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Rivers of War: Snippet Fifty Two

       Last updated: Friday, April 15, 2005 11:56 EDT



THE RIVERS OF WAR – snippet 52:

    CHAPTER 22

    “Good God!” Rear Admiral George Cockburn exclaimed gaily, as he peered through his telescope. “Your captain was quite right. They do have a statue perched in one of the doorways. Great ugly thing, too.” He lowered the telescope, chuckling. “One must grant this much to Cousin Jonathan—he certainly has a flair for the dramatic.”

    General Robert Ross wasn’t going to let the matter slide so easily as all that. “And was Captain Wainwright also correct in his other observations?”

    He already knew the answer to the question, since Ross possessed his own telescope. But the question served to remind Admiral Cockburn that the task which Cockburn had so breezily assured everyone would be as easy as a London promenade was proving more difficult by the moment—and, from Ross’s viewpoint, it was bad enough already.

    Since Cockburn’s only response was a twist of the lips, Ross plowed on.

    “It’s all very well, Admiral Cockburn, to make sneering jests about Cousin Jonathan’s capacity for headlong and panicky flight. But it wasn’t your sailors who paid the butcher’s bill at Bladensburg. It was my men—and the bill was disturbingly steep.”

    “We won handily, didn’t we?”

    Ross restrained his temper. “Oh, to be sure, all the historians will say so, when this is all over and done. A decisive victory, indeed. But historians don’t pay butcher’s bills either. Resounding victory or not, the fact remains that the American casualties at Bladensburg were light, and the casualties of my infantry brigades were anything but.”

    Cockburn avoided the general’s hard gaze. Annoyed still more, Ross pressed home his point.

    “It might be true that Cousin Jonathan is prone to panic—though there’s always the hammering Riall took recently on the Niagara to prove that needn’t be so. But American infantrymen are also liable to be remarkably good shots, for the few rounds they manage to fire before running away. And whatever the shortcomings of American infantry—do I need to tell an admiral this much?— we’ve been continually surprised since the war began at the professional level of American artillery. If the enemy infantry is often feckless, the artillery almost never is. Commodore Barney’s men proved it once again at Bladensburg. They were as staunch as they were deadly, too. At the end, some of them had to be bayoneted with the fuses still in their hands.”

    What is it about sailors, Ross wondered, that seems to make it necessary for them to keep learning the same lessons, over and over again? Did the citrus juice in the drinking water pickle their brains?

    By now, one would think, they would have learned how perilous it was to underestimate American gunnery. Mighty the British navy might be, compared to the tiny upstart rival that Cousin Jonathan had put to sea in the war. Still, in engagement after engagement, the Americans had demonstrated that their gunnery, if nothing else, was consistently superior to British.

    Cockburn still hadn’t answered the original question. Ross cleared his throat. “Did you hear me, Admiral?”

    “Yes, yes,” Cockburn replied, waving his hand impatiently. “Cousin Jonathan does have some guns up there, as well.”

    “Among which are two twelve-pounders. And are they as well fortified and positioned as Captain Wainwright stated?”

    Cockburn simply shrugged. As always, the rear admiral wasn’t a man to let minor impediments stand in the way of his enthusiasms.

    “Please, General Ross! You know as well as I do that the forces holding those grotesque buildings can’t be more than the shattered fragments of disparate units. They’ll have neither leadership nor morale, be sure of it.”

    “I am sure of no such thing!” Ross snapped. Courtesy toward naval colleagues was well and good, but there were limits. Ross was a general who, for all his skill and capability, was solicitous toward his men. He was willing enough to lose soldiers for a good purpose, but he balked at doing so simply because a bloody admiral had a pet peeve and was an arrogant ass to boot.

    Even the admiral’s choice of terms betrayed his invariant bigotry. “Grotesque.” Ross himself thought the Capitol was quite majestic in its design and appearance, even if he was rather amused by the fact. The pugnacious little American republic was every bit as prone to erect grandiose public structures as any king or emperor of Europe.

    He pointed at the edifice in question. “No doubt the Capitol is now manned by men from disparate units. But where you do conclude from this that their leadership and morale are wanting? I conclude the exact opposite. Somebody had to have rallied those men, and the men themselves will be self-selected by the very process.”

“It’s Cousin Jonathan, for the love of God!” Cockburn snapped angrily. “A windbag gave a speech and empty heads were swayed by it. What else do you expect from a sorry lot of republicans?”

    It was all Ross could do not to roll his eyes. Sorry lot of republicans, was it? Like the same republicans who, not so many years ago in France, had sent packing every monarchical army that attacked them? The same sorry lot of republicans who, less than three months earlier, had broken superior British forces at the Chippewa?

    There were times he found Cockburn well-nigh insufferable.

    Alas, while Ross had become Cockburn’s superior as soon as British forces set foot on land, he was still subordinate to Admiral Cochrane. And, alas again, Cochrane had supported Cockburn every step of the way.

    “The vice admiral wants those buildings taken, General Ross. Taken, then burnt to the ground.”

    Burnt to the ground—as if brick and stone were flammable substances! To be sure, Ross could wreck the Capitol, assuming he could take it in the first place. But without spending time and effort they couldn’t afford to blow them up—not to mention a huge supply of powder, which they didn’t possess either—there was no way that he could do more than have the buildings gutted by fire. If Cousin Jonathan was skilled enough to have erected that magnificent structure in the first place, he would certainly have it rebuilt soon enough after the British left.

    And leave they would—and none too quickly to suit Ross. This raid concocted by admirals never would have worked at all if the American Secretary of War hadn’t been astonishingly slack at preparing his capital city against attack. In that regard, if nothing else, Ross would allow that the Navy’s intelligence had been quite accurate.

    Still, not even the admirals thought the British forces who had landed on the shores of Chesapeake Bay could possibly hold the area for any length of time. Cockburn and Ross had only a few thousand men under their command. By now, American reinforcements would be pouring toward Washington. Within a few days, if they didn’t extricate themselves, the British would be swamped and forced to surrender.

    Ross tightened his jaws with exasperation. The sole purpose of this flamboyant raid was to “make a demonstration.” Of what? the general wondered. British talent for arson?

    “Do you hear me, General?”

    “Yes, I heard you, Admiral Cockburn.”

“Look on the bright side, Robert,” Cockburn said, smiling again. He pointed toward Ross’s army. “We must outnumber them by at least three to one, even leaving aside the gross disparity in training and professionalism.”

    That . . . was true enough. Even Ross found some comfort, following the admiral’s pointing finger. His soldiers were taking up their formations with experienced ease and skill. The red-coated ranks and files, with their shakos high and their bayonets higher still, seemed to ooze with confidence.

    The problem was the terrain, combined with the solidity of the Capitol. For all practical purposes, the houses of the American legislature were a ready-made fortress. If Ross were meeting the enemy on an open field, he knew full well he’d brush them aside. But his own long experience in the peninsular campaign and other theaters in Europe had taught him just how difficult it could be to storm a fortress held by resolute and well-armed men. Disparity in number and skill be damned.

    However, there was nothing for it. The attempt had to be made.

    He took a long, deep breath. Then: “Very well. I’ll order the assault.”


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