Back | Next
Contents


Chapter 41

January 4, 1815

Robert Ross's fever broke two days after he was moved into the Trémoulet House. By the next day, although he was still somewhat feeble, he felt better than he had in many weeks.


Disease was a peculiar thing. He'd thought he was far more likely to be dead by now. In truth, the main reason Ross had insisted on being handed over to the Americans was because he knew he'd simply have been a burden to the British forces if he'd remained behind, either in the camp or on the ships.


Ross had always been blessed with a rugged constitution. But—perhaps it was mere fancy—he preferred to ascribe his astonishing recovery to the salutary effects upon a man of having such a beautiful young woman attending to him.


Very stately young woman, too, for all that her apparel was often a bit bizarre. It wasn't that Cherokee costume was significantly less modest than that worn by white women. Indeed, it was considerably less risqué than the clothing he'd seen on some Creole women in the street below, on the two occasions Tiana had allowed him to walk about the room a bit.


But if she generally wore Cherokee costume, it was never a complete ensemble. This or that would clearly be of American design and make. Just the day before, for whatever reason, Tiana had chosen to wear an entirely American costume. No simple settler woman's garment, either, but a rather fancy dress he was certain she'd purchased very recently, right here in New Orleans.


She wore it easily and splendidly, to boot.


Then there was her father. The sire was like a mirror image of the daughter, with the proportions reversed. Captain John Rogers normally wore American clothing, but never without Cherokee accoutrements here and there. He was just as likely to wear a turban as a hat, for instance, and Ross was almost certain that the man wound it about his head himself, requiring no one's assistance.


Ross hadn't seen enough of the two sons to get more than a vague sense of their preferences in costuming and dress. James and John Rogers seemed to be largely inseparable from Major Driscol, and Driscol was almost never around. Ross had seen him only twice since he'd been brought into New Orleans, and on only one of those occasions had Driscol taken the time to speak to him, albeit briefly.


That wasn't rudeness, of course. Patrick Driscol was an officer in an army fighting off a siege, and had plenty to keep him busy.


Hybrids, then. Ross wondered what would come of it all, in the end.


Though not a gardener himself, he'd grown up in gardening country. Hybrids were unpredictable. On the one hand, always dangerous. A hybrid could ruin a line, or an entire garden, or simply prove too feeble to survive. On the other hand, always an opportunity. More than one hybrid had grown into a flourishing new line, which brought strengths to the world hitherto unknown.


Everywhere he looked, Ross could see those hybrid shoots growing in the United States. Here in its southern regions more than in the northern ones, he thought. That was because of slavery, banned in the North but flourishing in the South. There was a grotesque irony there. To a considerable degree, it was their common trafficking in black people that gave white and Indian people a ground on which to intermingle. Tiana and her brothers had been sent by their family—which was itself half white and half Cherokee—to study in American schools. But they'd been able to pay for it, in large part, only because of the money generated by their slaves.


Patrick Driscol entered the room.


"Good afternoon, General. Miss Rogers tells me you're doing much better. I'm very glad to hear it."


Ross rolled his head on the pillow to examine the American major. Out of Ulster, by way of France and the emperor's armies. Another hybrid, this one made by grafting old stock onto new.


"I never thought about it much until I came here," Ross said abruptly, "but I've had plenty of time since, recuperating from my wounds. I've come to the conclusion that I disapprove of the institution of slavery. Wilberforce and his people are right. I'm not sure about Buxton and his outright abolitionists."


Driscol's blocky face was creased, for a moment, by a smile. That was always a bit peculiar to see, on that visage, as if a stone head suddenly moved.


"I detest slavery. Wilberforce and his followers are craven weaklings. Buxton...A good enough fellow, I think. Better than the rest of that puling lot in the Anti-Slavery League, certainly."


Ross rolled his head back, staring at the ceiling. "The day after the night battle—I was told about this, I didn't see it myself—a black slave came into our lines. He'd run away from his master and was seeking refuge among us. He had a sort of horrid torture device clamped about his neck. We removed it, of course. Ghastly thing. It was shown to me afterward."


Driscol nodded, and moved to the window. There, with a finger, he shifted the curtains aside and gazed down at the city. "Yes, I know. I've seen them myself. The plantation owners around here are partial to the things. A collar lined with spikes, facing inward, which barely prick the skin. So long as the man stands and works, the pain is minimal. But if he lays down his head, it becomes agonizing—it could even kill him. They'll leave it on the slave for days, until by sheer exhaustion he no longer cares if he lives or dies."


Ross studied the back of the major's head. "And yet you—a United Irishmen, no less—choose to serve such people."


Driscol shrugged. "And who else would I serve? The British?" He swiveled his head, giving Ross a view of his profile. From the side, Driscol's face looked even more like a stone crag than ever.


"Don't play the innocent, General Ross. Your British army has been distributing handbills all over this area since you arrived. Assuring the slave masters that their property will be respected by England, in the event of victory. Good of you, of course, to remove that collar from the man. But I wonder how much he'll thank you when you hand him back to his master and he gets another—along with a savage whipping for running away. It would hardly be the first time Britain has betrayed the Negroes, when you found it convenient."


Ross couldn't help but wince. He'd seen the handbills himself, and...


Being honest, had approved of them. Undermining political support for Jackson was simply a logical move in a war.


Driscol turned away from the window.


"There are precious few innocents here, General, just as there are precious few anywhere in the world. But the one thing that is different here—to a degree, at least—is that this nation is undermining the distinctions of class. Often, without even realizing it. And that's the key."


In a now-familiar gesture, Driscol lowered his head a bit. The way a bull will, considering a charge. "Class, General Ross. That's always the key ingredient when it comes to injustice. Two breeds of men may dislike each other as much as they wish. They may well spill blood and commit outrages because of it. But it's only when one of those breeds become a class, elevated over the other, that injustice and brutality become locked into place. As they have been in Ireland for centuries now. Even though, you know as well as I do, the real differences between breeds of Irishmen—or Irishmen and Englishmen, for that matter—are tiny compared to the differences among breeds of men here in America."


Ross thought about it. Driscol's words were certainly true, insofar as they bore on Ireland. What differences really existed, between the boy Robert Ross had been and many of his playmates? Nothing, in terms of blood—or precious little. Centuries after the English conquest of Ireland, any man who claimed he knew how much Anglo-Saxon blood ran in his veins, instead of Celtic, was either a fool or a posturing ass. Usually both.


Ross chuckled. "You've such a cold way of looking at the world, Patrick. But I'll grant you there's a great deal of truth in it. Put a Calvinist and Catholic and a proper Church of England man in the same pasture and they'll quarrel, right enough. But it's only when the Anglican becomes the owner of the land that the Calvinist and the Catholic will make regular visits to the gaol or the whipping post. Mind you, the same would happen if you made the Calvinist—or the Catholic—the landlord and master."


"Oh, aye." Driscol shrugged. "A man doesn't become a superior being simply because he's exploited or oppressed. Often enough, if he reverses the situation, he'll do the same himself. Or worse. It'll only end when a nation arises that can finally abandon the barbaric business of class rule altogether. Not by becoming angels—no chance of that, in this world—but simply because they agree to change the rules."


Ross looked out the window. It was a gray and cloudy day, as was common for this time of year in New Orleans. "Do you really think your Americans can manage that?"


"Not easily, no. Certainly not quickly—and there's no chance at all it'll happen without bloody conflict. There will be at least one civil war waged on this continent before it's done. Of that much I'm certain. And I suppose, in a way, it'll never be entirely done. I suspect class arises naturally, like weeds in a field. The key is to develop a society that knows how to pull up weeds before they take over the garden. That's what Thomas Jefferson meant, I think, when he once said that the price of freedom is eternal vigilance."


Ross chuckled again. "So you see yourself here as a knight leveling his lance against the inequities of class, do you? Forgive me, Patrick, but I'm afraid that reminds me more than anything else of Cervantes's man from La Mancha. He was the Spanish knight who tilted at windmills, if you've never read Don Quixote."


"Please!" Driscol snorted. "I'm no knight of any sort. Certainly not a snooty Spaniard one. I'm a sergeant, General. So I'll go about it the way a proper sergeant would."


Ross examined him for a moment. "You've come up with a campaign plan, then?"


"I wouldn't dignify it with the name of 'campaign plan.' Generals design those fancy things, and—I told you—I'm a sergeant."


Driscol was still standing next to the window. He turned and gazed through it, out over the city.


"I'll build a redoubt, here in New Orleans. A fortress of sorts, you might call it, although it won't exactly be a military one. I don't have the wherewithal to plan and lead a campaign. Someone else will have to do that. Maybe Sam Houston, as he ages and matures. He's got the mind and the will and the heart for it, if he chooses to. Or someone else. But whoever it is, Patrick Driscol will see to it that his general has a bastion upon which he can anchor his forces. If I can manage that, before I die, I reckon I'll have lived a good enough life to be allowed into whatever paradise God has set aside for sergeants."


Ross laughed. "Lord in heaven, Patrick! What I'd have given to have had you as my master sergeant, in any force I've ever led!"


Still looking out the window, Driscol smiled. It was an unusually gentle smile, on such a face.


"Well, I'm afraid that's not likely to happen. But when the war is over, in the years ahead...If you've the time and the inclination, Robert, do come visit me, would you?"


It was the first time Driscol had ever addressed the British general by his given name. Perhaps the oddest thing of all that had happened to Robert Ross since he came to the New World was the sudden, deep warmth that gave him.


"You tried to kill me!" he protested.


"Oh, aye. Did my level best. And I'd do it again, in an instant, if I saw you coming at me with a sword in your hand, leading men in redcoat uniforms. Don't take it personally, Robert. I'd do the same for any bloody officer coming at me and mine with class in his heart, and damn the color of the uniforms."


Tiana came into the room, then. "Sergeant Ball is here, Patrick. He says the battalion is ready to—"


She broke off, flashing Ross an apologetic smile. "Go where you're supposed to go," she finished.


"Good lass," Driscol murmured. He lowered his head again, giving Ross a very stern look. "Never impart information in front of a Sassenach officer. Injuries, illness, death's door—all that be damned. The treacherous fellow is likely to be feigning it. Ready in an instant to leap from his bed, cut whatever throats he must, and race back to his own lines with the news."


Ross grinned. "Pay no attention to him, Tiana. Just another sullen Irishman. I'm too weak to cut the throat of a mouse, and if I tried to leap out of this bed I'd be lucky to roll off on the floor. Still, I'll not pry. Not even after the brute is gone."


Tiana grinned herself.


Driscol didn't, but he gave Ross a friendly nod before he and Tiana left the room.


* * *

After they were gone, Ross went back to staring at the ceiling. All traces of good humor faded away quickly, as he pondered the matter.


The battalion is ready to go where it's supposed to go.


Driscol's battalion.


And where would that be, I wonder?


Ross had never met any of the men in Driscol's new battalion, but he'd seen a few of them when they'd accompanied the major on his visits to Tiana. One of them, in particular, had caught the general's eye. He was a black man, like all the rest except one young white soldier, but seemed to carry himself with an unusual degree of poise.


When he'd inquired, Driscol had told him that was Charles Ball, a veteran from the U.S. Navy. The man who'd been in charge of the American artillery at the Capitol.


A freedmen's battalion, it was, made up almost entirely of former slaves who were now mostly ironworkers. The lowest stock of all, other than outright slaves, who'd need time and experience to develop the self-confidence that such men would naturally lack from their life's experience.


Normally, Ross would have dismissed such a formation without a thought. A unit made up of men like that would usually break in an instant, without lengthy training, once the crush of battle fell upon them. But with men like Charles Ball to serve as a crystallizing core for the force...


And Patrick Driscol to lead them! Ross had seen him do it, from the receiving end. Driscol could impart confidence to common and uncertain men like no other sergeant in his experience.


Oh, that was another matter altogether. If they fought behind defensive lines, at least, where they wouldn't need the months of training in the intricate steps and practices needed to maneuver and fight on the open field of battle in a hail of destruction.


Ross closed his eyes.


Where are they going? Where is Jackson placing them?


It was possible, of course, that Jackson simply intended to fit them somewhere into the forces already in position at the Rodriguez Canal.


But Ross didn't think so. The fieldworks at the canal covered little more than half a mile of front, and by now Jackson had thousands of soldiers available. Not the fifteen thousand Keane had feared, no, but both Ross and Pakenham were sure that Jackson had amassed at least five thousand men on that line— and plenty of artillery with them.


Driscol's unit would just be an encumbrance there. His men, still poorly trained, were more likely to get in the way of other units than do much good.


So where else?


Fort St. John was a possibility. Quite a good one, actually. If Jackson had the usual American distrust of the capabilities of black men as combatants—unlike the British, who had many black units in uniform—he might very well decide the fort on Lake Pontchartrain was the best place to put them.


Except...


With anyone other than Driscol in command, Fort St. John probably was where Jackson would put them. But Driscol was in command. Jackson wouldn't have had the success he'd had as a general—not leading mostly militia forces, certainly—if he wasn't a good judge of an officer's caliber as a combat leader. By now, Ross would give very long odds that Jackson had sized up Driscol and come to the same conclusion that Ross had.


And I'd have put that man in charge of whatever unit might come under the fiercest blows, on any battlefield in my life.


He opened his eyes. The ceiling was a blank, cold, empty bitterness.


Jackson was moving Driscol and his freedmen battalion across the river. With their ordnance. Ross was well-nigh certain of it. Just as he was almost certain that Jackson would have made plans to reinforce them, if necessary. As had happened so many times before, the British had almost caught Jackson napping.


But not quite in time.


Robert Ross sighed. On a battlefield, "almost" was more deadly than grapeshot. Nine battles out of ten were won or lost because something almost happened—but didn't.


Ross rolled his head slightly so that he could peer out of the window. It faced toward the British army, where Pakenham would even now be crouching like a tiger, ready to pounce. He'd be launching the assault very soon, within a few days.


"Please, Edward," he whispered. "Oh, dear God. Please."


He knew exactly what thoughts—emotions, rather—would be filling Pakenham's breast. The same that would have been filling his own, had Ross still been in command. Doubts, hesitations, fears, second thoughts, quibbles, uncertainties—all those, Pakenham would be burning on the altar this very moment. Purging them from every corner of his soul, steeling himself for what was coming.


There was nothing harder for such a general to do, once he reached that needed state, than to call it all off and just walk away. He had once overheard an officer remark that Robert Ross on the edge of a battle was like a satyr on the edge of a seduction. Consequences be damned.


He'd chuckled, at the time, and taken no offense. He still didn't, because it was largely true.


"Please, Edward." Pakenham would most likely die himself, of course. So would Gibbs. Probably Keane. Not the least of the reasons that the British army was the most feared in the world was that the casualties of its top officers in a battle—won or lost, it mattered not—were usually worse than among the soldiery.


But it was Ross's soldiers that he cared about. If officers died in a battle, they did so with all the perquisites and honors of their class. Statues would be erected, here and there, honoring their memory. A moment of silence would be held in churches across the land, perhaps even in Parliament. Their names would be remembered for generations, sometimes centuries.


Soldiers simply died. Within a few years, no one remembered their names except perhaps a widow, or orphans, or parents grieving an old age without a child. Often enough, no one remembered at all. Their regiments would celebrate their example, true; but the name that went with the example would be forgotten, even in the regiments.


The hardest thing, for a leader of men, was to understand when a battle was lost, sometimes even before it began. That the only thing he could do that made any sense, as inglorious as it might be, was simply to retreat. Find another place, another ground, another time, where another battle might be won. Not to confuse a battle with a campaign, a campaign with a war, or to forget that even a war has an ending—and that the wars to come would begin with that ending as their opening ground.


Ross could only hope, now, that Pakenham would be able to find that rare, precious wisdom. ***


Several miles to the southeast, another man had come to the same conclusion. John Ross had hesitated for months, torn between two impulses. In many ways, every instinct he had was repelled by Houston's scheme. It was inglorious, unjust—and it amounted to giving up the battle before it was even fought. Before, really, more than a few minor skirmishes had taken place.


But... Reality was a stubborn thing. John could also see no point in starting a war that couldn't be won.


Having made his decision, he'd come to stand beside Major Ridge. Ridge was studying the British forces across the field from the vantage point of the fieldworks. Chalmette, that expanse was called, named after the plantation.


The place where the American fieldworks were located had once been called the Rodriguez Canal. But it was called the Jackson Line now, and for good reason. A modest and sleepy little waterway had been turned into a moat, with solid fortifications behind. To break that line and defeat the American soldiers who held it, the British would have to cross a ten-foot-wide waterway and clamber up the fieldworks it fronted.


They'd have to climb at least fourteen feet, twice the height of a man, from the bottom of the moat to the crest of the fortifications, with thousands of American soldiers pouring fire on them. They could do it only by hauling ladders and fascines across more than four hundred yards of open field, with eight American batteries manned by the best gunners in the world raking them with round shot and grape all the way. Canister, at the end—to match the musket fire of thousands of riflemen, which would pour out in a flood once the British got close enough.


Most of those riflemen were Tennesseans, too. Militiamen, technically, but they were the veterans of Old Hickory's campaign against the Creeks. They might not be quite as good as regulars—wouldn't be, certainly, on an open field—but good enough for the purposes of this battleground. More than good enough.


If the British came across that field in a frontal assault, they would be slaughtered. John was as sure of it as every American on that line, and the knowledge gave them the confidence that would make them even more deadly when the fight came.


"We can't win," he said quietly to Major Ridge, "any more than the British can. Where we are now, the Cherokees are facing a Jackson Line just as hopeless as this one."


Ridge swiveled his head, to give John a calm gaze. Ross was relieved to see that there was no anger in those dark eyes.


He hadn't thought there would be. A very subtle but unmistakable change had come in the way Major Ridge looked at John Ross, after that night battle on the twenty-third. Prior to that time, Ridge had been friendly to John. Even praised him, now and then, for his shrewdness and acumen, while he dismissed with amusement the fact that Ross was obviously much better suited to be a diplomat than a warrior.


But not after that night. That night, John had finally entered the full darkness of the pit that warriors spoke of publicly as the glory of battle. And had come out of it, in the morning, with the knowledge that he now understood had been possessed by such men as Ridge for many years.


Battle was not glorious in the least. It was dark, bloody, terrifying, confusing, painful, and exhausting—to the soul even more than the body. The real glory—the only glory, to a man worthy of the name—was simply that he had survived it without disgracing himself.


The only moment in that night that John remembered with any real pride was the moment he'd hauled a highlander out of the water. He'd done his level best to kill the man first, and the man had probably died afterward, in any event. But in the darkest moment of his life, John Ross had not forgotten that he was a man and not a beast.


That was truly glorious, in its own way, he thought. A very quiet sort of glory, to be sure. But John was now certain that the only glory worthy of the name was the sort that took place silently, in the dark places of the soul, where there was no one to see the deed but the man who did it himself.


John hadn't mentioned the incident to anyone, except Major Ridge. And then, only to wonder if the highlander had died. But Ridge had seemed to understand; and, since then, he had made no jokes about diplomats and warriors. Not because he thought John was his equal as a warrior—very few Cherokees were— but simply because John was now a part of that brotherhood.


"You want my support," Ridge stated.


"Yes. It won't work without it. If I tried—which I would, whether you agreed or not, because I've made up my mind—I might succeed. But not without, most likely, tearing our nation in half."


Ridge nodded. "Probably. Give it a few years, with your talents, and I think you'll have more influence over our people than anyone. But I already have a lot, and I won't lose it."


The words were said with a stolid surety that matched Ridge's powerful frame. His gaze ranged up and down the Jackson Line. "I'm glad I agreed to come here," Ridge murmured. "If I hadn't..."


He snorted, softly. "Who knows what foolishness might have come into my head? A Jackson Line doesn't look like so much when you're facing it. See it from its own side, though, and you see the real thing."


When he turned back at John, he had a rare smile on his face. "Agreed, young John. You sweet-talk the stubborn folk, and I'll growl at them. Between us, we ought to get it done well enough. It'll take a few years, of course. By then, my son and nephew ought to be old enough to help, too."


That was true—and it would be a blessing. Ross had seen more than enough of John Ridge and Buck Watie in the course of their journey to Washington to know that they were as bright and capable as any youngsters the Cherokees had produced. Given their own abilities, and being the son and nephew of Major Ridge, they'd form the core of a generation that would have to carry on what was started here.


The clouds opened enough to let through a ray of sunlight. For a moment—not a long one—the dismal field at Chalmette shined brightly. The symbolism of the moment, coming when it did, finally broke the quiet melancholy that had engulfed John Ross for months. It allowed him, for the first time, to see the future as a prospect, instead of a bleak necessity.


Just like the Jackson Line, the future looked very different from that vantage point. The Cherokees would give up their beloved land, true. But they'd move to a new land as a nation, not the broken pieces of one. They'd move with a leadership that was united, not tearing at itself savagely and bitterly. They'd move with the resources and the material goods they needed—John Ross would squeeze the Americans for years before they left; every drop of blood he could get, out of that damn stone—to forge a new place for themselves quickly, not bleeding and battered and stripped to the skin. Give them a few decades to build from that start—John was sure they'd have that much time, even with American land hunger—and who was to say what they might not accomplish? And what pressures of the future they could then withstand? Or, at least, compromise with well enough to make "survival" more than a word applied to hungry refugees huddled in shacks and tents.


A Trojan retreat, indeed. He understood now what the cheerful youngster Sam Houston had been groping at—and the grim older troll Patrick Driscol had seen so clearly.


That was another thing. They'd have Houston as an ally, and Driscol, too. Each in his different way.


"We can win this," he said, surprised.


"Yes, we can," growled The Ridge, his expression fierce for an instant. "It'll take quite a few years, of course." His smile came back. "But years are our greatest resource, when you think about it. The Americans are too impatient to use them properly. Wars are fought with maneuvers over time, even more than territory. We can outmaneuver them. Watch and see if I'm not right. The Americans are too powerful. It makes them stupid."


Jackson appeared, on his horse, trotting down the line and shrilling orders. His whipcord body seemed to thrum like a sword.


"Of course, they are powerful," Ridge allowed. "So we'll just have to be a lot smarter."


Back | Next
Framed