Previous Page Next Page

UTC:       Local:

Home Page Index Page

Rivers of War: Snippet Sixty Eight

       Last updated: Friday, May 6, 2005 10:46 EDT



THE RIVERS OF WAR – snippet 68:

    Scratching more often than scribbling, he realized with dismay, some time later.

    Alas, “Marble Liberty” was a well-nigh impossible phrase to fit into proper verse. For perhaps the hundredth time that night he cursed the soldiery holding the Capitol—yes, yes, gallant fellows, but he had a poem to write—because they hadn’t thought to raise a flag over it to replace the one which had been carried away by a Congreve rocket.

    Blast it! Something as simple as that. Key had long ago figured out how he could have fit “star-spangled banner” into the poem.

    True enough, the first two lines worked splendidly:

    Oh, say can you see, by the dawn’s early light, What so proudly we hailed at the twilight’s last gleaming?

    Excellent meter, which fit the well-known tune of “Anacreon in Heaven” to perfection.

    But then what?

    Whose broad wings and fierce eyes, through the perilous fight, In the doorways we watched, were so gallantly...

    Gallantly what?

    Yes, yes, “gleaming” would work—but he’d already used the word in the previous sentence, and he would not give up “twilight’s last gleaming.” No poet in his right mind would.

    The cretins! Were there a banner, he could have it streaming. But “streaming eyes” wouldn’t do at all! And “streaming wings” was simply meaningless.

    An explosion from the Navy Yard distracted him for a moment. Key glanced back over his shoulder. Another store of munitions must have been set off, although the conflagration on the river to the south was finally starting to burn itself out.

    No business of a poet’s, though.

    He turned back to the notebook, beginning to despair. From the look of the skies, the first light of dawn was beginning to appear, and a fierce storm was in the offing. Once that storm broke, poetry would have to seek prosaic shelter.

    Perhaps . . .

    He was gripped by sudden excitement, and began scribbling hastily again. If he went back and changed . . .

    Yes! Forget the eagle entirely. The bird was mostly a scavenger anyway. Concentrate on the statue.

    Whose bold gaze and sure brow, through the perilous fight, At the gates as we watched, were so gallantly standing?

    Yes, that’d work! From there . . .

    And the rockets’ red glare, the bombs bursting in air,

    He hadn’t seen that himself, but the inhabitants had described it. Now ...a bit of fudging . . .

    Gave proof through the night that our dame was still there.

    He could get away with that, surely. True, the British had stopped the bombardment of the Capitol hours earlier, but they’d fired off an occasional rocket now and then. More for show than anything else, obviously, but that was a pedestrian matter that a poet could safely ignore.

    Then . . .

    Oh, those mindless soldiers and their imbecile Captain Houston! Key had the perfect closing couplet for the first stanza.

    O say, does that star-spangled banner yet wave O’er the land of the free and the home of the brave?

    No banner, alas.

    Key sighed. Nothing for it—once a poet begins with an image, he has to remain true to the thing, bloody awkward though it be. So . . . a little scratching and scribbling here and there . . .

    O say, does she stand still, our belov’d Liberty, In the doorway of the brave and the home of the free?

    Yes, that worked, although the meter was damnably awkward in the first line of the couplet. He’d have to work on that some more. But at least he’d kept the high Cs in the tune.

    A gleam of light struck his eye.

    The first ray of the sun, just now peeking over the horizon. With a guilty start, Key realized he’d tarried a bit. His messenger would be back from Georgetown soon, and it was time he got started on a second report.

    Francis Scott Key stood up, tucking away his pen and notebook for the moment while he stretched his arms and legs. He gazed at the Capitol, its eastern walls now showing clearly—including the scars left on it by the British bombardment. The American battery was still there; so, in the doorways of the House, were the eagle and the statue.

    Key doffed his hat in salute. “You are poet’s despair, Captain Houston. But a patriot’s delight.”


    “Get the men ready to move out,” Ross commanded. “I want us well out of the city before that storm breaks.”

    “But we’d planned—”

    “I know what we’d planned, Admiral. But among those plans we did not include being bloodied and repulsed at the Capitol. Now did we?”

    Cockburn looked mulish, but said nothing.

    Ross was relentless. “Boldness is one thing, recklessness another. As soon as the news spreads, the Americans will rally quickly enough. Be sure of it. Our plans to spend a day here, wrecking every public building to demonstrate the U.S. government’s fecklessness are now moot, Admiral. Moot, d’you hear?

    “For that matter, so are our plans to attack Baltimore. We can’t afford any more such losses, if we’re to take New Orleans later in the year—and New Orleans is the key to the war. So. It is now time to extricate ourselves from Washington before the Americans can bring enough might to bear to force our surrender. I have less than four thousand men left. Enough for a bold raid, if all had gone well. Not enough—not nearly enough—for anything further.

    “We shall retreat, then. Immediately. We’re in a trap that’s about to be closed. You and Colonel Brooke will lead the retreat, Admiral. I’ll stay behind until the last moment, to keep the men steady.”

    Headstrong as he was, Cockburn wasn’t actually a fool. He took a breath, held it, then sighed. He even managed something of a rueful smile.

    “As you wish, General. I do regret not having the opportunity to wreck the National Intelligencer. The foul slanderers!”

    Ross nodded, graciously enough. He had no desire to get into any further disputes with the admiral. They had to get out of Washington, and quickly enough that they’d be too far out of the city for Cockburn to commit any further mischief, once Ross gave his final order.

    Thinking of that final order, he had to repress his own sigh.

    The commander of an army had many responsibilities, some of which were unpleasant in the extreme. But Robert Ross had never shirked his duty, since the day he’d enlisted in the Twenty-fifth Foot right after graduating from Trinity College in Dublin. Nineteen years old, he’d been then, and a professional soldier ever since. Wounded in battle three times—make that four, now—and the veteran of campaigns in Spain, Egypt, Italy, and the Netherlands before he came to North America. One of the very few men in the British army who had worked his way up the ranks to major general by sheer professional skill, without family influence.

    Ross reminded himself that honors enough had been showered upon him, in the course of it all. Three Gold Medals, the Peninsula Gold Medal, a Sword of Honor—he’d even received the thanks of Parliament. So he could hardly complain, now that duty was knocking on the door, bearing the bill.

    Cockburn left the surgeon’s tent. As soon as he was gone, Colonel Brooke turned to the general.

    “Are you certain about this, sir?”

    Ross nodded toward the surgeon. “Ask him.”

    The surgeon shook his head. “The only chance for the general’s survival now lies with the Americans. Delaying the surgery as he did”—the surgeon still sounded aggrieved—“I can’t possibly do the work well enough in the course of a retreat. I doubt the general would survive the rigors of the march, in any event.”

    Brooke still looked dubious.

    “Just get the men out of here, Colonel,” Ross said. “Once the march is well under way, you can inform the admiral—no, I’ll send an aide myself, so you can pretend you didn’t know—that I was forced to remain behind. By then, not even Cockburn will be rash enough to turn around.

    “Damnation, Arthur, I will get my men out of here, whatever else.”

    That braced the colonel. “As you wish, sir. I’ll see to it.”

    Then he was gone, leaving only the surgeon and young Captain Smith still with Ross in the tent.

    “I’ll let you choose the aide in question, Harry, if you’d do me the pleasure of remaining behind until the transfer is done.”

    “Of course, sir.” But the captain also looked dubious. “Are you so sure the Americans will behave properly, though?”

    Ross waved his hand. Very weakly, now. “They will or they won’t, as it may be. I have no great fears on the matter. Cousin Jonathan’s manners may be rough at times, but he’s hardly a brute. Captain Houston has certainly conducted himself gallantly enough—and we’ll surrender me into his hands when the time comes.”


Home Page Index Page




Previous Page Next Page

Page Counter Image