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Rivers of War: Snippet Fifty One

       Last updated: Wednesday, April 13, 2005 11:56 EDT



THE RIVERS OF WAR – snippet 51:

    Just as the sun was going down, a British officer and two soldiers appeared on the ground east of the Capitol. The officer was waving a white flag and the soldiers were carrying a man on a stretcher. Sam sent one of Ball’s gunners out to provide them with assurances of a safe conduct.

    When the gunner got back, the British lagging behind due to their burden, he was practically hopping with glee.

    “It’s Commodore Barney!” he shouted. “It’s the commodore!”

    Sure enough. The two British soldiers carried him up to the breastworks and deposited the stretcher on the ground. Then made a hurried exit. The officer didn’t leave, however, until he’d taken a little time to examine the newly-erected fortifications. From what Sam could tell from his expression, the officer—a captain, if Sam was interpreting the insignia properly—seemed both surprised and concerned by what he saw.

    The commodore was gravely injured, from the wound in his thigh he’d received during his valiant stand at Bladensburg. But he was still conscious, and lucid.

    Even cheery, once he saw the preparations that were in progress.

    Several of the artillerymen picked up the stretcher and carried Commodore Barney into the central chamber of the House of Representatives. There, they lowered him gently onto one of the settees that had been brought into the chamber. Following Driscol’s suggestion, Sam had designated the central chambers of both buildings to be the areas where the wounded would be taken. Fortunately, the enthusiasts hadn’t initially thought to include upholstered furniture in the breastworks—and by the time they did think of it, Driscol was there to stop them.

    “How did you convince them to let you go, sir?” asked Charles Ball.

    Weakly, but actually smiling, Barney shook his head. “There was no need for me to convince anyone, Charles. After having one of their surgeons treat my wound, the British volunteered to let me go. General Ross and Admiral Cockburn themselves came to visit me. Very fine gentlemen, I must say! General Ross was especially effusive with his praise for our gallant stand at Bladensburg.”

    Ball and the small crowd of artillerymen swelled with pride. But out of the corner of his eye, Sam saw Driscol scowling. The Scots-Irish lieutenant, clearly enough, thought the phrase “very fine gentlemen” fit English generals and admirals about as well as it would the devil himself. Driscol, unlike Sam—but very much like Andrew Jackson—positively hated the English.

    “Oh, yes,” Barney continued. “We chatted a bit, and then General Ross told me he was giving me parole, and I was at liberty to go either to Washington or to Baltimore. I chose Washington, and Captain Wainwright—another very fine gentleman—volunteered to see to it.”

    The commodore looked away from the little mob of his admiring artillerymen and brought Sam under his eyes.

    “But enough of that! Who are you, Captain? And am I right in assuming that you intend to defend the Capitol?”

    Sam took the questions in reverse order. “Uh, yes, sir. We do, indeed, plan to defend the Capitol. I’m Captain Sam Houston, from the Thirty-ninth U.S. Infantry. I’m on detached duty here in Washington, at the orders of General Andrew Jackson. Just arrived in the city this morning, as it happens.”

    Sam hesitated then, but only for a second. With another man, he might have left it at that. But Joshua Barney—his reputation even more than his clear and inquisitive gaze—required a full and honest answer. As a young naval officer, the commodore had been one of the new republic’s heroes during the war for independence. Now in his fifties, his conduct during the current war had shown that the decades had not taken a toll on his spirit. So Sam continued.

    “My rank as captain hasn’t been approved yet, though, by the War Department.”

    “But it was approved by General Jackson. That should be good enough, I think.” The commodore’s shrewd eyes moved to Driscol. “And you, sir?”

    “Lieutenant Patrick Driscol. I’m from General Brown’s Army of the Niagara. General Scott’s First Brigade.” He lifted his left stump. “Lost this at the Chippewa, and I was in Baltimore recuperating when the word came of the British landing.”

    “So, naturally, you hurried down to join the fight.” Barney lowered his head to the cushion, closing his eyes. For all his good spirits, the commodore was obviously still very weak. “God help a nation which can produce such splendid junior officers—and such a sorry lot of generals.”

    Both Sam and Driscol cleared their throats simultaneously. Still without opening his eyes, Barney smiled. “Oh, please, gentlemen. You can be certain that I exempt Generals Jackson, Brown, and Scott from that blanket condemnation. But, alas, they are elsewhere. Here we are blessed with such as General William Winder—and that arrogant ass Armstrong. Perhaps the only secretary of war one can imagine who would neglect the defenses of his own capital city.”

    Sam wasn’t sure if that was outright insubordination on the commodore’s part. Normally, of course, for an officer to publicly ridicule his superior authorities would be considered so. But Barney was in the navy, and thus fell under the command of Secretary of the Navy William Jones, not Armstrong. And he hadn’t said anything sarcastic about President Madison.

    Not that Sam cared, anyway.

“Be that as it may, sir, we still propose to defend the Capitol, whatever it takes.”

    Barney’s eyes opened, staring at the domed roof of the chamber far above. His gaze moved from one to another of the multitude of square plate-glass sunlights.

    “The roof’s pinewood, but it’s clad in sheet-iron. Not many people know that.” His eyes moved to the semi-circular interior walls of the chamber and the fluted Corinthian columns above them. “Those are decorative, but the outer walls are worthy of the pharaohs. You may not be such a lunatic as you think, Captain Houston.”

    The commodore closed his eyes again. “Lunatic or not, however, you have my blessing. I’ll not have the enemy come into the capital without bleeding on the way. I believe I am the senior officer present?”

    “Yes, sir.”

    “Very well. I’m too badly injured to participate in the fight personally—nor could I do so in good conscience in any event, given the terms of my parole. But my wound gives me an honorable way to remain here, so long as I take up no arms myself. And, in the meantime”—here he spoke loudly enough to be heard by any of the several hundred soldiers and sailors who had crowded their way into the chamber—“you have my full confidence and authority, Captain Houston. Do the best you can.”


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