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Rivers of War: Snippet Nineteen

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



THE RIVERS OF WAR – snippet 19:


    When they were gone, Jackson took off his hat and gestured with it toward a chair on the other side of the table. “Have a seat, Sam.”

    It was the first time he’d ever used Houston’s first name. After Sam took his seat, Jackson laid the hat on the table—gently, this time, taking care not to damage it even further—and pulled out a chair on his side. As soon as the general sat down, he spoke.

    “I’m going to break them, Sam. All of them. The Cherokees and the Choctaws just as much as the Creeks. Don’t have any doubt about it. Know that, right from the start.”

    Sam took a deep breath. Before he could say anything, Jackson waved his hand impatiently.

    “Spare me your objections. Tarnation, I didn’t say it was fair. What in the name of Jesse has ‘fair’ got to do with any of it? Is it fair that a Cherokee needs eight square miles of land to enjoy his customs and habits, but a crofter in Scotland or Ireland—or England, or Germany, for that matter—has to eke out a living on a tiny patch of poor dirt? Am I supposed to tell my kinsmen—yours, too—who are pouring into America that they should go back and knuckle their foreheads to their noble betters in the old country?”

    He laughed harshly. “Not a chance, Sam. I wouldn’t do it even if I could. My loyalties are clear. They’re to my own people, and be damned to anyone else. That I learned from my good old mother. And you’re going to have to make the same decision, one way or the other.”

    Sam had been holding his breath all the way through, without realizing it. Now, he let it out.

    “I don’t have a problem with that, General. A man should have his loyalties, and live by them. But I do have a problem—might, anyway—with how it’s done.”

“I don’t care how it’s done,” Jackson said firmly. He ran bony fingers through his hair. “If it can be done humanely, though, then that would be fine by me.”

    For a moment, his face came as close to softening as that intrinsically ferocious face ever could. “I know the Indians are calling me ‘Sharp Knife,’ and frankly I don’t regret the fact. Not one bit. Rather like it, actually, since it makes things easier for me. But I don’t cut people for the pleasure of it, either.”

    That was true enough. Andrew Jackson was probably the most belligerent man Sam had ever met, but he wasn’t one of those people who took a sick enjoyment in inflicting pain. He could be utterly callous, yes, but you couldn’t honestly call him cruel. By reputation, he even treated his slaves better than most plantation owners—although God help a slave who was insubordinate or tried to run away. Jackson would have them lashed, chained, and then sell them.

    Sam thought about it. “It won’t be easy,” he said.

    “To put it mildly! Say whatever else you want about the sava—ah, our noble red brethren—but nobody’s ever accused them of being cowards. Sure, they’ll resist. I’ll still break them. If I have to, I’ll crush them out of existence. Just like some of my none-too-noble ancestors crushed others out of existence. Where are the Ostrogoths and the Lombards now?” The general flicked fingers across his cheek. “Somewhere in here—and in your face, too—mixed in with everything else.”

    Sam wasn’t surprised by the general’s knowledge of history. Whether or not there were any extra hats in Jackson’s chests, Sam knew there were books. And not just the Bible and The Vicar of Wakefield that, by reputation, were said to be Jackson’s only reading matter. The general’s written English might be riddled with eccentric spelling and syntax, but Jackson was far better educated— self-educated, anyway—than most people realized.

    “I don’t care about that part of it either,” Sam said bluntly. “The Indians aren’t any different from our own barbarian ancestors. The Cherokees haven’t been in their area for more than a few centuries, probably. They came from farther north, driven out by some other tribe—and I’m sure they didn’t hesitate to drive someone else out to make room for themselves. The whole Creek Confederacy is a patchwork of conquered tribes, when you get right down to it.

    “Still and all, they aren’t Huns. Once the Creeks broke a tribe, they let them join. Are you prepared to do the same? Make them citizens?”

    To Sam’s surprise, Jackson nodded.

    “Real citizens, I mean. Not that half-and-half business we do with the freedmen.”

    Freedmen weren’t slaves, but they weren’t really citizens, either. Not, at least, in any state Sam knew about it. They couldn’t run for office—couldn’t even vote, for that matter—and were restricted by law in any number of other ways. They couldn’t marry whites, for instance.

    Jackson shrugged. “I’m not the Almighty, Sam. I don’t have a problem with letting the Indians become full citizens of the country—if they agree to give up their independence. But that’s just my personal opinion. You know as well as I do that most states wouldn’t agree to it. Not in full, anyway.”

    Sam was rather proud of the fact that his eyes—blue, like the general’s, if a softer shade—never left Jackson’s face.

    After a moment, it was the general who looked away. “All right, tarnation. I’ll promise to do what I can. Within reason.”

    Jackson usually couldn’t stay seated for very long. He rose to his feet, and began pacing.

    “But that’s no real solution, and you know it as well as I do.” Jackson jerked his head toward the entrance of the tent. “Is that John Ross fellow still here with you?”

    Sam nodded. “Yes he is. He and James Rogers decided to stay, when all the other Cherokees left. I’m pretty sure The Ridge—Major Ridge, he’s calling himself now—told them to do so.”

    Jackson grinned. “Major Ridge, is it? He’ll grab what he wants from us, in other words, and leave aside the rest. So, tell me, Sam: Is that young Ross, who looks like the spitting image of a Scotsman, any different from the rest? Is he more willing that any of them to give up his political independence?”

    The worst thing to do when dealing with the general was to lie, or even to try fudging the truth. “No, sir. He’s flexible, mind you. But he’s just as determined as any of them to stay a Cherokee. There are some exceptions, but not many of them would want to become U.S. citizens, even if they had the chance.”

    “I didn’t think so. And that leaves us with only two options. Let’s face the truth squarely, Sam.”

    Again, the general jerked his head toward the tent flap. “The United States of America already has an estimated eight million citizens, with more coming across the Atlantic every week. There were eighty thousand Americans alone just in Tennessee when we got statehood twenty years ago—and the population’s probably doubled since then. How many Cherokees are there, all told? For that matter, how many people in all the southern tribes put together?”

    Sam spread his hands. “Who knows, really? At a guess—but it’s probably a pretty fair one—I’d say there are about twenty thousand Cherokees. They’re the biggest tribe, except for maybe the Creeks, so...All told? Maybe eighty thousand.”

    Jackson nodded. “And that’s eighty thousand people. Not eighty thousand warriors. At best, I doubt all the tribes together could field fifteen thousand men in a war. Not all at once, anyway. And however fierce they can be in a battle, their tribes are fragile because of the way they live. I’ll just burn them out, all of them, like I’ve been doing to the Creeks. They’ll surrender soon enough.”

    The general’s word were harsh, but Sam knew they weren’t anything more than the simple truth. Jackson’s soldiers had been systematically burning the towns and riverbank crops of the hostile Creeks as they marched. By now, the Upper Town Creeks were on the edge of starvation, and hundreds of them were coming in to surrender. Soon, it would be thousands.

    The traditional way of war among the southern tribes was a thing of clan feuds and tribal clashes. Short battles and ambushes, usually, followed by a peace settlement. The kind of relentless total war Jackson was waging was simply not something they could deal with.


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