Correcting Wikipedia: Which two major generals asked Alexander Hamilton to serve as aide?
Following up on my previous post about how Wikipedia gets the story of Hamilton’s “early military career” wrong, I plan to continue my criticism of Wikipedia as a source for information regarding Hamilton’s life and career. According to Wikipedia:
Hamilton was invited to become an aide to Nathanael Greene and to Henry Knox;
Wikipedia cites “Randall, p. 120.” “Randall” is “Randall, William Sterne (2003). Alexander Hamilton: A Life. HarpersCollins.” Interestingly, Randall on page 120 does not state that Greene and Knox asked Hamilton to serve as an aide. Randall does have Greene inviting Hamilton to serve as his aide-de-camp on page 101. He also has Elias Boudinot asking Hamilton if he wanted to serve as an aide, or brigade major, to Lord Stirling on page 100. Nowhere does Randall have Knox asking Hamilton to be his aide.
Other biographers have also written that Greene asked Hamilton to be his aide (Mitchell, Alexander Hamilton: The Revolutionary Years 6; Chernow, Alexander Hamilton 74). Although Randall did not, at least one historian did write that Knox asked Hamilton to serve as his aide (Lefkowitz, George Washington’s Indispensable Men 108).
So what is the truth? Here’s an excerpt from Alexander Hamilton: The Formative Years:
Prior to Washington’s invitation, Hamilton had already “refused to serve in this capacity with two major generals.” In early 1776, Lord Stirling asked Hamilton to be his brigade major, whose duties included that of an aide. Elisha Boudinot informed Stirling on March 10 that Hamilton “had already accepted the command of Artillery and was therefore deprived of the pleasure of attending your Lordship’s person as Brigade Major.” Lord Stirling was only a brigadier general at the time, but he would be promoted to major general in February 1777. Although Hamilton, in recalling these events in February 1781, incorrectly remembered Stirling’s rank at the time the offer was made, this was clearly one of the offers from the “two major generals.”
The second offer has never been positively identified, but is often assumed to have come from Nathanael Greene. It is possible that Greene offered to make Hamilton his aide after they reportedly met in the spring or summer of 1776. It was around this time, in August 1776 to be exact, that Greene was promoted from brigadier general to major general. But there is no evidence that Greene asked Hamilton to serve as his aide and no one who wrote about Greene meeting Hamilton in 1776 mentioned this invitation.
Alternatively, it has been suggested that the second offer came from Henry Knox. It will be recalled that Robert Troup said that Knox noticed Hamilton during the campaign of 1776 and then recommended him to Washington. Knox may have also learned that Hamilton authored The Farmer Refuted, copies of which Knox had sold in his bookstore before the war. As the commander of the Continental Army’s artillery regiment, Knox would have loved to appoint this distinguished artillery captain and revolutionary pamphleteer as his aide. But Knox was only a colonel during most of the campaign of 1776–77. He would be appointed a brigadier general on December 27, 1776, but would not be made a major general until March 1782. As Knox did not become a major general until after Hamilton made his statement about refusing “to serve . . . two major generals” and Hamilton surely knew Knox’s rank, Hamilton could not have been referring to Knox.
Perhaps some other major general asked Hamilton to serve as an aide. Possibly Alexander McDougall, who was a friend and supporter of Hamilton, was the other major general. McDougall was made a brigadier general in August 1776 and a major general in October 1777, so he fits the profile. While there is no evidence that McDougall made this invitation, there is equally scant evidence of Greene having done so.
Supporting evidence and citations will be found in the endnotes of Alexander Hamilton: The Formative Years.
So yet again we see that Wikipedia cannot be relied upon for accurate information regarding Alexander Hamilton. There is no evidence to state definitively, as Wikipedia does, that Greene asked Hamilton to serve as his aide. Additionally, it is known that Knox could not have been one of the two major generals in question. Moreover, Wikipedia totally omits Lord Stirling even though it is known with certainty that he asked Hamilton to be his aide.
Since its publication a month ago, Alexander Hamilton: The Formative Years has been called the “definitive” book on Hamilton’s early life. Having the correct information in this instance, in contrast to Wikipedia and some historians who get it wrong, demonstrates why Alexander Hamilton: The Formative Years is receiving rave reviews.