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Rivers of War: Snippet Six

       Last updated: Friday, February 11, 2005 09:00 EST



THE RIVERS OF WAR -- snippet 6:


    March 27, 1814 The Battle of the Horseshoe Bend

    The next time Sam Houston encountered Andrew Jackson, the general was hollering again, but this time Sam couldn’t make out the words.

    First, because Jackson wasn’t the only one hollering. So were a thousand Red Stick warriors hemmed in behind their barricade on a horseshoe bend in the Tallapoosa, with about two and a half thousand white soldiers and militiamen facing them.

    Secondly, because the hostile Creeks trapped behind their own fortifications were beating war drums. Lots of war drums, from the sound they were making.

    And, thirdly, because up close, even two cannons make an incredible racket.

    It was late morning when Sam and his superior officer, Major Lemuel Montgomery, came up the rise where the general had set up his field headquarters. Topping the rise, Sam saw the two cannons Jackson had hauled with him across the wilderness positioned atop a small hill overlooking the fortifications the Red Sticks had erected. Sam had been in the army long enough now to recognize the cannons as a six-pounder and a three-pounder.

    Field guns. No more, and the three-pounder was something of a lightweight, at that. Nevertheless, Sam had been hearing the racket they made ever since the Thirty-ninth Infantry had arrived at the battlefield and had taken up their position. The Thirty-ninth was at one end of a field that sloped down toward the other end, which was closed off by the Creek fortifications. Now that he was close enough, he could see that the guns hadn’t done any damage worth talking about to the enemy’s fieldworks.

    He wasn’t really surprised, though, getting his first good look at those fortifications. The Red Sticks had had months to prepare for this attack, and obviously they hadn’t wasted the time. The barricade they’d put up across the neck of the peninsula was impressive. Very, very impressive.

    Moments later Montgomery and Houston were just a few feet away from Jackson. Seeing them, the general waved his hand in the direction of the fortifications. The nearest part of the wall stood less than a hundred yards from the position Jackson had taken on the hill. The farthest part of it, Sam estimated, was another three hundred yards distant.

    “Have you ever seen anything like it, Lemuel?” Jackson demanded. His tone was half angry; the other half contained grudging respect. “Tarnation, who would have thought those savages would come up with something this well made?”

    Jackson’s blue eyes flitted to Sam, and a sarcastic little smile came to his lips. “Begging the ensign’s pardon.”

    Sam decided to ignore the remark. Truth be told, he wasn’t any too fond of the Red Sticks himself. He didn’t consider them savages, as such, the way most white people did. But they’d certainly behaved savagely since they’d organized themselves in response to the religious preaching of Tecumseh’s brother, the prophet Tenskwatawa. That had been true even before the massacre at Fort Mims.

    Sam frowned as he studied the fortifications. The breastwork that the Red Sticks had erected across the neck of the peninsula consisted of heavy timber— solid logs, most of it—laid in a wall ranging anywhere from five to eight feet tall. The solidity of the structure made it effectively impervious to the small cannons Jackson had with him. The double row of firing ports and the zigzag design of it gave the defenders the ability to bring enfilade fire on anyone advancing across the open field that stretched in front.

    True, as was almost invariably the case in Indian wars, the Creek warriors were poorly supplied with guns. They were probably just as poorly supplied with ammunition. But, with those fortifications, even the bows with which most of the Red Sticks would be armed could be devastating.

    Houston could see Major Montgomery’s face tightening, the way a man’s will when he’s arriving at a very unpleasant conclusion.

    “We’ll have to try a frontal assault, then, General.”

    Jackson nodded. “I’m afraid so. I’d hoped the cannons . . .” He waved that thought away impatiently. “I’ll need to rely on you and your regulars, Lemuel. Pass the word to Colonel Williams to get ready.”

    “Yes, sir.” Montgomery winced slightly, as the six-pounder went off again, just a few feet away. “How soon?”

    “I’m not sure, yet.” Jackson took off his hat and ran long, bony fingers through his hair. Because his left arm was still in a sling, he had to use the same right hand that was holding the hat. The result was to dishevel his stiff, sandy-gray hair all the more.

    Then he gestured with the hat toward the Tallapoosa. The river wasn’t far off, but it couldn’t be seen through the heavily forested area. This late in March, this far south, most of the trees already had foliage on them.

    “I sent Coffee and his cavalry and all of the Cherokees to ford the Tallapoosa two miles away, then circle around to the other side of the river. Mainly, I just wanted to make sure the Red Sticks were trapped. I intend to crush them here, once and for all, and I don’t want any of them escaping. But . . .”

    He clamped the hat back on his head. “John’s an energetic officer. He may be able to distract their attention with a diversion of some kind. So let’s wait another hour and a half. In the meantime, I’ll keep peppering them with cannon fire. Even if it doesn’t look to be doing any good, that should keep their attention fixed on us, instead of the riverbank.”

    Montgomery pulled out a watch. “That’d be half-past noon, General. I’ll tell the colonel.”

    Jackson nodded. Montgomery squared his shoulders. “I’ll lead the assault myself.”

    The general nodded again. Then, abruptly, he stuck out his hand. “Take care, Lemuel.” There was quite a bit of warmth in his tone. Houston had heard that Jackson and the major had been personal friends since before the war started.

    To his surprise, after Jackson finished shaking hands with Montgomery, the general thrust his hand at Sam. “And you, as well, Ensign Houston. I will rely upon you to carry forward if ...anything untoward happens to Major Montgomery.”

    Jackson’s grip was firm. Sam hoped the same was true of his own. “I will, sir. You can count on it.”

    He even managed not to wince when another cannon went off. Fortunately, it was only the three-pounder.

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