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Rivers of War: Snippet Twenty Nine

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



THE RIVERS OF WAR – snippet 29:

    CHAPTER 13

    July 5, 1814 The Battle of Chippewa

    Brown and the rest of the army began arriving just before midnight, in the middle of a downpour. Ripley’s brigade made camp south of Scott’s brigade, eager to get their tents up.

    By the morning of the fifth, the rain had stopped, and the sun had returned. The heat soon dried up the traces, leaving the ground as dusty as ever. Scott’s pickets started exchanging gunfire with British skirmishers who’d taken up positions in the woods to the west. The presence of the enemy there was a nuisance, but nothing worse than that. Still, after hours of it, Brown was annoyed enough to order Porter to take his Third Brigade of militiamen and their Indian allies, and clear the skirmishers out of the woods.

    Porter and his men began moving into the woods late in the afternoon. While they did so, Scott decided that he would use the rest of day to march his brigade across Street’s Creek and engage in a full drill in front of the main British forces. The brigadier was frustrated by inaction.

    “If nothing else,” he told Driscol, “we can thumb our noses at the enemy. Show them we’re not intimidated. Besides, I don’t want the men getting rusty.”

    Driscol thought it was a lot of foolishness, but he went about the brigadier’s business, getting the men ready for the drill. As he did so, he noticed General Brown and several of his aides trotting toward the woods. Brown had apparently decided to see how Porter was getting along.

    Not well, it seemed. There was a sudden burst of gunfire from the direction of the trees, which turned into what sounded like a small running battle. Driscol assumed the British had decided to reinforce their skirmishers in the woods.

    But he didn’t see anything further. Even if he hadn’t been preoccupied with his own affairs, the screen of trees and brush along the banks of the creek blocked his view of the plain to the north.

    “We’ve got them pinned in the woods, sir,” Riall’s aide said to him, after he took the report from the courier.

    Major General Riall nodded. Then, smiled rather ferociously. “Time to teach Cousin Jonathan what’s what, then, wouldn’t you say? Order the army across the bridge.”

    When General Brown saw the first of Porter’s militiamen stumbling out of the woods, he scowled. His scowl deepened when he saw the cloud of dust starting to rise in the north.

    He lifted himself up in the stirrups in order to get a better view. After a few seconds he started seeing British uniforms, flashing like gleams in the dust.

    “Good God. They’re coming across the bridge.”

    His eyes swept back and forth across the field. It was obvious that Riall had sent enough reinforcements into the woods to tie up Porter’s brigade. If he moved his main army onto the plain quickly enough, he had a fair chance of capturing Porter and his men before they could disengage.

    Instead of simply waiting behind defensive lines, Riall had decided to lay a little trap.

    “Ha!” Brown’s scowl changed into a grin. If Scott could get his brigade onto the plain quickly enough to forestall Riall’s advance, that would allow them time enough for Brown himself to race back and bring up Ripley’s brigade as a reinforcement . . .

    He jabbed a finger in the direction of the woods. “Get in there—all of you—and stiffen up Porter. Tell him to hold.”

    Without another word, he turned his horse and began galloping back toward the bridge across Street’s Creek.

    Sergeant Driscol was in the leading ranks of the First Brigade as it began crossing over the Street’s Creek bridge. He was on foot now, not on horseback, since in the coming drill he’d be assuming his normal position in the battle formation. General Scott and two of his officers were the only mounted men in the vicinity. They were ahead of him, and they weren’t throwing up enough dust to obscure Driscol’s vision.

    As soon as the sergeant saw the cloud of dust to the north, he figured out what was happening. He began to alert the brigadier, but saw that it wasn’t necessary. Scott was already perched high in his stirrups, staring at the sight.

    Then, an oncoming horseman made the whole issue a moot one.

    It was General Brown, galloping recklessly across the field, grinning like a lunatic.

    He didn’t even slow down. He thundered past Scott and Driscol, pointing behind him with a finger. “You will have a battle! ” he shouted gaily, and then he was gone.

    By now, Scott was grinning himself. He began bellowing orders. By the time those orders got to the master sergeant, Driscol had already taken care of what needed doing. Seeing that, Scott’s grin widened even further.

    “We shall whip them, Sergeant! Watch and see!”

    Driscol shared the brigadier’s hopes, but not his anticipation. Brown’s entire army might outnumber Riall’s, but Scott’s First Brigade didn’t. Driscol doubted if Brown could get the Second Brigade moved up before nightfall. In the battle that was about to take place, Scott would face something like seventeen hundred British regulars with only thirteen hundred men of his own.

    No American army since the war began had beaten an equal-size British force on an open battlefield. Not regulars matched against regulars. Now, Scott proposed to do it while outnumbered four to three.

    So be it. It seemed a nice countryside. Not Ireland, true, but still a pleasant enough place to die.


    Half an hour later, the two armies were taking positions facing each other on the plain by the Niagara, and Private McParland was scared out of his wits. Drill was one thing. But finally seeing red-coated British troops maneuvering on a plain with all the precision of a machine—well, that was something else entirely. The enemy army reminded the teenage soldier of the brightly painted threshing machine he’d seen once at a county fair. With him and his mates as the grain about to be haplessly mangled.

    Desperately, he tried to control his terror. And, like many of the men around him, he found his anchor in the sight of Sergeant Driscol.

    He was there, of course. Where else would he? Stalking calmly back and forth in front of the troops, living up to the name his men had recently given him.

    The troll.

    Off in the distance, young McParland could see Brigadier Scott, shouting something to another group of soldiers. McParland couldn’t make out the words, but he was quite sure that Scott was exhorting the troops. The brigadier was a fine speechifier, as he’d demonstrated in the past any number of times.

    Sergeant Driscol’s notion of “exhortation,” on the other hand, was . . .

    About what you’d expect from a troll.

    You will not flinch. You will not quaver. Forget those wretched Sassenach, boys. If a man so much as twitches, I will cut him up for my soup. You will face lead with serenity. You will face bayonets with a laugh. Because if you don’t, you will face my gaping gullet.

    The beast went on in that vein for another minute or so. By the time he was done, McParland felt himself settling down. Not so much because he was scared of the troll’s wrath any longer—the youngster would surely be dead soon, anyway, so what difference did it make?—but because he knew for sure and certain that the enemy was doomed. The British might have precision and training and experience and all the rest. But did they have their own troll?

    Not a chance. McParland didn’t think there were more than six trolls in the whole world. Eight, tops.


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