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Rivers of War: Snippet Twenty Seven

       Last updated: Friday, March 11, 2005 10:00 EST



THE RIVERS OF WAR – snippet 27:

    CHAPTER 12

    July 3, 1814 Daybreak, near Fort Erie, Canadian side of the Niagara River

    It had been quite a picture, although not one the brigadier would ever commission for a portrait.

    As the American expeditionary force neared the Canadian shore of the Niagara, in the early hours of the morning, Winfield Scott demonstrated his leadership qualities by drawing his sword, waving it about in a splendidly martial fashion, and being the first man in his army to wade ashore, crying out Follow me!

    A pity, though, that he hadn’t waited until they’d actually reached the shore, or ascertained the depth of the water. The last sight Patrick Driscol had of the brigadier was the startled expression on his face. A moment later, all that could be seen was the sword, still above the surface. Not the hilt, though—that, and the hand holding it, had quite disappeared, although the blade itself was waving about energetically.

    Of Scott himself, there was nothing to be seen.

    There was always this to be said for Winfield Scott, though: he was never the man to let a minor mishap get between him and his conception of heroic destiny. Where another man might have dropped the sword and swum back to the surface, Scott plunged resolutely onward. Driscol and the rest of the soldiers tracked the brigadier’s progress by following the sword blade as it cut its way toward the shore like the fin of a shark.

    A very slow shark. And no shark’s fin ever bobbed up and down and wobbled back and forth the way Scott’s sword did. Driscol could just imagine the muddy and treacherous footing the brigadier was fighting his way through on the river bottom, while trying to hold his breath.

    Still, he made it. Far enough, at least, that he was finally able to bring his head above the surface and cry out. And he still sounded like an officer barking out a command.

    “Too deep!”

    Not even Driscol could keep from laughing, at that point.


    “Everyone’s safely ashore, sir,” Driscol reported to the brigadier a short time later. “There were some British pickets, but they ran off after firing just a few shots. Into the air, so far as I can tell. We suffered no casualties at all.”

    “Other than to my dignity,” Scott chuckled, looking down at his still-sodden and somewhat bedraggled uniform. “I hate to think what it’ll cost me to have the damage repaired.”

    On another occasion, the ruin visited upon his beloved uniform would have caused those words to be uttered in a snarl. But Winfield Scott was as pugnacious a commanding officer in the field as any Driscol had ever encountered, saving Napoleon himself. If he didn’t love the carnage of war, he did love the excitement of the enterprise. The man was in his element, now, and his spirits couldn’t be shaken by something as petty as a dunking.

    Assuming the United States won this war, Driscol had already decided that he’d remain in the army. He was thirty-two years old, and after sixteen years of soldiering he figured he was too old to take up another occupation. However, he’d also decided that once peace had arrived, he’d find some quiet and discreet way to separate himself from Scott’s entourage.

    In a war—certainly in a battle—there wasn’t another officer in the U.S. Army that Driscol would rather serve under. But in time of peace, he had no desire to be a master sergeant under Scott’s command. For that, he wanted a different sort of officer. One who, at the very least, wouldn’t be quarreling constantly with other officers and embroiling his subordinates in his personal feuds, just because he didn’t have a real war to fight.

    But that problem was for a later day—assuming Driscoll lived that long. He might very well not. The British forces charged with protecting the peninsula that jutted between Lake Erie and the Niagara were headquartered at Fort George, under the command of Major General Phineas Riall—who also had a reputation for being aggressive. There was sure to be a battle soon, and most likely a savage one. Riall wasn’t the sort of officer who’d allow the American army to challenge British dominance on the open field, as General Brown and Brigadier Scott now proposed to do.

    “Cousin Jonathan” was the derisive term British officers used to refer to the Americans. They were convinced that while Cousin Jonathan could manage well enough in a border fray, where half the combatants on both sides were savage Indians, the Americans had neither the skill nor the fortitude to match the British army on a battlefield.


    There was more than a little truth to the British sneers. The kind of battle that Sergeant Driscol had experienced in Napoleon’s wars could only be fought effectively by a real army. Standing up to musket volleys at close range on an open plain was simply beyond the capacity of militias or poorly trained troops.

    Indians wouldn’t even try. As in almost every war that had taken place on American soil for the past two centuries, there were Indians fighting on both sides in this one. Scott had learned that Riall’s army maintained several hundred Mohawks as allies. On the American side, Porter’s Third Brigade had about as many Indians. From a different tribe, Driscol assumed, although he didn’t know which one. The sergeant hadn’t been in the United States long enough—and, then, not in the right part of the country—to learn the Indians’ complex tribal and clan distinctions.

    Nor did he care, in the end. Driscol didn’t have anything against Indians in particular, but he considered them irrelevant to his business. Indians made fine scouts and skirmishers, from what little he had seen of them, and that was it. Such qualities didn’t impress Driscol for the simple reason that the same could be said of his own Scots-Irish kinfolk back home in Ireland. And he’d seen with his own eyes how pitiful a reed that was when the iron rod of the British army came down.

    Battles against the likes of Wellington’s men wouldn’t be won by scouts and skirmishers. They hadn’t been in Ireland; they wouldn’t be here in America.

    Scott’s voice broke into his musing. “And the supplies?”

    “All ashore, sir. The quartermasters have the matter in hand. I checked.”

    “Splendid.” The brigadier examined the sunrise for a few seconds. “We’ve got plenty of time to converge on Fort Erie by noon. Assuming Porter doesn’t get lost, of course. But Ripley and his brigade are landing only a mile away upstream, so we should have established contact with them well before then. That’s what matters.”

    When General Brown had divided the Army of the Niagara between his two brigadiers for this campaign, he’d given the bulk of them—four out of the six regiments—to Winfield Scott. Not because he thought badly of the other brigadier, Eleazar Ripley, but simply because he had complete confidence in Scott. Brown, a former county judge and state legislator, might not know the technical details of soldiering—Driscol suspected the major general couldn’t even post camp guards properly—but he was an excellent judge of men.

    There was a pitched battle coming, and General Brown wanted the bulk of his forces under the command of Winfield Scott. He was taking a risk in so doing, of course, because Scott was prone to rashness. But Brown was the sort of officer who’d always prefer to fail through acts of commission, rather than omission. The sergeant couldn’t fault him for that. It was a refreshing change from the usual run of American generals, who could find endless reasons to avoid fighting British regulars.

    Somewhat to Driscol’s surprise, Porter and his Third Brigade didn’t get lost. By midday, the three columns of the Army of the Niagara converged on Fort Erie, according to plan.

    The siege that followed was a simple affair, even by the standards of warfare in North America. The British holding the fort numbered but one hundred and seventy men. They were facing a besieging force of almost four thousand soldiers, more than three thousand of whom were regulars.

    “They’ll hold out just long enough to satisfy honor,” Driscol predicted, when Scott asked the sergeant’s opinion. “You can expect them to surrender by sundown.”

    The brigadier scowled at the enemy fortress. “I hate to lose the rest of the day. I’m thinking perhaps we should just take it with a charge.”

    Driscol restrained a sigh. Scott’s aggressiveness was an asset for the American army, but it did need to be checked from time to time.

    “Sir, it’d take us till midafternoon anyway to organize and carry through a frontal assault,” he pointed out mildly. “We’d gain but two or three hours, and at the cost of fairly heavy casualties, leaving the army exhausted. Storming a fortress is bloody and tiring work.”

    Scott was too good a general not to know that Driscol was right, but he kept scowling for hours. Driscol made it a point to remain by his side throughout the rest of the day. Just in case the brigadier needed to be gently restrained again.

    Driscol’s prediction proved accurate almost to the minute. At five o’clock in the afternoon, the British defenders surrendered Fort Erie.

    As he watched his men escorting the captured British soldiers to the rear— a friendly enough affair, on both sides, since calm reason had prevailed over silly belligerence—Scott finally stopped scowling.

    “Well, you were right, Sergeant,” he commented gruffly to Driscol.

    “You’re quite welcome, sir,” Driscol replied easily.

    Moments later, though, Scott was starting to scowl again. Driscol decided it would be best to cheer him up with the prospect of looming difficulties and desperate circumstances.

    “By now, of course, the main British army at Fort George will have learned that we’ve landed on their shores. The pickets would have brought Riall the news. He’ll already have his troops marching south to meet us.”

    “Will he, then?” Scott clapped his hands together. “How soon, do you think?”

    “Sometime on the morrow.”

    “That quickly? Fort George is well over twenty miles away.”

    Driscol gave him a level gaze. “That’s a professional British army we’re about to smash into, sir. Sometime on the morrow. Be sure of it.” General Brown didn’t propose to wait for them, however. He arrived at Fort Erie soon after it was taken, and ordered Scott to move his First Brigade north the next morning.

    “We should be able to seize the bridge over the Chippewa before the enemy arrives,” said Brown.

    Scott nodded. “We need that bridge, or we’ll lose days. So far as I know, there aren’t any fords across the Chippewa unless you go pretty far upstream, off to the west.”

    Driscol kept his mouth shut, as protocol demanded. In point of fact, he thought the American generals were indulging themselves in a fantasy. The Chippewa River was a bit closer to Fort Erie than it was to Fort George, true. But an officer like Riall would send out an advance force, to delay the American approach until Riall himself could arrive with the main body of his army. Driscol was fairly certain the British would get to the bridge first.

    In this, as in so many ways, the level of professionalism of the British army was simply superior to that of the American one. Scott had done wonders with the Army of the Niagara in the months he’d had to train it. But months of training couldn’t possibly match the decades of experience the British army had amassed in pitched battles and maneuvers on the European continent. Driscol thought that Scott had shaped the army well enough to match the British on the open field of battle, if not in the maneuvers that led up to it. And that was as much as the sergeant could ask for.

    He’d have a chance, finally, to face the Sassenach on something close to even terms.

    Somewhere on the plain south of the Chippewa, he thought to himself. That’s where it’ll happen.

    It was as good a place as any for the man from County Antrim to get his revenge, or meet his death. Most likely both, he guessed.


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