Maj. James Hamilton

Maj. James Hamilton
The Society of the Cincinnati, Washington, DC

Hamilton, one of the true Pennsylvania heroes of the Revolutionary War, was born in Leacock Township, Lancaster County, on 16 September 1750, the fourth son in the family of eight children of William and Jane Hamilton. In 1773 the father paid tax on 1400 acres in the township ; the family were associated with the Leacock Presbyterian Church.

James was at first destined for a medical education and was a student of Dr. William Shippen of Philadelphia, 1774-1775. The outbreak of the war changed Hamilton’s career, and he joined a volunteer company commanded by Captain James Ross of Lancaster which marched to Cambridge, Massachusetts, a part of Thompson’s Pennsylvania Rifle Battalion in August 1775. The service of the Battalion has been heretofore narrated; here it is only relevant to say that Captain Ross’ company was one of those which afforded Washington particular disciplinary problems, although they performed well in action. But Lt. Colonel Edward Hand [an Original Member of the Society] of Thompson’s Battalion wrote his wife on 10 November, “William Hamilton need not grudge the money his son cost him. His coolness and resolution surpassed his years.”

Thompson’s Battalion was renamed the Second Continental Regiment in August 1775, in January 1776 it became the First Continental Regiment, and on 1 July was again redesignated as the First Pennsylvania Regiment. On 10 March 1776 Hamilton was commissioned Captain, and four days later, still under the command of Ross, his company marched for New York City, arriving at the end of the month. They were sent to Long Island and saw action in patrolling the shore for the remaining weeks of the men’s one-year enlistment. The unit continued in the Pennsylvania Line as the First Pennsylvania Regiment, but major adjustments were made in its officers: Edward Hand replaced William Thompson as Colonel, James Chambers (q.v.), a company commander, was promoted to Lieutenant Colonel of the regiment, Captain Ross became the regimental Major in September, and James Hamilton was given command of Ross’ company.

The new regiment’s first engagement was at the Battle of Long Island on 27 August 1776 where it saw hard fighting and lost a number of men. On 3 September James Chambers wrote his wife “Kitty”, probably to reassure her, but certainly to send news of the regiment’s engagement:

On the morning of the 22nd August there were nine thousand British troops on New Utrecht plains. The guard alarmed our small camp, and we assembled at the flagstaff. We marched our forces, about two hundred in number, to New Utrecht to watch the movements of the enemy. When we came on the hill, we discovered a party of them advancing toward us. We prepared to give them a warm reception, when an imprudent fellow fired, and they immediately halted and turned toward Flatbush. The main body also, moved along the great road toward the same place. We proceeded alongside of them in the edge of the woods as far as the turn of the lane, where the cherry-trees were, if you remember. We then found it impracticable for so small a force to attack them on the plain, and sent Captain Hamilton with twenty men, before them to burn all the grain; which he did very cleverly, and killed a great many cattle. It was then thought most proper to return to camp and secure our baggage….

After the retreat from Long Island the regiment moved to Kingsbridge, New York, and it followed Washington’s retreat across New Jersey after the Battle of White Plains. It was present at Trenton on Christmas night 1776, and at Trenton on 3 January 1777.

In the early part of 1777 the First Regiment was engaged in the New Jersey cam-paign; on 11 September it fought at Brandywine, on 19-20 September at Paoli, and on 4 October at Germantown, and then, at New Brunswick, New Jersey, when apparently on routine patrol, Captain Hamilton was taken prisoner on 10 December 1777. Immediately given his parole, he remained a prisoner for ten months on Long Island and was then exchanged. Upon his return to the American lines, General Arthur St. Clair, acting in accordance with what appears to have been a wide-spread practice in the army, made Hamilton his Aide for a short time. On 10 December 1778 Hamilton was promoted to be Major of the Second Pennsylvania Regiment and took over command of the “Major’s Company” in that regiment from his old comrade John Murray [an Original Member of the Society], promoted to Lt. Colonel. Hamilton probably joined his regiment at Middlebrook, New Jersey, where it wintered in 1778-1779, and he remained as Regimental Major for the duration of his army service.

The Second Regiment was in no major engagements after this time. It was encamped at Morristown on 1 January 1781, and, although its men at first resisted, they eventually joined the general mutiny. With the re-formation of the Line on 17 January 1781 this also became a paper regiment.

James Hamilton accompanied Wayne’s provisional battalions to Virginia, and acted as Major of Colonel Walter Stewart’s [an Original Member of the Society] First Pennsylvania Battalion. On 10 June Wayne’s force joined Lafayette on the Rappahannock River, and on 26 June the first real skirmish of the Yorktown Campaign took place; Major James Hamilton was prominently mentioned therein. Henry P. Johnston gives this account:

On the day before [the 25th], Simcoe’s Rangers had been collecting cattle and burning stores above Williamsburg, where Cornwallis had halted. Wayne, with Lafayette’s approval, despatched most of the advanced parties, under Colonel Richard Butler,…to intercept him on his return…Simcoe meanwhile had gone into camp six miles above Williamsburg, when [Major William] McPherson [an Original Member of the Society] dashed in upon his pickets. A trumpeter gave the alarm, and a brief hand-to-hand cavalry skirmish took place. McPherson was unhorsed, but escaped, and his dragoons scattered and retreated, under cover of the riflemen, who were coming up. The latter soon became engaged with the Rangers, and a desultory fire was kept up. Wayne, who had followed Butler with the Pennsylvania line, apprehended the situation, pushed Major Hamilton forward with several companies to support the cavalry and riflemen. Simcoe regarded the American attack as a serious one, and sent word to Cornwallis without delay, who immediately moved the whole army forward to his aid; but no further fighting occurred. The loss on each side was about thirty.

Edward R. Laurens in 1835 cited [then] Colonel Aaron Ogden, who was in the advance against Simcoe:

…I had the honor to command, 60 horses under the command of Major Hughes, the whole being under the command of Major William McPherson. This legion was considerably in advance, and as soon as it was ascertained that Simcoe had passed on, the cavalry, with an infantry soldier behind each dragoon, pursued and within two miles came in sight of the enemy. When we had approached sufficiently near, the infantry dismounted, and Major McPherson, with great gallantry, charged Simcoe’s corps,…It was not long, however, before Major McPherson’s cavalry were obliged to fall back upon his infantry,…McPherson became dismounted, and Hughes wounded,…Simcoe was drawing up a short distance for a second charge when Major Hamilton came up most opportunely at the critical moment, with a small detachment, and taking command of the whole, with great skill and judgement formed them in a hollow square, and gave orders not to fire, but to receive the horse of the enemy on the point of the bayonet. Having reconnoitered entirely around our square, Col. Simcoe gave up his threatened charge, and resumed his march to join Lord Cornwallis,…I have always ascribed the safety of this body of men under Major Hamilton (of whom those under my command were a part) to his skill, intrepidity, and coolness in forming them in an open field, and within a small distance of a very superior number of the best forces of the enemy.

It is doubtful that Hamilton derived as much satisfaction from this feat, which, after all, was simply his duty under orders, as he did from an act, simply stated by Lieutenant Feltman on the day of Cornwallis’ surrender:

19th Oct’r, 81. At one o’clock, this day, Major Hamilton, with a detachment, marched into [York]town and took possession of the batteries, and hoisted the American flag.

The British army marched out and grounded their arms, in front of our line….

General von Steuben, commander of the Division, in his Orders of the Day, stated,

…He also wishes Col. Butler, Col. Stewart, Major Hamilton, Major Willis, Major Edwards and Major Roxburgh, the officers and soldiers under their command, to accept his best thanks for the good conduct shewn in opening the second parallel, which he considers as the most important part of the siege….

James Hamilton accompanied the Pennsylvania troops into South Carolina where they were sent to reinforce Nathanael Greene’s army before Charleston, and the actions of the Pennsylvania Line in that campaign have already been told.

Hamilton returned to Pennsylvania and was retired from the service when the Pennsylvania Line was reduced on 1 January 1783. He signed the Parchment Roll of the Society of the Cincinnati of Pennsylvania as well as that of the Society of the Cincinnati of the State of South Carolina. Major Hamilton soon returned to South Carolina, became a citizen of the state on 24 May 1784 and spent the remainder of his life there. He was Vice President of the Society of the Cincinnati of the State of South Carolina from 1826 to 1829 and President from 1829 to 1833.

In Charleston, Major Hamilton married on 8 June 1784 Elizabeth (Lynch) Harleston, the widow of John Harleston; she was the daughter of Thomas Lynch, Sr., a member of the Continental Congress, and his second wife Hannah Motte. Elizabeth was a half-sister of Thomas Lynch, Jr., Signer of the Declaration of Independence for South Carolina. Hamilton became a rice planter at “Rice Hope” on the Santee River, and is said also to have raised indigo and cotton. He was widowed in 1811 and lived thereafter in Charleston with his daughter Lynch, Mrs. Samuel Prioleau. The Major’s son, James Hamilton (1786-1857), was Governor of the State from 1830 to 1832 and otherwise led an adventurous and notable life. Major James Hamilton died in Charleston on 26 November 1833 in his eighty-fourth year and was buried in the churchyard of St. Philip’s Episcopal Church.