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Rivers of War: Snippet Eighteen

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



THE RIVERS OF WAR – snippet 18:


    April 18, 1814

    Fort Jackson, Mississippi Territory

    As befitted the most junior officer in the gathering, newly promoted to the rank of second lieutenant, Sam Houston stood toward the back of the large tent in Fort Jackson. The canopy served as a field headquarters for the general whose name had been given to the newly constructed fort.

    Houston was perfectly happy with the arrangement. Andrew Jackson was having another temper tantrum, and Sam didn’t particularly want to have the general’s attention drawn to him.

    Not that there was much danger of that. Leaving aside the fact that Jackson had made his approval of Houston eminently clear since the Horseshoe Bend, there were other people in the tent to draw the general’s ire.

    Two colonels, to be precise.

    Very shortly, it was reported, Major General Thomas Pinckney would be arriving at the fort. Once he did so, as the senior general, his authority would supersede Jackson’s. But, in the meantime, Jackson was still in command—and the two colonels in question, having recently arrived at the fort with their units, had made it quite clear that they didn’t consider him qualified for the position.

    Homer Milton and Gilbert Russell were only colonels, but they were both commissioned officers in the regular army, whereas Jackson’s majestic rank of major general was that of the Tennessee militia. Jackson might favor regular soldiers, but, technically speaking, he was nothing but a militiaman himself. Both colonels had stated outright that they considered Jackson’s authority over them to be a simple formality.

    To make things worse, while Russell had commanded his Mississippi troops fairly well—it had been his men who cleared most of the hostile Creeks from the lower Alabama River back in February—the same could not be said of Milton. He and the Georgia troops had been, in Sam’s opinion, well-nigh useless all the way through the campaign.

“—good for nothing except plundering friendly Indians! ” Jackson shrilled. “Couldn’t be found, it goes without saying, anywhere near the hostiles!”

    The general waved angrily toward the north. “I’ve already lost The Ridge and most of my Cherokees on account of you! When word came through that your stinking militia stole their livestock and ruined their fields and orchards while they were down here fighting the Red Sticks—”

    Milton was no shrinking violet himself.

    “General, you’d already discharged the Cherokees yourself before the word arrived. And since when have you cared what happened to any such savage?” he sneered.

    Sam held his breath, and he could see General Coffee and Major Reid doing the same. Up until now, this had just been a run-of-the-mill Jackson tirade.

    It was fascinating, really. Jackson was the only man Sam had ever seen who could somehow turn livid with fury and ashen with rage at the same time. “Bright pale,” you might call the color of his face.

    The general said nothing, as seconds dragged on. He just gave Milton his patented double-barreled blue-eyed glare. And if the glare was as rigidly fixed as an iron bar, the rest of Jackson wasn’t. His tall, whipcord body was almost vibrating like a harp string—or a bowstring being drawn.

    Even the haughty colonel finally realized he’d gone too far. “Sir,” he added lamely.

    Jackson snatched off his hat and slammed it onto the table next to him, scattering papers in the process. There had been a big map which had covered it, and that spilled halfway onto the ground.

    “I gave them my word, sir—and you made me into a liar! Savages be damned! My word is my word!”

    For a moment, Sam thought the general might actually strike the colonel with his fist. It was clenched—so was his left one, even in the sling—and there was spittle coming from the corners of Jackson’s mouth. If they hadn’t both been in uniform, Sam was pretty sure he would have challenged Milton to a duel right there on the spot.

    “That’s the issue here, sir!” Jackson gritted. For an instant, his angry eyes flitted to the other colonel. “At least he”—a jerk of the head toward Russell— “had enough grace not to steal from his Choctaws and Chickasaws!”

    It was all Sam could do not to grin. He’d gotten to know the general a lot better over the past few weeks, since the battle at the Horseshoe Bend, and one of the things he’d learned was that Coffee was right. Jackson’s rages were genuine enough, to be sure—but that never stopped the general from using them with all the cold-blooded skill of a master swordsman in a fight. Milton’s blundering arrogance had given Jackson the opportunity to peel Russell away from him, and the general hadn’t missed the chance.

    Russell, clearly enough, was by now just looking for a way out of the brawl. He wasn’t any happier than Milton was at the situation, but he had enough sense to realize that Jackson’s victory at the bend had made him the popular hero of the southwestern states and territories. That would draw plenty of favorable notice in Washington, D.C., as well.

    A lot more favorable notice than it should have, he no doubt felt, but American victories on land in the war that had begun with Britain in 1812 had been few and far between.

    Very few, and very far between. The American navy had acquitted itself well, even if many of its heroes, like Oliver Hazard Perry and Isaac Hull, were from the same New England that was largely opposed to the war with Britain. But the record of the American army had generally been poor, outside of Harrison’s victory over Tecumseh at the Thames. And sometimes it had been downright dismal.

    The very first major offensive launched by the United States, an attempt at conquering Canada led by the governor of Michigan, William Hull—he’d been made a brigadier general, for the purpose—had ended with Hull’s ignominious surrender, along with the taking of the town of Detroit.

    So Jackson’s triumph at the Horseshoe Bend had given Americans a much-needed boost. Granted, Hull had faced British regulars, along with hostile Indians, while Jackson’s victory had been over Indians fighting on their own. Still, a resounding victory was a resounding victory.

    Now Colonel Russell edged back a pace. Colonel Milton, seeing him do so out of the corner of an eye, finally had enough sense to realize that he’d dug himself into a hole. So, he tried to climb out of it.

    Unfortunately, he did so ass backward.

    “I agree that it was most unfortunate, General, but—”

    “It wasn’t ‘unfortunate,’ Colonel—it was an outrage! And leaving aside the stain on my reputation, it presents me with a rather massive practical problem.” Jackson snatched his hat back off the table and jabbed with it toward the tent’s entrance. Once, twice, thrice.

    “There are still, by all reports, at least a thousand Creek hostiles gathered around the Spanish forts at Pensacola and Apalachicola. And you can be sure the British agents there will be arming them—runaway negro slaves, too—and keeping them in the fight while they bring their regulars to our shores. I was counting on having the Cherokees return to service with me in a few months. Now—thanks to you—!”

    Jackson having given him the opening, Russell took it eagerly enough. Let his fellow colonel in the regulars sink on his own. “The Choctaws and Chickasaws are still with us, sir,” he said righteously.

    Jackson’s glare never left Milton’s face, even as he replied. “That’s fine and dandy, Colonel Russell. The fact remains that I probably lost the Cherokees for the rest of the war, and I doubt very much if as many Choctaws will step forward to take their place. Much less Chickasaws. There aren’t more than four thousand Chickasaws in the whole world to begin with.” Jackson’s glare intensified. “That’s our situation, thanks to these Georgian thieves!”

    Milton scowled, but looked away. “They’re not my Georgians, sir,” he grumbled. “Most of my troops are from South Carolina. The plundering was done without my knowledge by Georgia militiamen”—he tried one last sally— “and probably some Tennesseans with them.”

    If Milton thought Jackson would rise to that bait, he was mistaken. “Probably,” Jackson grunted. “And so what? Since you seem so preoccupied with the formal matters of command, Colonel Milton, let me ask you a simple question. Which one of us was in charge of operations in the state of Georgia? Me, or you?”

    There was no safe answer to that question, so Milton subsided into a mulish silence.

    After a few seconds, apparently having decided he’d won his point, Jackson jammed the hat back on his head. That hat was something of a marvel. Somehow, despite all the abuse Jackson inflicted upon the innocent headgear— Sam had now seen him stomp on it twice—the thing still retained a visible resemblance to a general’s official hat.

    Of course, it might not be the same hat. Sam wouldn’t have been surprised to discover that one of the chests in Jackson’s baggage was chock full of the things. The general was perfectly capable of planning ahead of time to bring enough hats with him that he could stomp a dozen of them into oblivion and still appear the next day, as fancily dressed as ever.

    While the officers continued their glaring match, Sam spent his time coming to a decision.

    There were a lot of things about Andrew Jackson that he didn’t like— some, he downright detested—but, overall, he had come to develop a profound respect for the man. Even admiration, for that matter.

    Say whatever else you would about Jackson, Sam didn’t think there was another man in the country who could have driven this campaign through so relentlessly and effectively, especially given the fact that the general’s own health had been wrecked in the process. He’d probably never recover from the bullet wounds in his arm and shoulder that the Benton brothers had inflicted on him last September, in their brawl at the City Hotel in Nashville. He might have, if he’d followed medical advice. But Jackson had refused, as soon as word arrived of the massacre at Fort Mims, in order to assume command of the Tennessee militia. He’d started the campaign just a few weeks after the shoot-out, and had led the whole thing with his left arm wrapped in a sling.

    Sam didn’t share Jackson’s intense hatred of the British, but he did agree with the general that the current war wasn’t the meaningless joke that so many New Englanders thought it was. If the British got the chance, they’d crush the new American republic. Cripple it, for sure. And now that they looked to be on the verge of finally defeating Napoleon, they’d get their chance. They’d send Wellington’s veterans across the Atlantic. Except for some of Napoleon’s elite units, those were probably the best regular soldiers anywhere in the modern world.

    The war was just heating up, in short—and Sam Houston couldn’t think of a commanding officer he’d rather be serving than Andrew Jackson. Whatever his faults.

    And being honest, there was the fact that Sam was ambitious. Like many young men who came from poor circumstances, Sam treasured the republic because it allowed for young men like himself to advance as far as they could, based on their own merits. Sam had every intention of taking advantage of that opportunity.

    On the other hand, he wasn’t naive, either. “Merits” were fine and dandy, but having a powerful patron would help an awful lot. The United States was a fine place for a young man to advance himself. Far better than any of the aristocrat-riddled countries of Europe, to be sure. But it was no paradise. Connections and influence mattered, plenty.

    Jackson had already made clear that he was willing to make Sam one of his protégés. So far, though, Sam had held off from any definite commitment. Partly, because Jackson’s harsh attitudes repelled him some; mostly, just because there had been no clear and specific way to do so.

    There was now, however—and Sam wasn’t surprised at all to see that, as soon as the two colonels finally left, Jackson turned to peer at the most junior officer in the tent. He could almost read the general’s mind.

    Sam cleared his throat. “I think I’ve got a way to bring the Cherokees back, sir, yes. But, . . .”

    The words trailed off. Sam wasn’t a coward—he certainly wasn’t bashful— but even he found that piercing, blue-eyed gaze a bit intimidating.

    Jackson’s smile was razor thin. “But there are some conditions. Yes, I thought there might be.”

    The general glanced at Coffee and Reid. “Gentleman, if I could have some privacy?”

    Nodding, Coffee left.

    Major Reid was already passing through the tent flap.


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