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Chapter 36

December 21, 1814
Lake Bourgne, Louisiana

"Are you sure this Duclos fellow is telling the truth?" Admiral Cochrane's tone was skeptical.


The young British army officer who'd brought the report started to shrug. Then, remembering the august company he was facing, Lieutenant Peddie caught himself and turned the gesture into a straightening of the shoulders. "The interrogation was most rigorous, sir. Unless the Frenchman's a lot better liar than I think he is—"


General Ross interrupted him. "He's not lying. But he's not telling the truth, either."


Cochrane swiveled his head to peer at Ross. The movement was done carefully. Cochrane was normally a vigorous man, and had he been in his own expansive quarters on his flagship, the admiral would have swung about dramatically. But in the very cramped quarters aboard the schooner he was using to supervise the landing of his troops at Bayou Bienvenu, his movements had become downright cautious. He still had a bruise on his forehead from the time he'd banged his head, having forgotten that a schooner's dimensions were not those of a ship of the line. The first of three occasions.


"Explain, Robert, if you would."


Ross had no need to watch his own movements. The general was still so weak that even sitting up in a chair was difficult.


"What I mean is that the man undoubtedly thinks he's telling the truth. But he's wrong." Ross looked at the lieutenant, swiveling his eyes only. "Duclos is a civilian, you said?"


Peddie nodded. "Yes, sir, for all practical purposes. All the men we captured were part of the Louisiana militia, under the command of a certain Major Villeré—who is also a civilian in all but name. The son of a wealthy local planter, from what we could determine. Apparently, Jackson ordered Villeré to send a detachment to guard the outlet of the bayou, and—"


Ross interrupted him again. "I'd think Jackson would have ordered the bayou obstructed, as well."


"Well, sir, he may well have done so. Duclos was vague on the matter. I suspect his commander Villeré made it clear he was not too happy at the notion of interfering with the waterways." Lieutenant Peddie smiled thinly. "The Villeré plantation is located along the bayou, and he may have been concerned that damage would result to his own property."


Admiral Cochrane chuckled. "I almost feel sorry for Jackson. Imagine having to command such a pack of vagabonds calling themselves an 'army.' "


For perhaps the hundredth time since he'd returned from his captivity, Ross had to suppress a remark. Like the pack of vagabonds who broke our charge at the Capitol? No matter how hard he tried, Ross had simply found it impossible to get Cochrane to take the enemy seriously.


Seriously enough, at least. Of course, Cochrane didn't have a crippled shoulder to remind him constantly of the folly of doing otherwise.


But this wasn't a good time for another argument with the admiral. Ross was still in no condition to resume active command of the army. He was accompanying the New Orleans expedition solely as an adviser to Cochrane and General John Keane, who'd replaced Ross until Major General Pakenham could arrive from England. At that, Ross had had to use all his powers of persuasion to get Cochrane to agree to let him come along, instead of returning him to Britain for a long convalescence.


Ross didn't really know himself why he'd insisted so vigorously. Partly out of concern for his soldiers, of course. Partly, because he was a stubborn man by nature, and hated to leave any business unfinished. But some of it, he suspected, was simply curiosity. He just wanted to see how it would end, this war with a peculiar—and peculiarly resilient—young republic.


"I've never known a civilian who could estimate the true size of an army," Ross continued. "It's in the nature of things. How many civilians ever see thousands of men, assembled in one place? Precious few, whereas soldiers witness the phenomenon regularly. Put five hundred men in a town square and they look like the hosts of Egypt to an inexperienced civilian eye."


"True enough," Cochrane allowed. "So what's your estimate, Robert? I take it you think Duclos's numbers are off a bit."


"More than a bit. He claims there are fifteen thousand men in New Orleans under Jackson's direct command—and another three thousand at the English Turn. Is that correct?"


"Yes, sir," Peddie said. The lieutenant cleared his throat. "That does match some of the other accounts Captain Spencer and I heard when we scouted the area."


Ross was tempted to make a sarcastic remark, but restrained himself again. With greater ease, this time. First, because he was never as impatient with junior officers as he could be with senior ones. But also, because he admired young Peddie's boldness, if nothing else.


Several days earlier, Peddie—normally a quartermaster officer—had accompanied the naval captain Spencer on a reconnaissance up Bayou Bienvenu. The two British officers had disguised themselves as civilians and questioned some of the Portuguese and Spanish fishermen who lived on a tongue of land just a short distance inland from the bayou's mouth. "Fishermen's Village," they called it—insofar as a dozen rude cabins could be called a village at all.


Spencer and Peddie had even managed to hire a pirogue in the village, along with two fishermen who'd rowed them up the Bienvenu to the branch called Bayou Mazant. They'd made it all the way to the Mississippi and walked along the east bank of the great river.


"The accounts of fishermen," Ross specified, "who are even less experienced at gauging the size of armies than most civilians."


"True enough, sir. And it's also true that the estimates of the fishermen themselves varied wildly. Some claimed Jackson had no more than a few thousand men under his command."


"That'll be off, as well," Ross said, "but closer to the truth." He looked back at Cochrane. "Consider the matter, Admiral. The Americans probably never managed to amass fifteen thousand troops, even at their own capital. How would they have done it here? Especially when Jackson expected us to attack through Mobile or Pensacola, and march overland to New Orleans, rather than go at the city directly."


Cochrane scowled. "We were planning to attack via that route."


Ross suspected the admiral's scowl was directed more at him than at the distant figure of an enemy general. Indeed, Ross was gently reminding him not to underestimate Jackson, and Cochrane knew it. The British had been forced to relinquish their plan to invade the gulf through Mobile because Jackson had moved quickly and forcefully to block them—and hadn't cared at all that he was violating Spanish territory in the process.


So here they were. Forced to find a route into New Orleans through cypress swamps and truly horrible weather. The gulf in late December was nothing like the balmy Caribbean paradise so many of the troops had expected. When the British army had landed on Pea Island in Lake Bourgne, they'd been greeted not only by a torrential rainfall but with temperatures much lower than anyone had imagined. There'd even been frost the next morning.


The terrain was bad enough. What worried Ross still more was that the conditions for disease were worse than any he'd ever encountered in Europe. By now, just from the rigors of ferrying from the fleet's anchorage at Cat Island, a large number of the soldiers were coming down with a variety of illnesses.


"How many does he have then, Robert?" asked the admiral.


Ross's shrug was a weak thing. He was sick himself, and had been for days. "At a guess... Jackson won't have more than seven thousand men, in all. Not all of whom will be with him at New Orleans, either. He'll need, at the very least, to keep detachments at Fort St. Leon to guard the English Turn, at Fort St. Philip to guard the river farther south, and at Fort St. John in case we manage to get into Lake Pontchartrain."


"Seven thousand," Cochrane murmured.


"Probably closer to five, actually. And most of them will be militia units."


Cochrane sat up straight, after a quick glance to assure himself there was nothing to crack his head against. "We can manage that. Easily, I should think."


Manage it, yes.


Easily, no.


Something of Ross's skepticism must have shown. The admiral eyed him for a moment, his face expressionless, and then said abruptly: "That'll be all, Lieutenant Peddie."


As soon as the lieutenant was gone, the admiral's earlier scowl returned. "Do we need to argue this again, Robert? I have no choice, and you know it. We can't attack from the north because we're lacking shallow-draft boats, and we can't come up the river because of the forts. That leaves no alternative but Bayou Bienvenu or its equivalent—and Spencer and Peddie report that the equivalents are all worse."


Ross's headshake was as weak as his shrug. "That's not the point, sir. The route, we can manage—if the thing is led properly."


"You can't possibly—"


Ross shook his head again. "I realize full well I'm in no condition to lead it myself." With a wry smile: "I'm struggling as it is just to keep from sliding off this chair. What bothers me is that..."


He'd come to the edge of the issue that he'd thus far skirted, out of politeness for fellow officers.


Cochrane grunted. "You've no confidence in Keane."


"That's putting it much too strongly, Admiral. John Keane is a fine officer. But as a commanding general, which he is now for the first time, I fear he'd be too cautious."


"Too cautious?" Cochrane threw up his hands with exasperation—banging the knuckles of the left on a bulkhead. Muttering under his breath, he pulled out a kerchief and dabbed the blood. "Robert," he growled, "as I recall you have been the one all along urging caution on this expedition. Now you choose to complain of its excess?"


"My cautions, sir—and I believe I made this clear—all had to do with the strategic aspects of the problem. What I am now referring to is the likelihood that General Keane will be excessively cautious when presented with a tactical situation."


"Surely you're not suggesting that Keane is a coward?"


"Oh, for the sake of God!" The moment he blurted it out, Ross cursed himself. Whatever chance he'd had to persuade Cochrane had just been diminished again by that angry outburst.


No help for it but to plow on, however.


"My point was certainly not to question Keane's courage, Admiral. But a man can be personally brave and still not have the wherewithal to push forward a charge at the right moment. Were that not true, any good corporal would make another Alexander the Great."


"Damn you, Robert! On the one hand, you tell me Keane will be too cautious. On the other, you think Pakenham will be prone to recklessness. Yes, I know you've been veiled about it, but I am not stupid. What do you want? For me to wait until I have the perfect army assembled?"


Cochrane was glaring, and it was all Ross could do not to scowl just as ferociously in response. The admiral certainly wasn't stupid, but he had a habit of playing the innocent, which Ross sometimes found immensely aggravating.


"I have told you already—several times, Admiral—that I simply think we'd be wise to postpone the assault. For a few weeks, at least, although I'd prefer two or three months."


He fought off the weakness and sat straighter, leaning forward. "I never said I thought Pakenham was reckless. But you know as well as I do that he has the reputation for being... ah..."


Cochrane's scowl faded. He even chuckled, albeit drily.


"Yes, I know. 'Bold,' I believe, is the term most commonly used." More seriously: "On the other hand, he is considered a superb general by most of the officer staff, Robert. He didn't become a major general in his mid-thirties simply because he's Wellington's brother-in-law, you know."


How to explain? Ross did not, in fact, doubt that Pakenham was a very talented general. But he was also young, and talent wasn't the same thing as experience. Add to that a certain reputation for rashness, and...


"Admiral, Pakenham won't arrive to take command until the very last moment. What I fear is this: Keane is an excellent subordinate officer, but he's never been in command before. His initial approach will therefore almost certainly be too cautious, too tentative. No fault of his own, really; simply lack of experience. But that will give Jackson enough time to prepare himself—and that's what Pakenham will face when he arrives. If you then push Pakenham to move immediately, he'll almost certainly err on the side of being too aggressive."


"Robert, I hardly think it's necessary for our generals to maneuver perfectly in order to defeat an amateur like Jackson."


Fiercely, Ross controlled his temper. It would do no good at all to start shouting.


"Admiral Cochrane, you must stop underestimating Andrew Jackson. He is a genuinely dangerous opponent, not simply a jumped-up militia general. An amateur he might be, by the professional standards of a British or continental army. But history is full of battles won by gifted amateurs against professionals.


"Amateur or not," he continued harshly, "Jackson has consistently outmaneuvered us in the months leading up to this attack on New Orleans."


Ross paused, giving Cochrane a level gaze. Cochrane was obviously angry at those last words. But, just as obviously, he wasn't prepared to dispute them.


He couldn't. Robert Ross had been privy to all the plans, and he knew.


Just to drive home the point, Ross decided to make it specific.


"Admiral Warren's initial plan relied upon a powerful force of Creeks to be allied with us. But Jackson broke the Creek Nation at the Horseshoe Bend, before the alliance could be carried out."


Sourly, Cochrane nodded.


"And what happened then, Admiral? After you replaced Warren in command in the gulf, you decided on an initial landing in Mobile. Which I fully agree was the right thing to do. That would have circumvented all the horrid terrain south and east of New Orleans. Again, however, Jackson reacted quickly. He ignored Spanish sovereignty and moved into Mobile in force— and so our initial thrust was broken at Fort Bowyer."


Cochrane sighed. And nodded again.


Ross shrugged. "For a short while, there, I hoped that Jackson had outsmarted himself. The American general seemed so certain that we'd attack Mobile that he remained there, even while our expedition moved on to Lake Bourgne. But..."


He left the rest unspoken, since it was obvious. But Jackson corrected the error in time. And he's in New Orleans now.


He could tell that Cochrane was still unconvinced, unfortunately. Or, at least, not convinced enough.


Again, how to explain, Ross asked himself desperately, in words that would be calm and coherent? The long and painful months recovering from his terrible wounds at the Capitol, now added to by this new illness, had left Ross too muddleheaded to say anything clearly. In truth, he felt—had he the strength—like grabbing Cochrane by the shoulders, shaking him, and screaming: Take your enemy seriously, you fool! What sort of arrogant ass thinks you can put a man in command, a week before a battle—Pakenham or Caesar, it matters not—and expect him to defeat the likes of Jackson?


Ross could see it all unfolding. Pakenham would arrive just in time to inherit the poor tactical position left him by Keane— and, from frustration and inexperience, he'd try to overcome it with a direct assault. Assuming, unthinkingly, that the British veterans who'd broken Napoleon on the open field of battle would easily sweep aside these American militiamen.


And so, indeed, they might, if it weren't for that terrifying American artillery. The same artillery that Ross had seen batter his forces at Bladensburg, and shred them in front of the Capitol. Cannons fired more quickly and accurately than any British battery had ever managed, in Ross's decades of experience.


He sighed. "I simply wish you'd postpone the thing until Pakenham's been here for a bit, Admiral. At least give him the chance to learn the terrain and size up his enemy properly."


Cochrane wasn't an ill-tempered man, by nature, so his earlier anger had faded away. "I can't, Robert. I'd like to myself, as it happens, but I simply can't."


He hesitated a moment; then: "I'll ask you to keep this in confidence. I've just received word concerning the latest developments in the peace negotiations at Ghent. Underneath the formal language, the gist of it is that our envoys are stalling, to give us a chance to seize New Orleans before any treaty is signed."


"I see." Ross grimaced.


The peace negotiations, which had been taking place between Britain and the United States in the Belgian city of Ghent, had been going on for many months now. If they were finally close to a settlement...


The war with the United States wasn't popular in England— all the more so now that twenty years of war with France had ended. That did, indeed, place Cochrane on the horns of a dilemma. Since Britain had never recognized the legitimacy of the Louisiana Purchase, the treaty would not settle that question. If Britain already held New Orleans when word of a peace treaty arrived in the gulf, they'd keep it. Under the legal fiction of returning it to its proper Spanish owners, of course.


But given the war weariness in Britain, there was no chance of starting a new war with the United States, even under the pretense of rectifying an injustice done to Spain. So if Cochrane was going to take New Orleans, he had to do it quickly.


"They can't stall for very long, I take it."


"No, Robert, they can't. It's not just that our populace is growing restive. The situation on the continent is none too well settled, either. There is still a great deal of Napoleonic sentiment in France, you know. The government isn't as confident as everyone else that we've seen the end of that conflict, and if that's the case, no one wants to have a large body of British troops on this side of the Atlantic."


"Yes, I can see the logic behind that. So, in essence, they'll stall at Ghent just long enough to give us one chance at a quick victory."


Cochrane nodded. "I wouldn't be surprised at all to discover that the ink is drying right now on the treaty. We've only got a few weeks, Robert. If we're to do it at all, it has to be done now. And that's all there is to it."


Cochrane rose from his chair, moving carefully. "Enough, Robert. You need to get some rest. You're looking—well, terrible, to be honest. If you contract yellow fever in your condition..."


Ross struggled to his feet. "Yes, I know. I'll die."


"Look on the bright side," the admiral said. "Pakenham can probably manage. But whether he can or can't, I'm ordering the men into the landing boats tomorrow morning."


"Three days before Christmas," Ross mused. "Well, let's hope for the best."


 


December 21, 1814
Ghent, the Low Countries

Glumly, sitting at his writing table in the lodgings he occupied in Ghent, John Quincy Adams studied a copy of the treaty which had finally been arrived at. Only the long and stern habit of a man raised in the puritanical environment of one of New England's premier families kept him from cursing aloud.


Months, he'd spent, slowly persuading the other members of the American delegation that this treaty he had before him was the best the United States could hope for. Months, while the other members of the delegation—Albert Gallatin, Henry Clay, James Bayard, and Jonathan Russell—kept stalling, hoping for some sort of miracle.


What miracle? Adams wondered. The only bright moment had been when news arrived that the British assault on Washington had been driven off, and the Capitol had been spared. Savagely, Adams almost found himself wishing the assault had succeeded—since, from his perspective, it had simply kept Gallatin and Clay and Bayard and Russell suspended in midair for perhaps a month, empty-headed with braggadocio.


Almost... but not quite. Adams was a patriot, and he couldn't deny the deep satisfaction he'd felt when the news had arrived. The same sort of satisfaction he'd felt at the news of the Guerriere's capitulation, or the news of the battle at the Chippewa.


The problem had been that his fellow envoys simply couldn't understand that such satisfaction was all that the United States could realistically hope to achieve in this war. The conflict with Britain had always been a preposterous exercise, in purely military terms.


It was no doubt a very fine thing for the morale of a young republic to see a handful of plucky American frigates defeating a handful of British frigates. But the cold, hard, cruel strategic fact remained that the tiny U.S. Navy boasted no ships larger than a few 44-gun frigates—and the British Navy had over a hundred two-decker 74-gun ships of the line.


It was no doubt excellent from the standpoint of that same young republic to see—finally!—one of its armies defeat an equal force of British regulars on the open field of battle, as Brown and Scott had done at the Chippewa. But the moral splendor of the feat could not, to a sane man, disguise its triviality in cold military terms. The total forces engaged at the Chippewa had been less than five thousand—a clash which, for the past twenty years on the continent, would have been considered a skirmish rather than a battle.


In the campaign that had finally defeated Napoleon, culminating in the Battle of the Nations near Leipzig, more than half a million men had met on the field.


Splendid, yes—certainly!—the pluck of Captain Houston and Lieutenant Driscol and their men at the Capitol. But what did it really come down to, in the harsh, brutal, realistic terms of political geography? One thousand men armed with a few cannons kept a small invading force with no artillery to speak of from taking Washington, D.C.


Splendid, splendid. No doubt many fine poems and songs would be written to commemorate the event. The fact remained that Napoleon had brought seven hundred field guns to Leipzig—but the Allies had fielded twice that number. Just as the fact remained that no sane man gave even a moment's thought to the possibility that the United States might land an army on British soil to threaten London.


Adams sighed, left off his pointless study of the treaty—he had every clause in it memorized by now—and rose from his desk. Then he moved to a window that faced to the west, toward the Atlantic and his nation beyond.


He was forty-five years old, and had spent many of those years living in Europe. As a student, an assistant to American diplomats—his father among them, before John Adams became the second president of the United States—and then later as a diplomat himself. The son of the second American president had often, as a young man, sat at the dining table with its first, listening carefully to George Washington's shrewd assessments of foreign affairs.


Since then, John Quincy Adams had sat at many other tables with the world's most powerful men, in most of the major capitals of Europe. He'd been, at one time or another, America's ambassador to Britain, France, Holland, Portugal, Prussia, and Russia. He spoke and read French easily and fluently, and had once translated Wieland's Oberon from German into English. He was one of the most well-educated and well-read men in the United States—the world, in fact—and had the personal library to prove it.


All for nothing, quite possibly. Partly, because Gallatin and Clay and Bayard and Russell were fools. Partly—Adams was usually as harsh in his self-criticism as his criticism of others— because John Quincy Adams had never been good at suffering fools gladly. So, over the months, he'd increasingly alienated his fellow envoys, while their light-minded frivolity led their nation into a very possible trap.


Again, he restrained himself from cursing. They could have signed that same treaty months ago. And why not? To this day, the British still refused to concede anything concrete, when it came to the official casus belli the United States had proclaimed as the causes of the war. The issues of impressment, boundaries, fisheries, neutral rights—all ignored or swept under the table. For all practical purposes, the United States was agreeing in that treaty to the same conditions that had existed prior to the war.


And so what? The only possible victory America could have obtained in this conflict was simply the moral victory of going to war in the first place. And that had already been won, long since. The cold equations of national power hadn't been changed an iota, except in the one—often critical—variable of national respect. Whatever else, none of the great European powers would any longer regard the transatlantic republic as something of a bad joke.


Months, it had taken him to convince his fellow envoys. Precious, precious months—while Adams watched anxiously as Britain finally defeated the great French power which had kept it preoccupied for decades and could now send part of its true might across the Atlantic. Months, during which the territorial integrity of the U.S. could have been protected simply by signing the same blasted treaty they were going to sign now anyway.


Months... while the British were able to assemble the powerful task force which now lay somewhere near New Orleans and the critical outlet of the Mississippi. Might even, for all John Quincy Adams knew, already be enjoying a conqueror's feast in the Cabildo. It took weeks for news to cross the Atlantic, even from his native New England, much less the distant Gulf of Mexico.


It was all up to Andrew Jackson, now. Jackson and the same sort of rude, crude, uncouth southern frontiersmen who composed his army.


Sternly, John Quincy Adams reminded himself that he had chosen long ago, exercising his God-given free will, to devote his life to the service of his nation. Knowing from the very beginning—he'd hear no excuses, from himself least of all—that his nation was a republic. It wasn't as if dozens of monarchists hadn't told him for years he was a fool. Some of them had even read as many books as he had.


Not many, of course.


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