Lt. Col. Aaron Burr

Duel between Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr. After the painting by J. Mund.
Duel between Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr. After the painting by J. Mund.

Of Aaron Burr, Woodrow Wilson said, "[He had] genius enough to have made him immortal, and unschooled passion enough to have made him infamous." The former can be seen in the military tactics he employed during the Revolutionary War that led to his promotion to colonel at the age of 21. The latter is most notoriously illustrated by the Weehawken duel of July 11, 1804, in which Burr — then vice president of the United States — mortally wounded his rival, Alexander Hamilton.

Both traits also can be seen in Burr's upbringing and schooling. His genius was evident early on, when he gained admission to Princeton College at the tender age of 13. The articulate young Burr was the son of Princeton's second president and grandson of its third. Burr may have inherited his "passion" from this grandfather, the legendary cleric Jonathan Edwards.

Despite his family's objections, Burr volunteered for military service in 1775, specifically as a member of Benedict Arnold's march on Quebec. This daring but ill-fated expedition suffered from extremes of cold and hunger, but Burr acquitted himself so well through the journey that he was promoted to captain when Arnold's forces united with Brig. Gen. Richard Montgomery's outside of the city.

The assault on Quebec by Montgomery's forces was shattered by a single cannon shot from the blockhouse. Only Burr and the expedition's Indian guide survived. Montgomery died in Burr's arms, and Burr is credited with trying to evacuate him, but the general was too heavy. Since Arnold's division had already penetrated the city, Quebec was saved, and Burr was a hero.

On returning to the States, the celebrated Capt. Burr was selected for and accepted a position on George Washington's staff. However, the Virginia gentleman-general clashed with the sophisticated young officer, and Burr was soon reassigned as Gen. Israel Putnam's aide-de-camp. On this staff in July 1777, he was appointed lieutenant colonel of Malcolm's Regiment and repulsed a raid of 2,500 Tories into New York.

The next winter found the popular Burr at Valley Forge, the summer at the unfortunate Battle of Monmouth, and the winter after in the divided district of Westchester County. The rough conditions and stress of battle had been affecting Burr's health all along, and on March 10, 1779, Col. Burr resigned from active service, although he continued to advise American generals until war's end.

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