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Rivers of War: Snippet Sixteen

       Last updated: Friday, February 25, 2005 16:00 EST



THE RIVERS OF WAR – snippet 16:

    An hour later, Jackson was ready to start the final drive. By then, hundreds of Red Sticks had already been slaughtered in the fighting. As poorly equipped as they were with firearms, they hadn’t been able to fight very effectively once the Cherokees erupted into their rear and the Thirty-ninth breached the barricade.

    Jackson had indeed given orders before the battle started that the Creek noncombatants were to be spared. There weren’t many on the peninsula, not more than a few hundred, since the Red Sticks had sent away most of their women and children and old folks before Jackson’s army arrived. But any Red Stick warrior who didn’t surrender was to be killed. And he knew perfectly well that his soldiers—especially the militiamen—hadn’t bothered to ask.

    Jackson didn’t blame them. In this sort of chaotic brawl not even the regulars would follow the established laws of war, at least not very often, and the general wasn’t about to ask any questions. It just didn’t pay to do so.

    Still, there’d been several incidents reported to him. In most cases, Jackson was inclined to accept the explanation that the killings had been accidental. They probably were, in truth, at least half the time. A woman running through the woods was just a blur of movement to a soldier whose nerves were at a fever pitch due to fear and battle-fury. He’d shoot first and think later. So would Jackson himself, being honest.

    However, there’d been one case involving a small boy that had angered Jackson as much as it had the officer who’d reported to him. Confused and frightened, the boy—he hadn’t been more than five or six years old—had stumbled into a group of American soldiers. One of them had bashed his brains out with the butt of his musket.

    Even then, for Jackson, the issue wasn’t the killing as such. The officer reported that the culprit had justified his deed on the grounds that if the boy had lived he’d have grown into a warrior—so why not kill him now when it was still easy? It was a sentiment that Jackson didn’t share—not quite—but he had no trouble at all understanding it.

    Yet that was beside the point. The general had given his orders, clear and simple, and a soldier—a regular, too, to make it worse—had taken it upon himself to disobey them. If he could find out who the man was, he’d have him punished.

    That wasn’t likely, though. The officer who’d reported the outrage had been from a different unit, and didn’t know the man’s name. The odds were slim that the culprit’s own superior officer would identify him—and the odds that his fellow soldiers would do so were exactly zero.

    The general smiled thinly. Quite unlike—ha!—the instant readiness of a militia officer to report to him half an hour before, hotly and angrily, that Ensign Houston had brutalized an honest citizen of Tennessee and threatened several others just because . . .

    Well, you know how it is, General, the boys like to have their trophies...

    Jackson had given him short shrift. But the incident was enough to crystallize his feeling that this battle had gotten a little out of control. He didn’t object to killing Indians, not in the least. In fact, he’d planned the entire campaign in such a way as to trap the Red Sticks on this horseshoe bend of the Tallapoosa so he could kill as many of them as possible. Still, a civilized nation did have its established rules of war, and it had to follow them or it would become no better than the savages themselves.

    “We’ll give them a last chance to surrender,” he announced.

    The officers gathered around him exchanged looks. Finally, Major Reid was bold enough to speak.

    “Uh, who, General? What I mean is, who’s supposed to take them the offer?” Reid looked down at the ravine where most of the surviving Red Sticks were now forted up.

    “Forted up” was the phrase, too. The Red Sticks hadn’t had the time to build anything as solid and well designed as the barricade they’d placed across the neck of the peninsula. But the southern tribes were all woodsmen, and in the few hours they’d had, the warriors had been able to erect a rather substantial breastwork down there. Storming it would be a dangerous business.

    Given the desperation and fanaticism of the Red Sticks, it would be equally dangerous taking them an offer to surrender.

    Jackson’s eyes moved past the little cluster of aides gathered immediately around him. He was looking for a particular officer, among the several hundred soldiers milling about in the immediate vicinity. He’d be there, for sure.

    Sure enough, he found the young man quickly, even in that crowd. Partly because of his height, but partly because of the two Indians standing next to him. The three of them seemed to have become well-nigh inseparable in the course of the battle, and they stood out in a crowd.

    Houston was perhaps thirty yards away, but his eyes met the general’s immediately. Jackson suspected he’d been anticipating the summons. Indeed, the young ensign began walking toward him immediately, without even waiting for a command.

    Limping toward him, rather—and the limp seemed to have gotten worse. Jackson wasn’t surprised. A flesh wound is still a real wound, and even a man as big as Houston would be feeling the effects of it this many hours later.

    Still and all, it was a very firm sort of limp. Whatever pain and weariness the ensign might be feeling, it was clear enough that his determination hadn’t flagged.

    When Houston drew near, he spoke without being asked to do so.

    “I’ll take them the offer, sir. But I can tell you right now it’s a waste of time.”

    Houston jerked his head, indicating the ravine behind him. “Me and James and John snuck down there a little while back. I know the lingo well enough— James knows it even better—that we got the gist of it. They’ve got some shamans down there with them, and they’ve been busy firing them up for a last stand.”


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