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Rivers of War: Snippet Fifty

       Last updated: Monday, April 11, 2005 05:56 EDT



THE RIVERS OF WAR – snippet 50:

    He did so again, in the next five minutes.

    When they’d arrived at the Capitol they’d found two eighteen-pounders already positioned there. But jubilation soon gave way to frustration. They discovered that Commodore Barney’s sailing master John Webster had hauled off two of the four cannons that had originally been there, after Winder ordered him to bring the cannons to Georgetown. Unable to round up enough wagons to draw more than two of the guns, Webster had spiked the other two in order to prevent them being used by the enemy.

    “Any chance of getting them back in service?” Sam asked the sailor who’d more or less placed himself in charge of Barney’s gunners.

    To Sam’s surprise, that had been one of the black sailors among them, Charles Ball. Ball’s fellow white gunners made no objection, either.

    Sam had heard that the U.S. Navy, unlike the army, did not restrict negroes from joining the service. But he hadn’t realized the full extent of it. For naval artillerymen, it seemed, competence was more important than skin color.

    Ball shook his head gloomily. “Webster knows what he’s about, Captain. He spiked the guns with rattail files. Hardened metal like that . . .” The sailor shrugged. “We could drill them out, eventually. But it’d take forever, and we’d need a big supply of drill bits to begin with. Which we don’t have a one.”

    Someone tugged at Sam’s sleeve. Turning his head, he saw it was the black teamster who’d handled the wagon that had brought Driscol to the president’s mansion. He didn’t know the man’s name. Had completely forgotten about him, in fact.

    “I used to work at Foxall’s Foundry, Captain. There’s drill bits there, and it’s not too far away.”

    Ball shook his head.

    “Still wouldn’t do no good, sir. It’d take hours to get the spikes out of those guns. Prob’ly couldn’t do it at all until sometime tomorrow.” He swiveled his head to the east, the direction from which the British would be arriving. “We won’t have enough time before they get here.”

    Ball brought his gaze back to the teamster. “There’s guns there, too, though, idn’t there? We could use those. And we could sure as creation use more ammunition and shot.”

    The teamster looked dubious. “ wagon’s big enough to haul powder and some shot. Some shot. And I guess we could hook up a gun or two to the back of the wagon. But . . .”

    The expression on his face was very dubious now. So, for that matter, was the expression on the face of the black gunner’s mate.

    Suddenly, Sam understood the problem. A white man entering Foxall’s Foundry and hauling away materials would be presumed to be going about official and legitimate business. That would be true even if he wasn’t wearing a uniform, since many civilians had been providing assistance to the army.

    A black man would be presumed a thief—or, worse yet, a runaway slave providing supplies to the enemy. He’d likely be shot, or hanged on the spot.

    “What’s your name?” he asked the teamster.

    “Henry Crowell, Captain.”

    Sam nodded. “Here’s how it’ll be, Henry.” He glanced around and spotted Driscol’s young companion, standing not far from the lieutenant.

    “Private McParland!”

    McParland trotted over.

    “You already know Henry, I believe.”

    “Yes, sir.” McParland gave the black teamster a cordial smile.

    “I want you to provide him with an escort. He’ll be going to Foxall’s Foundry to bring us some supplies. I’ll need you to verify his credentials, in the event someone might question his purpose. I’ll write you out some official orders, which you can show anyone who asks. If they won’t accept that,—”

    “I’ll shoot ’em, sir. Not a problem.” The private’s bland assurance gave way to uncertainty. He glanced toward Driscol. “But—”

    “I’ll inform the lieutenant,” Sam said firmly. He started to add something else, but saw that Driscol already was coming over.

    Once Driscol was apprised of the situation, he immediately agreed with Sam. “But we can do better than that. We can round up some more wagons along the way, with enough men. Most of them are just standing around doing nothing now, anyway.”

    He turned to McParland. “Find Corporal Pendleton. Tell him and his unit of Baltimore dragoons to go with you. That’ll give you enough men—in fancy uniforms, to make things perfect—that you’ll be able to sequester some more wagons. Bring back as much as you can.” He nodded toward Crowell. “For the rest, just do whatever Henry tells you to do.”

    McParland left, with Henry Crowell in tow. The teamster was still looking a bit dubious, but Sam spotted a little gleam in his eyes, as well. It wasn’t often that a black man had a unit of white soldiers not only providing him with an escort but, effectively, under his command.

    Chuckling, he turned back to Charles Ball. The gunner’s mate also seemed amused. Or, perhaps, simply gratified.

    “That’ll do us good, sir,” he said eagerly. “Real good. Foxall’s is the biggest gunmaker in the country.”

    Sam nodded. Then, examining the useless eighteen-pounders, he sighed heavily. “May as well add these to the breastworks, I guess.”

    “Might as well,” agreed Driscol. “If the heavy bastards can’t shoot, they can still stop enemy shot.”

    Driscol left, then, to oversee the men who were bringing some smaller guns into position alongside the twelve-pounders.

    There were six guns, all told. On either side of the twelve-pounders, Barney’s sailors were wrestling into position four other cannons that Sam had been able to round up from retreating troops who had chosen to join him. None of them were bigger than six-pounders, true, and there were but two of those. But what was probably more important was that the pair of six-pounders had been in the possession of some more stray sailors from Commodore Barney’s unit. Stubborn—and still furious over the debacle at Bladensburg—the sailors had insisted on saving their guns and hauling them all the way back to Washington.

    They’d be put to good use now, and there were finally enough of Barney’s sailors in Sam’s impromptu army that he could be confident his artillery would be handled with professional skill. With a battery of six guns, protected by the hastily erected but solid fortifications, the American force holding the Capitol could inflict some real damage on the enemy.


    Sam would catch hell for those fortifications, in a day or two. Breastworks required wood, brick, or shaped stone to form suitable berms for the artillery, even if most of the material was dirt.

    The only such substances ready-made in the area were the fittings of the Capitol itself.

    For the most part, the men had been able to use wood planks taken from the covered walkway that ran between the buildings, once they tore it down, or the timber used for the flooring of the public galleries. It was amazing, really, how quickly that many men could tear something down, when they put their minds to it.

    Still, for much of the underlying frame of the breastwork that would be shielding the twelve-pounder on the north, near the Senate building, they’d had to use the broken-up mahogany desks and chairs of the senators themselves.

    But that was just furniture, when all was said and done. The real trouble would come from the House of Representatives. Sam was as sure of it as he was of the sunrise.

    Alas, before Sam or Driscol noticed them doing it, some enthusiasts had taken it upon themselves to tear down the eastern entrance doors and add their heavy wooden substance to the breastworks.

    “Oh, splendid!” Driscol had snarled at them, pointing an accusing finger at the now-gaping holes of the doorways. “In the olden days, enemies were required to use battering rams. Nowadays, we have cretins to do their work for them.”

    Abashed, the guilty soldiery avoided his glare. After a moment, Driscol snorted.

    “Well, it’s done. Now—”

    His stubby finger was still pointed at the House, like a small cannon.

“Go in there and find something we can use to replace the doors. Something that will—ah, never mind. The Lord only knows what you’d come up with. I’ll find it. Just follow me.”


    Find something, he did. And such was Driscol’s grim and certain purpose that not even Sam dared to object.

    One door of the House was now blocked by the great stone frieze which had once hung over the statue of Liberty. Only a portion of the bald eagle depicted on that frieze could be seen from the outside, since the eagle’s wings spanned a good twelve feet—and it took a dozen men to shove it aside whenever someone actually needed to use the door.

    The Liberty itself had done to block the other door. Once the mob of soldierly fortifiers had put it in place, of course, the door had become effectively impassable. The marble statue was bigger than life-size, what with Liberty herself seated on a pedestal, her left hand holding a cap of liberty and her right a scroll representing the Constitution.

    It was a foregone conclusion that if Sam survived this battle, he’d catch merry hell.

    “I heard the sculptor worked on it for years,” Sam had heard one of the soldiers say to another, as they manhandled the great thing into the doorway. “They say he was coughing up blood at the end, from the consumption that killed him.”

    “I can believe it,” grunted another. “I’m like to be coughing up blood myself, soon enough, just from moving the blasted thing.”

    Oh, merry hell indeed. But it still beat giving up the Capitol without a fight.


    Shortly before eight o’clock of the evening, the British army arrived and took up position about half a mile to the east of the Capitol. By then, the sun was starting to set, but the enemy forces were easily visible. There were great flames rising from the nearby Navy Yard, which added their own light to the scene. The nation’s premier naval arsenal and shipbuilding facilities had been set afire by its so-called defenders, long before the enemy arrived. By now, the place was a raging inferno.

    That had been done by orders from above, apparently.

    Houston damned General Winder yet again.


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