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Rivers of War: Snippet Forty Nine

       Last updated: Sunday, April 10, 2005 11:38 EDT



THE RIVERS OF WAR – snippet 49:

    He gave it his best, speechifying to the retreating troops from the saddle all the way down the avenue. By the time they drew up before the Capitol, his voice was hoarse.

    “Well, that’s that,” he said to Driscol glumly. Sam was learning for himself what experienced commanders had known for millennia—routed soldiers, even if not badly mauled, were usually too demoralized to be of any use for a while. Most of them had had enough of fighting for one day.

    Sam looked over the milling mob—there was even less in the way of order now than ever—and estimated he had not more than a thousand men. “It’s not much,” he said. “But it was the best I could do.”


    Driscol was half astonished and half amused at the gloominess in the young officer’s voice.

    Not much!

    The lieutenant had known marshals in Napoleon’s army who’d have done well to rally a portion of the men that Houston had, under the circumstances. The big captain was a wizard at the work. He’d been able to project just the right combination of breezy self-confidence and good cheer to turn the trick.

    Even wit, for a wonder.

    To be sure, the captain’s frequent citations from the Iliad probably seemed odd to most of the soldiery. They would have understood the references well enough. The Greek classics, along with the history of the Roman republic, were the staples of education at the time. But precious few of them would have taken the time and effort to memorize most of Homer’s epic poem.

    Still, if the citations made the captain seem a bit eccentric, they also made clear that he was an educated man—always something that Americans respected. Better still, it had shamed those among the crowd who were likewise educated, reminding them of their duty.

    There were quite a few of those, too. Many of the volunteer units who had assembled in Washington to participate in the battle of Bladensburg were militias drawn from the city itself or nearby Baltimore. They included in their number many young men from the educated classes.

    Best of all, though, had been the jokes accompanying the citations. By itself—

    Let fierce Achilles, dreadful in his rage, The god propitiate, and the pest assuage

    —might have rung hollow. But coupled with “So, I am told, cried General Winder as he galloped westward! Who can refuse such a call?”

    It drew quite a laugh, even from men such as these. And another fifty or so turned aside and joined Houston’s forces marching toward the Capitol.

    A thousand men, where Driscol had thought five hundred the best they could hope for. With a thousand men, and a commander to inspire them—and a fortress to defend, always far easier for untrained troops to manage than an open battlefield . . .

    “Never you mind, sir,” he rasped. “We can win this thing.”

    Houston’s eyes widened. “D’you think so? Really?”

    “Oh, aye, sir. I’ve no doubt of it at all.”


    Within an hour after they arrived at the Capitol, Sam was thanking—silently but no less fervently for all that—the great good luck that had brought Driscol to him. On his own, there wasn’t a chance in the world that Sam could have brought order and discipline to the mob of soldiers who poured into the twin buildings.

    Driscol managed it easily. There was just something about the squat Scots-Irish soldier that settled everyone down.

    Steady. The word hardly scratched the surface of the matter. You might as well describe a mountain as “weighty.” Driscol’s blocky forehead and jaws exuded the sureness of theologians; his cold, pale eyes, the certainty of damnation if his dictums were not followed. Even the missing arm added to the effect.

    Had anyone had any doubts, Driscol settled them within five minutes of their arrival at the Capitol.

    “I must insist that my detachment be assigned to defend the Senate, sir!” blustered a florid-faced young militia lieutenant. He swept off his hat and waved it dramatically. “Ours is the senior unit of the brigade, and we should be assigned to defend the senior house!”

    For a moment, Sam was too astonished by the absurdity of the demand to know what to do. But then Driscol was there, and it all became a moot point.


    Driscol’s bellow was an odd sort of thing. Loud and penetrating, not so much because of its volume but its sheer menace. As if a file peeling away metal had taken on a human voice.

    The young private who seemed to be Driscol’s inseparable companion was at his side in an instant. “Yes, serg—uh, sir.”

    Driscol jabbed a finger at the militia lieutenant. “Aim your musket at this insubordinate.”

    The musket came up. Firmly couched against the private’s shoulder, it was pointed squarely at the lieutenant’s chest. The muzzle of the gun seemed almost as wide as the militia officer’s eyes, though it was not as wide—not nearly—as his gaping mouth.

    “Arm your musket.”


    Driscol’s icy gaze had never left the lieutenant’s face. “You have five seconds,” he rasped, “to obey orders.”

    He added no threat, made no reference to the alternative if the lieutenant disobeyed. To do so would have been . . .

    So, so unnecessary. No one present at the scene doubted that Private McParland would pull the trigger on Driscol’s command. Instantly and unquestionably.

    The lieutenant himself might have been too shocked to manage Driscol’s five-second time limit. Fortunately, another member of his unit grabbed him by the arm and jerked him away. Then hastily led the lieutenant and the rest of the unit toward the House of Representatives.

    Driscol moved off, seemingly as unconcerned as a housewife who had just finished sweeping the floor.


    “Steady,” Sam murmured to himself, some time later, as he stood between the two buildings and surveyed the ground that sloped down to the east of the Capitol. Even to his inexperienced eye, it was obvious that his jury-rigged military force had the advantage of position. Not only did the two buildings of the Capitol provide a ready-made and solid fortress, but the terrain over which the British would have to launch an assault against it was superb.

    Superb, at least, from the American point of view. Sam didn’t doubt that the British soldiers who’d have to come across in the face of heavy fire would hate it. Washington, D.C., had been created out of what amounted to something of a swamp. Much of the city’s ground still wasn’t far removed from that condition. After a rainfall, Sam had been told, even Pennsylvania Avenue was likely to turn into a sea of mud. The ground east of the Capitol hadn’t been worked on much, and it was wet and soggy almost all of the time.

    Close to marshland, in short. That also meant there wasn’t much in the way of trees or even tall brush to obscure the field of vision, as Sam’s men aimed their cannons and muskets at the advancing enemy. The British would have to cross hundred of yards in the open, on treacherous footing, before they reached the Capitol—and then, they would have to make the final charge uphill.

    “A perfect killing field.” So Driscol had named it, with a cold satisfaction in his voice that almost made Sam shiver.

    There was something primevally savage about the lieutenant, beneath the tightly disciplined exterior. Sam had no trouble at all imagining Driscol as an ancient Scot or Irish warrior, charging his enemy stark naked to display his sneering courage, armed only with blue paint covering his body, and a great claymore.

    Certainly his Cherokee companions hadn’t missed that lurking essence of the man. “One of the old true-bloods,” he’d heard James Rogers murmur to his brother John, not long after they’d met Driscol.

    John had nodded—and Tiana, also hearing the exchange, had given Driscol a long and considering look. So long and so considering, in fact, that Sam had felt a little surge of jealousy.

    He shook off the thoughts, and went back to watching the lieutenant at work. Driscol had the two twelve-pounders already in position, and Barney’s sailors were directing a veritable horde of soldiers in creating proper breastworks to shelter the guns. The interaction between the lieutenant and his men had become easy and relaxed.

    There’d been no repetition of the incident with the militia officer. Once Driscol’s authority had been firmly established, the troops at the Capitol had discovered other qualities to the lieutenant who served as Sam’s second in command. Driscol was usually gruff and sometimes sarcastic, but he also had a sense of humor. A sarcastic remark, following some soldierly foolishness, would invariably be followed by a relaxed and matter-of-fact solution to the problem. If Driscol would brook no insubordination, he also held no grudges.

    Most of all, he exuded confidence. He didn’t exactly inspire men, the way Sam himself could. Driscol simply wasn’t the man to give speeches and appeal to lofty sentiments. But he provided them with the surety they needed, after the momentary elation produced by speeches began to fade. Like a solid boulder, exposed by a receding tide, to which men could anchor themselves.

    They needed that boulder, because even those mostly inexperienced soldiers knew full well that war was ultimately a deadly and practical business. The finest exhortations in the world couldn’t conceal that reality for very long. Soon enough, the men had to face the real problems—a fortress that wasn’t really a fortress; units that weren’t yet really an army; guns that were short of ammunition; an oncoming enemy that was not a bard’s insubstantial spirit.

    But, always, Driscol was there to lead them to a solution of those practical problems.


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