Back | Next
Contents


Chapter 27

"There will not be another frontal assault against those murderous guns," Robert Ross hissed. He was in no mood, any longer, to be polite. "I've lost enough men already, Admiral Cockburn, thanks to your headstrong ways."


He rolled his head on the cot in the surgeon's tent, bringing Colonel Arthur Brooke into his field of vision. Brooke was the senior brigade commander and would now have to lead the British army units.


"D'you hear me, Colonel Brooke?" Ross pointed a finger toward the glowering Cockburn. "I am not relinquishing command to him. You will have to lead the men in the field, but my orders are final."


Though enfeebled by pain, Ross matched Cockburn's glare with one of his own. "The admiral may advise you. That is all. You will not attack the Capitol again. Not frontally, at least. We shall begin siege operations."


Cockburn rolled his eyes. He knew as well as Ross did that there would be no time to carry through a successful siege of the Capitol, before the British army would be forced to retreat back to the ships on the coast. The most Brooke could do would be to harass the defenders and keep them from sallying.


Still, Ross felt it necessary to add the directive. He did so because siege preparations would tie up the bulk of his forces, which meant that Cockburn would not have them available for his own uses. Brooke was a solid enough man, but once he left Ross's immediate presence—or Ross lost consciousness again, which was quite likely—Cockburn might be able to sway him to folly. Not a direct attack on the Capitol, to be sure. Given Ross's explicit orders, Brooke would refuse to do that, no matter what Cockburn said. But who was to say what other folly Cockburn might seize upon? The rear admiral's determination to punish Americans wasn't altogether rational.


Great folly, at any rate, which might produce great casualties. Ross would allow the admiral his little pleasures, so long as his men were not placed seriously at risk. If for no other reason, because Ross wanted to get Cockburn away from Brooke and unable to influence him.


"What is the time?" Ross asked.


"Just after ten o'clock of the evening, sir," Brooke replied.


Ross closed his eyes. Pain and exhaustion were threatening to take him under again.


Not yet.


"If you intend to burn the president's mansion, Admiral Cockburn, I would suggest that you get started. You may take a few hundred men with you." His eyelids lifted slightly. "Not more than three hundred, mind. We'll need the rest for the siege."


"Siege!" Cockburn barked sarcastically. But even the admiral understood that Ross would be unmovable. Angrily, Cockburn turned on his heel and stalked out of the tent.


"Follow him, Colonel," Ross ordered. "Let him have enough men for his evening's arson, but that's all. Three hundred, no more."


"Yes, sir." Brooke hurried out.


Once they were gone, the surgeon stepped forward.


"You must let me take the bullet out, General. The longer we wait, the worse the risk. As it is, gangrene..."


Ross shook his head. "Not till this business is over, and I'm sure my men have been removed from peril."


He didn't add—not to the surgeon—that he didn't dare allow himself to be entirely incapacitated. Not yet. If Ross were unconscious for hours, during and after surgery, and therefore unable to lead his men any longer, Cockburn might claim that command of the ground forces fell to him.


The surgeon's expression was exceedingly anxious. "General—"


"Oh, be done with it!" Ross snapped. "I understand the risk, Doctor, and the responsibility is mine. If I die, I die."


There's no reason to be rude to the man, Ross chided himself. He's simply doing his job.


"Consider the bright side, Doctor," he added. "At least I'll return home in good spirits, which is always something an Irishman treasures. Well. Navy rum, at least. Admittedly, it's not my favorite potion."


The doctor smiled crookedly. It was the custom of the empire to return the corpses of top officers to the islands, rather than burying them where they fell. They kept the bodies from rotting during the long voyage by immersing them in casks of rum. It was perhaps undignified, but...it worked.


Colonel Brooke came back into the tent a few minutes later.


"The admiral's gone, sir. On his way to the American president's mansion."


Ross nodded. Then, finally, he relinquished his hold on consciousness. Darkness was peace, and a blessing.


"Got himself another white horse, I see," Sam Houston said wryly. He lowered the telescope through which he'd been peering from an upper window on the south side of the House. "There's a man who is set in his ways."


"It is the admiral, then?" asked Driscol. He'd been almost certain, even without the aid of a telescope, but not positive.


The conflagration at the Navy Yard was still growing, and had begun spreading to nearby buildings. They could hear the sound of collapsing structures, as well as periodic explosions as the roaring flames encountered munitions. As impressive as the fire was, however, the Naval Yard was too far away for those flames to pose a direct danger to the Capitol—which also meant that the illumination was still far poorer than daylight.


Sam shrugged. "I could hardly distinguish his features at this distance, even with a glass and even if I knew what he looked like. But unless there's another British naval officer with that much gold braid and a devotion to white horses, I'd say that has to be Cockburn."


Driscol leaned out of the window and looked down. Hungrily, he studied the three-pounder that Ball and his sailors had positioned to guard the southern flank of the Capitol.


"Leave it be, Patrick!" Houston said, laughing and clapping the smaller man on the back. "Clearly he's learned his lesson. He's staying well out of range. Even with a twelve-pounder, it'd be sheer luck to hit the bastard."


Driscol didn't leave off his calculations. "Now, yes. But maybe when he returns he'll get careless." He straightened and pushed himself away from the window. "No harm in being prepared, after all. With your permission, sir, I'll see to it."


Still chuckling, Houston agreed and waved him off. Driscol headed out the door immediately, McParland and the Rogers brothers in tow.


As James passed through the door, he looked back at Sam and grinned.


"Asgá siti," James said cheerfully. "Just the way it is."


Houston brought the telescope back to his eye and returned to his study of the enemy movements. He lacked Driscol's experience, but he had no trouble understanding what the British were about. Most of their men had begun setting up their own field-works on the ground facing the eastern side of the Capitol. But now they were moving detachments into place, threatening— well, guarding, anyway; they weren't really much of a threat— the northern and southern flanks as well.


At least, looking out from a window on the south side of the House, Sam didn't have to listen to the sounds of injured and dying British soldiers on the grounds to the east.


That was... ghastly.


The heavy musket balls were bad enough. They shattered bones whenever they struck a limb squarely, mangling arms and legs so badly that amputation was almost always required if a man's life was to be saved. But most of the casualties had been inflicted by Ball's cannons, and they'd been firing grapeshot during most of the British assault.


What Ball and his men called "grapeshot," at least, even though Ball had explained to Sam at one point that it wasn't really the nine-shot cluster that the term technically signified to naval men. Apparently, such wired clusters of very large balls caused too much damage to cannons for them to be favored much in land battles. What Ball's gunners were calling "grapeshot" was really just heavy case shot: three-ounce bullets as opposed to the balls weighing half as much that were used in regular canister.


The technical details aside, the heavy balls were utterly deadly within four hundred yards. The British soldiers had been forced to advance that far with no cover whatsoever, over muddy and slippery terrain that they couldn't see well because of the darkness. By the time they'd gotten near enough for Charles and his gunners to switch to canister, they'd already suffered casualties so bad that one volley of canister had been enough to break the final charge.


There were still hundreds of them out there. Many were dead, of course, but the majority were merely injured—if the term "merely" could be applied to the most horrible wounds imaginable.


Thinking about those men, Sam came to a sudden decision. He didn't begrudge Patrick Driscol his feelings toward the English, but Sam simply didn't share them. He closed the telescope and strode from the room, his mind working on who he should send. He'd go himself, but...


No. If Driscol didn't strangle him, the secretary of state probably would.


When Brooke came back into the surgeon's tent, Ross had only recently returned to consciousness. Considerably to his regret, actually.


"Yes, Colonel?"


"Sorry to disturb you, sir. But the Americans have sent over an envoy under the flag of truce."


"Send him in, please."


A few moments later, a very young and nervous-looking American officer was ushered into the tent. A militia lieutenant, judging from the flamboyant uniform.


"And how may I help you, sir?" Ross asked politely.


The young American swallowed.


Then: "Captain Houston—uh, Secretary of State Monroe agreed, too—sent me to ask you if you plan another assault tonight." Apparently realizing the question was absurd, the flustered youngster hurried on. "Not exactly that. He doesn't expect you to reveal military plans, of course. But, well, he told me to tell you that if you don't try any—uh, I think he said something about respecting the flag of truce—then, uh—he said it looks like a storm is coming, too—uh—that'll make the misery still worse..."


The youngster ground to a halt, desperately trying to reassemble his thoughts, which now bore a close resemblance to a shipwreck.


Ross took pity on him. He seemed a harmless enough lad, and besides, Ross was touched by the gallantry involved. There was often much to like about Cousin Jonathan.


"Yes, I understand. Your—captain, was it?—Houston is extending an offer to cease-fire while we collect up our dead and wounded from the field."


Relieved, the young officer nodded.


"Certainly," Ross stated, as firmly as he could manage. "You may assure your commander that we will make no attempt to take advantage of his gracious offer. See to it, Colonel Brooke, if you please. And send the men out unarmed."


"Yes, sir."


As Brooke left, the American militia lieutenant made to follow. Ross called him back.


"One moment, Lieutenant. You didn't answer my question. Am I to understand that your commander over there is a captain?"


"Uh, yes, sir. Captain Sam Houston. From the Thirty-ninth Infantry."


Ross didn't recall any Thirty-ninth Infantry being stationed in or near Washington. Of course, military intelligence was never perfect.


Apparently sensing Ross's puzzlement, the youngster cleared up the little mystery. "He's from Tennessee, sir. The Thirty-ninth is with General Jackson down there. Captain Houston was just in Washington by happenstance."


A captain. Here by happenstance.


That would be the same Andrew Jackson whom Admiral Cochrane and Ross expected they'd be facing later in the year, when they finally made their move into the gulf after sufficient reinforcements arrived from England. It was all Ross could do not to wince.


Of course, the odds were essentially nil that Ross himself would still be in command of the ground forces by then. Even if he survived the next few days, it would take him months to recover well enough to reassume command.


Still, it was a grim prospect. Ross wondered who would be sent over as his own replacement. Pakenham, most likely. A good commander, to be sure, but with something of a headstrong reputation. If he could, Ross would do his best to instill a bit of caution in him. Above all, stay away from frontal assaults against that horrid American artillery.


"Thank you, Lieutenant. Please pass along my regards to Captain Houston and Mr. Monroe. I take it the secretary of state is in the Capitol also?"


"Yes, sir. Oh." The young militiaman looked chagrined. "I shouldn't have said that."


Ross would have laughed, except for the pain. "You may set your mind at ease, Lieutenant. I assure you I have no intention of launching another assault with the sole purpose of seizing Mr. Monroe, estimable gentleman though he is. But do pass along to him a request from me, as well as my compliments."


"Sir?"


"I'd appreciate it if he'd give your fine captain a promotion. He well deserves it, anyway, and it would do wonders for my self-esteem. Driven off by a captain. No, no, it won't do! A major, I could live with. A colonel would be better still."


"Do it," Joshua Barney growled, after the militiaman returned and conveyed Ross's words. "And make it 'colonel.' "


Monroe, sitting on a chair next to Barney's settee, shook his head. "Commodore, you know perfectly well I don't have the authority to promote army officers."


"Make it a brevet rank, then."


"I can't do that, either. Secretary of state, remember?"


Barney closed his eyes. "It's a pity Washington, D.C., isn't a state. We could haul the governor out of his bed and get Houston a fancy rank in the state militia."


Smiling, Monroe started to respond, but the same militia lieutenant was coming back into the chamber. Looking more worried than ever.


"You'd better come see, sir." The youngster swallowed. "They're burning the president's mansion. It's a fearful sight."


From an upper window on the western side of the House, Monroe watched the flames devouring the central buildings of the executive branch of the United States. He couldn't see any details, at the distance of a mile, but it was obvious nothing was being left untouched.


"The bastards," Captain Houston growled, lowering his telescope and offering it to the secretary. "They're burning everything over there, it looks like. Although I think they might be sparing the Patent Office."


Monroe shook his head, refusing the telescope. He had no desire to see buildings he'd worked in and come to know well over the past years go up in flames. He could imagine it all well enough in his mind, in any event.


There'd be no shortage of kindling in the president's mansion. The Madisons had inherited twenty-three rooms of furniture from Thomas Jefferson and previous inhabitants. Exquisite things, most of them: sofas, writing tables, chairs and tables of all sort, beds—many of them finely ornamented. There were three dozen gilded chairs with red velvet cushions in the oval room alone, all hand-carved in Baltimore. Not to mention that the entire mansion was festooned with fancy drapes and curtains, all of which would go up in flames.


Still, Monroe controlled his anger easily enough. He wasn't a hot-tempered man. His worst characteristic, in that regard—and one he did his best to guard against and control—was a tendency to let resentment fester silently. Especially when the slights were personal.


But this wasn't a personal issue, and, besides, he knew the British were blundering badly here. He was a little surprised, actually, since General Ross had the reputation of being a cool-headed man, as well as the sort of officer who was popular with his men.


Houston spoke again. "I'm fairly certain that Admiral Cock-burn is leading the detachment that's burning the executive mansion and offices, sir."


"Well, that lends support to a theory I'd just been in the midst of constructing."


Houston cocked his head. "Sir?"


"I'd wager that Ross was somehow incapacitated in the earlier assault, and is having difficulty retaining control over his forces. Cockburn may have gone off on his own, or Ross may have sent Cockburn off just to get him out from underfoot."


"Oh. Well, as to that, sir—it is indeed true that Ross was badly hurt. May well have been killed, in fact."


"He was seen to fall?"


Houston looked a bit uncomfortable. "Lieutenant Driscol took command of a platoon and had them personally fire on the general when he reached the front ranks. So, yes, he was hit. Badly enough that they had to carry him off."


Monroe nodded. That sort of deliberate targeting of an enemy commander lay well within the rules of war, of course. True, most gentlemen would consider it ungallant. But most of America's gentlemen were still of English extraction, not Scots-Irish. That was changing, now, as men from the western states and territories—men like Andrew Jackson and Houston himself—began coming to the fore.


Monroe turned back to the window. He had mixed feelings on the subject. The growing prominence of the Scots-Irish was inevitably introducing a harsher element—not to mention a more raucous tone—into the politics of the United States. But as a committed republican, Monroe could hardly object, even though he knew full well that if he became president he would have many occasions to clash with the breed.


"Why do you think that, sir?" Houston asked. "The business about Ross wanting to get Cockburn out from underfoot, I mean."


Monroe pointed at the buildings burning in the distance. "Because that is a bad mistake, Captain, and not one I'd have expected General Ross to make."


From the captain's expression, it was clear Houston wasn't following him. Monroe elaborated. "Oh, I have no doubt that burning the president's mansion was part of their original plan. But the logic only holds if they'd been able to take and burn the Capitol as well. Then they'd have inflicted a most humiliating defeat upon us. It would be of no great military value, to be sure, but one which might have had quite profound political effects. Now..."


He shrugged. "The Capitol is the key. Your stand here will turn it around—and make this a political triumph. So that"—he pointed again to the west—"is reduced to simple arson. The populace will be furious, even in New England. And the Federalists won't be able to claim that it demonstrates the hopelessness of the war.


"They'd have done better to simply retire from the field after being repulsed from the Capitol. That would still have been a victory for us, but purely a defensive one, and not something that would have greatly aroused the public. And if Ross were still in full command, that's what I expect he'd have done. Mind you, Captain"—Monroe gave Houston a wry little smile— "these are all theories on my part, and unlike Misters Jefferson and Madison, I am not renowned as a theorist. So I could be quite wrong."


Houston returned the smile. "Let's just call it clear thinking, then. It sounds good to me, sir." His eyes became a bit unfocused for a moment.


"I was wondering, sir," he continued, "if I might impose upon you further in that regard. I have a slight—well, not so slight— problem of my own to figure out."


"By all means, Captain," Monroe said graciously. He glanced out the window. "There's not a thing we can do about that situation, certainly not until the morning comes. So why not distract ourselves from the unpleasantness."


The discussion which followed was one of the most peculiar in Monroe's life. Most peculiar, perhaps, because it did not seem so then. He would ascribe that, later, to the fury of the times and the temper of the moment.


Still!


To begin with, there was the youthful naïveté of the captain, to whom it never seemed to occur that divulging the plans of General Jackson might stir up a tempest. Jackson had no authority to strip the Creeks of half their land. True, the administration had appointed him to negotiate with the Creeks along with the Indian commissioner Benjamin Hawkins—but he'd been instructed to follow the guidelines developed by General Pinckney. And those guidelines certainly had not contemplated any such sweeping land transfer.


But Monroe kept silent, on that issue. Unlike most of the nation's elite, the secretary of state had traveled extensively through the area, and understood the realities on the frontier. The settlers pouring across the mountains would take that Indian land, come what may, by force or by fraud—or simply by crowding the Indians aside and destroying their hunting grounds. No government in North America, be it colonial or native, had ever been able to stop them. It was an issue that had driven presidents half mad, just as it had done to colonial governors before them.


The problem was insoluble, and for the simplest and crudest of reasons: there were just too many settlers, and not enough soldiers to keep them in check. Nor could the size of the soldiery be increased to change the equation.


Monroe wasn't surprised to learn that Houston understood that much, given his patronage. Unlike many of the nation's political elite, Monroe was not prone to assuming that Andrew Jackson was either stupid or unsophisticated.


". . . have to build an army as big as the tsar's. That's what the general says, anyway."


"He's right," Monroe grunted. "The idea is grotesque. Opposition to a standing army—certainly a large one—has been one of the tenets of our Republican Party since the beginning."


"Even the Federalists wouldn't support it, the general says."


Monroe nodded. "He's right again, if for no other reason than simply the enormous cost involved. There's nothing in the world so hideously expensive, even leaving aside the inevitable waste and corruption that comes with it, as maintaining a large army, even in peacetime."


Monroe gazed out the window, pondering the intractable problem yet again. Given the impossibility of creating an army large enough to control the settlers, that left . . . 


Houston filled in the thought. "Look, Mr. Monroe, what it means in the real world is that it'll always be the champions of the westerners and southerners, people like General Jackson, who'll ultimately win. I come from the frontier myself, and I know."


"Yes," Monroe sighed. "The government in Washington can proclaim what it will, disavow what it will, denounce what it will, disclaim what it will. Andrew Jackson and men like him will still wield the whip. In the end—like every continental government in North America has done for two centuries—the national authorities will acquiesce to their wishes. Tacitly, if not openly."


He made a face. "It's perhaps dishonorable; it's certainly unpleasant. But it remains a fact. It will become a fact here, once again."


Monroe studied the captain, while the earnest young officer continued expounding his problem and his first attempts, shaky and uncertain though they seemed, to uncover a solution. As he did, one thing became clear to the man who was now the secretary of state and would, in two years, most likely be the next president of the country. If there was any graceful way to sidestep the problem, it would have to come from frontiersmen themselves. Men like Houston.


There was always this, too, Monroe reminded himself. With a bit of an effort, because he was by no means completely free of the common prejudices and attitudes of the eastern gentry. From a distance, Monroe realized, the people of the western waters seemed nothing but crude and violent frontiersmen. Yet it was also true that, day to day and year to year, they interacted with the native population of the territories in a multitude of ways that were unknown to the East. And if many of those interactions were brutal, many others were not.


Houston was not the first white settler boy to have been adopted by Indians, after all. And Monroe had only to walk down to the chamber of the House to see, gathered around Commodore Barney, still other fruits of that interaction.


That was a beginning, at least. Possibly even a foundation.


"That Lieutenant Ross of yours," Monroe interrupted. "He's a coming man among the Cherokee?"


"Yes, sir." Houston smiled crookedly. "Even though he's not really much of a warrior. When I introduced him as having 'distinguished' himself at the Horseshoe, I was perhaps bending the truth. He was there, yes, and certainly he didn't conduct himself badly. But John would be the first one to tell you he's no great shakes in the soldiering business."


Monroe chuckled. "And how is that a problem? It's enough that he was there, to establish his bona fides. For the rest, political sagacity is what's needed here, Captain. Warriors—white or red, either way—won't come up with an acceptable solution.


"As a strictly military proposition—and you know this as well as I do—the only solution that will ever be found with regard to relations between whites and Indians will be the extermination of the Indians. If it comes to it. But everyone I know would very much like to avoid that extreme."


That was nothing more than the truth. Attitudes toward the indigenes were often harsh, even among easterners. But Monroe had never known a single prominent and powerful man in the political life of the nation—and he'd known all of them, beginning with George Washington—who hadn't understood that a policy of exterminating the Indians would destroy the United States as a nation. Destroy it utterly, because it would destroy its soul.


Monroe was a practicing politician, and an experienced one, so he knew full well that governance was often a callous business. But some things were simply too barbarous to consider. To be sure, barbarities aplenty had been committed upon the Indians, but they were neither systematic nor the product of national design. More often than not, they were the result of local clashes, local greed—or that greatest of all sources of social cruelty, simple negligence. It was all too easy for the nation's authorities to become preoccupied with other matters, while actual policy was determined on the spot by crooked Indian agents or hot-tempered young thugs.


"That's well said, sir," Houston stated forcefully, "and a fine sentiment. But I will tell you what else is true—and you know it as well as I do. Any just solution—" He waved an impatient hand. "Oh, let's not call it that, because no solution will be 'just.' Any rational solution, that everyone can live with— that'll cost money, sir. And plenty of it."


Monroe grimaced. Houston was speaking no more than the truth, alas. Money would indeed be the choking point—with a Republican administration even more than a Federalist one. Some Republicans had even protested the very favorable Louisiana Purchase, even though it had been negotiated by Republicans. Monroe himself had been one of the two envoys sent to meet with Napoleon, and the purchase had been approved by the recognized founder of American republicanism, Thomas Jefferson. They'd not simply objected to the money involved, either, but had objected on grounds of constitutional principle.


Still...


Monroe was startled to hear the sound of a cannon being discharged. "Are they beginning another assault?" he asked.


Houston was already at the window, leaning out and looking to the south. When he brought his head back, he was smiling crookedly again.


"No. It's just Lieutenant Driscol, taking a gamble. Admiral Cockburn must be on his way back from his evening's plunder and arson."


Monroe looked at his watch. "It's later than I thought, then. I should be returning to the chamber, I think. In the meantime, Captain, I have no ready answers to the problems you've raised."


"Don't really think there are any, sir."


"No, I'm afraid there aren't. But that's why men like me— and soon, I think, you and your companion John Ross—are kept in business. So let us begin with small steps. First, do me the favor of corresponding regularly, in the future."


Houston's eyes widened a little. The captain wasn't so naïve as all that, then, and he understood that such an invitation, coming from the secretary of state, was tantamount to an offer of patronage. It carried a tremendous amount of influence, at the very least.


Monroe could practically see the wheels turning. If Houston had the ear of both Andrew Jackson and James Monroe...


There was no derision in the thought. Monroe himself, as a young man, had sought the same sort of patronage. Sought it, and gotten it—from Washington, Jefferson, and Madison, just to name three. He was where he was today because of it.


Patronage alone was not enough, of course. The corridors of power were littered with the political corpses of once-young men who'd made the mistake of thinking so. Monroe had never made that mistake—and if he thought young Sam Houston might be prone to it, he wouldn't have extended the offer in the first place. But one of the reasons for Monroe's political success was that he was a very good judge of men.


"And secondly, Captain..."


Monroe hesitated, for a moment, then shrugged. If nothing else, it would be an interesting experience.


"Until this current affray is over, I think it would be appropriate to have an officer assigned to serve me as an aide. The secretary of war could hardly object to that, under the circumstances."


He didn't need to finish the thought. Houston smiled—not crookedly at all, this time—and nodded. "Indeed, sir. And I think you'll discover that Lieutenant Ross is a very capable young man. John is perfectly fluent with written English as well."


"Splendid. An illiterate aide would be awkward. We'll consider it done, then."


Driscol came into the room then, his expression sour. "I'm afraid we missed him, Captain. The range was just too great, even if we'd had better than a three-pounder."


That was as good a reminder as any, Monroe thought. Never a good idea to really infuriate the Scots-Irish. Once their bitter hostility was aroused, they were a folk to make Huns look like Christians.


Back | Next
Framed