This high school lesson plan uses video segments from Rediscovering Alexander Hamilton and a website featuringinteractive animations of Revolutionary War battles to explore AlexanderHamilton’s military career in three different engagements: The Battle for NewYork The Battle of Princeton, and the Siege of Yorktown. The Introductory Activity dispels the common misconception that theRevolution was primarily fought by “minutemen” militiamen using guerrillatactics against the British, and establishes the primary role of theContinental Army in the American war effort. The Learning Activities usesstudent organizers to focus students’ online exploration of the battles of New York, Princeton, and Yorktown,focusing on Alexander Hamilton’s role. The Culminating Activity challengesstudents to create their own organizer for a different Revolutionary Warbattle.
This lesson is best used during a unit on the American Revolution, after thekey causes for the conflict have been established.
Studentswill be able to:
- Distinguish between “irregular” and “regular” military forces in the 18th century and outline their relative merits
- Explain the context and consequences for the battles of New York, Princeton, and Yorktown
- Describe the general course of events in each of these actions, noting key turning points
- Discuss how historical fact can sometimes be distorted or embellished for effect
- Outline Alexander Hamilton’s military career and discuss what motivated him to pursue it with such determination.
Three 45-minute class periods
Revolutionary War Animated
Aneducational website featuring detailed interactive tactical animations of allmajor Revolutionary War battles.
Part I: Introductory Activity
1. Ask students what they know about how the AmericanRevolution was fought and won. (Answerswill vary, but will probably include mention of the minutemen.) Askstudents who the minutemen were. (Patriotmilitiamen, loosely and locally organized, who were prepared to muster andfight the British “at a minute’s notice.”) Ask what a militia is. (An“irregular” military force composed of ordinary citizen volunteers rather than theprofessional soldiers of a regular army.) How did the minutemen engage—letalone defeat—trained British soldiers in battle? (Answers will vary, but will probably include “guerrilla” tactics, inwhich minutemen sharpshooters fired from behind stone fences at Britishsoldiers wearing their bright red uniforms and marching in neat formations.)Explain that this is the traditional view of Revolutionary War combat, and thatit does indeed accurately describe the very earliest engagement between thepatriot militias and British regulars at the battle of Lexington and Concord onApril 19th, 1775; it is not representative, however, of how theoverwhelming number of decisive Revolutionary War battles were fought, and ofthe American patriot army that fought them.
2. Ask students what the advantages of a volunteer militialike the minutemen might have had over a regular army. (Answers will vary, but should include the fact that militias could bequickly formed to face military immediate threats, and then return to theirregular occupations and responsibilities afterward; moreover, being volunteers,they didn’t require payment as regular soldiers did.) What might somedisadvantages of a militia be? (Answerswill vary, but should include the fact that they’re not well trained, disciplined,or experienced; moreover, because they’re not paid, and have other occupationsand responsibilities to attend to, they can’t be counted on for reliableservice during longer campaigns.) Explain that while the minutemen militiahad succeeded in severely bloodying the British at Lexington and Concord,patriot leaders immediately recognized that such a loosely organized forcewould not be able to stand up to the British Army once it had recovered andreevaluated its opposition. On June 14, 1775, a “Continental Army,” consisting of most of the patriotmilitias which had converged around Bostonand New York,was officially established by resolution of the Continental Congress in Philadelphia. Tellstudents that in this lesson they will be taking a closer look at several ofthe battles fought by this new “regular” army, with special emphasis placed onthe role played by one of its young officers—Alexander Hamilton.
Part II: Learning Activities
1. Ask students who they think was leading the newContinental Army. (George Washington.)Explain that George Washington—the Continental Army’s newly appointed43-year-old Commander-in-Chief—was one of the relatively few American officerswith any military experience at the start of the war. Ask students where theythink Washington and other officers had his military experience. (In the service of the British during therecent French & Indian War.) Explain that most Continental officers hadonly previously served in various peacetime colonial militias, and were asinexperienced as the men they commanded. One such officer was a 21-year-oldartillery officer from New Yorknamed Alexander Hamilton. Frame the first video by explaining that it isexcerpted from Rediscovering AlexanderHamilton—a PBS documentary hosted by Richard Brookhiser. Provide a focusquestion for the video by asking in what actions Alexander Hamilton’s artillerycompany 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 seesaction in the retreat from New York,here in what is now Chinatown, and later inthe battles of Harlem Heights and White Plains.” Reviewthe focus question: in what actions did Hamilton’sartillery company serve during the campaign in and around New York? (The retreat from New York, the Battle of Harlem Heights, and the battleof White Plains.) Ask students how many of them have ever heard of the Battle for New York. (Few will have heard of it.) Explain thatthe Battle for New York was, in termsof the number of soldiers engaged, the largest battle of the AmericanRevolution, played out across all five boroughs of what is now New York City. Ask students if they find itstrange 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 grouplog on to the Revolutionary War Animated website.Explain to students that this website offers detailed tactical animations ofmajor Revolutionary War battles. Have students click on the “Battle for New York” in the “1776” section of thetimeline 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 usethe controls on the lower left corner of the screen to advance through thedifferent stages of the battle, completing their organizers as they go.
4. After 20 minutes have passed, have groups take turnsreading their answers to the class, encouraging questions, corrections, anddiscussion among the groups. Ask students again why they think so few Americanshave heard of this battle. (Accept allanswers, but suggest that it may have something to do with the fact that it wasa massive American defeat.) Explain that despite this, many historiansbelieve that this battle actually demonstrates some good generalship on Washington’s behalf. Askstudents why they think this might be. (Acceptall answers, but explain that Washington’sevacuation of Long Island, the retreat up Manhattan, and the finalescape to New Jerseyultimately saved the fledgling Continental Army from destruction and theRevolution itself from an early, ignominious end. Essentially, Washington andhis army lived to fight another day.)
Provide focus questions for the remainder of the video byasking what the role of Hamilton’sunit was in the subsequent retreat across New Jersey toward Pennsylvania, and what role it played duringthe attack on Trenton.Resume playing the video.
5. Pause after Brookhiser says “Next, Washington moves hisarmy north to Princeton.” Review the focusquestions: what was the role of Hamilton’sunit in the subsequent retreat across New Jersey toward Pennsylvania,and what role did it play during the attack on Trenton? (Hamilton’sartillery provided a rear-guard for Washington’s army as it retreated acrossNew Jersey, and it provided covering fire from the high ground during thebattle 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 theRevolutionary War Animated website.Have them click on “Trenton/Princeton” on the left side of the screen, thenclick “View The Battle Animation” in the middle of the screen, and finallyclick on the rectangle at the bottom of the screen labeled “Battle ofPrinceton.” Explain to students that as with “The Battle for New York,” they will have 20 minutes to usethe controls on the lower left of the screen to advance through the differentstages of the battle, completing their organizers as they go.
7. After 20 minutes have passed, have the groups take turnsreading their answers to the class, encouraging questions, corrections, anddiscussion among the groups. Ask students if they can see any similaritiesbetween 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 AlexanderHamilton said to have played in the Battle of Princeton? (Legend has it that he led the artillery attack against the Britishforces inside Nassau Hall on the Princetoncampus, and in the process a cannonball from his battery decapitated a portraitof 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—andpresuming this legend is even true—if they think Hamilton’s action was asdecisive as the tour guide makes it out to be. (No.) Why not? (Even ifHamilton did order the firing of such a portentous cannonball, the action atNassau Hall came only at the very end of a much longer battle which had alreadybeen decided by Washington’s counterattack; the British were already in retreat by thetime 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 whowent on to become a prominent Founding Father.) Ask if propaganda needs to be completely trueto be effective. (No.) Explain thatwhether or not the legend of Hamilton’sattack on Nassau Hall is completely true, he did perform well enough to benoticed by General Washington. Provide a focus question for the next video byasking students how Hamiltoncomplemented Washingtonand in what capacity he served the general. Play Recognition and Glory.
9. Pause after Brookhiser says “Hamiltonstill thirsts for military glory; he pesters Washington for a battlefieldcommand, right up to the siege of Yorktown in October 1781, when Washingtonfinally gives Hamilton his chance.” Review the focus question: how did Hamilton complement Washington and provesuch an invaluable aide to his mentor? (Hamilton had a “quicksilver” intellectual wit which Washington didn’t, andwith his superb administrative abilities, was more Washington’s chief of staff than simply anaide.) Did Hamiltonperform well in this capacity? (Yes.)Was he content to do so? (No.) Whynot? (He “thirsts for military glory” andwants to lead soldiers in battle.) What might Hamilton’s lingering desire for glory suggestabout his performance at the Battle of Princeton? (It was perhaps not as glorious and decisive as Princetonlegend has it.) Ask students if the chief of staff of the modern U.S. Armyleads soldiers in battle. (No.) Whydo they think Hamiltonwas 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 sideof the screen, then click “View The Battle Animation” in the middle of thescreen, 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 20minutes to use the controls on the lower left of the screen to advance throughthe different stages of the battle, completing their organizers as they go.
11. After 20 minutes have passed, have the groups take turnsreading their answers to the class, encouraging questions, corrections, anddiscussion among the groups. Frame the remainder of the video by explaining thatit features a reenactment of Hamilton’sfamous action at the battle of Yorktown—thestorming of Redoubt #10. Provide a focus question for the next portion of the video by askingwhat this battle reenactment might somewhat accurately simulate about combat. Resumeplaying the video through to the end.
12. Review the focus question: what might this reenactmentsomewhat accurately simulate about combat? (Anxiety,surprise, anticipation, adrenalin.) Ask students how old Hamilton was at the siege of Yorktown in 1781. (26years old.) Ask students if they think these feelings and emotions aresomething young men have always had a tendency to seek. (Accept all answers, but suggest that for many young men—especially inthe 18th century, but even today—war is romanticized as adventureand a proving ground.) Ask students if there may have been anothermotivation for Hamiltonto perform heroically in battle. Hint: it was mentioned at the beginning of thefirst video they watched, and has something to do with Hamilton’s modest origins. (Yes.Hamilton sees in military glory a means to “rise inthe world”—in other words, to parlay his personal bravery into higher stationand greater opportunity as a leader of his fledgling nation.) Did Hamilton succeed in thisambition? (Yes.) Ask students if theythink that military service remains an important asset for American politicianstoday. (Yes. Military service—andespecially combat experience—remains highly valued in the American politicalarena.) Do students agree that it should? Why or why not? (Accept all answers.)
Part III: Culminating Activity
1. Divide the class into eight groups. Assign each group oneof the following battles to explore on the Revolutionary War Animated website:
- The Battle of Bunker Hill (1775)
- The Battle of Saratoga (1777)
- The Battle of Brandywine (1777)
- The Battle of Germantown (1777)
- The Battle of Monmouth (1778)
- The Battle of Camden (1780)
- The Battle of Cowpens (1781)
- The Battle of Guilford Court House (1781)
2. As homework or an in-class assignment, have each groupcreate a student organizer about their assigned battle similar to those theycompleted earlier in this lesson. The specific questions and answers on eachorganizer will vary, but some key issues to be addressed include:
- Who were the opposing commanders and what were their respective battle plans?
- What was the composition of the opposing armies? Regulars? Militia? Mercenary?
- What was the terrain (geography) of the battlefield like, and how did this affect the battle?
- Who won? How closely did the battle go according to plan?
- Was there a “decisive” moment in the battle when victory of defeat turned? If so, when? What caused it? Were there any major tactical mistakes or miscalculations on either side.
- What were the consequences of this battle?
3. When all organizers are completed, have different groupsswap and complete each other’s organizers, using them as the basis for brief presentationsto the class about each battle.