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Rivers of War: Snippet Sixty Three

       Last updated: Sunday, May 1, 2005 00:18 EDT



THE RIVERS OF WAR – snippet 63:

    He seemed to be stalling, his eyes looking toward the entrance that led to the adjoining Senate building. A moment later, whatever he saw seemed to cause a trace of relief to come to his face.

    Monroe turned and saw another officer coming into the chamber. Almost an apparition, really. Where the six-foot-tall and strongly built secretary of state had been forced to push his way through the mob of soldiers by main force, the middling-height and squat lieutenant seemed to pass through them like Moses parting the waters of the Red Sea. And with only one arm, to boot, where Monroe had had two.

    “May I introduce Lieutenant Patrick Driscol, sir. One of Brigadier Scott’s officers. Distinguished himself at the Chippewa.”

    The slight emphasis on the word made it clear that this time Houston was not using it simply as a gallant pleasantry.

    Distinguished himself.

    Studying the approaching lieutenant carefully, Monroe thought that Captain Houston was quite wrong. “Distinguished himself ” wasn’t the right phrase, and he was certain the man Driscol himself would have scoffed at it. He had all the earmarks of a soldier risen from the ranks. Monroe had known men like this, in his youth. At the battle of Trenton; again, at Monmouth; most of all, during that terrible winter at Valley Forge.

    Officers and gentlemen fought battles and distinguished themselves. Men like Driscol made and broke entire armies, and did so with no more thought than a blacksmith shaping iron at an anvil.

    He had his hand extended before the one-armed lieutenant had even begun to raise his. James Monroe was a gentleman born, and of the Virginia gentry at that. But he’d been taught his manners as a twenty-year-old subaltern by a general named George Washington. A ruthless and hard commander, who’d whip an insubordinate or shoot a deserter in an instant, but never once sneered at the men who made him what he was.

    “A pleasure, sir,” Driscol said, as he took the secretary’s hand. He even seemed to mean it.

    Houston cleared his throat. “Patrick, the secretary of state was just asking me what my plans were. As they relate to the current conflict.”

    “Well, Captain, as we were discussing just before the British began their assault”—it was all Monroe could do not to laugh—“you’d planned to give the men some supper after they’d beaten the bastards off. In rotation, of course, following the system I’ll have set up, so that we keep sentries in place at all times. In the event of another attack.”

    “Supper, yes.” The captain looked about, doing his best—rather well, in fact—not to look puzzled.

    “There’s not much, I’m afraid,” Driscol continued, every inch the respectful lieutenant, even if Monroe thought his rasping voice could have filed away stone. “Nothing in the Capitol itself, of course, beyond an occasional bottle of spirits hidden away here and there.”

    Monroe chuckled. “Knowing my legislative colleagues, Lieutenant, you’d have found quite a few of those.”

    Driscol smiled at him thinly. “Well, yes, sir. About every other desk. I had them all sequestered and stashed away in the Library of Congress. Under a reliable armed guard.”

    Monroe must have looked a bit skeptical. Driscol’s smile thinned still further. “Oh, you may lay your fears to rest on that account, sir. Private McParland will shoot any man who tries to force his way in. And he’ll refrain from disobeying my orders himself, you may be sure of it. I executed the lad, once, and he’s been the very model of discipline ever since.”

    Monroe raised one eyebrow. But Driscol was already turning to Houston.

    “Captain, there’ll be enough food in the packs of the men—some of them, not all, of course—to go around well enough for tonight. No one will eat well, but as long as it’s divided evenly—I’ll see to that—they’ll go hungry, but not famished. And we’ll pass around a tot of spirits later. Not enough to inebriate any man, just enough to cheer them up.”

    “Very well, Lieutenant.” Houston seemed oriented again. “But how are we with regard to powder and shot?”

    “Well enough for the battery. Ball and his men are experienced. Between what they brought themselves and Henry’s supplies, we should have enough to last the night, even if the Sassenach are lunatic enough to try another frontal assault. I doubt that, though. They suffered a fearful slaughter. Still, I’ve got sentries posted. If they come again, we’ll have plenty of warning.”

    The lieutenant sounded mildly disgruntled at the thought that the British wouldn’t attempt another assault. Between the man’s demeanor and the Ulster accent, Monroe understood. Driscol was one of those Scots-Irish immigrants whose hatred for the English was corrosive and unrelenting. Under other circumstances, that could pose a problem. Under these—

    As secretary of state, it would be Monroe’s task to make peace with the enemy, eventually. The more men like Driscol bled them, the easier that task would be. Problems of another day could be dealt with then.

    “We’re less well off with the muskets, I’m afraid,” Driscol went on, now looking a bit exasperated. “There was no way to keep the silly bugg—ah, militia volunteers—from blasting wildly at anything in sight. Or not in sight, often enough. Some of the men are out of shot or powder entirely, and many of them are low. On the other hand, a fair number never fired their muskets at all. I’ll see to a redivision of what we have left, sir. We’ll have enough.”

    He glanced at the secretary of state. “For tonight, that is, and assuming we do nothing more than simply hold the Capitol. But I don’t recommend any sallies—and I couldn’t begin to predict what the morrow might bring.”

    Very smooth, this rough lieutenant with the voice like a file. Monroe couldn’t have passed the initiative up the chain of command any more slickly himself.

    Fortunately, at the age of fifty-six and with many years of experience as a senator, a state governor, an ambassador to three major nations, and a member of the executive cabinet, Monroe was no stranger to finding the initiative deposited firmly in his lap.

    “If the British make another attempt on the Capitol, Captain Houston, I shall rely upon you and your men to beat them off. But that is all.”

    Driscol’s mention of a “sally” had almost made Monroe shudder. The thought of Houston leading untrained and inexperienced men, collected from the pieces of dozens of shattered units, into an assault of his own upon British regulars in the open field . . . at night, even worse than in broad daylight . . .

    Monroe did shudder, just slightly. Houston flashed him a smile.

    “Please, sir. As I’ve once had the occasion to inform Lieutenant Driscol, I am not actually a fool. I’ve no more thought of leading a sally against the British tonight than I do of leading a charge against the tides.”

    His humor was fleeting, though. “But will simply holding the Capitol be enough? It’s possible the British may leave things where they are, but I doubt it. There’s really nothing stopping them from burning the rest of the city. The public buildings, at least. They may spare the private homes.”

    Monroe shrugged. “So be it. And so what? Captain, the sole purpose of this British raid was to manufacture a political demonstration. It was designed to humiliate us and undermine national morale, that’s all. There’s no conceivable military gain for them here. On that subject, at least, I was quite in agreement with Secretary Armstrong, even if—”

    He broke off the rest. This wasn’t the time nor the place to air the dirty linen of the cabinet. “The point being this: They can burn everything else in the capital, starting with the President’s mansion, but this—this alone, never think otherwise—is the seat of the United States government. So long as the Capitol stands against them, they have accomplished nothing but to brand themselves publicly as arsonists and thieves. Petty vandals, no more!”

    Deliberately, Monroe had spoken slowly and loudly enough to be heard all through the chamber. A fresh roar of applause went up from the soldiers.

    “Just hold the Capitol, Captain Houston,” Monroe added quietly. “Do that, and you will have done extraordinarily well. Trust my judgment here, if you would.”

    “Certainly, sir.” Houston hesitated; then: “General Jackson speaks well of you, Mr. Monroe. I, ah, just thought I might mention that.”

    That was . . . interesting, although Monroe wasn’t really surprised. Before the recent rise to political prominence of western figures such as Henry Clay and Andrew Jackson, Monroe had been the one major politician in America who had generally been attentive and friendly to western interests.


    Monroe pondered the matter, as Houston and Driscol went about preparing the troops for a possible new British attack. In less than two years, Monroe would most likely be the new president of the United States. It had become something of a tradition in the new republic for the secretary of state to succeed to the presidency.

    Whether the current war with Britain was won or lost, he was well-nigh certain that the western states and territories would dominate many of the concerns of his administration. If the war was lost, as rambunctious grievers and grousers; if it were won, as rambunctious triumphalists. Either way, they’d be an opportunity and a monstrous pain in the neck at one and the same time.

    His friend Thomas Jefferson had once said of James Monroe, “Turn his soul wrong side outward and there is not a speck on it.” Like all encomiums, especially coming from a personal friend and political ally, Monroe knew that the statement needed to be sprinkled with some salt. But he liked to think it was true enough—and he certainly strove to maintain it as a principle for his own conduct.

    So he decided to postpone contemplating the fact that he’d cemented the allegiance of southern and western frontiersmen by his actions this night. For the moment, he’d be guided solely by his assessment of the needs of the nation.

    There would be time afterward for a consideration of the political implications. He’d give the matter some real thought then, of course. An upright and honest politician still had to be a politician, or republics would be as fantastical as unicorns.


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