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Rivers of War: Snippet Twenty Four

       Last updated: Monday, March 7, 2005 10:00 EST



THE RIVERS OF WAR – snippet 24:

    CHAPTER 11 June 4, 1814

    Near Buffalo, New York Training camp for the Army of the Niagara

    Two soldiers manhandled each condemned man, forcing them to their knees just in front of the graves. The five condemned men were dressed in white robes, with hoods of the same color covering their faces. Their hands were tied behind their backs.

    General Jacob Brown, commander of the small Army of the Niagara, had left the training of the regiments in the hands of his subordinate, Brigadier Winfield Scott. Scott was a stickler—many of his soldiers would have said a maniac—on the subject of camp sanitation, as well as discipline in general. “Efficiency,” he liked to say, “is just one of many necessary soldierly qualities.” The same bullets that slew the deserters would serve to transport them to their graves.

    Four of the condemned men made no sound. The fifth, on the far right, was sobbing uncontrollably. The sound was quite audible, despite the hood that was covering his face.

    And well he might sob, thought Sergeant Patrick Driscol harshly, as he made his final inspection. The condemned man’s name was Anthony McParland, and he was a “man” in name only. McParland had tried to desert the army not two weeks after his seventeenth birthday. “Desperately homesick,” the little puler had claimed at his court-martial.

    Driscol wasn’t moved by McParland’s age, much less the puling. He might have been, except that the young soldier was another Ulsterman. Came from that stock, at least, even if he’d been born in America.

    Like many of the United Irishmen who had taken refuge in the United States after the British crushed the rebellion of 1798, Sergeant Driscol hated two things above all.

    First, England.

    Second, any man—or boy, and be damned—who capitulated to the Sassenach.

    For Driscol—who’d spent several years in the French armies before emigrating to America—“capitulation” most certainly included desertion. And the penalty for desertion in time of war was death.

    He came to the end of the line, and examined the trembling figure for a few seconds. Then, he straightened up and stalked off.

    The five condemned men were well separated, to allow for the large firing squads. There were a dozen men in each squad—a preposterous waste of effort, to Driscol’s mind, not to mention a waste of ammunition that could be better used against the enemy. But Brigadier Scott had been firm on the matter. He’d said he didn’t want any one man knowing for sure that he’d been the agent of death.

    There’d been a sixth man convicted of desertion also. But, in light of extenuating circumstances, the court-martial had not sentenced him to death as it had the other five. Instead, he’d had his ears cut off, the letter D branded into his cheek, and he had been dishonorably discharged from the service.

    Once he was out of the line of fire, Driscol turned and squared his shoulders.

    “Ready!” he called out. The sergeant had a loud voice, trained over the years to penetrate the cacophony of battlefields.

    Sixty muskets were leveled, a dozen at each condemned man.


    Sixty hammers were cocked.

    Driscol gave a last glance at the shrouded figure of young McParland. The front of his robe was stained wet.

    Let the little bastard remember that, too. And if he forgets, I’ll make sure to remind him.

    He turned his head and looked at the general. Brigadier Scott was sitting on his horse, some forty yards away.

    Scott looked every inch the officer, despite his youth. The sergeant had known plenty of peacock officers in his day. Scott might have the vanity of a peacock, but he had the soul of a fighter.

    That was all Sergeant Patrick Liam Driscol cared about. He’d been born in County Antrim, in Ireland, of Scottish Presbyterian stock. His father and older brother had been members of the United Irishmen and had died in the rebellion of 1798. Patrick himself had participated in the final battle, near the town of Antrim, that had seen the rebels broken.

    Patiently, he waited for the general to steel himself. Driscol knew the moment, when it came. The general had a little way of twitching his shoulders to steady himself. Another man might simply square them, but Scott was too energetic.

    This past November, when he’d still been a colonel, Scott had ridden a horse through sleet and snow for thirty hours straight in order to join a battle. That alone, in an American army whose top officers were more prone to spending thirty hours straight in taverns or lying in bed complaining about their illnesses, had been enough to endear Brigadier Scott to the sergeant from County Antrim.

    Scott give him a little nod. Not bothering to turn his head—he had a very powerful voice—the sergeant called out the command.


    Sixty muskets roared. The sound of them—one-fifth, to be precise, an entire bloody squad—was off a bit.

    He turned his head to see the results. Young McParland was lying curled up on the ground.

    As if the pitiful wretch had actually been shot!

    Worthless little shit. It was all Driscol could do not to heave a sigh. He had his orders, after all.

    The sergeant’s eyes quickly scanned the other four men. Three of them were no longer visible. The volleys had done their work, hurling them into the pits. To Driscol’s disgust, however, one of the men was sprawled across the edge of his grave. His robe was soaked red, and the body under it would be a broken ruin. But the man seemed to be twitching a bit.

    Driscol drew his pistol and stalked over, glaring at that particular squad along the way. He’d be having some words with those sluggards later that day, they could be sure of it. From the sickly look on their faces, they knew it themselves.

    The sergeant reached the man lying at the edge of the grave. He cocked his pistol, took aim, and blew the deserter’s brains out. Then, with a boot, rolled the corpse into the pit.

    That done, he walked down the line, taking a moment at each grave to inspect the body lying in it. They were all dead.

    That left McParland.

    Driscol marched over to the white-shrouded figure, twitching and trembling on the far right. The sergeant still had his weapon in his hand, since the barrel was a bit hot yet. For a moment, he was tempted to pistol-whip the sobbing wretch.

    Orders, orders.

    Driscol was a squat, powerful man. He reached down with his left hand, seized McParland by the scruff of the neck, and jerked him to his feet.

    “Get up, you sniveling bastard.”

    With the same hand, he snatched McParland’s hood off. Under normal conditions, McParland’s eyes were hazel, but the tears had them left them looking more like slimy mud at the moment. The boy’s legs were shaking, too.

    “If you fall down,” Driscol snarled, “I’ll give you the boots. I swear I will. And my boots will make you think you’re being trampled by cattle. I swear they will.”

    McParland stared at him. Then, slowly, he peered down at his own body.

    “I’m still alive,” he whispered.

    “No thanks to me,” Driscol growled. “You’re a shame and a disgrace to Ulstermen. I’d have shot you dead and not thought twice about it. But the brigadier there”—the sergeant twitched his head toward Scott on his horse— “was of the opinion that a bawling babe might still be able to learn a lesson. Waste of time, in my opinion. But ...he’s the commander, and I’m the sergeant, and so you’re still alive. The muskets of your firing squad were loaded with blanks.”

    McParland was still staring down at his unmarked body. Unmarked by blood and gore, at least. The urine stain was quite visible—as was the smell of feces. The boy had beshat himself as well.

    “I can’t believe it,” McParland whispered.

    “Neither can I,” grumbled Driscol. “The brigadier also instructed me to pay special attention to your training from now on. God help me.”

    Driscol hefted the pistol, looking at McParland with a speculative eye. He smiled. It was a very, very, very thin smile. “You’ll be doing me the favor, I hope, of trying to desert again. Then we can just shoot you properly and be done with it.”

    McParland started shaking his head violently. “Never do it again!” he choked.

    Driscol didn’t try to suppress his sigh, this time. “I was afraid you might say that.”


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