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Rivers of War: Snippet Seventy Eight

       Last updated: Friday, May 13, 2005 12:21 EDT



THE RIVERS OF WAR – snippet 77:

    CHAPTER 31

    September 18, 1814 Mobile, Florida, territory disputed between the United States and Spain

    “It’s definite, General,” John Coffee stated as soon as he entered the room where Jackson had set up his headquarters. “We just finally got word from Major Lawrence. Fort Bowyer is still in our hands, and the enemy force was driven off.”

    Jackson looked up from the papers he was reading. “That explosion we heard?”

    There’d been a ferocious blast of some sort coming from Mobile Bay, three days earlier when the battle was fought. They’d heard it all the way in Mobile, thirty miles off. Jackson had worried that it meant the British had seized the fort, and had blown it up—although there was no logical reason for them to have done so. Fort Bowyer was located on a sandspit commanding the entrance to the bay. If the British had seized the fort, they’d surely have manned it themselves rather than destroying it.

    “It turns out that was a British vessel blowing up,” Coffee replied. “The Hermes. Lawrence says a lucky shot cut its anchor cable and the ship was swept by the current right under the guns of Fort Bowyer. The enemy finally set it afire themselves, after our guns hammered it into shreds. The flames ignited the magazine.”

    Jackson grunted, and looked out the window across the town of Mobile. The view faced south. Jackson had picked that house for his headquarters, despite the fact that it was more modest than many in the Spanish Florida town. It gave him a good view of the direction from which the enemy would come.

    The Spanish inhabitants took that as a sign that Jackson was being moderate, Coffee knew, although it was nothing of the sort. Had the finest mansion in Mobile given him a better perspective, Jackson would have sequestered it and driven out the owners with no thought at all.

    But the Spanish were rather inclined to be favorable toward Jackson anyway. Not because they liked the American general who’d seized their town, which they certainly didn’t. But, by now, word had spread throughout the Floridas of the conduct of British soldiers who had seized Pensacola. The British had been invited to land at Pensacola by the Spanish governor of Florida, González Manrique, to protect the town against attack after the Americans had seized Mobile.

    He’d had no choice, really. Spanish claims to the Floridas were a mere legality now, and every power in the world knew it. The United States had already stripped Spain of west Florida, on the grounds that the territory was included in the Louisiana Purchase. Those were shaky grounds, legally speaking. Under the terms of Napoleon’s treaty with Spain, the French emperor had had no right to sell any Spanish territory in the New World in the first place.

    But that didn’t matter. The Americans chose to interpret the thing as they did, and the Spanish had no real military power to oppose them. Everyone knew it was only a matter of time before the United States would move on to seize east Florida, which had definitely not been included in the purchase. The only way the Spanish could resist was to become—whether they liked it or not—the legal proxies for the British Empire. Britain did have the power to fight the Americans along the gulf, and was quite willing to do so.

    Though they were in Pensacola as guests of the Spanish, however, the British commander Major Nicholls and his marines had behaved as if they were conquerors. They’d treated the Spanish populace far more roughly than Jackson had treated them in Mobile.

    The thing about Jackson that so many people failed to understand, Coffee reflected, was that his flamboyant reputation for violence had both a limit and— because of that limit—often redounded unexpectedly to his credit.

    The limit was simple: Jackson could be every bit as rough on his own as on anyone else. If he told his men they would refrain from any atrocities—even rudeness—then they would damn well obey him, or he’d have them shot. So, when people discovered that the terrible Jackson... wasn’t actually so bad once he got finally got there—could even be downright gracious and charming, if he chose—they had a tendency to flip-flop and declare him a fine fellow after all.

    The world was often an odd place. Oddest of all, perhaps, was the man sitting at the desk.

    By temperament, Andrew Jackson would have made a legendary tyrant.

    Not one like Nero or Caligula, to be sure, because there was nothing decadent about him. But he could certainly have matched Diocletian or Constantine. Or possibly even Genghis Khan, come down to it.

    Yet, for whatever quirk of fate—perhaps Providence, who knew?—the same man was imbued with deeply republican principles, and held to them just as rigidly as he did anything else.

    Jackson’s head turned away from the window. Then, suddenly, he grinned and slammed his hand down on the table.

    “It’s going well, finally. Have you read these yet?” The hand that had just slammed the table scooped up a batch of newspapers and dispatches.

    Coffee shook his head. “I haven’t had the chance, General. Although I’ve heard the gist of them, of course.” He grinned himself. “Who hasn’t?”

    “Who hasn’t indeed? Ha! One of our boys, the hero of the hour.” Jackson began reading one of the newspapers. From the quick and easy way his eyes scanned the print, it was obvious he’d read it several times before. Savored it, more precisely.

    “He chose to defend the Capitol, you know,” Jackson gloated. “A Republican, that boy, through and through.”

    “Yes, sir, I heard.”

    “They made him a colonel, too. That must have been Monroe’s doing. Madison would have waffled, as always, and Armstrong’s useless.” Jackson cleared his throat. The sound had a certain gloating quality to it also. “Was useless, I should say.”

    Coffee raised an eyebrow. Jackson smiled at him. “Yes, of course. If you haven’t read the dispatches—the newspaper accounts rather—you wouldn’t know. It seems the good John Armstrong is resigning as secretary of war. Monroe’s to replace him.”

    Coffee looked out the window. That was certainly good news.“Then who’s to be the secretary of state?”

    Jackson shrugged. “Nothing’s definite. If the newspapers are to be believed, Monroe will remain on for a time as the acting secretary. But he’ll be devoting himself primarily to the War Department.”

    Better and better.

    It was a sunny day outside, which matched the mood in the room. Both Coffee and Jackson thought rather highly of James Monroe. They didn’t know him that well, true, but Monroe had always been the main voice in the Madison administration calling for strengthening America’s military forces. And, for an easterner, he was unusually sensitive to the situation of the settlers in the West.

    Jackson cleared his throat again. The sound, this time, lacked the earlier gloating quality. Again, he held up a newspaper. “You should know also that Houston’s Cherokees apparently participated in the fight with him. That Lieutenant John Ross is named specifically in several of these accounts. It seems he’s even become one of Monroe’s aides. He got a promotion, also, to captain—as did one other officer. Fellow by the name of Driscol.”

“Don’t know him,” Coffee grunted.

    “Neither do I. They even jumped him to major, from first lieutenant.” Sourly, now: “And it’s no brevet rank, either.”

    Coffee thought it was best to move past that issue. Jackson was disgruntled that his recent promotion to major general had been a brevet rank only. His permanent rank in the regular U.S. Army was to be that of brigadier. There was a good chance that Jackson’s major generalship would become permanent, since rumors continued to swirl that Harrison would resign. That would free up one of the major generalships authorized by Congress—and Jackson would be the one to get it.

    But, for the moment, he was still prickly on the subject.

    “This Driscol must have done superbly well for himself in the battle,” Coffee commented hurriedly.

    “I suppose.” Then, shaking his head as if to clear it of unworthy thoughts, Jackson went on: “Must have, yes. Not surprising, though. It seems Driscol was one of Scott’s men at the Chippewa. Lost an arm there. That certainly speaks well of him. Very well.”

    Coffee’s eyes widened. Jackson’s approbation, he knew, didn’t come from the missing arm itself. Limbs were lost in battle, it was a given. An honorable matter, certainly, but no more than that. But the Chippewa had occured early in July and the battle at the Capitol late in August . . .

    Coffee did the calculations almost instantly. “Good heavens. Seven weeks after losing an arm, he helps lead a successful battle against British regulars? The man must be tough as iron.”

    “So it would seem,” Jackson said. Whatever resentments he might have felt earlier were gone now.

    “Pity we don’t have him down here,” Coffee said. “We could use him.”

    “Oh, but we will!” Jackson was back to grinning, and, once again, slammed the table with his hand. “Well, if the newspaper accounts are accurate—which is always a dubious proposition. But, if they are, Houston—Colonel Houston now, remember—is to lead a force down here to join us. Most of them volunteers, of course, but it’ll include a unit of artillery—regulars, John, mind you. The Lord knows we could use them! And apparently this Major Driscol will be serving as his executive officer.”

    That was very good news. If the intelligence they had was accurate, Admiral Cochrane would be bringing somewhere close to ten thousand British regulars to invade and conquer New Orleans and the outlet of the Mississippi. To oppose them, Jackson would have a force no larger, most of which was made up of militia units. One of the most ragtag assemblages of odd bits and pieces in the history of military affairs would have to fend off an equal or superior number of Wellington’s veterans, possibly the best soldiers in the world.

“What about the Cherokees, General?”

    Jackson shrugged. “Ross will be coming with them. But whether Houston can convince Major Ridge or any of the other chiefs, who knows?” He tapped the papers on his desk. “They’ll be passing through Cherokee Territory, apparently. I assume Houston planned it that way to give him a last chance to persuade them to renew the alliance.”

    Jackson rose from the desk and went to stand before the window, his bony hands clasped behind his back. “He’ll be a problem for me, you know. Houston, I mean.”

    Coffee was one of Jackson’s closest intimates, so he understood the meaning of that cryptic remark. He glanced at the pile of papers on the desk. Buried somewhere in that mass would be stiff notes from the War Department, scolding Jackson for having assumed far too much authority in his sweeping land grab from the Creeks.

    Buried at the very bottom, no doubt. The general had simply ignored the letters. The Treaty of Fort Jackson was now an accomplished fact. Whether the jittery authorities in Washington liked it or not, Jackson had persuaded the Creek chiefs—coerced them, to speak honestly; they’d been voluble in their protests at the time—to cede twenty-three million acres to the United States. That was enough to enlarge the state of Georgia by a fifth, and enough to create most of the proposed new state of Alabama. Already, settlers would be moving onto the land—and once they did, no power on earth could dislodge them. Coffee doubted if even the tsar of All the Russias had an army big enough to do so. The United States certainly didn’t.

    It was an unfortunate turn of affairs for the Creeks, of course. Coffee, by nature a more genial person than Jackson, felt a moment’s sympathy for the tribe. But only a moment’s. At bottom, he viewed the matter the same way Jackson did. The growth of the United States was the world’s best hope for republicanism—now more than ever, with Napoleon broken and the British installing monarchical regimes all across Europe. If that required dislodging a few barbarian tribes from their land, then so be it.

    There was other land for them to the west, across the Mississippi, to take from other barbarian tribes. And why not? They’d been doing it for centuries. The Creeks, like the Cherokees, were a tribe that had migrated into the area from the North, breaking and swallowing other tribes that had stood in their way. They could do it again, if they chose.

    They’d have no choice, anyway, because Jackson would drive them out. All of them, allies as well as enemies. He’d bide his time, where he had to, to deal with political opposition. But he’d discussed his long-term plans with Coffee, and Coffee knew Jackson would never swerve from them. Sooner or later, he’d drive all the southern tribes across the Mississippi—the Cherokees and Choctaws and Chickasaws who’d fought alongside him just as surely as the Creeks and Seminoles who’d fought against him.

    Indians who chose to remain as individuals could do so, but there’d no longer be any independent Indian statelets east of the Mississippi, to challenge the authority of the new state governments that would emerge as the United States expanded its territory.

    It was a cold-blooded plan. Even a treacherous one, looked at from one angle. But Jackson was willing to be cold-blooded, and his loyalties were to his own nation. Because, in the process, the United States would become a power encompassing a third of a continent. If they could defeat Britain in the current war, then drive the Spanish out of the Floridas altogether—that was Jackson’s plan, whether the government in Washington fiddle-faddled or not—the security of the nation would be assured. Canada could be ignored, thereafter. Give the thing another two or three generations, and the American republic would be so powerful it could thumb its nose at all the kings and noblemen of Europe.

    That said . . .

    “You can’t be sure what he’ll do, General.”

    Jackson chuckled. “Yes, I can. You watch, John. The only thing that will stop Sam Houston from becoming a monstrous headache for me will be his own ambition. I’ll wave the rose of fortune under his nose, of course, when the time comes. But ...I don’t think he’ll take it. The boy who stormed the barricade at the Horseshoe Bend would have. But the young man who defended the Capitol? No. I don’t think so.”

    His tone was one of complete satisfaction. Jackson turned back from the window, hands still clasped, and peered at Coffee past slightly lowered brows.

    “You watch,” he repeated. Gloating over the words. “He’ll refuse the rose.”

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