/.

[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, https://founders.archives.gov/documents/Washington/03-19-02-0459.

[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.

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.

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Medal of Honor Ceremony for First Lieutenant Alonzo H. Cushing

On the morning of Thursday, 6 November, the White House held the Medal of Honor ceremony for First Lieutenant Alonzo H. Cushing, whose actions have been detailed in a number of articles and stories, as well as my last post. C-SPAN broadcast the ceremony with remarks from President Barack Obama. Present at the awarding were Helen Loring Ensign, Cushing’s cousin twice removed who accepted the medal, as well as a number of other relatives and historian Margaret Zerwekh, who helped bring Cushing’s story to light and campaigned for this award. I have embedded the video below and included the text of the citation; there are few other words I can add to expand upon his selfless devotion and disregard for his own safety as he fulfilled his duty at the most crucial point in a battle that is considered to have determined the course of the American Civil War and the future of the Union of the United States.

CITATION: The President of the United States of America, authorized by Act of Congress, March 3rd, 1863, has awarded in the name of Congress the Medal of Honor to First Lieutenant Alonzo H. Cushing, United States Army.

First Lieutenant Alonzo H. Cushing distinguished himself by acts of bravery above and beyond the call of duty while serving as an artillery commander in Battery A, 4th U.S. Artillery, Army of the Potomac at Gettysburg, Pennsylvania on July 3rd, 1863 during the American Civil War.

That morning, Confederate forces led by General Robert E. Lee began cannonading First Lieutenant Cushing’s position on Cemetery Ridge.  Using field glasses, First Lieutenant Cushing directed fire for his own artillery battery.  He refused to leave the battlefield after being struck in the shoulder by a shell fragment.  As he continued to direct fire, he was struck again — this time suffering grievous damage to his abdomen.

Still refusing to abandon his command, he boldly stood tall in the face of Major General George E. Pickett’s charge and continued to direct devastating fire into oncoming forces.  As the Confederate forces closed in, First Lieutenant Cushing was struck in the mouth by an enemy bullet and fell dead beside his gun.

His gallant stand and fearless leadership inflicted severe casualties upon Confederate forces and opened wide gaps in their lines, directly impacting the Union force’s ability to repel Pickett’s charge.  First Lieutenant Cushing’s extraordinary heroism and selflessness above and beyond the call of duty at the cost of his own life are in keeping with the highest traditions of military service and reflect great credit upon himself, Battery A, 4th U.S. Artillery, Army of the Potomac, and the United States Army.

Union Artillery Officer To Receive Medal Of Honor For Actions At Gettysburg

Today, 6 November, the White House will hold a ceremony to honor First Lieutenant Alonzo H. Cushing with the Medal of Honor for his actions 151 years ago, during the Battle of Gettysburg.

Lt. Alonzo H. Cushing

Lt. Alonzo H. Cushing

Cushing was born in Wisconsin in 1841 and graduated from the United States Military Academy in 1861. He fought with the Army of the Potomac in a stunningly long list of engagements in northern Virgina from 1861-1863: the Manassas Campaign (including the First Battle of Bull Run), the Peninsular Campaign, the Siege of Yorktown, the Seven Days Battles, Rappahannock, and Thoroughfare Gap. Finally, he commanded Battery A, 4th U.S. Artillery at the Battle of Gettysburg.

On the third day of the battle, 3 July 1863, Battery A was deployed along Cemetery Ridge in the center of the Union lines. Gen. Robert E. Lee ordered an assault on the center of the line, to be led by Lt. Gen. James Longstreet, though it would come to be known as Pickett’s Charge for Confederate Maj. Gen. George Pickett. Cushing’s battery was deployed near The Angle, where the Confederate forces under Brig. Gen. Lewis Armistead made their farthest advance against Union positions, known as “the High Water Mark of the Confederacy.”

As Battery A directed fire against the enemy, Cushing was wounded twice by Confederate artillery fire. He continued to direct the battery against the enemy assault and refused to be evacuated to the rear. Cushing is reported to have said, “I’ll stay and fight it out, or die in the attempt.” First Sergeant Frederick Füger held Cushing upright so the officer could continue to give commands despite the wounds. As the enemy approached, Battery A continued to pour fire upon the enemy with its single remaining gun. Cushing was struck in the mouth with a bullet and died; he was 22 years old.

Füger assumed command and continued firing until no ammunition remained; the battery then defended with rifles and finally in hand-to-hand combat. The area around the Angle was briefly overrun by the Confederates before the enemy was beaten back and the Angle once again secured. Füger was awarded the Medal of Honor for his actions.

This story is also one about the perseverance of a local historian. Margaret Zerwekh of Wisconsin has written and lobbied to honor Cushing for nearly a quarter century. Elected officials from Wisconsin took up this issue and after review of the relevant facts, an Act of Congress was passed to award the medal to Cushing. This is a fascinating story from start to finish, and certainly makes me want to pick up the biography of Cushing, Cushing of Gettysburg, written in 1993 by Kent Masterson Brown.

Sources:

http://www.nytimes.com/2014/08/28/us/politics/medal-of-honor-for-a-civil-war-hero-150-years-in-the-grave.html?_r=0

http://www.nytimes.com/2010/06/12/us/12medal.html?_r=0

http://www.defense.gov/news/newsarticle.aspx?id=123506

Landing at Peleliu: 70 Years Later

On 15 September 1944, American forces landed on the shores of a tiny spit of lobster-claw-shaped coral rock in the western Pacific named Peleliu. The landing was spearheaded by the 1st Marine Division of the United States Marine Corps under MajGen. William Rupertus, as the U.S. pushed forward in its island hopping campaign against the forces of Imperial Japan. The 11,000 Japanese defenders of the 14th Infantry Division under Col. Kunio Nakagawa were well-fortified in the ridges of the island’s center. They exercised effective fire discipline in order to prevent their positions from being discovered, and planned out interlocking defensive positions with fields of fire covering almost every part of the island.

Eugene B. Sledge was a mortar man with Company K, 3d Battalion, 5th Marine Regiment during the landing and subsequent battle across Peleliu. In his 1981 memoir With The Old Breed At Peleliu And Okinawa, Sledge leaves us with a haunting description of the terrifying effect that Japanese artillery had on the attacking Americans.

There was nothing subtle or intimate about the approach and explosion of an artillery shell. When I heard the whistle of an approaching one in the distance, every muscle in my body contracted. I braced myself in a puny effort to keep from being swept away. I felt utterly helpless.

As the fiendish whistle grew louder, my teeth ground against each other, my heart pounded, my mouth dried, my eyes narrowed, sweat poured over me, my breath came in short irregular gasps, and I was afraid to swallow lest I choke. I always prayed, sometimes out loud.

Under certain conditions of range and terrain, I could hear the shell approaching from a considerable distance, thus prolonging the suspense into seemingly unending torture. At the instant the voice of the shell grew the loudest, it terminated in a flash and a deafening explosion similar to the crash of aloud clap of thunder. The ground shook and the concussion hurt my ears. Shell fragments tore the air apart as they rushed out, whirring and ripping. Rocks and dirt clattered onto the deck as smoke of the exploded shell dissipated.

To be under a barrage or prolonged shelling simply magnified all the terrible physical and emotional effects of one shell. To me, artillery was an invention of hell. The onrushing whistle and scream of the big steel package of destruction was the pinnacle of violent fury and the embodiment of pent-up evil. It was the essence of violence and of man’s inhumanity to man. I developed a passionate hatred for shells. To be killed by a bullet seemed so clean and surgical. But shells would not only tear and rip the body, they tortured one’s mind almost beyond the brink of sanity.

MajGen. Rupertus had predicted the island would be secured in four days. The effectiveness of the Japanese defense dragged the battle out for two months. By the end of November, the Americans had suffered more than 8,000 casualties, including more than 1,500 killed in action. Nearly all the Japanese soldiers died defending the island, and the Imperial Japanese Army’s 14th Infantry Division effectively ceased to exist. Peleliu was targeted by the Americans in order to use the airfield and to protect the eastern flank of the planned assault on the Philippines. However, the island ended up being of limited value as U.S. forces moved to re-take the Philippines.

Peleliu, with airfield visible in the southwest.

Peleliu, with airfield visible in the southwest.

Peleliu, in the modern Republic of Palau, in the western Pacific.

Peleliu, in the modern Republic of Palau, in the western Pacific.