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Rivers of War: Snippet Fifty Eight

       Last updated: Sunday, April 24, 2005 12:54 EDT



THE RIVERS OF WAR – snippet 58:

    “Sound and fury, signifying nothing,” Houston murmured.

    “Is that from the Iliad as well, sir?”

    “No, Lieutenant. It’s from Shakespeare’s Macbeth.”

    “Didn’t know they had rockets in his day.”

    “I don’t believe they did. But he was more or less meditating on the folly of excessive ambition. I only saw the play performed once, and I suspect the troupe which put it on took some liberties with the text. But I liked that line, and I looked it up later in a copy I found in the possession of a traveling salesman. That line is in the play. I couldn’t find the horse race anywhere, though. Or the bearbaiting scene.”

    The British fired another volley of rockets. Driscol decided that a pleasant literary discussion, conducted in the midst of a rocket cannonade, would have a splendid effect on the troops. Several hundred of them now had their heads sticking out of the windows. And while many were ogling the oncoming rockets, most of them were anxiously watching to see how Houston and Driscol and Ross were behaving.

    So he turned away from the oncoming rockets and ignored them completely.

    “I’ve never seen a horse race—much less a bearbaiting—performed on a stage. That sounds rather hard on the flooring.”

    Houston laughed—and, to Driscol’s complete satisfaction, he was still laughing when the second volley of rockets began to land. “Oh, it wasn’t performed on a stage. They held it at the race grounds in Nashville. Horse racing is all the rage in Tennessee, you know.”

    “Cherokees are fond of the sport, too,” Ross chimed in. “Not as fond as we are of our ball game, of course.”

    Out of the corner of his eye, Driscol saw a third volley fired.

    “That’s quite fascinating,” he stated, as if he cared passionately about the entertainment habits of frontiersmen and Indians.

    Houston turned to face Driscol squarely now, leaning over the shorter man as if they were both engrossed in conversation. As a display of what the French called sangfroid, it was as good as any Driscol had ever seen on the part of a commander in battle.

    Twenty-one years old. Great God, what this man could accomplish with his life! And probably the same for Ross, who’s not much older.


    Some distance to the east, General Robert Ross lowered his telescope. Then, took a long, slow breath.

    This would be no Bladensburg—and Bladensburg had been costly enough.

    He hadn’t been able to make out the features of the three figures in the distance who seemed to be the American commanders. Even in full daylight, he couldn’t have done so. But there’d been enough illumination to make their comportment obvious.

    With officers like that to lead them, Ross had no great hope that a simple headlong charge would rattle the enemy enough to send them scampering. He’d been able to do it at Bladensburg because the few stalwart units among the American forces had been left isolated on the open field, after most of their fellow soldiers were routed. Eventually, they’d had no choice but to retreat.

    Here, with a fortress to shelter them . . .

    Still worse, he was reasonably sure that the soldiers who’d been rallied at the Capitol were stalwart units, in the main. Ross had rallied troops himself, in the past, and that was almost invariably the pattern.

    “Damn all admirals and their cocksure schemes,” he muttered under his breath.

    But there was nothing for it. Ross had proposed a flanking attack, but Cockburn had objected—and given Admiral Cochrane’s support for this expedition, Ross hadn’t felt it possible simply to override the objection.

    “A flanking attack? That’ll take half the night! No, no, Robert—just roll right over the bastards. A few volleys of the Congreves and one staunch charge, and it’ll be all over. Cousin Jonathan will be scampering up Pennsylvania Avenue and we’ll follow him to burn their president’s mansion.”

    Nothing for it.

    Ross took another deep breath and turned his head. “Send forward the Fourth,” he commanded his aides. One of the two immediately sped off.

    Ross would have preferred using Thornton’s Eighty-fifth Foot Regiment. A very stalwart force, that. But the Eighty-fifth needed a rest. The regiment had been handled roughly at Bladensburg, storming a bridge under American artillery fire. Thornton himself had been severely wounded a bit later by grapeshot. The Fourth, on the other hand, had faced only militiamen, who’d soon enough run away.

    Looking over the terrain, Ross knew it would soon be covered with carnage. If the Americans held their ground . . .

    His remaining aide said it aloud. “This may prove something of a desperate business, sir.”

    Do tell, Ross thought sarcastically. A direct frontal assault on a fortress, with riflemen in every port and heavy field artillery well positioned in the middle. And me with nothing but Congreves and three light field pieces.

    As if on cue, the six-pounder and the two three-pounders opened fire. That was the entirety of Ross’s “battery.” It was a pathetic sound, compared to the ferocity of the hissing rockets. But, glumly, Ross knew full well that what little damage the field pieces would do against the heavily-built Capitol would probably exceed the effect of the Congreves.

    The British general wasn’t fond of the cantankerous rockets. Yes, the things were splendid for the morale of his own men—and sometimes shattered an opponent’s nerve. But, as actual weapons, he thought they were more trouble than they were worth.

    Wellington, he knew, had come to the same conclusion in the course of the Peninsular War. But this expedition fell ultimately under naval command, and admirals loved the blasted things. So, whether he liked it or not, Ross had been saddled with a multitude of rockets, instead of the one good battery of real guns he would have preferred.

    Again, as if on cue, one of the Congreves exploded not more than a second after it was fired. Fortunately, the rocket had traveled far enough not to injure the men who had fired it. Ross could only hope that the fragments didn’t land on the backs of the Fourth marching across the field.

    A flash of white caught his attention, and drew his eyes back to the center. He saw Admiral Cockburn prancing his horse not far behind the men of the Fourth, exhorting them onward. The conflagration at the Navy Yard was now great enough to spill a devil’s light over the entire area. The admiral’s gold-laced hat and epaulettes gleamed quite brightly.

    Cockburn favored a white horse, in a battle. The admiral was nothing if not a showman. For one brief, savage moment, Ross found himself fervently hoping the animal would provide the enemy with an especially clear target.

    But that was an unworthy thought, and he drove it under.

    Besides, unless Ross was much mistaken, he’d soon enough be joining the admiral. Surpassing him, in fact, because when the battle was most desperate Robert Ross had always been a general who’d lead his men from the front, as he had at Bladensburg and many places before it.

    He’d do so on a brown horse, though. Courage was essential for a commanding officer—but there was no reason to be stupid as well.

    “Bring me my horse,” he commanded. The second aide sped off.

    “Damn all admirals and their cocksure schemes,” Ross muttered again. Louder this time, since there was no longer anyone to hear.


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