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Rivers of War: Snippet Fifty Three

       Last updated: Friday, April 15, 2005 17:55 EDT



THE RIVERS OF WAR – snippet 53:

    “Are they mad?” General Winder bellowed. “I gave explicit orders for all units to abandon the capital and regroup here in Georgetown!”

    His eyes ranged wildly about the tavern where he and several of the nation’s cabinet had set up a temporary headquarters. More in the way of a momentary resting place, actually for the secretaries of war and the treasury.

    President Madison and his cabinet had called a hasty emergency meeting at the president’s mansion, after the disaster at Bladensburg. They had determined that the nation’s executives would quickly disperse, lest the British invaders capture them all at one swoop. Madison, accompanied by Secretary of the Navy Jones and Attorney General Richard Rush, had already left Georgetown. His intended destination was Wiley’s Tavern, some sixteen miles to the northwest, where the president’s wife, Dolley, awaited him. Secretary of War Armstrong and Secretary of the Treasury George Campbell had been about to leave the tavern when word arrived that forces of the United States were making a stand at the Capitol. They’d delayed their departure in order to discuss this unexpected turn of events with General Winder and Secretary of State Monroe.

    “Who is in command over there?” Winder demanded. “I’ll have him shot for insubordination and treason!”

    Armstrong exchanged glances with James Monroe, who was sitting across the table from him. Despite the smoke and dim lighting in the tavern, Monroe’s expression was clear enough. The secretary of state’s tight jaws made it obvious that, had he the authority, he would be more inclined to have General Winder placed before that firing squad.

    So would Armstrong himself, for that matter. He was a ruined man, and he knew it. He would accept responsibility for neglecting the capital’s defenses, for which, in truth, he’d done little more than create the impressively named “Tenth Military District.” But of all the poor decisions the secretary of war regretted, the one he regretted the most was having made William Winder the commanding general of the newly formed district.

    It had seemed a clever enough idea, at the time. A former general himself, Armstrong hadn’t really expected the British to attack the capital in the first place. So what did it matter which officer was placed in charge?

    Armstrong still didn’t understand the military logic behind their operation, in fact, since Baltimore offered a far more suitable target.

    Rational or not, though, the British had chosen to attack Washington instead of Baltimore. General Winder had made a complete hash of the business, as one might expect from a man whose only previous military accomplishment had been his ignominious capture at the battle of Stoney Creek. Giving command of the 10th Military District to Winder had seemed a sensible way at the time to enlist the political support of Maryland for strengthening the defenses of Baltimore. William Winder was a prominent attorney in Baltimore; better still, his uncle Levin Winder was the governor of Maryland. But Armstrong was deeply regretting that decision now.

    All in the past.

    “I can’t undermine him now, James,” Armstrong murmured softly to the secretary of state. “Bad as Winder might be, to shred the military chain of command under these circumstances would create the worst situation possible.”

    Monroe glared at Winder. The general took no notice, since he was far too preoccupied with roaring outrage and indignation and shouting threats of bloody punishment to be paying any attention to the cabinet members who were whispering at their table in the corner.

    “You told him yourself the Capitol would make a splendid fortress,” Monroe hissed to Armstrong. “And I agreed with you. Just a short time ago, when we all met there after that farce at Bladensburg.”

    Armstrong shrugged uncomfortably. True, he had. The fact had been obvious to anyone with real military experience. It had been equally obvious to Monroe, who’d fought in the Revolution. But Winder had been on the verge of hysteria, after Bladensburg, and Armstrong hadn’t felt it possible to press the matter.

    “What difference would it have made?” he asked Monroe softly. “Yes, the Capitol would have been a fine place to make a stand—but not under Winder. Certainly not in the condition he was in at the time. What was I to do, James? Relieve him on the spot? And who should I have replaced him with?”

    Monroe sighed. “Curse the luck that Winfield Scott’s wounds proved too grave for him to take the post.”

    Armstrong nodded. The brilliant young brigadier had been everyone’s first choice for commander of the Tenth Military District. Unfortunately, the injuries Scott had received at Lundy’s Lane were taking months to heal. The brigadier was still recuperating in New Jersey.

    “We do what we can, James. The question that now faces us, is: What do we do?”

    General Winder’s bellows provided one answer.

    “I’ll have him shot! I swear I will! What is his name?”

    A hesitant voice answered. It was the accountant, Simmons. “Huston, I believe. I’m not sure of his first name, General. Sam, maybe. He’s got some wild injuns with him, too. Frightful-looking creatures.”

    “Well then, General Sam Huston will go before the wall! See if he won’t!”

    Armstrong frowned. He had a good memory for names, and there was no General Huston serving in the U.S. Army. Nor in any of the state militias, as far as he knew. And what would a group of Indians be doing accompanying a general, anyway?

    He cocked at inquisitive eye at one of his secretaries, seated at the same table. The efficient young man was already flipping through the files he’d salvaged from the War Department.

    “Huston, Huston,” the clerk muttered. “There’s no Huston of any rank in—oh, wait.”


    The clerk looked up. “There is an officer by the name of Sam Houston, sir. From Tennessee. He’s in the Thirty-ninth Infantry, and apparently conducted himself very well at the Horseshoe Bend. But he’s certainly not a general.”

    “What is he, then?”

    The clerk looked back down at the file. “Well, there’s some question about that. Technically, he’s just an ensign. General Jackson gave him a field promotion to captain, but the recommendation hasn’t yet been approved by the War Department.”

    Armstrong almost laughed at that, despite the circumstances. One of Jackson’s frontier roughnecks, and an ensign to boot! It figured, though. Say what you would about Andrew Jackson, the man was a fighter. Had he been in command of the Tenth Military District, the British would have had to contest every inch of soil from the minute they landed.

    Monroe and Armstrong looked at each other for a long moment. They weren’t on good terms personally. None of the Virginians in Madison’s cabinet had much of a liking for the secretary of war, who’d been a New York senator. Most of that was just typical Virginian clannishness, Armstrong supposed, though he’d allow that some of it was due to his own abrasive personality.

    That, too, was all in the past. Armstrong’s political career was finished. He’d be the one who’d take most of the blame for the disaster here, of that he was certain.

    All that remained was to salvage what he could of his own honor.

    “I can’t undermine Winder, James,” he repeated softly. “Until we’ve formally replaced him, we have to leave him in charge. At least publicly. Or we’ll have pure chaos."

    He gave Monroe a long look from lowered brows. It might almost be called an accusatory gaze; it was certainly a challenging one.

    “That’s because I’m the Secretary of War, and therefore his direct superior. You, however, are not.”

    Monroe stared at Armstrong. Then, looked away for a few seconds. Then, looked back.

    “Can you keep him distracted?”

    Armstrong smiled thinly. “Oh, yes, James. That I can do. With Winder, it’s not even difficult.”

    Monroe nodded. “I’ll be off, then.”

    The Secretary of State rose from the table and moved as quickly as he could toward the tavern entrance, without moving so quickly that Winder might notice his departure.

    No fear of that, really. Winder was now bellowing the details of the firing squad, down to the caliber of the muskets. Armstrong watched him for a while. It seemed, under the circumstances, as good as distraction for the general as any.


    Outside, in the tavern courtyard, a servant brought up Monroe’s horse.

    “On to Frederick now, sir?” asked the lieutenant in charge of the small force of dragoons who escorted the secretary of state.

    “No. We’re going back into the city. The Capitol, to be precise.”


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