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Rivers of War: Snippet Sixty Nine

       Last updated: Saturday, May 7, 2005 11:54 EDT



THE RIVERS OF WAR – snippet 69:

    As chance would have it, President Madison entered the tavern not two minutes after Armstrong finished reading Key’s report. Finally, the secretary of war had all he needed to take action.

    General Winder came over to say something to Madison, but Armstrong’s quick steps blocked his path.

    “Mr. President, I’ve just gotten the word,” the secretary stated. “The Capitol is still in our hands. I propose to rally the men and begin a counterattack.”

    Over his shoulder, Armstrong could hear Winder’s gathering protest. He drove right over the first blustering sentences. “General Winder here, of course, is needed immediately in Baltimore. To prepare the city’s defenses.”

    Madison stared up at him. The diminutive president—he stood not much over five feet tall, and weighed perhaps one hundred pounds—had no expression whatsoever on his face. But he knew perfectly well that the commander of the troops in Baltimore was Samuel Smith, who was both a senator and a major general—which meant he outranked Winder, as well as despising him.

    “A splendid plan,” the president stated. “General Winder, you must be off at once. Baltimore must be protected at all costs.”

    Whatever protest Winder might have made died aborning.

    “At once,” Madison repeated.

    As soon as Winder left, the president turned to Armstrong. “And do you have a plan, John?”

    The secretary of war shrugged. “That word would be too grandiose, perhaps. But I don’t really think any complex schemes are needed here, Mr. President. We still hold the Capitol, and have since the British arrived in the city. Mr. Monroe is there himself, in fact.”

    Madison’s eyes widened at this unexpected news, but he simply inclined his head, inviting Armstrong to continue.

    “That gives us the rock we need around which to rally our men, Mr. President. No better rock possible. There are still enough soldiers in and around Washington to turn the day. More than enough—some of them still intact units and ready to fight.” His eyes flicked across the room, looking for—

    There he was. Armstrong pointed to a young naval officer, seated in the corner.

    “That’s Captain David Porter, Mr. President. He rushed down here from New York at the secretary of the navy’s behest, as soon as word came of the British landing. Brought all his surviving crew with him, too. I spoke to him earlier this evening, and he volunteered to lead a relief column to the Capitol.”

    Madison nodded respectfully at the captain. Porter was one of the young heroes whom the navy had produced in the war. The many heroes, where, alas, the army had produced precious few. Porter’s frigate Essex had ravaged British shipping until the British had finally destroyed it with overwhelming force off the coast of Chile. He and the surviving crewmen had just returned in April, after a prisoner exchange.

    If apologies were difficult for Armstrong, he was willing enough to make amends in other ways. “And I’m sure Colonel Minor and his Sixtieth Virginia will volunteer to join the sailors. Valiant men, those.”

    In another corner, the colonel in question straightened his shoulders. “Most certainly, Mr. President! I’ve six hundred infantry and a hundred cavalrymen under my command, all present and accounted for.”

    Even armed, now, Armstrong thought sarcastically. Let’s hope they don’t run afoul of another officious clerk who might disarm them.

    But he didn’t say it aloud, of course. Besides, even if they did run across such a fearsome foe, Armstrong could rely on Porter to deal with the matter. Porter had fought the Barbary pirates, after all, who were not much less rapacious than clerks.

    Since the president still seemed a bit hesitant, Armstrong quickly ran through the roster of forces he knew to be present, willing, and able to fight. Added together, it was quite an impressive list—even if more than half of the units were still in disarray and often enough absent their commanding officers.

    “One great push now, Mr. President,” Armstrong concluded softly. “That’ll do it—because we still hold the Capitol.”

    Madison nodded. “Yes, I understand. The Capitol will do, where our generals didn’t. Speaking of which . . .” The president stopped himself and waved his hand. “Never mind. Now is not the time for that, I suppose. Very well, John. You have my approval. For that matter—”

    “That would be most unwise, sir. There’s always the possibility you might be captured. Best you remain here, I think, and use this tavern for your temporary headquarters. And . . .”

    Bad news was best dealt with promptly.

    “I’m afraid your own home is now destroyed, sir. The British bypassed the Capitol after their repulse, and burned the executive complex. Everything. Your mansion, the War and State Departments—according to the report, about the only thing the bastards didn’t set fire to was the Patent Office.”

    Madison winced. “Dolley will be most upset. But at least she managed to salvage the most valuable items. I...think.”

    The president started to run fingers through his hair, but stopped the thoughtless motion halfway through. He was old-fashioned in some ways, one of them being his insistence on still powdering his hair. Whatever dignity that might have added to his appearance, it made certain ways of quelling nervousness rather difficult.

    He satisfied the urge with a simple profanity. Even muttered as it was, that spoke to the president’s distress.

    “So be it. Very well, John. I shall remain here while you take charge of the matter. You will send word, though, as soon as the Capitol is secured?”

    “Yes, Mr. President. As soon as it’s safe for you to come, I’ll let you know.”


    “They’re leaving, Captain,” Driscol pronounced.

    Houston leaned out of the window and examined the distant British army. The enemy force was going through the complicated evolutions of a well-trained professional army preparing to leave the field. Driscol knew full well that to Sam’s inexperienced eye, it would just look like . . .

    Well, anything.

    “You’re certain of that? No chance this is a feint of some kind?”

    By now, the soldier from County Antrim had developed a profound respect and liking for the young officer from Tennessee. Fortunately—or he’d have been tempted to reply sarcastically.

    I’ve fought battles and engagements across half of Europe. D’you think I can’t recognize a retreat when it’s under way? Not to mention that fancy clever stunts like the Trojan Horse work only in fables. Try that in the real world, ha! If I’d been in Troy— any Scots-Irishman; even a bloody Sassenach, for that matter—the first thing I’d have done is order the thing burned where it stood. See how clever Odysseus is when he’s roasting.

    But he left it all unspoken, where it belonged. Houston had earned the right to display a little anxiety, now that it was all over. Earned it, and then some.

    “Yes, I’m certain, Captain.”

    Houston would never twitch for long. “Call me ‘Sam,’ would you? I’m a rude frontiersman, y’know. We’re not prone to formalities.”

    Driscol smiled. “Not on the field, sir. Besides, if the reports I hear are accurate, you informal westerners are prone to dueling at the drop of a hat. I’d be afraid I might offend that very fine-tuned sense of honor.”

    “I’ve never fought a duel in my life,” Houston protested.

    “And you are—what? Twenty-one years old?” Driscol’s smile widened. “Give it another year or two, and who knows? They might be laying your victims—honorable foes, sorry—down in rows. But modest and humble Patrick Driscol will not be one of them.”

    Houston started to grin, but the easy expression faded. “It has been a great pleasure and honor to make your acquaintance, Patrick,” he said softly. “Do not ever think my sentiments otherwise.”

    There seemed no ready answer to that, so Driscol simply nodded and remained silent. The only appropriate answer, in any event, would have been to reciprocate the words—which Driscol would do willingly enough, but not until the battle was over and done. The British were retreating, yes, but they were not gone. In fact, one of their tents was still on the field.

    Anthony McParland, along with James and John Rogers, had been studying that field while Driscol and Houston had been talking. Now, McParland turned away from the window and spoke.

    “There’s someone coming out of that tent, Lieutenant. He’s waving a white flag.”

    Driscol understood what that meant immediately.

    “Damnation,” he growled. “This is exactly why I refused a commission.” Glumly, he examined his left stump. “Until I had no choice.”

    Houston was clearly lost. Grimacing, Driscol nodded toward the window. “It’ll be General Ross in that tent, sir. He’ll have been too badly wounded to join the retreat.”

    Houston looked at the window. “Well. In that case, we shall have to provide him with good medical care.”

    The rest was a foregone conclusion. “Patrick...I’d go out there myself, but . . .”

    “Yes, I know. A commanding officer does not leave his post.” Driscol sighed, accepting the inevitable. “I’ll handle the matter, sir.”

    As he headed for the door, a cheery thought came to him. “As it happens, Captain, I know just the doctor to recommend for a Sassenach general. Very fine fellow. Studied under Benjamin Rush himself.”


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