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Rivers of War: Snippet Fifty Nine

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



THE RIVERS OF WAR – snippet 59:

    CHAPTER 25

    A wave of relief swept over Sam Houston when Charles Ball finally nodded to him. Even the delay at the Horseshoe hadn’t seemed as long as the time that had just passed. The Thirty-ninth Infantry at the Horseshoe had waited for an hour and a half before beginning their assault, yes; and the time that had elapsed since the British began their assault on the Capitol hadn’t taken but a few minutes. Still, those minutes had seemed endless.

    Seeing Ball and the gunners placing their hands over their ears, Sam did the same. “Fire! ” he bellowed, in his best imitation of an Achaean captain ordering a charge.

    Sam supposed—

    The roar of the battery was enough to numb his mind for an instant.

    —that his anxiety was due to the intrinsic difference between being on the defense versus the offense. However long they might have waited at the Horseshoe, they hadn’t been worrying that the Creeks were going to attack them. It was one thing to settle your nerves when danger was an abstraction. Quite another to do so when danger took the form of a red-coated machine, grinding steadily toward you in the flickering illumination of a massive bonfire.

    Sam peered intently into the darkness, trying to discern what effect the salvo had had on the British. It was hard to see much of anything, since his eyes were tearing up. He’d been standing not far away from Ball’s twelve-pounder when it went off, and a little gust of wind had blown the acrid and sulfurous gun smoke back into his face.

    After wiping the tears away, Sam glanced at Ball and saw that his eyes looked quite normal.

    Ball glanced back at him, then smiled. “Next time, sir—if you’ll pardon my boldness in saying so—I suggest you close your eyes. That powder never burns completely, and it can blow anywhere.”

    Sam nodded. “I’ll do so, be sure of it. But what effect did we have? Can you tell?”

    “Oh, very good, sir. It’s perfect range for grapeshot, and those poor bastards don’t have any cover at all. They’ll be hurting now. Not enough, of course. Not yet.”

    As Sam and Ball had been conferring, the gun crews had hurried through their practiced motions. Sooner than Sam would have thought, they were ready to fire again.

    At least, this crew was. Looking up and down the line of the battery, Sam’s vision was still too impaired to tell if the same was true for the other guns, as well.

    He decided he’d done his Homeric duty well enough, for the moment. “Mr. Ball, why don’t you take charge of the battery from here on?”

    “If you say so, Captain.” Ball’s eyes flicked back and forth, checking the dispositions of all the crews. Then—

    Sam hastily covered his ears again—and closed his eyes.


    Ball’s voice was suitably Homeric, too, Sam observed. More so than his own, he suspected, feeling more than a bit chagrined. Embarrassed, too. Belatedly, it also occurred to him that a commander who insisted on doing his men’s work for them was a blithering nuisance.


    “And yet again,” General Ross sighed. American artillery was going to be just as murderous on this field as it had usually proven to be, since the war began.

    His horse had been brought to him, by now. He moved immediately toward it. There wasn’t a chance in creation that this assault was going to succeed if he wasn’t seen by his men in the lead.

    Damn all cocksure admirals and their schemes.


    James Monroe and his party of dragoons drew up to within a hundred yards of the western side of the Capitol. There were no enemy soldiers anywhere to be seen, although Monroe assumed the cannon roar they’d just heard emanating from the other side of the buildings indicated that the British were beginning their assault.

    Now was the time to make their final dash for the Capitol, therefore. Even going up a hill, they’d be within the relative safety of the buildings in less than a minute. They’d have to leave their horses behind, of course.

    Alas, one problem remained. The young dragoon lieutenant put it into words.

    “How do we keep our own people from shooting us?”

    A bit ruefully, Monroe pondered the problem. The illumination thrown over the area by the burning Navy Yard wasn’t sufficient enough for the soldiers who were crouched at the windows to distinguish friend from foe, certainly not at a distance.

    This would all become a humiliating farce—quite possibly a fatal one—if the secretary and his party were to be driven off by gunfire from the Capitol’s defenders.

    He decided to risk a straightforward and open approach, moving forward alone and waving a white handkerchief. One man would be less likely to be considered a threat.

    Then he heard the sound of wheels coming up the street. Heavily laden wagons, from the clatter they were making.

    “Into the shadows!” he hissed, guiding his horse into the darkness that lay between two nearby buildings. His dragoons quickly followed suit.

    Half a minute later, they saw three wagons rumbling onto the ground just below Jenkins Hill. The wagons were, indeed, heavily laden—with ammunition, Monroe thought, and there were a couple of three-pounders being towed behind the first two wagons. The driver of the lead wagon was a negro. The two others were driven by white men wearing some sort of uniform. There were other white men riding escort, all wearing the same uniform.

    “They’re ours,” Monroe stated firmly. The British army had a variety of uniforms beyond the well-known red coats, but these uniforms—for such young men—were too elaborate and fancy for British dragoons. They were exactly the sort of flamboyant uniforms that well-to-do militia volunteers would design for themselves.

    There came the sound of another cannonade. Monroe realized that whatever decision he was going to make, it had to be made now. Once the British assault neared the walls of the Capitol, entry would be impossible.

    He set his horse trotting forward into the half-lit street.

    “Hold!” he cried. “We’re Americans!”

    Startled, the black driver stopped the lead wagon and stared at him. A couple of the more alert soldiers raised their weapons. Monroe was both amused and relieved to see that the white dragoons, as if acting by sheer reflex, looked to the negro for guidance.

    That was a familiar reaction to a Virginia farmer and slave owner like Monroe, and one he was quite sure he’d not have seen from British soldiers. Many times in his life—he’d done it himself—he’d seen white men engaged in some enterprise about which they knew little turn to a slave to show or tell them what to do. As if, for an instant, the relationship of master and slave was reversed. He’d once commented on the matter to his good friends Thomas Jefferson and James Madison, and discovered that they had observed the same thing—and, in the case of both, found yet another subtle sign from Providence that slavery was a dubious institution. For any nation, much less a republic.

    Monroe wasn’t sure about the matter himself, although he’d learned never to underestimate the philosophical acuity of his two friends. But unlike Jefferson and Madison, Monroe was not inclined toward theoretical ruminations on political affairs. His prominence in the new nation’s politics was due to hard work, practical ability, skill in the daily business of legislative committee work, a tightly-focused mind—and the fact that most everyone liked him, because he was a likable man.

    All qualities that would be of good use here, as well, especially the latter. Monroe gave the wagon driver his most winning smile and trotted forward in a confident and relaxed manner, as if he had every right and reason to be there, and there was no cause for anxiety on anyone’s part.

    All of which happened to be true, fortunately. Monroe wasn’t really a good liar, despite his years as an ambassador.

    “I am James Monroe, the secretary of state,” he announced loudly.

    The dragoons’ eyes grew wide. Those of the driver narrowed.

    “By the Lord,” the black man said, “so you are. I recognize you, sir!”

    Monroe nodded graciously. The driver sat up a little straighter. Clearly enough, he was relieved himself to discover that Monroe and his party of soldiers were not the enemy.

    “I’ve seen you any number of times, sir,” the man continued. “My name is Henry Crowell, and I make regular deliveries to the State Department. The War Department, too.”

    Now that Monroe had pulled up alongside the wagon, he realized that he recognized Crowell himself, although he hadn’t known the man’s name. He’d seen Crowell a few times, making deliveries. That wasn’t surprising, of course. For all that it was the capital city of a nation, Washington, D.C., was still more in the way of a large town than a small city.

    He glanced into the wagon. Ball and powder, as he had surmised, along with some tools. He pointed toward the Capitol. “I assume you’re taking these supplies in there.”

“Yes, sir. I told Captain Houston I was pretty sure I could make the trip and be back before the British attacked.”

    Captain Houston, then, indeed. And how delightful it was for Monroe to discover that at least one piece of their intelligence had been accurate!

    The sound of a third cannonade rolled over the buildings.

    “Lead the way then, Crowell, if you would.”

    “You’re coming, sir?”

    “Oh, yes.” Suddenly, Monroe heard the lighter and sharper sounds of a multitude of muskets being fired. The British must be close now.

    “And best quickly, I think.”


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