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Rivers of War: Snippet Thirty Four

       Last updated: Sunday, March 20, 2005 10:00 EST



THE RIVERS OF WAR – snippet 34:

    Driscol spent most of the trip to Dansville in agony, and the exhaustion that came from it. Only long experience as a horseman and his own innate resilience kept him from falling off the saddle. By the time they arrived at McParland’s home, the sergeant was hanging on to life by a thread.

    It was as poor a farm as he’d expected, just a one-room log cabin with a puncheon floor. And his bed was nothing but a straw mattress and some cheap blankets, which he’d have to share with McParland and one of his brothers.


    “So, Anthony,” said Mr. McParland, after Driscol was tucked into his straw bed. The sergeant was still just conscious enough to hear the conversation across the cabin. “Is this sergeant a friend of yours?”

    “Uh, he bean’t exactly a friend, Pa. Uh.” Smiling slightly, and with his eyes closed, Driscol waited to hear what lies the boy would tell. They’d just be small ones yet, he thought.

    “That is, actually ...Well, the sergeant was in charge of my firing squad.”

    “Your what?”

    Driscol heard young McParland clear his throat. “My firing squad, Pa. I got charged with desertion. Which, uh, well, I did. Desert, I mean. Well, I tried, anyway. They caught me.”

    Another clearing of the throat. “Truth is, I didn’t get five miles. Brigadier Scott’s cavalry were a lot better than we thought they’d be.”

    Without opening his eyes—he didn’t think he could have, anyway, the lids felt so heavy—Driscol managed a harsh little chuckle.

    “Don’t you be blaming the cavalry, youngster. We caught you because I was in charge. You think you lot were the first deserters I’ve ever been sent after? Ha. Sorry bastards tried to leave the emperor’s service all the time. I know all the stupid little tricks.”

    There was silence in the cabin.

    Then, Driscol heard the voice of one of the younger brothers. He wasn’t sure which one, even though he’d been introduced to all of them when he arrived. Thomas, he thought, who was about fourteen years old.

    “Well, if that don’t beat all creation! What happened then? How come you’re still alive?”

    “The brigadier thought I was too young to get shot. So the muskets of my firing squad bean’t loaded with real bullets. Just blanks.”

    Silence. Then, again, young Thomas: “Were you scared?”

    Here comes the first lie, Driscol thought. But McParland surprised him.

    “Scared as you can imagine. I pissed my pants. Even before the guns went off.”

    That was as far as honesty would take him, it seemed. But Driscol, even hovering on the edge of the grave, wasn’t about to let him get away with it.

    “And then you shat your trousers when the guns did go off. I could smell it five feet off.”

    Silence, for a few seconds.

    “Well, yeah. I did.”

    Silence, again. Driscol was tempted to open his eyes to see if McParland’s father was reaching for an ax, or if his mother was busy rummaging in the bins to find something suitably poisonous. But it was too much effort, and he hurt too much really to care anyway.

    Besides, he’d grown up in a poor Scots-Irish family like this one. He was pretty sure he was safe.

    McParland, on the other hand, wasn’t nearly as secure.

    “Well!” exclaimed Mrs. McParland. “If that don’t make me crawl all over to think of it. But I’m glad somebody finally gave you the whupping you deserve! You little wretch! Trying to desert—when you’d given your word.”

    “And facing the Sassenach,” growled the boy’s father. “I oughta shoot you for real myself.”

    Enough was enough. “Leave the boy be,” Driscol rasped. “He was just homesick, is all. ’Twas nae cowardice. He stood against the bastards at the Chippewa, just the few days later. I know, I was right by him. Never flinched the once, and fired every shot on command.”

    By now, word of the great American victory had spread throughout the area. Driscol knew it would be racing like wildfire across the entire nation.

    Even with his eyes closed, he could sense the calm—no, satisfaction— easing into the silence of the cabin.

    “Well,” said Mrs. McParland. “That’s true.”

    “Can’t nobody dubiate that,” agreed the father. “So I guess I won’t take down the musket after all. Not even the belt.”


    In the days that followed, young McParland’s honesty slipped a bit. Small crowds of people—young men and boys, especially—gathered about the farmhouse to hear Anthony’s tales of the glorious deed at the Chippewa. The story of his execution was a favorite bit—there was no way for him to avoid it, of course—but there was never any further mention of his trousers being soiled.

    Nor was Driscol inclined to make good the lack. Moderation in all things, he decided—including honesty. The boy had learned his lesson, and even managed to be truthful enough with his family. Anything more would be an exercise in cruel ridicule.

    If the sergeant from County Antrim was as harsh as Irish poverty, he wasn’t cruel. Cruelty was a vice of the wealthy, especially the Sassenach. Such, at least, was his firm conviction.

    It hardly mattered, anyway. The glory of the Chippewa was enough to wash away all sins, and cover all blemishes. Within the week, young Anthony McParland—for the first time in his life—was a hero to his neighbors. And Driscol, a veritable legend.


    Soon, Driscol was strong enough to move about and sit at the table for his meals. Thereafter, given his own iron constitution and the fare provided by Mrs. McParland, his recuperation sped up still further.

    “It bean’t much,” she said apologetically, the first time Driscol sat down to dinner.

    He examined the food. Looked at from one angle, “bean’t much” was certainly accurate. Salt pork and potatoes sauced with hog’s lard—the staple in the diet of poor Americans. There’d be pudding for dessert, maybe.

    For breakfast, as he’d had every morning since he’d arrived, there’d been porridge. Porridge every day—and that would be true if he stayed here for ten years.

    For lunch, nothing more than bread smeared with apple butter.

    But . . .

    There was plenty of it. And if the fare itself got tedious, Driscol could always cheer himself up with philosophical ruminations.

    As, indeed, he proceeded to do right then and there. “It suits me just fine, Mrs. McParland. The Sassenach sneer at us, you know, for being a nation of drunkards, tobacco spitters, and fat eaters.”

    “Do they really?”

    “Oh, yes. I’ve read some of the newspaper accounts.” He ladled some salt pork and potatoes onto his plate. “But I recall that they used to sneer at us for exactly the same thing in Ireland—and added, to the bargain, the sneer that we were too poor to afford much in the way of whiskey or tobacco or fat.”

    He ladled more salt pork and potatoes onto the plate.

    “Here in America, on the other hand, we can afford plenty of it. So . . .” He ladled still more onto his plate. “This suits me just fine.”

    Mr. McParland grunted his agreement. He grunted instead of speaking, because his mouth was full. After he finished swallowing that first great bite, he added his own philosophical observations.

    “And we bean’t forced to listen to Church of England sermons about our sinful ways, neither.”

    Young Thomas spoke up. “There’s Church of England people here, too, Pa.”

    His father sneered. “So? They don’t swagger about giving orders, do they?”

    “And they’ve even got a sense of shame,” Driscol pointed out. “At least here they label their cowardly Anglican superstitions by the name of ‘Episcopalianism.’ Might I have some more tea, Mrs. McParland?”

    “Why, of course, Sergeant.” She refilled his cup from a kettle she brought over from the stove.

    It was a large kettle, full of the strong and bitter tea that was more or less the recognized national drink of Americans. When they weren’t drinking whiskey, that is. Like most American farmwives, Mrs. McParland always had a kettle of it brewing.

    “The Sassenach sneer at our tea, too,” Driscol commented mildly.

    “They’re just jealous!” piped Thomas.

    Driscol nodded. “Right you are, lad.”

    By the end of that evening, Mrs. McParland apparently decided that Sergeant Driscol was one of their own. Even if he had, in a manner of speaking, executed her oldest son.

    So the next morning, Driscol got a treat for breakfast. Instead of the constant porridge, Mrs. McParland fished some eggs out of a barrel of limewater, where they were kept fresh. Then, she fried them up in the hearth, in one of the three-legged skillets that people called “spiders.”

    She tried to apologize again, but Driscol would have none of it.

    “This will do me wonders, Mrs. McParland.” He wasn’t lying, either.


    A few weeks later, word arrived. There’d been another great battle at Lundy’s Lane toward the end of July, just a few miles north of the Chippewa. The British were claiming it as a victory, because they’d been in possession of the field when the day was done. But, after hearing the details, Driscol assured the anxious visitors to the farm that the battle had really been pretty much of a draw.

    A draw, and a horrible carnage, from the sound of it. Each army had lost at least eight hundred men. Not to Driscol’s surprise, an inordinate percentage of the American losses had come from Winfield Scott’s First Brigade. The brigadier had been in the forefront of the fighting, leading his men with a white plume held over his head. He’d had two horses shot out from under him.

    During the fighting, which continued into the night, Scott’s shoulder had been smashed by a musket ball, and he’d been taken unconscious to the rear. General Jacob Brown had been badly wounded, also—and so had the Major Jesup who’d led the Twenty-fifth Regiment so ably at the Chippewa. Brown had been wounded twice, once by a musket ball in the thigh and then by a cannon ball that ricocheted into his rib cage. He’d had to relinquish command to General Ripley, who’d ordered the army to retire from the field.

    The American army had retired in good order and there’d been no rout— no pursuit of any kind—so the British claims of a “victory” were more a formality than anything else. The British army had been so badly savaged itself at Lundy’s Lane that it was in no position to do anything further.

    Most important of all, Driscol knew, was that the U.S. Army had been able to withstand such a holocaust in the first place. Battlefield victories and defeats came and went. What mattered was the quality of the army that was shaped by them. Driscol doubted if the stalemate on the northern front would ever be broken. But more than ever, it seemed likely that the British would abandon their efforts to prosecute the war in that theater. The American forces that faced them there were simply too good, too well trained—and now, too well blooded in battlefield experience.

    The loss of Brown and Scott would hurt, of course. From the news accounts, Scott would be out of the war for a number of months, recuperating from his wound. But Eleazar Ripley was quite competent, if not as aggressive a general as either Scott or Brown. He was certainly no poltroon or fumbler, like so many previous American commanders had been on the Canadian front.

    So. The war would be moving elsewhere; to the eastern seaboard, where coastal towns in Maryland and Delaware were being ravaged by Admiral Cockburn, and—above all—to the South.

    New Orleans was the prize the British would be eyeing now. If they could seize the mouth of the Mississippi, they’d have their hands on the throat of America’s commerce.

    Driscol was becoming impatient, which meant that he was recovering well. His arm still ached, and he was still much weaker than normal, but it was time he got back to the fight. As much as he could manage with only one arm, at least.

    “We’ll leave tomorrow,” he announced.

    The family must have been expecting it, since there was no show of surprise.

    McParland didn’t try to talk him out of it. For a wonder, he didn’t even break into tears.


    They were given a heroes’ send-off. Mrs. McParland went so far as to pack them a small cask full of her salt pork, which was quite a sacrifice for such a poor family. The money from the government, needless to say, hadn’t arrived yet. But Driscol assured the good farmwife that once he arrived in Washington and was able to snarl at a lazy War Department clerk, the money would be sent off right slick.

    By then, she wasn’t inclined to doubt him.

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