The Schuylkill River Mill

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!