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Rivers of War: Snippet Forty Five

       Last updated: Monday, April 4, 2005 09:00 EDT



THE RIVERS OF WAR – snippet 45:

    CHAPTER 20

    As Driscol and his party made their way up Pennsylvania Avenue, soldiers from various fragments of the army that had been routed at Bladensburg fell in alongside them. Judging from their loud complaints, it was obvious that all of them were disgruntled, and many were downright angry at the situation. These men hadn’t been beaten, really. They’d been routed due to confusion and inexperience, or because they’d been given orders to retreat. Much against their will, in many cases.

    “That blasted Winder’s a traitor, I’m telling you!” shouted one young sailor. He and a dozen of his mates were from the artillery battery under the command of Commodore Barney. That was, by all accounts and not just their own, one of the few units which had fought well at Bladensburg. They hadn’t retreated until the militiamen guarding their flank had broken, and Barney himself had been badly wounded.

    “The only reason we’re heading to Georgetown is because those are Winder’s orders!” another sailor protested. “The hull army’s supposed to gather and reorganize there. And don’t that just cap the climax!”

    Angrily, the naval artilleryman pointed down Pennsylvania Avenue. “Why in Sam Hill aren’t we planning to defend the Capitol? A gang of Baltimore plug-uglies could hold the place!”

    Looking back down the avenue in the direction the sailor was pointing, Driscol decided he was right. Pennsylvania Avenue was littered with soldiers and sailors plodding sullenly toward Georgetown. There was a good-sized military force there, if it could be organized and given firm leadership.

    The more so, because the nation’s Capitol building could easily be transformed into something of a fortress. The twin buildings stood atop Jenkins Hill—what people were now starting to call Capitol Hill—so they occupied the high ground in the area. And the two wings were solidly built, with thick brick walls clad in sandstone, even if they were only linked by a covered wooden walkway. The central dome that was intended to connect the two houses of the nation’s legislature hadn’t yet been erected.

    All the better, Driscol thought to himself. The British would be approaching from the east, and artillery could be emplaced between the two buildings. Riflemen firing from the windows could protect the artillerymen while they did the real slaughtering of the Sassenach as they were struggling their way up the hill.

    He could see it all in his mind, quite vividly. The enemy could eventually seize the impromptu fortress, but that would take time and require heavy casualties, neither of which the British could afford. This raid of theirs, Driscol was well-nigh certain, was a risky gamble on their part. There was no possibility that the British forces could hope to hold the area for more than a few days. Washington was just too close to the centers of the U.S. population. Their real target was New Orleans and the mouth of the Mississippi. That, they could hold, if they took it.

    This was simply a diversion, he thought, to keep Americans confused and befuddled while the enemy organized their main strike in the Gulf of Mexico. But, that being so, Admiral Cochrane couldn’t afford to suffer many casualties here. He’d need those soldiers later. And if Cochrane allowed his little army to spend too much time in Washington, the risk would grow by the hour that they might be cut off and captured by American forces coming to the capital city from the surrounding area.

    Driscol suspected that this entire operation was really Rear Admiral Cockburn’s pet project, which he’d foisted on a somewhat reluctant Cochrane. Cockburn seemed to take a special glee in burning American property. He was said to be much offended by the way he’d been portrayed in American newspapers, none more so than Washington’s National Intelligencer.

    Driscol looked down at the aggrieved sailor and his companions. They could be a start, coupled with his few dozen young dragoons . . .

    Then, mentally, he shook his head. He was a practical and hardheaded man, and he knew full well that he was not the officer to rally broken and confused troops like these. His new rank notwithstanding, Driscol was a sergeant by training and by temperament. If someone else rallied some troops, then— oh, certainly—he would know what to do with them. He’d keep them firm, if nothing else. But the rallying itself had to be done by a different sort of officer.

    It didn’t even have to be a commander like Winfield Scott, for that matter. Military skill, knowledge, and experience wasn’t really needed here. Someone like General Jacob Brown would do splendidly. Brown was almost as tall as Scott, possibly even more handsome and imposing looking, and every bit as decisive. And he could speechify well, too.

    Decisiveness aside, Driscol was none of those things. He knew perfectly well how he appeared to the sailors who were staring up at him. Squat, troll ugly, weathered, and battered by life—and now missing an arm, to boot. A figure to bolster men, not to inspire them. The fact that he’d appeared before them on a wagon driven by a negro instead of riding a horse didn’t help any, of course.

    Then again, maybe inspiration could be found up ahead. The president’s mansion was only a short distance away.

    “Fall in with us,” Driscol commanded, pointing to the impressive-looking edifice. “Let’s see if there’s someone in command there who isn’t a fool and a poltroon.”

    “He’s a traitor, I tell you!” the sailor insisted. But he and his mates seemed to be relieved to find someone willing to take charge.

    As the sailors started to take their positions, Driscol leaned over and bestowed a smile upon them.

    “A lesson here, lads, which I’ve spent a lifetime learning. Never explain something on the grounds of wickedness, when simple stupidity will do the trick.”

    The sailors looked dubious. Driscol nodded his head firmly. “Oh, yes, it’s quite true. Brigadier Scott even told me an ancient philosopher had proved it. Fellow by the name of Ockham.”

    He straightened up in the wagon seat. “The English, of course, being the exception that proves the rule.”

    “You know Brigadier Scott?” asked one of the sailors. For the first time, the expression on his face and that of his mates as they looked up at Driscol was not “and who is this ragamuffin?”

    Before Driscol could answer, McParland piped up. The young private was sitting atop the foodstuffs stacked in the wagon bed.

    “Sure does! He was the brigadier’s master sergeant. Got a field promotion to lieutenant after he lost his arm at the Chippewa.” Pride filled the youngster’s voice. “He was in my regiment, the Twenty-second. I was right there when he got wounded. Sergeant Driscol never even flinched. Just had me bind up the wound while he kept shouting the firing orders.”

    Now they were genuinely impressed. That still wasn’t the same thing as inspiration. But it was a start.

    As his ragtag little army continued toward the president’s house, Driscol turned his head, to give McParland a meaningful look. He’d learned by now that the seventeen-year-old boy was quick-witted, despite his rural ignorance. McParland took the hint, and slid off the wagon. He’d walk alongside the sailors the rest of the way, regaling them with tales of exploits.

    Mostly his own, of course.

    “Whatever you do . . .” McParland’s voice drifted forward. The boy still hadn’t learned that a “whisper” addressed to a dozen people carried almost as far as a shout. “. . . don’t ever cross the sergeant. Uh, lieutenant, I mean.” A few words faded off; then: “. . . not sure he’s really human. A lot of the fellows thought he was one of those trolls you hear about in . . .”

    It was all Driscol could do to maintain a solemn face.

    “. . . made the mistake of arguing with him over an order when I first showed up in the regiment. Next thing I knew he had me in front of a firing squad.”

    Driscol didn’t need to turn around. He could practically see the wide eyes of the young sailors.

    “—’strue! The muskets was loaded with blanks, o’ course, or I wouldn’t be here today to tell the tale. But I almost pissed my pants—and let me tell you, I never argued with the sergeant again.

    “Nobody does, what knows him. He tells you to jump into a lake, all you ask is ‘how far’.”

    A good start, indeed.


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