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Rivers of War: Snippet Thirty

       Last updated: Monday, March 14, 2005 22:00 EST



THE RIVERS OF WAR – snippet 30:

    “We’ll let them fire the first volley,” Scott announced.

    Driscol nodded and walked off. He wasn’t entirely sure himself that was the right thing to do, but . . .

    Maybe. That first hammering volley was a treasure for an army, to be sure. But if it was fired that little bit too soon, it wouldn’t have any effect on well-trained troops except to prove to them that they could stand up to it. Thereafter, the force that had taken the first blow and rebounded had that little extra edge to their confidence.

    And that was what it was all about, in the end. Confidence. For all the intricacy of the firing movements and the endless training it took to get men to do it properly in the midst of carnage, musket battles on an open field—where one line of men hammered at another at point-blank range—could only be described as sheer brutality. Driscol wasn’t a learned man, but he knew something of the history of warfare. He didn’t think there was really anything like it, unless you went back over two thousand years to the days of the Greek hoplites.

    To win such battles, one thing was needed above all. The confidence—say better, arrogance—of Achilles and Ajax. Pain and suffering and wounds were irrelevant. All that mattered was that you did not break.


    You died, but you did not break.


    Once he got back to his position, he decided to brighten up the spirits of the troops a bit more.

    If you break, I will hound you to the gates of Hell. If you waver, I will rend your flesh. If you hesitate—


    “Oh, just shut up, will you?” McParland hissed under his breath. But he held his musket at precisely the right angle when he said it. The musket was properly loaded, and the ramrod back in its place.


    By an odd quirk of the air, that little hiss made its way to the sergeant’s ears. It was all Driscol could do not to laugh aloud. His exhortations had succeeded in their purpose. The spirits of the troops were as bright as the sunshine. In a manner of speaking.


    The British fired the first volley. When the smoke cleared, Major General Riall watched the American forces maneuvering calmly to close the gaps left by the dead and wounded. Then he saw the first American volley coming like a thunderclap, with none of the raggedness he’d expected.

    He rose up in his saddle.

    “Those aren’t militiamen. By God, those are regulars!”

    One of his aides shook his head. “We still have them outnumbered, sir.”

    “So we do. Still and all, I wouldn’t have thought Cousin Jonathan had it in him.”


    Some part of McParland’s brain was astonished to discover that he was still alive. The man right next to him had been smashed flat.

    The British had a small battery of nine guns with them. From the quantity of gore splattered all over McParland, the young soldier assumed his mate had been hit by a grapeshot and not a musket ball. There was something sticking to the seventeen-year-old’s trouser leg that looked like a piece of intestine.

    But he didn’t have time to think about it. McParland brought his musket up on command. Noting, in some odd, new, confident part of his brain, that all of his mates had brought their muskets up at exactly the same time, and at exactly the same level. He could see them out of the corners of his eyes. Not as men, really, but simply as an endless gray line. Like a short cliff, standing on a plain. He didn’t aim the musket, of course. Just leveled it and pointed it in the general direction of the enemy. He pulled the trigger when he heard the troll’s command.



    To Sergeant Driscoll, that first volley fired by his own men was like a taste of the finest whiskey. In times past, he’d always been able to tell the difference between an American and a British volley, just by the sound alone. British volleys were as they should be: crisp, like thunderbolts. American volleys were altogether different; haphazard gusts trying to match a hurricane.

    Not here.

    Not today.

    On the field of open battle, the volley reigned supreme. That wasn’t due to the tactics involved, but because a good volley reinforced what was essential in musket battles: confidence.

    A good, proper volley stiffened the men. A ragged one tore at their certainty. It was as simple as that. Musket battles were won by morale, not bullets.


    When the smoke cleared, McParland saw that the troll was still standing there, untouched by the carnage. He wasn’t surprised. McParland thought the troll probably had a magical shield that deflected enemy musket balls and grapeshot. Or maybe it was simply that the lead bullets were terrified of him, too.


    McParland went through the motions, easily, quickly. He discovered that the concentration needed to reload a musket kept his mind off anything else.

    Step forward! Ten paces!

    Somewhere in the middle of those paces, another British volley ripped through the ranks. McFarland saw a nearby soldier clutch his face with both hands, spilling his musket to the ground. An instant later, blood was gushing through the fingers and the man toppled next to his musket. There was no hole in the back of his head, but, from the completely limp and lifeless look of the body, McParland was pretty sure the big musket ball had jellied the man’s brains.

    But the teenager didn’t really think about it. His mind was entirely focused on the need to close ranks to make good the gaps. Between them, over the months, Brigadier Scott and his troll of a master sergeant had trained McParland to do, and do, and do—and never to think. Not in a battle.


    “I want that battery taken out, Captain! Do you hear me? Move your three guns forward. Charge them if you have to, but get close enough to take them out with canister!”

    For all the fury of his words, Scott’s tone was lively. Almost cheerful. Captain Nathan Towson was a good artillery officer, and Scott was confident that he’d get the job done.

    He had other things on his mind, anyway. Porter’s Third Brigade had been beaten, and they were in full flight out of the woods. Scott had to protect his now-exposed left flank.

    “Major Jesup! Take your Twenty-fifth Regiment and swing them around to cover the left!”

    Jesup was another good officer. Scott seemed to collect them like a magnet, in time of war.


    It was going well. Driscol could tell, from long experience, despite not being able to see much due to the gun smoke that now obscured most of the field. The men had suffered casualties, but had kept moving forward despite them— and, now, with ever-growing confidence that they could do so.

    So, another volley.

    It was a given that men died in battles, winners and losers both. Victory was all that mattered.



    McParland wondered—not until he’d pulled the trigger, of course—how the troll managed to project his voice so well in the middle of a battle. The words were quite clear, even crisp—quite unlike the monster’s normal rasp, which had always reminded McParland of a dull saw hitting a knot in a log.

    That penetrating voice, in fact, was the only thing McParland had heard clearly since the battle began. Abstractly, he’d known that battles would be noisy affairs. But the reality made the word “noisy” seem meaningless. It was like being in the middle of a thunderstorm, except the clouds were light instead of dark. The volleys came like flashes of lightning. And with white gun smoke hanging everywhere, McParland couldn’t usually see more than fifteen feet in any direction.


    Step forward! Ten paces!


    “Good God.”

    Major General Phineas Riall stared at the battlefield. Four volleys had been exchanged, each at ever-closer range, and the American forces hadn’t so much as wavered. If anything, their volleys were even surer than those of the British.

    An aide next to him made a slight shake of the head. Riall had served in the British army for twenty years, and was as well trained as any British officer. But his service had been entirely in the West Indies.

    The aide, he recalled, had fought Napoleon’s army on the continent.


    Towson’s three guns along the Niagara were starting to silence the British battery. Scott peered at the other side of the field. Jesup and his Twenty-fifth had succeeded in anchoring the American left flank, but the movement had opened a gap in his lines. So Scott ordered McNair and his Ninth Regiment to move to the left. The fact remained that the British army was larger than his own, and there was no way Scott could match the lines without creating a gap somewhere. That was dangerous.

    On the other hand, Riall’s force had moved forward far enough that the British right was no longer anchored on the woods.

    There was a maneuver . . .

    Risky, of course, and not usually tried in a real battle. But if it was done well enough . . .

    “Yes,” Scott murmured. “In for a penny, in for a pound.”

    “Excuse me, sir?” asked one of his aides.

    Scott grinned. “I was just remarking that the whole point of fighting a battle is to win the thing. Let us do so, Lieutenant.

    “Take orders to Major McNair. Tell him I want the Ninth Regiment to keep moving left. When his forces meet up with Jesup’s, I want them to wheel inward, facing northeast. Riall’s right is hanging in the open, so McNair and Jesup should be able to bring enfilade fire on them, and roll up their flank. They’ll break.”

    The lieutenant hesitated a moment, before racing off with the orders. Even he could see that Scott’s maneuver was going to open a great, gaping hole in the center of the American force. If the British moved quickly enough, they’d smash through before the flanking attack could be brought to bear.

    In effect, Scott was gambling that his American army could outmaneuver a British army in the middle of a battle, while standing its ground against superior forces in what was now practically a point-blank contest of musket volleys.

    The lieutenant probably thought he was insane.


    “He’s insane!” snarled Riall. “What lunatic is in command over there?”

    “I suspect that’s Winfield Scott’s brigade, sir,” replied the aide. “He’s said to be bold. Even, ah, rash.”

    “He’s insane,” Riall repeated. “Send forward the Royal Scots and the One Hundredth Foot. We’ll smash this thing before it gets started.”

    One of the couriers raced off to give the command. The aide kept his own counsel. It was possible, of course, that Riall was right. But the aide couldn’t help remembering that the word “insane” had been applied quite often to Napoleon, as well.

    To be sure, in the end, they’d beaten Napoleon. But not before the madman had won a lot of battles.


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