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This high school lesson plan uses video segments from Rediscovering Alexander Hamilton and a website featuring interactive animations of Revolutionary War battles to explore Alexander Hamilton’s military career in three different engagements: The Battle for New York The Battle of Princeton, and the Siege of Yorktown. The Introductory Activity dispels the common misconception that the Revolution was primarily fought by “minutemen” militiamen using guerrilla tactics against the British, and establishes the primary role of the Continental Army in the American war effort. The Learning Activities uses student organizers to focus students’ online exploration of the battles of New York, Princeton, and Yorktown, focusing on Alexander Hamilton’s role. The Culminating Activity challenges students to create their own organizer for a different Revolutionary War battle.
This lesson is best used during a unit on the American Revolution, after the key causes for the conflict have been established.
Students will be able to:
Three 45-minute class periods
Revolutionary War Animated
An educational website featuring detailed interactive tactical animations of all major Revolutionary War battles.
1. Ask students what they know about how the American Revolution was fought and won. (Answers will vary, but will probably include mention of the minutemen.) Ask students who the minutemen were. (Patriot militiamen, loosely and locally organized, who were prepared to muster and fight the British “at a minute’s notice.”) Ask what a militia is. (An “irregular” military force composed of ordinary citizen volunteers rather than the professional soldiers of a regular army.) How did the minutemen engage—let alone defeat—trained British soldiers in battle? (Answers will vary, but will probably include “guerrilla” tactics, in which minutemen sharpshooters fired from behind stone fences at British soldiers wearing their bright red uniforms and marching in neat formations.) Explain that this is the traditional view of Revolutionary War combat, and that it does indeed accurately describe the very earliest engagement between the patriot militias and British regulars at the battle of Lexington and Concord on April 19th, 1775; it is not representative, however, of how the overwhelming number of decisive Revolutionary War battles were fought, and of the American patriot army that fought them.
2. Ask students what the advantages of a volunteer militia like the minutemen might have had over a regular army. (Answers will vary, but should include the fact that militias could be quickly formed to face military immediate threats, and then return to their regular occupations and responsibilities afterward; moreover, being volunteers, they didn’t require payment as regular soldiers did.) What might some disadvantages of a militia be? (Answers will vary, but should include the fact that they’re not well trained, disciplined, or experienced; moreover, because they’re not paid, and have other occupations and responsibilities to attend to, they can’t be counted on for reliable service during longer campaigns.) Explain that while the minutemen militia had succeeded in severely bloodying the British at Lexington and Concord, patriot leaders immediately recognized that such a loosely organized force would not be able to stand up to the British Army once it had recovered and reevaluated its opposition. On June 14, 1775, a “Continental Army,” consisting of most of the patriot militias which had converged around Boston and New York, was officially established by resolution of the Continental Congress in Philadelphia. Tell students that in this lesson they will be taking a closer look at several of the battles fought by this new “regular” army, with special emphasis placed on the role played by one of its young officers—Alexander Hamilton.
1. Ask students who they think was leading the new Continental Army. (George Washington.) Explain that George Washington—the Continental Army’s newly appointed 43-year-old Commander-in-Chief—was one of the relatively few American officers with any military experience at the start of the war. Ask students where they think Washington and other officers had his military experience. (In the service of the British during the recent French & Indian War.) Explain that most Continental officers had only previously served in various peacetime colonial militias, and were as inexperienced as the men they commanded. One such officer was a 21-year-old artillery officer from New York named Alexander Hamilton. Frame the first video by explaining that it is excerpted from Rediscovering Alexander Hamilton—a PBS documentary hosted by Richard Brookhiser. Provide a focus question for the video by asking in what actions Alexander Hamilton’s artillery company served during the campaign in and around New York. Play A Longing for War.
2. Pause the video after Brookhiser says that “Hamilton’s unit sees action in the retreat from New York, here in what is now Chinatown, and later in the battles of Harlem Heights and White Plains.” Review the focus question: in what actions did Hamilton’s artillery company serve during the campaign in and around New York? (The retreat from New York, the Battle of Harlem Heights, and the battle of White Plains.) Ask students how many of them have ever heard of the Battle for New York. (Few will have heard of it.) Explain that the Battle for New York was, in terms of the number of soldiers engaged, the largest battle of the American Revolution, played out across all five boroughs of what is now New York City. Ask students if they find it strange that so few people have ever heard of the battle. (Yes.) Ask why they think this might be. (Accept all answers.)
3. Distribute The Battle for New York Student Organizer. Have students divide into groups of 4-5 and have each group log on to the Revolutionary War Animated website. Explain to students that this website offers detailed tactical animations of major Revolutionary War battles. Have students click on the “Battle for New York” in the “1776” section of the timeline on the left side of the screen, and then click “View The Battle Animation” in the middle of the screen. Explain that they will have 20-30 minutes to use the controls on the lower left corner of the screen to advance through the different stages of the battle, completing their organizers as they go.
4. After 20 minutes have passed, have groups take turns reading their answers to the class, encouraging questions, corrections, and discussion among the groups. Ask students again why they think so few Americans have heard of this battle. (Accept all answers, but suggest that it may have something to do with the fact that it was a massive American defeat.) Explain that despite this, many historians believe that this battle actually demonstrates some good generalship on Washington’s behalf. Ask students why they think this might be. (Accept all answers, but explain that Washington’s evacuation of Long Island, the retreat up Manhattan, and the final escape to New Jersey ultimately saved the fledgling Continental Army from destruction and the Revolution itself from an early, ignominious end. Essentially, Washington and his army lived to fight another day.)
Provide focus questions for the remainder of the video by asking what the role of Hamilton’s unit was in the subsequent retreat across New Jersey toward Pennsylvania, and what role it played during the attack on Trenton. Resume playing the video.
5. Pause after Brookhiser says “Next, Washington moves his army north to Princeton.” Review the focus questions: what was the role of Hamilton’s unit in the subsequent retreat across New Jersey toward Pennsylvania, and what role did it play during the attack on Trenton? (Hamilton’s artillery provided a rear-guard for Washington’s army as it retreated across New Jersey, and it provided covering fire from the high ground during the battle of Trenton.)
6. Distribute The Battle of Princeton Student Organizer. Have students divide into groups of 4-5 and have each group log on to the Revolutionary War Animated website. Have them click on “Trenton/Princeton” on the left side of the screen, then click “View The Battle Animation” in the middle of the screen, and finally click on the rectangle at the bottom of the screen labeled “Battle of Princeton.” Explain to students that as with “The Battle for New York,” they will have 20 minutes to use the controls on the lower left of the screen to advance through the different stages of the battle, completing their organizers as they go.
7. After 20 minutes have passed, have the groups take turns reading their answers to the class, encouraging questions, corrections, and discussion among the groups. Ask students if they can see any similarities between Washington’s strategy in the Battle for New York and the Battle of Princeton. (Accept all answers, but suggest that once again Washington demonstrates his ability to conduct a skilled fighting retreat, in this case saving his army from Cornwallis’s larger force at Trenton in order to defeat the smaller British force at Princeton.) Provide a focus question for the remainder of the video by asking what role Alexander Hamilton is said to have played in the Battle of Princeton. Resume playing the video through to the end.
8. Review the focus question: what role is Alexander Hamilton said to have played in the Battle of Princeton? (Legend has it that he led the artillery attack against the British forces inside Nassau Hall on the Princeton campus, and in the process a cannonball from his battery decapitated a portrait of King George II, demoralizing the British and prompting their retreat.) When in the day’s action did this action happen? (At the end of the battle.) Explain that Nassau Hall was located, then as now, in the heart of Princeton itself. Ask students, based upon the battle animation they have just viewed—and presuming this legend is even true—if they think Hamilton’s action was as decisive as the tour guide makes it out to be. (No.) Why not? (Even if Hamilton did order the firing of such a portentous cannonball, the action at Nassau Hall came only at the very end of a much longer battle which had already been decided by Washington’s counterattack; the British were already in retreat by the time American troops—including Hamilton’s battery—approached Princeton itself.) Ask students why they think such a story might have gained currency. (It’s a good propaganda story about a man who went on to become a prominent Founding Father.) Ask if propaganda needs to be completely true to be effective. (No.) Explain that whether or not the legend of Hamilton’s attack on Nassau Hall is completely true, he did perform well enough to be noticed by General Washington. Provide a focus question for the next video by asking students how Hamilton complemented Washington and in what capacity he served the general. Play Recognition and Glory.
9. Pause after Brookhiser says “Hamilton still thirsts for military glory; he pesters Washington for a battlefield command, right up to the siege of Yorktown in October 1781, when Washington finally gives Hamilton his chance.” Review the focus question: how did Hamilton complement Washington and prove such an invaluable aide to his mentor? (Hamilton had a “quicksilver” intellectual wit which Washington didn’t, and with his superb administrative abilities, was more Washington’s chief of staff than simply an aide.) Did Hamilton perform well in this capacity? (Yes.) Was he content to do so? (No.) Why not? (He “thirsts for military glory” and wants to lead soldiers in battle.) What might Hamilton’s lingering desire for glory suggest about his performance at the Battle of Princeton? (It was perhaps not as glorious and decisive as Princeton legend has it.) Ask students if the chief of staff of the modern U.S. Army leads soldiers in battle. (No.) Why do they think Hamilton was so driven to risk his life in this manner? (Accept all answers.)
10. Distribute The Seige of Yorktown Student Organizer. Have students divide into groups of 4-5 and have each group log on to the Revolutionary War Animated website. Have them click on “Yorktown” on the left side of the screen, then click “View The Battle Animation” in the middle of the screen, and finally click on the rectangle at the bottom of the screen labeled “The Siege of Yorktown.” Explain to students that they will again have 20 minutes to use the controls on the lower left of the screen to advance through the different stages of the battle, completing their organizers as they go.
11. After 20 minutes have passed, have the groups take turns reading their answers to the class, encouraging questions, corrections, and discussion among the groups. Frame the remainder of the video by explaining that it features a reenactment of Hamilton’s famous action at the battle of Yorktown—the storming of Redoubt #10. Provide a focus question for the next portion of the video by asking what this battle reenactment might somewhat accurately simulate about combat. Resume playing the video through to the end.
12. Review the focus question: what might this reenactment somewhat accurately simulate about combat? (Anxiety, surprise, anticipation, adrenalin.) Ask students how old Hamilton was at the siege of Yorktown in 1781. (26 years old.) Ask students if they think these feelings and emotions are something young men have always had a tendency to seek. (Accept all answers, but suggest that for many young men—especially in the 18th century, but even today—war is romanticized as adventure and a proving ground.) Ask students if there may have been another motivation for Hamilton to perform heroically in battle. Hint: it was mentioned at the beginning of the first video they watched, and has something to do with Hamilton’s modest origins. (Yes.Hamilton sees in military glory a means to “rise in the world”—in other words, to parlay his personal bravery into higher station and greater opportunity as a leader of his fledgling nation.) Did Hamilton succeed in this ambition? (Yes.) Ask students if they think that military service remains an important asset for American politicians today. (Yes. Military service—and especially combat experience—remains highly valued in the American political arena.) Do students agree that it should? Why or why not? (Accept all answers.)
1. Divide the class into eight groups. Assign each group one of the following battles to explore on the Revolutionary War Animated website:
2. As homework or an in-class assignment, have each group create a student organizer about their assigned battle similar to those they completed earlier in this lesson. The specific questions and answers on each organizer will vary, but some key issues to be addressed include:
3. When all organizers are completed, have different groups swap and complete each other’s organizers, using them as the basis for brief presentations to the class about each battle.