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Chapter 22

"Good God!" Rear Admiral George Cockburn exclaimed gaily, as he peered through his telescope. "Your captain was quite right. They do have a statue perched in one of the doorways. Great ugly thing, too." He lowered the telescope, chuckling. "One must grant this much to Cousin Jonathan—he certainly has a flair for the dramatic."

General Robert Ross wasn't going to let the matter slide so easily as all that. "And was Captain Wainwright also correct in his other observations?"

He already knew the answer to the question, since Ross possessed his own telescope. But the question served to remind Admiral Cockburn that the task which Cockburn had so breezily assured everyone would be as easy as a London promenade was proving more difficult by the moment—and, from Ross's viewpoint, it was bad enough already.

Since Cockburn's only response was a twist of the lips, Ross plowed on.

"It's all very well, Admiral Cockburn, to make sneering jests about Cousin Jonathan's capacity for headlong and panicky flight. But it wasn't your sailors who paid the butcher's bill at Bladensburg. It was my men—and the bill was disturbingly steep."

"We won handily, didn't we?"

Ross restrained his temper. "Oh, to be sure, all the historians will say so, when this is all over and done. A decisive victory, indeed. But historians don't pay butcher's bills either. Resounding victory or not, the fact remains that the American casualties at Bladensburg were light, and the casualties of my infantry brigades were anything but."

Cockburn avoided the general's hard gaze. Annoyed still more, Ross pressed home his point.

"It might be true that Cousin Jonathan is prone to panic— though there's always the hammering Riall took recently on the Niagara to prove that needn't be so. But American infantrymen are also liable to be remarkably good shots, for the few rounds they manage to fire before running away. And whatever the shortcomings of American infantry—do I need to tell an admiral this much?—we've been continually surprised since the war began at the professional level of American artillery. If the enemy infantry is often feckless, the artillery almost never is. Commodore Barney's men proved it once again at Bladensburg. They were as staunch as they were deadly, too. At the end, some of them had to be bayoneted with the fuses still in their hands."

What is it about sailors, Ross wondered, that seems to make it necessary for them to keep learning the same lessons, over and over again? Did the citrus juice in the drinking water pickle their brains?

By now, one would think, they would have learned how perilous it was to underestimate American gunnery. Mighty the British navy might be, compared to the tiny upstart rival that Cousin Jonathan had put to sea in the war. Still, in engagement after engagement, the Americans had demonstrated that their gunnery, if nothing else, was consistently superior to British.

Cockburn still hadn't answered the original question. Ross cleared his throat. "Did you hear me, Admiral?"

"Yes, yes," Cockburn replied, waving his hand impatiently. "Cousin Jonathan does have some guns up there, as well."

"Among which are two twelve-pounders. And are they as well fortified and positioned as Captain Wainwright stated?"

Cockburn simply shrugged. As always, the rear admiral wasn't a man to let minor impediments stand in the way of his enthusiasms.

"Please, General Ross! You know as well as I do that the forces holding those grotesque buildings can't be more than the shattered fragments of disparate units. They'll have neither leadership nor morale, be sure of it."

"I am sure of no such thing!" Ross snapped. Courtesy toward naval colleagues was well and good, but there were limits. Ross was a general who, for all his skill and capability, was solicitous toward his men. He was willing enough to lose soldiers for a good purpose, but he balked at doing so simply because a bloody admiral had a pet peeve and was an arrogant ass to boot.

Even the admiral's choice of terms betrayed his invariant bigotry. "Grotesque." Ross himself thought the Capitol was quite majestic in its design and appearance, even if he was rather amused by the fact. The pugnacious little American republic was every bit as prone to erect grandiose public structures as any king or emperor of Europe.

He pointed at the edifice in question. "No doubt the Capitol is now manned by men from disparate units. But where do you conclude from this that their leadership and morale are wanting? I conclude the exact opposite. Somebody had to have rallied those men, and the men themselves will be self-selected by the very process."

"It's Cousin Jonathan, for the love of God!" Cockburn snapped angrily. "A windbag gave a speech and empty heads were swayed by it. What else do you expect from a sorry lot of republicans?"

It was all Ross could do not to roll his eyes. Sorry lot of republicans, was it? Like the same republicans who, not so many years ago in France, had sent packing every monarchical army that attacked them? The same sorry lot of republicans who, less than three months earlier, had broken superior British forces at the Chippewa?

There were times he found Cockburn well-nigh insufferable.

Alas, while Ross had become Cockburn's superior as soon as British forces set foot on land, he was still subordinate to Admiral Cochrane. And, alas again, Cochrane had supported Cock-burn every step of the way.

"The vice admiral wants those buildings taken, General Ross. Taken, then burnt to the ground."

Burnt to the ground—as if brick and stone were flammable substances! To be sure, Ross could wreck the Capitol, assuming he could take it in the first place. But without spending time and effort they couldn't afford to blow them up—not to mention a huge supply of powder, which they didn't possess either—there was no way that he could do more than have the buildings gutted by fire. If Cousin Jonathan was skilled enough to have erected that magnificent structure in the first place, he would certainly have it rebuilt soon enough after the British left.

And leave they would—and none too quickly to suit Ross. This raid concocted by admirals never would have worked at all if the American secretary of war hadn't been astonishingly slack at preparing his capital city against attack. In that regard, if nothing else, Ross would allow that the Navy's intelligence had been quite accurate.

Still, not even the admirals thought the British forces who had landed on the shores of Chesapeake Bay could possibly hold the area for any length of time. Cockburn and Ross had only a few thousand men under their command. By now, American reinforcements would be pouring toward Washington. Within a few days, if they didn't extricate themselves, the British would be swamped and forced to surrender.

Ross tightened his jaws with exasperation. The sole purpose of this flamboyant raid was to "make a demonstration." Of what? the general wondered. British talent for arson?

"Do you hear me, General?"

"Yes, I heard you, Admiral Cockburn."

"Look on the bright side, Robert," Cockburn said, smiling again. He pointed toward Ross's army. "We must outnumber them by at least three to one, even leaving aside the gross disparity in training and professionalism."

That... was true enough. Even Ross found some comfort, following the admiral's pointing finger. His soldiers were taking up their formations with experienced ease and skill. The red-coated ranks and files, with their shakos high and their bayonets higher still, seemed to ooze with confidence.

The problem was the terrain, combined with the solidity of the Capitol. For all practical purposes, the houses of the American legislature were a ready-made fortress. If Ross were meeting the enemy on an open field, he knew full well he'd brush them aside. But his own long experience in the peninsular campaign and other theaters in Europe had taught him just how difficult it could be to storm a fortress held by resolute and well-armed men. Disparity in number and skill be damned.

However, there was nothing for it. The attempt had to be made.

He took a long, deep breath. Then: "Very well. I'll order the assault."

"Are they mad?" General Winder bellowed. "I gave explicit orders for all units to abandon the capital and regroup here in Georgetown!"

His eyes ranged wildly about the tavern where he and several of the nation's cabinet had set up a temporary headquarters. More in the way of a momentary resting place, actually for the secretaries of war and the treasury.

President Madison and his cabinet had called a hasty emergency meeting at the president's mansion, after the disaster at Bladensburg. They had determined that the nation's executives would quickly disperse, lest the British invaders capture them all at one swoop. Madison, accompanied by Secretary of the Navy Jones and Attorney General Richard Rush, had already left Georgetown. His intended destination was Wiley's Tavern, some sixteen miles to the northwest, where the president's wife, Dolley, awaited him.

Secretary of War Armstrong and Secretary of the Treasury George Campbell had been about to leave the tavern when word arrived that forces of the United States were making a stand at the Capitol. They'd delayed their departure in order to discuss this unexpected turn of events with General Winder and Secretary of State Monroe.

"Who is in command over there?" Winder demanded. "I'll have him shot for insubordination and treason!"

Armstrong exchanged glances with James Monroe, who was sitting across the table from him. Despite the smoke and dim lighting in the tavern, Monroe's expression was clear enough. The secretary of state's tight jaws made it obvious that, had he the authority, he would be more inclined to have General Winder placed before that firing squad.

So would Armstrong himself, for that matter. He was a ruined man, and he knew it. He would accept responsibility for neglecting the capital's defenses, for which, in truth, he'd done little more than create the impressively named "Tenth Military District." But of all the poor decisions the secretary of war regretted, the one he regretted the most was having made William Winder the commanding general of the newly formed district.

It had seemed a clever enough idea, at the time. A former general himself, Armstrong hadn't really expected the British to attack the capital in the first place. So what did it matter which officer was placed in charge?

Armstrong still didn't understand the military logic behind their operation, in fact, since Baltimore offered a far more suitable target.

Rational or not, though, the British had chosen to attack Washington instead of Baltimore. General Winder had made a complete hash of the business, as one might expect from a man whose only previous military accomplishment had been his ignominious capture at the battle of Stoney Creek. Giving command of the Tenth Military District to Winder had seemed a sensible way at the time to enlist the political support of Maryland for strengthening the defenses of Baltimore. William Winder was a prominent attorney in Baltimore; better still, his uncle Levin Winder was the governor of Maryland. But Armstrong was deeply regretting that decision now.

All in the past.

"I can't undermine him now, James," Armstrong murmured softly to the secretary of state. "Bad as Winder might be, to shred the military chain of command under these circumstances would create the worst situation possible."

Monroe glared at Winder. The general took no notice, since he was far too preoccupied with roaring outrage and indignation and shouting threats of bloody punishment to be paying any attention to the cabinet members who were whispering at their table in the corner.

"You told him yourself the Capitol would make a splendid fortress," Monroe hissed to Armstrong. "And I agreed with you. Just a short time ago, when we all met there after that farce at Bladensburg."

Armstrong shrugged uncomfortably. True, he had. The fact had been obvious to anyone with real military experience. It had been equally obvious to Monroe, who'd fought in the Revolution. But Winder had been on the verge of hysteria, after Bladensburg, and Armstrong hadn't felt it possible to press the matter.

"What difference would it have made?" he asked Monroe softly. "Yes, the Capitol would have been a fine place to make a stand—but not under Winder. Certainly not in the condition he was in at the time. What was I to do, James? Relieve him on the spot? And who should I have replaced him with?"

Monroe sighed. "Curse the luck that Winfield Scott's wounds proved too grave for him to take the post."

Armstrong nodded. The brilliant young brigadier had been everyone's first choice for commander of the Tenth Military District. Unfortunately, the injuries Scott had received at Lundy's Lane were taking months to heal. The brigadier was still recuperating in New Jersey.

"We do what we can, James. The question that now faces us, is: What do we do?"

General Winder's bellows provided one answer.

"I'll have him shot! I swear I will! What is his name?"

A hesitant voice answered. It was the accountant, Simmons. "Huston, I believe. I'm not sure of his first name, General. Sam, maybe. He's got some wild injuns with him, too. Frightful-looking creatures."

"Well then, General Sam Huston will go before the wall! See if he won't!"

Armstrong frowned. He had a good memory for names, and there was no General Huston serving in the U.S. Army. Nor in any of the state militias, as far as he knew. And what would a group of Indians be doing accompanying a general, anyway?

He cocked an inquisitive eye at one of his secretaries, seated at the same table. The efficient young man was already flipping through the files he'd salvaged from the War Department.

"Huston, Huston," the clerk muttered. "There's no Huston of any rank in—oh, wait."


The clerk looked up. "There is an officer by the name of Sam Houston, sir. From Tennessee. He's in the Thirty-ninth Infantry, and apparently conducted himself very well at the Horseshoe Bend. But he's certainly not a general."

"What is he, then?"

The clerk looked back down at the file. "Well, there's some question about that. Technically, he's just an ensign. General Jackson gave him a field promotion to captain, but the recommendation hasn't yet been approved by the War Department."

Armstrong almost laughed at that, despite the circumstances. One of Jackson's frontier roughnecks, and an ensign to boot! It figured, though. Say what you would about Andrew Jackson, the man was a fighter. Had he been in command of the Tenth Military District, the British would have had to contest every inch of soil from the minute they landed.

Monroe and Armstrong looked at each other for a long moment. They weren't on good terms personally. None of the Virginians in Madison's cabinet had much of a liking for the secretary of war, who'd been a New York senator. Most of that was just typical Virginian clannishness, Armstrong supposed, though he'd allow that some of it was due to his own abrasive personality.

That, too, was all in the past. Armstrong's political career was finished. He'd be the one who'd take most of the blame for the disaster here, of that he was certain.

All that remained was to salvage what he could of his own honor.

"I can't undermine Winder, James," he repeated softly. "Until we've formally replaced him, we have to leave him in charge. At least publicly. Or we'll have pure chaos."

He gave Monroe a long look from lowered brows. It might almost be called an accusatory gaze; it was certainly a challenging one.

"That's because I'm the secretary of war, and therefore his direct superior. You, however, are not." With that, his voice took on a challenging note, and he peered expectantly at Monroe.

Who, in turn, stared back at Armstrong. Then, looked away for a few seconds. Then, looked back.

"Can you keep him distracted?"

Armstrong smiled thinly. "Oh, yes, James. That I can do. With Winder, it's not even difficult."

Monroe nodded. "I'll be off, then."

The secretary of state rose from the table and moved as quickly as he could toward the tavern entrance, without moving so quickly that Winder might notice his departure.

No fear of that, really. Winder was now bellowing the details of the firing squad, down to the caliber of the muskets. Armstrong watched him for a while. It seemed, under the circumstances, as good a distraction for the general as any.

Outside, in the tavern courtyard, a servant brought up Monroe's horse.

"On to Frederick now, sir?" asked the lieutenant in charge of the small force of dragoons who escorted the secretary of state.

"No. We're going back into the city. The Capitol, to be precise."

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