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Council of Fire: Chapter Eighteen

       Last updated: Thursday, October 3, 2019 05:40 EDT



Part III: Concentration

May, 1759

It is not so easy for a bellicose nation to turn its back upon war.

–Sir Charles Saunders, Memoirs, 1778

Every place will have its haunted past

New York

    George Baker wanted to pace. It was his quarterdeck, damn it, and it was one of the few places aboard Magnanime that he actually could walk any distance without exchanging salutes, ducking his head or running into something: rank had its privileges.

    But it would not do to turn his back on a Prince of the Blood, even if he was of an inferior naval rank. That was especially true when he was asking permission for something that, truthfully, he could have chosen to do without Baker’s consent.

    “You don’t need my permission, Your Highness.”

    “I know that, Captain. But it seems inappropriate for an officer and gentleman to choose a course without at least consulting his senior.”

    “My seniority is tenuous at best, especially now.”

    “I actually would have thought the opposite.” The young man allowed himself a slight smile. “If England is now no longer part of the world we occupy, I don’t see why we should be treated any differently. Of course, what I want to do flies in the face of that pragmatism.”

    “I don’t think General Amherst will have any hesitation in dealing with you as befits your rank, Your Highness. Whether England is a few weeks’ or a few years’ sail away, you are a prince of the realm–and that counts for a great deal.”

    “He is more than twice my age, Captain Baker. He was a soldier with my grandfather when I was soiling my small-clothes. What’s more, his country needs him.”

    “Your country needs you as well, Prince. In fact, it needs you very much–and I am very concerned that you might be exposed to unnecessary danger.”

    “From General Amherst?”

    “No, no–good God, not from the general. But these are the colonies. Untamed lands, unruly places. We were told what is going on in Massachusetts-Bay as a result of the event, but who knows what awaits us in New York?”

    “Salem is a singular case–the witch-trial events linger on–”

    “I beg your pardon, Your Highness, but every place will have its haunted past. New York had a revolt against His Majesty’s Government at about the same time as the witch trials: a man named Leisler led it. He was executed for treason. And less than twenty years ago, about the time Your Highness was learning to walk, New York suffered a violent slave revolt. What if the–what if the event has stirred up memories from those events? Who knows what awaits us in New York? I am hesitant that Your Highness’ person should be subjected to such risks.”

    “So I am to be kept safely aboard Magnanime, away from all danger? How do you propose to carry that out, Captain? It is neither practical nor sensible.”

    Baker did not answer. He resisted the temptation to turn and pace, but instead stared past Prince Edward out at sea, where the southern coast of Long Island lay against the horizon.

    “I beg your pardon, Captain,” the prince said. “It is improper for me to speak thus to my commanding officer.”

    Baker couldn’t decide what made him more uncomfortable, the junior officer’s tone or the prince’s apology.

    “As an officer under my command, General Amherst has no reason to take your counsel–or, indeed, even to receive you. But as Prince Edward of England, he cannot fail to do so. As it is necessary for him to be impressed with the earnest of our situation, you are much more important in the latter role than in the former.

    “I grant permission, of course,” he said. “And while I would prefer that you and General Wolfe meet with General Amherst aboard Magnanime for your own safety, I agree that since you are my junior officer, you could not represent the Crown properly without going ashore.”

    “Thank you, sir.”

    “Don’t thank me for that, Highness. From what little I know of General Amherst, he will not take kindly to being summoned.”



    If it had been up to him–as he had said at various times, in the appropriate company–Jeffery Amherst would rather have been holding a plough at his family’s estate at Riverhead than receive all the honors that had been given him in the New World.

    By the limited standards of America, New York was fine enough. One of the great “cities,” along with Philadelphia, Boston and Charles Town, but a world away from London or even Bristol or York. It was scarcely more than a town, compared to Paris or Madrid or even Edinburgh. But it was his headquarters; he had spent the winter here, trying to pick up the shattered pieces of the 1758 campaign, which–other than their triumph in the Maritimes–had been an utter disaster. He had come to that conclusion after touring the battlefield near the French fort of Carillon the previous October; Abercromby had made a hash of what should have been a straightforward campaign–he had not only failed to take the key strongpoint, he had wasted good, capable men in doing it. Scots, admittedly, not the most reliable sons of the Empire, but hard, veteran soldiers all the same.

    Amherst had reviewed the troops who remained at Halifax and then returned here to New York to prepare for the coming campaign, now confirmed as commander in chief of His Majesty’s Forces in North America. There had been nothing for it but to wait for reinforcement; though instead of good old Edward Boscawen, the Admiralty had informed him that the new expedition would be led by Admiral Saunders . . . and would include James Wolfe, who had sailed back to England in late summer in what Amherst could only describe as a huff.

    And now . . . word had come from Halifax, and reports had arrived from sea, indicating that something had happened–some terrible storm, or irruption, or–a variety of other things that Amherst discounted as seamen’s imagination. There were apparently no reinforcements for his planned campaign up the Hudson River, and none to force their way up the Saint Lawrence toward Québec. He was expecting to get an accurate report from Wolfe. What he was not expecting was a demand (disguised as a “request”) to present himself to a young prince who was part of the Halifax expedition.

    There was no alternative but to appear in his best dress uniform and to offer his politest bow and sharpest salute. And then there would be a more detailed discussion.



    Amherst and his staff were waiting as the carriage halted outside Fort George. A dress-uniformed lieutenant opened the door and held it as Prince Edward and General James Wolfe disembarked. Salutes were exchanged, and the two visitors turned toward the gate of the fort. Two staff officers stepped down to the cobbles on their own.

    To Amherst, the prince looked composed and calm, showing considerable dignity for a young man his age. Wolfe’s angular face was tilted, his nose pointed upward as if he was sniffing the New York air. It seemed almost rude–about what he would have expected from the younger officer.

    The visitors approached and the prince and general offered Amherst smart salutes.

    “Your Royal Highness,” Amherst said. “You honor us with your visit.” And to Wolfe, he nodded and said, “General.”

    Wolfe looked ready to respond, but wisely waited for the prince to speak.

    “I wish we were here under more auspicious circumstances, General Amherst,” Prince Edward said. “General Wolfe and I are eager to apprise you of current events.” He paused and looked from Wolfe to Amherst. “But perhaps first . . . one of your subordinates could give me a brief tour of this excellent fort.”

    Amherst took a moment to respond, then beckoned to the lieutenant who had received the carriage. “Show His Highness our disposition, if you please,” he ordered, which shortly left him alone with Wolfe.

    “General,” Wolfe said.

    “General,” Amherst answered. “I suppose I should congratulate you on your advancement.”

    “Does it trouble you, sir?”

    “Does it matter whether it troubles me or not? I confess to being surprised, Wolfe. I would have thought that your rather abrupt attitude regarding my strategic decisions would have kept you from being considered for any sort of advancement.”

    “Apparently others disagree,” Wolfe sniffed. “But in any case, it hardly matters now. We had our chance to defeat the French last summer, General, and that was our last opportunity. The world is fundamentally changed now.”



    “I don’t take your meaning.”

    Wolfe explained, in the simplest terms he could manage, what they had seen and heard since the crossing of the Atlantic several weeks earlier, including their experience aboard Neptune and the accounts given by the men of Magnanime. It was given in a tone that stopped just short of insolence; but Amherst listened intently. Wolfe was headstrong, impetuous and dismissive of those with whom he had disputes, but he was also intelligent, brave and had no reason whatsoever to dissemble.

    “This is . . . very disturbing news,” Amherst said at last. “An extended breach of contact with home will certainly affect our ability to defeat the enemy.”

    “By which you mean the French.”

    “Of course. Who else do you consider the enemy, General? Aren’t we here in America to fight the French?”

    “Yes, of course. But I don’t know how we should be expected to proceed. We assumed that this year we would have several thousand troops to prosecute the war–here in New York, in the Maritimes, and wherever else. Those men are gone. They are either beyond the new boundary or have drowned in the Atlantic. Whatever we do, whatever we wish to do, will have to be done without them.”

    “And what, if anything, do you advise?”

    “I think we have two choices, sir. We either use all of our forces to prosecute the campaign right away. After all, the French will be as isolated as we are, and we have the advantage of numbers.”

    “And the second alternative?”

    “Though it pains me to say it, General Amherst, the other choice is to seek an armistice.”

    “Our king has not authorized us to negotiate anything of the sort.”

    “Our king . . .” Wolfe looked away toward Prince Edward, who was carefully examining a field piece in the company of a young lieutenant. “General Amherst, from the time the event occurred, I believe that the mantle of kingship descended upon that young man. We may never see our sovereign again–but in the meanwhile, we have someone who may have to take his place.”



    If Amherst were of a different character, it might have rankled him to think that Wolfe was right about the stark choice presented by the events the younger man had described. But personal animus, he knew, must always bow before pragmatic necessity.

    With staff assembled and at least some of the stiff parade-ground uniform dispensed with, he outlined the situation in detail for Prince Edward.

    “We have half a thousand Blues from New Jersey, and about a quarter of the promised five thousand provincials from Pennsylvania. I would have none of them, of course, if I had not threatened to withdraw garrisons from their Ohio forts–the Quakers would rather stand by and watch their colony be overrun than take a musket in their hands and defend their hearth.

    “In addition, there are nearly two thousand New Yorkers, with another thousand currently encamped near Albany, and a thousand men from Connecticut. The promised troops from Massachusetts have not arrived. I expect that the events in Salem you describe–” Amherst gave the slightest of nods to Wolfe–“have delayed, or possibly even prevented, their departure.”

    “What about regulars, General?” the prince asked.

    “The 17th, 27th, 53rd and 55th are at Albany, along with some artillery and rangers.”


    “Irregular forces, Your Highness,” Amherst replied. “Under the command of Major Rogers, an . . . unusually skilled woodsman. They are used for scouting and special missions. Invaluable man, though his methods are somewhat unorthodox.”

    Wolfe looked uncomfortable at the idea–whether it was due to the described method of warfare, or the fact that the man was a provincial, Amherst wasn’t sure. Wolfe had made some extremely uncharitable observations about Americans during the previous summer’s campaign.

    He’d best get used to them, Amherst thought. They are our countrymen and neighbors now.

    “In any case,” Amherst continued, “I do not know when these forces will be ready to embark. My supplies are not yet prepared, and I do not have most of my American troops in camp.”

    “If I may ask,” Wolfe said archly, “what is your best estimate of an embarkation date?”

    “Mid-June, perhaps.”

    “That is nearly two months from now,” Prince Edward said quietly. “With respect, General, many things may have changed by then.”

    “With respect, Highness,” Amherst answered, “if General Wolfe’s conjectures and observations as well as your own portray the situation correctly, then this is the only army I am likely to have. As he has pointed out to me, the circumstances of our isolation apply equally to the enemy. There is no reason to deploy our forces prematurely or to act peremptorily.

    “Carillon, and its garrison, will still be there whenever we arrive to besiege it. I have every intention of meeting it with adequate force and proper supplies and accomplish my task with deliberation, instead of failing it with unnecessary haste as my predecessor clearly did. That was the command of my king, and I will fulfill it . . . unless ordered otherwise.”

    There was a long pause, and Amherst focused his attention on the royal prince seated before him. When he finished speaking, Edward was looking intently at the map of the Hudson Valley; but as the room remained quiet, he looked up at Amherst, meeting him gaze for gaze.

    “I think it would be improper to change those orders at this time, General,” the prince said at last.

    Yet he does not abdicate the authority to do so in the future, Amherst thought. Interesting.

    “What is the situation of the troops at Albany, General?” Wolfe asked.

    “I only know what my dispatches tell me,” Amherst answered. “Perhaps you might wish to inspect their disposition yourself.”

    “Are you proposing to send me to Albany, sir?”

    “It is within my authority, sir,” Amherst snapped back. “But as you may in some way be obliged to His Highness, I would be more inclined to make it a request. I am sure we would both benefit from the direct observation of a trained military man.”

    Wolfe appeared to be ready with a response, but Prince Edward held up his hand.

    “I beg your pardon,” he said slowly and deliberately, not taking his eyes from Amherst. “As your expected deployment date is several weeks hence, General, I would assume that it would be possible to travel to Albany and back in the interim and obtain first-person intelligence. Am I correct? I do not have more than a very . . . superficial knowledge of this country’s geography. Every stretch of land seems unutterably vast.”

    “It is a week’s journey by boat up the river, now that spring has come,” Amherst said. “Perhaps five days’ ride, though that might be strenuous. A hundred and fifty miles.”

    “I assume one man on horseback could make better time than that,” Wolfe said.

    “Two men,” the prince said, placing his hand on his breast.

    “More than two men,” Amherst said, before Wolfe had a chance to reply. “If His Highness is determined to go by horse or riverboat to Albany, he will be accompanied by a troop of soldiers.”

    “That will slow the trip down considerably,” Wolfe said. “General–”

    “I brook no disagreement. A prince of the House of Hanover traveling with only one companion through the wilds of the Colony of New York? Preposterous.”

    “The . . . ‘wilds of the Colony of New York,’ General? This land was settled more than a century ago. Surely–”

    “It does not matter, Wolfe. We are at war; the wild part of the colony commences as soon as you pass beyond the Haarlem village. Your Highness says he does not understand the vastness of America? Well, here it is–on display, not a half-hour’s ride from where we sit.

    “So, surely not, Wolfe. No royal person will be traveling anywhere, including within the boundaries of this city, unless he is escorted in a manner that befits his station. Am I understood?”



    In the end, it was only two dozen men from the 40th, which had in part accompanied the prince to New York, who were detailed to ride with him and General Wolfe to Albany. It was less than Amherst wanted to send; he knew that Wolfe was impetuous, and eager to be in action–but he recognized the need for the group to move quickly and conceded.

    Still, as they rode away from New York the following morning, a fifer playing “God Save the King,” Amherst felt a palpable dread.

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