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Rivers of War: Snippet Twenty Five

       Last updated: Wednesday, March 9, 2005 22:00 EST



THE RIVERS OF WAR – snippet 25:

    That evening, after Driscoll had finished stripping the hides off the squad that had done such a slovenly job of executing their assigned deserter, the sergeant went to visit the brigadier. Scott had instructed him to make an appearance after the men were settled down.

    Scott wasn’t one of those officers who made a show of sleeping in a tent like his men, at least not when the army was camped at a proper base. There’d been a farmhouse on the grounds, vacated by its residents. Two years of fighting on the contested soil that lay between the United States and Canada had left half the towns on either side of the border nothing much more than burned shells. The house, however, remained intact, and the brigadier had cheerfully sequestered the building and turned it into his headquarters.

    Most of the soldiers of the Army of the Niagara had ascribed that action to Scott’s desire to sleep in a real bed, and eat his meals off a real table. There was some truth to that, of course, but Sergeant Driscol knew that Scott’s principal motive had been more straightforward. The brigadier was bound and determined to make full and proper use of the months he’d had since General Brown had turned command over to him, while Brown himself returned to his headquarters at Sackets Harbor. Scott had used those months, that blessed lull in the fighting, to train an American army that, for the first time since the war began, had a real chance of matching British regulars in a battle on the open field.

    Scott was a superb trainer of troops, as efficient with the business as he was energetic. Efficiency, however, meant that his headquarters was exactly that—a military headquarters, not a lounging area for officers looking to idle away the day in chitchat, and the evenings in drinking bouts.

    So the brigadier had his featherbed, and ate on his table. But most of the farmhouse was devoted to keeping and maintaining the records of the army’s training, supplies, and sanitation. And God help the subordinate officer whom Scott discovered using the headquarters for any purpose other than that.

    The sentry ushered Driscol into the room that served Scott as a combination study and chamber he used for discussions he wanted to keep private. Then the man left to find the brigadier and tell him the sergeant had arrived.

    While he waited, Driscol took the time to admire Scott’s bookcase. That bookcase had become famous, in its own way—notorious to the soldiers who got the assignment of lugging it around. It was five feet tall, solidly built and heavy, and contained the brigadier’s impressive military library. Scott took it everywhere he went—except directly into battle, of course.

    As with so many things about Winfield Scott, the library was contradictory. On the one hand, the thing could be looked upon as an extravagant affectation. On the other hand . . .

    Scott had read the books in that library. Done more than simply read them—he’d studied them thoroughly and systematically, with a mind that was acute and a memory that was well-nigh phenomenal. Each and every one of them: the writings of the great French military engineer Vauban, Frederick the Great’s Principes Généraux de la Guerre, Guibert’s Essai Général de Tactique along with several other French military manuals, Wolfe’s Instructions to Young Officers, and dozens of other volumes relevant to the duties of an officer. Many of them were biographies of great military leaders of the past.

    When Sergeant Driscol had first showed up in Scott’s camp, he’d been astonished to discover that Scott was organizing and drilling his men using the same principles and methods that Driscol himself had learned in Napoleon’s army. Granted, the brigadier’s grasp of those methods was a bit on the academic side, but he’d been ready enough—even eager—to modify them in light of the practical suggestions made by Driscol and the handful of other men in the Army of the Niagara who had experience with European wars.

    If Scott could be prickly in his dealings with other officers—and he could--he was never prickly dealing with competent sergeants. Driscol had also noted that Scott’s abusiveness toward other officers was usually well deserved, and that the often-rude brigadier could get along quite well with officers who showed a fighting spirit.

    General Wilkinson had been a sluggard, not to mention a thief, even if it had been most impolitic for Scott to say so publicly. And if Scott had initially been abrasive toward General Jacob Brown because he felt—correctly—that Brown was an amateur from the New York militia who’d been jumped over him due to political connections, he’d warmed to the man after Brown had demonstrated that he was willing to fight the British, instead of finding reasons to avoid them.

    Since then, in fact, Scott and Brown had developed quite a friendly and productive relationship.

    Driscol’s musings were interrupted by the brigadier’s voice, coming from the door.

    “I’ve told you before, Sergeant, you’re welcome to borrow any of those books should you choose to do so. Just make sure you bring them back in good condition.”

    Driscol turned and saluted. “’Twould be a waste, sir. I know my letters, well enough, for practical matters. But those writings are a bit beyond me, much as I can admire them from a distance. I’m afraid my schooling was interrupted— permanently, as things turned out—by Lord Cornwallis. May he and all his ilk rot in hell.”

    Scott’s eyes tightened slightly. The brigadier was six feet four inches tall, with a well-built frame and a head so handsome it would have suited an ancient statue. For a moment, as he peered down at the squat, broad-shouldered sergeant who was almost eight inches shorter than he was—and whose visage no classic sculptor would have even considered for a model—he resembled a refined aristocrat casting a cold eye upon a crude peasant.

    It was all Driscol could do not to laugh. Despite the ease of his working relationship with Scott, the two men were very far apart in the way they looked upon matters other than military. Winfield Scott was as close as Americans ever got to having a nobility, born as he’d been into the Virginia gentry. And, leaving aside his birth, Scott’s social and political attitudes were such that many people accused him of being a barely veiled Federalist in a poorly fitting Republican costume.

    The sergeant, on the other hand, possessed—gloried in, rather—the kind of ferociously egalitarian ideology that made any proper Federalist splutter with indignation. Like all United Irishmen, Driscol had been weaned on the ideals of the French Revolution, and after his emigration to the United States, he’d promptly sided with the radical wing of Jeffersonian democracy. Insofar as he favored any American political figures, the most promising of the lot looked to be that notorious southerner Andrew Jackson. The man was said to be a maniac—by the gentility, at least, which was always a promising sign.

    And, needless to say, Driscol lifted his glass in salute once a year, on July 11. The anniversary of the day when Aaron Burr shot Alexander Hamilton dead in a duel, before the Federalist schemer could foist a new aristocracy on the great American republic.

    The brigadier issued a little exasperated sigh. “Irishmen and their feuds,” he muttered. Manfully, and as befitted a mere sergeant, Driscol refrained from pointing out that the record of personal feuds between officers in the U.S. Army made Irish history look like a chronicle of brotherly love. As frequently as the brigadier himself participated in those follies, he was by no means the worst offender, either.

    Something of Driscol’s sarcastic thoughts must have shown on his face, though, because Scott’s glower was replace by a wry smile. “Though I suppose the fault can be found elsewhere, as well.” The brigadier clasped his hands behind his back and leaned forward.

    “Patrick,” he said, lapsing into rare informality, “I will repeat my offer. Just say the word, and I’ll get you a commission.”

    Driscol gave his head a little shake. “No, sir. Thank you, but no. I’m a natural sergeant, and the rank suits me fine. Besides . . .”

    He hesitated, gauging Scott’s temper. Then, with a shrug so slight it was barely perceptible, plowed on. “If I were an officer, I’d be duty bound to treat British prisoners—especially officers—with respect and courtesy. That would be, ah...difficult.”

    Again, the brigadier issued an exasperated sigh. But he didn’t press the matter. Scott was something of an Anglophile, as was commonly true for Americans of his class. But he had enough intelligence to understand that the world looked different to someone who’d seen his father tortured to death at the orders of British officers.


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