There is a chapter of my book which had to be pulled that I have released as a stand alone story: The Schuylkill River Mill

The chapter/story focuses on a mission led by Hamilton in late 1777 to burn some flour mills along the Schuylkill River in Pennsylvania. The story is fairly self contained and, while I enjoy it a lot, was not necessary to move the larger plot along. I knew it was a favorite of the over all series when it was online, thus I reposted it. I was asked recently, however, about the historical sources for this story. The Schuylkill River Mill is a case of when I was able to find a lot of detail about what happened in this event from just one place which included two primary sources.

I tout Founders Online quite a lot, but the site and those who do so much to make it valuable deserve all the praise. On that site is a letter which Hamilton sent to Congress to warn of the British approach on Philadelphia: Alexander Hamilton to John Hancock, [18 September 1777]. He sent this letter after his attempt to burn the mills was disrupted by British dragoons.

First, it is wonderful to have this letter as another example of real time realities of the war and a reminder of the dangers to citizen patriots as much as the army. However, the website entry for this letter also includes a lengthy footnote. This footnote comes from Henry Lee, who was a Captain assigned under Hamilton for the mission. He wrote a detailed section in his memoir, Memoirs of the War in the Southern Department of the United States, about the events at the Mill. I have small portion of that here:

Lee’s apprehension for the safety of Hamilton continued to increase, as he heard volleys of carbines discharged upon the boat, which were returned by guns singly and occasionally. He trembled for the probable issue; and as soon as the pursuit ended, which did not long continue, he despatched a dragoon to the commander in chief, describing with feelings of anxiety what had passed, and his sad presage. His letter was scarcely perused by Washington, before Hamilton himself appeared; and, ignorant of the contents of the paper in the general’s hand, renewed his attention to the ill-boding separation, with the probability that his friend Lee had been cut off

This detail from Lee and the letter Hamilton wrote himself gave me virtually everything I needed to write a fictionalized account of the mission and the skirmish. This is not often the case with history; we more often have dates and place, number of deaths or movements of the army overall. Less often do we have essentially a play by play from a person who actually lived those events. I have said before, primary sources make the best material to work from as they give you the reality as it happened, not as someone decided later.

Does the detail in Lee's account make my writing better? Perhaps that is for my readers to say. I certainly enjoy writing with room to create and imagine but I also enjoy taking a well documented event and adding the action of the moment and the personal feeling of being there. While such detail may limit a writer, it also presents a challenge to get your fiction to fit as well as you can into fact while still having it make sense, work for your story overall, and match to the way you have created real people in characters.

I certainly suggest reading the footnote from Lee and, of course, my own story and see how much you think they match or conflict!

I have another history post today for those of you who may be interested in how much of "Duty and Inclination" follows known facts. I had a question about what Laurens' time as a prisoner of war was like, so here is another small essay about what I know.

John Laurens rejoined the southern campaign in early 1780, after a brief leave to request more troops, to help protect his home state and city of Charleston, South Carolina. The British began a siege of that city on March 29th. Come May 12th 1780 Charleston surrendered and the British formally take the city making all those Continental soldiers within prisoners of war, John Laurens being one of those. On November 7 1780, Washington wrote to Congress about a general exchange of almost 500 officers which included Laurens. Thus, Laurens was a POW for almost 6 months.

Upon the taking of so many prisoners, the British housed them in many different places around Charleston including the Continental army’s own barracks, homes within the city and the basement of the Exchange. We do not know specifically where Laurens was housed at this time. He wrote to Washington on May 25th about the possibility of Washington helping to hasten his exchange. As Laurens wrote: “It is the greatest and most humiliating misfortune of my life, to be reduced to a state of inactivity at so important a juncture as the present.”

On June 12th Laurens was sent with General Lincoln’s staff officers by boat to Philadelphia to serve his parole. Under the terms of his parole, he had to remain within the bounds of Pennsylvania until he was exchanged. So while he was not in a jail cell or prison ship, he could not leave the state (this is similar to modern parole). 

Hamilton wrote Laurens in June telling him that Washington cannot (will not) intercede on his behalf with an exchange so as not to show partiality. Several measures were put in to congress as well to try and have Laurens exchanged sooner due to ‘special circumstances.’ None of these were successful (at least at the time). It is possible these 'special circumstances' were that of his being an aide-de-camp to General Washington or to the status of his father, Henry Laurens.  However, it was not until the larger, general exchange of officers in November that Laurens was included.

As to Laurens person and mental state during his time as a POW, Laurens was likely held in far more comfort than most soldiers, he being an officer and a man of means. He was allowed parole instead of being put on a British prison ship. We do not know exactly where he was housed but, as his father was in Philadelphia at this time, its a good guess it was with his father. Laurens could move more freely, at least within Pennsylvania. He possibly went to explore the caverns of the blue mountains, so he was able to go do things. He was even able to see his father off when he sailed to the Netherlands on his own 'fund raising' mission. 

However, it does appear that being a POW took a toll on Laurens’ mental state. As we can see from the May 25th letter, he was already shamed about being made captive. We do not have any of his surviving letters to Hamilton from this period but we do have one from Hamilton, Sept 16 1780, that sheds light on Laurens’ thoughts:

For your own sake, for my sake, for the public sake, I shall pray for the success of the attempt you mention; that you may have it in your power to act with us. But if you should be disappointed, bear it like a man; and have recourse, neither to the dagger, nor to the poisoned bowl, nor to the rope.

So clearly Laurens was writing to Hamilton with very depressed, possibly suicidal thoughts about his situation. In this time period it could take years for a solider to be exchanged once captured. Laurens may have been thinking along these lines. Thus, while his physical accommodations were likely comfortable, his mental state was not good.

As mentioned above, he was only a POW for 6 months which is an unusually short time for the period. Exchanges did not happen quickly. It is likely either his position or the large amount of men captured at Charleston is what led to his earlier release.

To keep up the momentum toward publishing day, I wanted to post another mini-essay I wrote in response to a question I received: How many aides/people close to Alexander and John do you think knew about their relationship? Who? Why?

Now this is a difficult question. I know what I would like to think, just from personal relations, etc. In my book I imply that Lafayette is aware of their relationship in some manner, if perhaps not completely understanding. I have no historical evidence for this, it was a fiction choice.

However, there is one possibility below, and one I wish I had used to more advantage in my book but by the time I became aware of it/the idea fully formed it was too late. Ah, well.

Richard Kidder Meade.

There is a mention in a letter from James McHenry to Hamilton of Meade hiding in a chimney to read a letter from Hamilton so no one could read over his shoulder:

Meade writes you all that is interesting, and conducts the most weighty matters with a great deal of cunning sagacity. He thrust himself up the chimney this morning, while we were dressing round the fire, in order to be more at liberty as I supposed to read your letter, or hide any thing it might contain, from profane eyes.

It is certainly an odd thing to do. If it was confidential war information there is no reason the other aides-de-camp shouldn’t be able to see it too. So possibly it was something personal.

Now, this letter is from March 1780. Hamilton was off negotiating a prisoner exchange. Laurens was serving in the southern campaign. Hamilton had also met Elizabeth Schuyler at this point. You could argue perhaps the personal information was about Miss Schuyler, Hamilton wanting to propose, etc. But, you can alternatively argue that Hamilton wasn’t exactly hiding his interest in her and the other aides would probably know about his plans, or at least have an idea. So why hide it? Perhaps Hamilton wrote something to Meade about Laurens, something the other aides did not and should not know.

Also, as a blogger revolutionary-pirate noted in a post, Hamilton and Meade’s personal correspondence between one another pretty much ceases after Laurens dies which is curious. Meade writes Hamilton twice more and Hamilton never replies. The three men were close and perhaps after the loss of Laurens, a loss Meade would know the extent of, Hamilton couldn’t bear writing to someone else who knew or felt the need to close that portion of his life? Additionally, most of the letters between Hamilton and Meade before that no longer exist which brings up the question about why they are gone. Were they destroyed due to content?

Historically, if anyone, I think Meade knew.