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Rivers of War: Snippet Sixty Seven

       Last updated: Wednesday, May 4, 2005 05:54 EDT



THE RIVERS OF WAR – snippet 67:

    CHAPTER 28

    “We’ve found the president!” Colonel George Minor called out, as soon as he entered the tavern where John Armstrong had spent some of the worst hours of his life.

    Weary as he was, the secretary of war came to his feet immediately. “Where?”

    “He was at Salona, sir.” The colonel came striding over. “Imagine! And here we’ve been looking for him as far afield—”

    “Never mind that!” Armstrong snapped. “Is he coming here?” The estate owned by Reverend Maffitt at Salona was but a few miles away.

    Colonel Minor’s face grew stiff. “Yes, sir. Of course he’s coming. Be here in less than an hour, I should think.”

    Armstrong silently cursed his own abrasive manner. Now he’d offended the commander of the Sixtieth Virginia militia regiment, too.

    But he couldn’t bring himself to offer an apology. Minor’s men hadn’t made it to the battle of Bladensburg at all—because Minor had allowed an officious junior clerk at the armory to delay him endlessly with pettifogging accounting procedures before he’d release the arms and munitions the regiment needed. Armstrong’s career was sinking fast, in part because of men like this.

    So the secretary swiveled his head and brought the figure of General William Winder into his view. Much the same way a ship of line brings its guns to bear for a broadside.

    Winder had finally tired of planning Houston’s execution, so he’d spent the rest of the night issuing plans and directives that contradicted themselves from one moment to the next. Just as well, though, because the confusion he’d created had kept most of the military units from leaving the area. It was utterly laughable. Armstrong thought Winder might be the first commander in the history of the world who had keep his army from a headlong rout—even though all of his directives had had precipitous retreat as their sole unvarying element—by confusing them into sheer paralysis.

    However that might be, the forces were still at hand. And Armstrong had had enough of Winder. Respect for protocol be damned. Once the president arrived, Armstrong could leave all other matters in his hands and take direct and personal control of the army as the Secretary of War.

    It was now—Armstrong checked his watch—almost daybreak. If the Capitol was still standing . . .

    No way to know that for sure. So rumor had it, but rumor was rumor. Armstrong needed direct and certain confirmation before he could finalize his plans. Unfortunately, on top of everything else, Winder had created such hurly-burly on the part of his subordinates that Armstrong had been forced to enlist a civilian to scout the matter for him.

    At that, Armstrong had more confidence in the civilian he’d sent than he did in most of the officers who hovered around Winder. Francis Scott Key, a Georgetown lawyer to whom Armstrong had been introduced by Congressman John Randolph. A solid and reliable man, Key, even if he did fancy himself something of a poet. In the time since the British landing, most of Washington’s population—military and civilian alike—had fluttered about in panic like leaves in the wind. Key, however, had efficiently organized the evacuation of his family and personal possessions, taking them to a place of safety, and then had come back into the city to see what use he might be to the republic. He’d wound up guiding General Smith and his First Columbian Brigade to the battle of Bladensburg, even helped him map deployments.

    If the Capitol was still standing . . .


    Francis Scott Key hadn’t arrived at his post of observation in sufficient time to witness the British assault on the Capitol, nor its repulsion. But the excited inhabitants of the town house from whose roof he’d been able to watch everything since had described it to him well enough. They’d even possessed a telescope with which he’d been able to examine details of the dramatic aftermath.

    So, although he hadn’t been an actual eyewitness, Key was able to write a good report. It helped, of course, that he was a poet, and thus fluent with a pen.


    ...can observe many bodies of British soldiers still strewn about the ground to the east of the Capitol. The attack which occur’d was most clearly injurious to the enemy, & they have now retired from the scene. The battle seems to have settled into an exchange of fire at a distance, which the sturdy walls of our Capitol should withstand readily enough. I think it unlikely the British will renew their efforts before tomorrow at the earliest, & they may have been repulsed entirely.

    I am, your obedient servant,

    F. Key


    The report done, Key handed it to the teenage son of the family who owned the town house. The lad had already agreed to take the message to the secretary of war, since Key didn’t want to leave his post, lest something else occur.

    “He should still be at the tavern in Georgetown. It’s located—”

    “I know where it is!” cried the boy, and he was already racing off. Whatever reluctance he had to miss any of the action, it was more than offset by the excitement of being directly involved in such the momentous events.

    His duty done, Key could now indulge himself in his most heartfelt wish— to craft a patriotic poem that would suitably commemorate the dramatic occasion.

    Dramatic it was, too, all that a poet could ask for! Fortunately, the light cast by the burning Navy Yard would be enough that he’d be able to see the words he’d be scribbling in his notebook.


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