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Rivers of War: Snippet Sixty Five

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



THE RIVERS OF WAR – snippet 65:

    When Brooke came back into the surgeon’s tent, Ross had only recently returned to consciousness. Considerably to his regret, actually.

    “Yes, Colonel?”

    “Sorry to disturb you, sir. But the Americans have sent over an envoy under the flag of truce.”

“Send him in, please.”

    A few moments later, a very young and nervous-looking American officer was ushered into the tent. A militia lieutenant, judging from the flamboyant uniform.

    “And how may I help you, sir?” Ross asked politely.

    The young American swallowed.

    Then: “Captain Houston—uh, Secretary of State Monroe agreed, too—sent me to ask you if you plan another assault tonight.” Apparently realizing the question was absurd, the flustered youngster hurried on. “Not exactly that. He doesn’t expect you to reveal military plans, of course. But, well, he told me to tell you that if you don’t try any—uh, I think he said something about respecting the flag of truce—then, uh—he said it looks like a storm is coming, too— uh—that’ll make the misery still worse . . .”

    The youngster ground to a halt, desperately trying to reassemble his thoughts, which now bore a close resemblance to a shipwreck.

    Ross took pity on him. He seemed a harmless enough lad, and besides, Ross was touched by the gallantry involved. There was often much to like about Cousin Jonathan.

    “Yes, I understand. Your—captain, was it?—Houston is extending an offer to cease-fire while we collect up our dead and wounded from the field.” Relieved, the young officer nodded. “Certainly,” Ross stated, as firmly as he could manage. “You may assure your commander that we will make no attempt to take advantage of his gracious offer. See to it, Colonel Brooke, if you please. And send the men out unarmed.”

    “Yes, sir.”

    As Brooke left, the American militia lieutenant made to follow. Ross called him back. “One moment, Lieutenant. You didn’t answer my question. Am I to understand that your commander over there is a captain?”

    “Uh, yes, sir. Captain Sam Houston. From the Thirty-ninth Infantry.”

    Ross didn’t recall any Thirty-ninth Infantry being stationed in or near Washington. Of course, military intelligence was never perfect.

    Apparently sensing Ross’s puzzlement, the youngster cleared up the little mystery. “He’s from Tennessee, sir. The Thirty-ninth is with General Jackson down there. Captain Houston was just in Washington by happenstance.”

    A captain. Here by happenstance.

    That would be the same Andrew Jackson whom Admiral Cochrane and Ross expected they’d be facing later in the year, when they finally made their move into the gulf after sufficient reinforcements arrived from England. It was all Ross could do not to wince.

    Of course, the odds were essentially nil that Ross himself would still be in command of the ground forces by then. Even if he survived the next few days, it would take him months to recover well enough to reassume command.

    Still, it was a grim prospect. Ross wondered who would be sent over as his own replacement. Pakenham, most likely. A good commander, to be sure, but with something of a headstrong reputation. If he could, Ross would do his best to instill a bit of caution in him. Above all, stay away from frontal assaults against that horrid American artillery.

    “Thank you, Lieutenant. Please pass along my regards to Captain Houston and Mr. Monroe. I take it the secretary of state is in the Capitol also?”

    “Yes, sir. Oh.” The young militiaman looked chagrined. “I shouldn’t have said that.”

    Ross would have laughed, except for the pain. “You may set your mind at ease, Lieutenant. I assure you I have no intention of launching another assault with the sole purpose of seizing Mr. Monroe, estimable gentleman though he is. But do pass along to him a request from me, as well as my compliments.”


    “I’d appreciate it if he’d give your fine captain a promotion. He well deserves it, anyway, and it would do wonders for my self-esteem. Driven off by a captain. No, no, it won’t do! A major, I could live with. A colonel would be better still.”


    “Do it,” Joshua Barney growled, after the militiaman returned and conveyed Ross’s words. “And make it ‘colonel.’ ”

    Monroe, sitting on a chair next to Barney’s settee, shook his head. “Commodore, you know perfectly well I don’t have the authority to promote army officers.”

    “Make it a brevet rank, then.”

    “I can’t do that, either. Secretary of state, remember?”

    Barney closed his eyes. “It’s a pity Washington, D.C., isn’t a state. We could haul the governor out of his bed and get Houston a fancy rank in the state militia.”

    Smiling, Monroe started to respond, but the same militia lieutenant was coming back into the chamber. Looking more worried than ever.

    “You’d better come see, sir.” The youngster swallowed. “They’re burning the president’s mansion. It’s a fearful sight.”


    From an upper window on the western side of the House, Monroe watched the flames devouring the central buildings of the executive branch of the United States. He couldn’t see any details, at the distance of a mile, but it was obvious nothing was being left untouched.

    “The bastards,” Captain Houston growled, lowering his telescope and offering it to the secretary. “They’re burning everything over there, it looks like. Although I think they might be sparing the Patent Office.”

    Monroe shook his head, refusing the telescope. He had no desire to see buildings he’d worked in and come to know well over the past years go up in flames. He could imagine it all well enough in his mind, in any event.

    There’d be no shortage of kindling in the president’s mansion. The Madisons had inherited twenty-three rooms of furniture from Thomas Jefferson and previous inhabitants. Exquisite things, most of them: sofas, writing tables, chairs and tables of all sort, beds—many of them finely ornamented. There were three dozen gilded chairs with red velvet cushions in the oval room alone, all hand-carved in Baltimore. Not to mention that the entire mansion was festooned with fancy drapes and curtains, all of which would go up in flames.

    Still, Monroe controlled his anger easily enough. He wasn’t a hot-tempered man. His worst characteristic, in that regard—and one he did his best to guard against and control—was a tendency to let resentment fester silently. Especially when the slights were personal.

    But this wasn’t a personal issue, and, besides, he knew the British were blundering badly here. He was a little surprised, actually, since General Ross had the reputation of being a cool-headed man, as well as the sort of officer who was popular with his men.

    Houston spoke again. “I’m fairly certain that Admiral Cockburn is leading the detachment that’s burning the executive mansion and offices, sir.”

    “Well, that lends support to a theory I’d just been in the midst of constructing.”

    Houston cocked his head. “Sir?”

    “I’d wager that Ross was somehow incapacitated in the earlier assault, and is having difficulty retaining control over his forces. Cockburn may have gone off on his own, or Ross may have sent Cockburn off just to get him out from underfoot.”

    “Oh. Well, as to that, sir—it is indeed true that Ross was badly hurt. May well have been killed, in fact.”

    “He was seen to fall?”

    Houston looked a bit uncomfortable. “Lieutenant Driscol took command of a platoon and had them personally fire on the general when he reached the front ranks. So, yes, he was hit. Badly enough that they had to carry him off.”

    Monroe nodded. That sort of deliberate targeting of an enemy commander lay well within the rules of war, of course. True, most gentlemen would consider it ungallant. But most of America’s gentlemen were still of English extraction, not Scots-Irish. That was changing, now, as men from the western states and territories—men like Andrew Jackson and Houston himself—began coming to the fore.

    Monroe turned back to the window. He had mixed feelings on the subject. The growing prominence of the Scots-Irish was inevitably introducing a harsher element—not to mention a more raucous tone—into the politics of the United States. But as a committed republican, Monroe could hardly object, even though he knew full well that if he became president he would have many occasions to clash with the breed.

    “Why do you think that, sir?” Houston asked. “The business about Ross wanting to get Cockburn out from underfoot, I mean.”

    Monroe pointed at the buildings burning in the distance. “Because that is a bad mistake, Captain, and not one I’d have expected General Ross to make.”

    From the captain’s expression, it was clear Houston wasn’t following him. Monroe elaborated. “Oh, I have no doubt that burning the president’s mansion was part of their original plan. But the logic only holds if they’d been able to take and burn the Capitol as well. Then they’d have inflicted a most humiliating defeat upon us. It would be of no great military value, to be sure, but one which might have had quite profound political effects. Now . . .”

    He shrugged. “The Capitol is the key. Your stand here will turn it around— and make this a political triumph. So that”—he pointed again to the west—“is reduced to simple arson. The populace will be furious, even in New England. And the Federalists won’t be able to claim that it demonstrates the hopelessness of the war.

    “They’d have done better to simply retire from the field after being repulsed from the Capitol. That would still have been a victory for us, but purely a defensive one, and not something that would have greatly aroused the public. And if Ross were still in full command, that’s what I expect he’d have done. Mind you, Captain”—Monroe gave Houston a wry little smile—“these are all theories on my part, and unlike Misters Jefferson and Madison, I am not renowned as a theorist. So I could be quite wrong.”

    Houston returned the smile. “Let’s just call it clear thinking, then. It sounds good to me, sir.” His eyes became a bit unfocused for a moment.

    “I was wondering, sir,” he continued, “if I might impose upon you further in that regard. I have a slight—well, not so slight—problem of my own to figure out.”

    “By all means, Captain,” Monroe said graciously. He glanced out the window. “There’s not a thing we can do about that situation, certainly not until the morning comes. So why not distract ourselves from the unpleasantness.”


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