Henry Knox and Alexander Hamilton formed a close, lifetime friendship during the American Revolution.
But during the Siege of Yorktown, Alexander Hamilton nearly got his friend Knox killed. He was fortunate that Knox was good natured enough to forgive him.
Both had youth, ambition and the esteem of George Washington. The bear-like Henry Knox, 31, had famously led a cannon train from upstate New York to Boston during the dead of winter. Washington aimed those cannons at the British soldiers occupying the city and forced them to evacuate. He then made Knox, a Boston bookseller, his artillery commander.
Hamilton was about six years younger and much smaller than Knox. He had served as Washington’s chief aide, drafting his letters and orders. He had a thirst for glory and an impulsiveness that sometimes caused him to take unnecessary risks. John Adams called him ‘conceited’ and a ‘puppy.’
Henry Knox, on the other hand, was far more prudent. And according to the French officer, the Marquis de Chastellux, he had a buoyant disposition. “He was ‘ingenious and true; it is impossible to know him without esteeming and loving him,” wrote Chastellux.
Siege of Yorktown
Alexander Hamilton and Henry Knox met in New York during the war and formed a close friendship. During the Siege of Yorktown, Washington assigned Hamilton a command of light infantry, while Knox remained in charge of artillery.
For several weeks in the fall, Continental soldiers labored to build a series of trenches and ramparts. Then they’d bombard the British stronghold on the Virginia peninsula.
According to military tradition, the army laying the siege conducted a ceremony called the opening of the trenches. The troops marched to their assigned positions with flags flying and drums beating, then set their flags in the ramparts.
Alexander Hamilton saw a chance to grab the spotlight. He ordered his men onto the ramparts to load and carry their weapons. Fortunately for the soldiers, the British were too amazed to fire at them.
James Duncan, an army captain, wrote that Alexander Hamilton wantonly exposed the lives of his men.
Washington had ordered the men in the trenches at Yorktown to shout a warning when they saw a British shell heading toward them. Alexander Hamilton thought that ‘unsoldierly.’
Knox, on the other hand, thought it made sense.
One day, the two men stood in a redoubt when a shell landed nearby, its fuse lit. Soldiers yelled ‘Shell!’ Knox and Hamilton both ran for cover. Knox staggered to shelter with Hamilton clinging to him. Worse, Hamilton made sure Knox was between him and the bomb.
Knox was not pleased. He grabbed the smaller Alexander Hamilton and pushed him toward the explosive.
According to a witness, “All this was done rapidly, for in two minutes the shells burst and threw their deadly missiles in all directions.”
As he brushed the dirt off his uniform, Knox said, “Now, what do you think, Mr. Hamilton, about crying ‘shell’?”
Knox and Hamilton
It wasn’t the first time their friendship was tested. After Washington retired as president of the United States, a potential war loomed with France. President John Adams reinstated Washington as commander-in-chief, and Washington appointed Hamilton as his top commander.
The move infuriated Henry Knox, who had outranked Hamilton during the Revolution. He wrote a blistering letter to Washington and then retired to Maine.
With thanks to In the Hurricane’s Eye, by Nathaniel Philbrick.
Images: The Siege of Yorktown by John Trumbull, http://www.aoc.gov/cc/photo-gallery/ptgs_rotunda.cfm, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=1379717. This story was updated in 2021.