The Alexander Scammell Affair
This was the severest blow experienced by the allied army throughout the siege: not an officer in our army surpassed in personal worth and professional ability this experienced soldier. — “Light Horse Harry” Lee
As the allied American and French army approached the outskirts of Yorktown in late September 1781, a little-known incident occurred that exposed the bitter feelings many American soldiers felt toward their opponents. About sunrise on the morning of Sunday, September 30, Lt. Colonel Alexander Scammell of New Hampshire led a scouting party to reconnoiter the British outer defenses. Somehow Scammell got separated from his picket guard and found himself surrounded by a group of Banastre Tarleton’s loyalist dragoons.
Exactly what happened next may never be known. By his own account Scammell surrendered and was being led away when another dragoon rode up, drew a pistol and shot him from behind. By afternoon Cornwallis’ surgeons had treated his wound and released him on parole. Scammell was taken to the American hospital at the Governor’s Palace in Williamsburg, but there his condition worsened. Scammell died on October 6, the highest-ranking officer killed during the Siege of Yorktown. Even if he had been an obscure lieutenant, the news of his “treacherous” shooting would have caused outrage, but Scammell was no ordinary officer.
Scammell was a veteran of all of the major campaigns in the north and had established a reputation as a brave and inspiring leader of men – at Yorktown he was in command of a detachment of light infantry. He also was a member of George Washington’s inner circle, having once served him as an aide-de-camp, and was one of the few officers who could make Washington laugh with one of his humorous stories. To the Americans, his shooting was one more example of the British behaving as villains. When he published his memoirs some years later, Tarleton denied that Scammell had been wounded after surrendering but claimed instead that Scammell was “attempting to retreat.”
Had he not been shot, it is possible that Scammell, one of Washington’s favorites, would have been selected to lead the storming of British Redoubt No. 10 on October 14, not Alexander Hamilton. The taking of Redoubts 9 and 10 enabled the Allies to quickly complete their second siege line, which forced General Cornwallis to surrender on October 19, 1781. Without the resulting glory and fame gained from this dramatic action, Alexander Hamilton might not have gone on to become such an important figure in the new nation’s history.