Of illegitimate birth and virtually an orphan at the age of eleven, Hamilton, through industry and ambition, seized upon every opportunity for distinction and advancement. In March 1776, at the age of 21, he succeeded in being awarded his commission as the captain of the first New York artillery company. Himself a recipient of the rewards of meritocracy, Hamilton advocated promotion from within his company as shown in this letter. Advancement from within his own ranks had a two-fold motive. In recommending Sergeant Thompson for a lieutenancy, Hamilton writes: "I verily believe he will make an excellent lieutenant, and his advancement will be an animating example to all men of merit, to whose knowledge it comes."
After Hamilton conferred with Colonel Peter R. Livingston on 15 August, it was resolved that Thomas Thompson be promoted to the rank of lieutenant. During the summer and fall campaigns, Hamilton's company fought with Washington on Long Island, helped fortify Harlem Heights, and participated in the retreat across New Jersey. "It was fortunate for [Hamilton] that Washington, doubtless impressed by the reputation of his pamphlets, made him a secretary and (Mar. 1, 1777) aide-de-camp with the rank of lieutenant-colonel. His true weapon was the pen" (DAB 8:171–172).
Hamilton's letter scarcely conveys the gravity of the situation facing the Continental Army in mid-August, 1776, less than six weeks after the publication of the Declaration of Independence. On 17 August, General Washington urged the remaining citizens of New York to evacuate. Five days later, the British began to land forces on Long Island, leading to the Battle of Brooklyn, a decisive British victory on 27 August. Over the course of the next two months, the Continental Army would be driven from Long Island and Manhattan, culminating in the humiliating capture of Fort Washington and its garrison of over 2,800 Continental troops in November. The British would occupy New York City for the remainder of the war.
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