Alexander Hamilton: his life and engagement to Miss Schuyler

WHILE stirring events were taking place in the South, important ones were occurring in the North, where military operations had almost ceased because the theatre of war had been transferred to the Carolinas and Georgia. Washington had his headquarters at Morristown, at a house yet standing there, and his main army were encamped within call.

The winter of 1779-80 was very severe. The salt waters that surround New York city were so bridged with solid ice that the British took heavy cannons across from that town to Staten Island. The Continental Army, as we have observed, were encamped chiefly in New Jersey, and the British occupied the city of New York. The snow lay so deep on the ground that both armies were compelled to remain quiet several weeks. When the spring opened, the troops under the direct command of Washington numbered less than four thousand effective men; and between the Chesapeake and the northern and eastern frontiers of the Union, there were not more than seven thousand Continental soldiers.

The troops at and near Morristown suffered much from hunger and cold, at times. Mrs. Washington passed that winter there, with her husband. Sentinels and Life-Guardsmen were continually on duty to defend headquarters from sudden and secret attack. Sometimes, when alarms were quite frequent, guards were placed in Mrs. Washington's sleeping apartment. When an alarm occurred, they threw open the windows to give full play to their muskets. On one of these occasions, on a bitter cold night, the windows were kept open more than an hour, exposing Mrs. Washington to the intense cold, with no other defence against it than the ordinary bed-clothing and the thick curtains drawn. General Schuyler also passed a greater portion of the winter and spring at Morristown, in consultation with Washington about the future. His quarters were near those of the commander-in-chief, and his family were with him. His daughter Elizabeth was then betrothed to Colonel Alexander Hamilton, of Washington's staff, and the young couple were together almost every evening. On one of these occasions, when Hamilton was returning to his quarters, he had forgotten the countersign. The charms of Miss Schuyler seem to have obliterated the word from his memory. He came to the sentinel, who knew him well, but the faithful soldier would not let him pass without giving the word. The colonel was greatly embarrassed. A son of Mr. Ford, a lad fourteen years of age, at whose father's house Washington had his quarters, was entrusted with the countersign for the day, whenever he wished to go to the village and return in the evening. He had just passed the sentinel, when, hearing the voice of Colonel Hamilton, he stopped and waited for him to come up. Hamilton discovered the boy, by the light of the stars, and called out, "Aye, Master Ford, is that you?" Then stepping aside, he called the boy to hi, and drawing young Ford's ear to his lips, he whispered, "Give me the countersign." He did so, and the colonel presented himself in front of the sentinel and gave the word. The soldier kept his bayonet at a present. "I have given you the word, why do you not shoulder your musket?" Hamilton asked. The sentinel, suspecting the colonel was trying his fidelity, said, "Will that do, colonel?" "It will for this time," Hamilton replied; "let me pass." The soldier reluctantly obeyed the illegal command. Colonel Hamilton and his betrothed were married in December following.

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