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Chapter 43

January 7, 1815

"Bunch of niggers. They'll be useless, you watch and see."


Commodore Daniel Patterson swiveled his head to stare at the marine who had made that remark to a man standing next to him. Both men were part of the battery Patterson had placed ashore on the west bank of the Mississippi. They were watching Major Driscol and his "Freedmen Iron Battalion" as they disembarked from the ferries that had carried them across the river.


Patterson was about to issue a reprimand when the marine's companion made it unnecessary.


"Maybe not, too," the man said sharply. "And what do you know about it, anyway?"


He was a sailor, not a marine. The U.S. Marine Corps didn't allow black freedmen to join its ranks, but they were common in the navy. No one knew for sure, because no records were kept detailing the navy's racial composition, but somewhere between fifteen and twenty percent of the naval ranks were composed of freedmen—and the percentage was often much higher in the combat units.


Watching Driscol and his men as they energetically dug themselves in and prepared their positions, Patterson felt whatever doubts he'd had himself vanishing. Driscol's implacable determination was obvious, as was the fact that he'd successfully transmitted it to the men who followed him. Patterson was a bit astonished at the discipline of the unit, in fact, since he knew that they'd only had the benefit of less than a month's training.


Being a white man, it was hard for him to know exactly what went on in the minds of black men. But Patterson knew from a friend that Captain Isaac Hull, in his report on the Constitution's victory over the Guerriere, had remarked that the black gunners who'd made up a sizable part of the Constitution's crew had fought even harder and better than the white ones. Determined, it seemed, to prove themselves.


Patterson suspected he was seeing the same thing here. The more so since Driscol obviously had established a rapport with his men, despite the major's grim demeanor. He was the sort of white officer who could lead black soldiers well, because he was able to maintain the needed discipline without making his men feel that he was distrustful of them. Indeed, he seemed able to instill confidence in them and the conviction that they could succeed.


So by late afternoon, Patterson was in a far better mood than he'd been just a few days earlier. A good part of that was because, in a rare moment of military good sense, General Morgan had ordered Driscol and his battalion to take position on the right flank of Morgan's line.


Praise the Lord.


"General Morgan likes to call it the 'Morgan Line,' " Patterson told Driscol, when they had their first private conversation that evening. He and the major were standing on the open ground next to the riverbank, which gave them the best possible view of the terrain.


He kept his voice and facial expression impassive.


So did Driscol.


"Does he now?" mused the newly arrived major. His pale eyes moved up and down the trench in question. "I'd think the 'Morgan Scratch' might be a more suitable term."


Patterson had to choke down a laugh. Where Jackson, on the east bank, had turned the Rodriguez Canal into a formidable line of fieldworks, Morgan on the west bank had been satisfied to dig a shallow ditch and call the piled-up dirt behind it a "breastwork." The fieldworks were so shallow that men had to crouch or even lie down in order to be protected by it. And that "moat" could be leaped by a ten-year-old girl.


Driscol's gaze came to rest on the left wing of the "Morgan Line," next to the river itself.


"That seems solid enough, though," he commented.


Relieved both by the major's competence and his ability to keep a straight face, Patterson decided he could speak more openly.


"Yes, I agree. It's the only bright spot in the picture. Morgan's got two six-pounders positioned there, along with a twelve-pounder. The gunners are a mix of Louisiana militiamen and navy regulars, with other Louisiana militiamen on hand to provide infantry protection. Best of all, they're under the command of Lieutenant Philibert of the navy. They'll do well enough, I'm sure, when the fray starts."


Driscol nodded. "The real problem is on the right, where the line ends at the woods."


Patterson teetered forward a bit, his hands clasped behind his back, and examined the woods in question.


The jungle, it might be better to say. The west bank of the Mississippi, like the east bank, was flanked by huge cypress swamps.


"General Morgan believes the swamps will be an impassable barrier to British soldiers."


"Ah," said Driscol. "I take it General Morgan has never actually fought any British soldiers."


Patterson smiled. Very thinly.


"On the other hand," the major continued, "I have fought British regulars. They won't handle that terrain well. But I doubt very much if the veterans who managed to fight their way across the rugged country of Spain in the teeth of Napoleon's armies will be stopped by it."


Driscol's cold eyes came to rest on the troops who were lazing about their campfires at that end of the line, next to Driscol's own unit. They consisted of a few hundred poorly armed Kentucky militiamen who had arrived on the scene only two days earlier. They were part of the contingent of two thousand Kentucky volunteers who'd staggered into New Orleans on January 4, under the command of Major General John Thomas.


The Kentuckians had little of the experience of Jackson's Tennessee veterans. Most of them had come without weapons, in fact, because the captain of the ship carrying their supplies had refused to bring his vessel any closer than Natchez. Jackson, in a fury, had sent a detachment upriver to arrest the captain and bring him back in irons.


"They're a sorry-looking lot," he commented.


"Afraid so," Patterson agreed. "The Kentuckians got here in such a ragged state and so bare of provisions that the Louisiana legislature had to enact emergency relief just to provide the men with blankets and clothing to ward off the winter cold. Jackson immediately put the five hundred of them who had brought guns on the Jackson Line. The rest, as they scrounge up weapons in the city, he's been adding in dribs and drabs. Most of them on our side of the river."


He didn't add the word "unfortunately" to the end of the last sentence. With Driscol, there was no need to underline the obvious.


Patterson would no more have relied on such men to fend off an assault by British regulars than he'd have relied on a pack of half-starved and shivering mutts to fend off tigers. The cypress swamps that Morgan thought would serve them as a shield from the British would simply provide the Kentuckians with an attractive escape route when the fight began. Fortunately, they now had Driscol and his battalion as an anchor—not, of course, that the Kentuckians viewed those black soldiers with any more enthusiasm than the marine gunner had.


Niggers. They'll be useless.


But it didn't really matter what they thought. What mattered was how much shot those black gunners would level on the oncoming British, once the assault began. And from what he'd seen, Patterson had high hopes.


Sometime later, after parting from Driscol on a very cordial note, Patterson left. He needed to rejoin his own battery, which was located a considerable distance to the rear of the "Morgan Line," its guns facing across the river.


Like most of Morgan's dispositions, this one made no sense. Where Jackson, on the opposite bank, had a genius for concentrating his forces, Morgan had an equal genius for dispersing them—even though he had far smaller forces to begin with.


He had Patterson's battery, the best and strongest unit under his command, positioned so as to provide covering fire for Jackson across the river. So far, so good. But for reasons incomprehensible to anyone with any military sense, Morgan had placed most of his forces so far forward of the battery that it couldn't provide his own defensive line with any protection.


Then, apparently not satisfied that he'd inflicted enough damage upon himself, he'd dispersed his forces even further by sending some of the Kentuckians downriver to "defend" the bank of the Mississippi at the Jourdan plantation. As if 120 militiamen, armed with fowling pieces, would be able to do anything in the face of a British landing.


Madness, all of it. It wasn't in Patterson's nature to think ill of another man without solid evidence. But, by now, he was almost sure that the problem with Morgan went beyond simple military inexperience. There was something frenzied about Morgan's incompetence. He reminded Patterson of the way a man who is fundamentally scared to fight will sometimes, facing a set-to, start waving his arms about and shout wildly in the attempt to assure himself that he is really a very bold fellow after all.


Hopefully, Driscol and his men would make the difference. At least now the far right of the Morgan Line would be anchored by solid troops, with real artillery, to match Lieutenant Philibert's unit on the far left by the river.


Once he reached his own battery's position, Patterson nodded to his men but kept walking farther upriver. Just fifty yards or so, to the spot where Driscol had left the one white sergeant in his battalion. Anthony McParland, that was, whom Driscol had given a special assignment.


Patterson had wondered about that. Perhaps Driscol had left McParland behind because he was so young and Driscol didn't quite trust him in a battle. But McParland had been at the Chippewa, and apparently done well enough that Driscol—a hard man, that, too—had seen fit to promote him. So that didn't make sense.


Perhaps it was because, being white, Driscol trusted McParland to handle a task that he feared one of his Negro soldiers would fumble. But that didn't make much sense, either, because the task itself was as simple as any task gets: when the time came, light a flare. Any plantation owner routinely assigned far more complex chores to his slaves.


Patterson came upon McParland unawares. The teenage sergeant, fuse in hand and ready to be lit in a nearby campfire, was chatting away pleasantly with some of Patterson's sailors.


"—so then I told the general, straight to his face, that my da didn't raise me to shine another man's boots, and he could damn well shine them himself or have a lackey do it." Forcefully, Mc-Parland spat in the fire. "I was a soldier, tarnation, not a blasted servant."


A grin creased the youngster's face.


"A word to the wise, boys. Old Winfield's a wizard on the battlefield, but he's a nasty old woman any other ways. Well, he like to have a fit. The next thing I knew he had me in front of a firing squad with none other than my own Sergeant Driscol— yeah, he was just a sergeant back then—in charge of the business. And I knew the sergeant would do it, without blinking an eye."


Another gob of spit unerringly struck the flames.


"Driscol's not exactly human, you know. Mostly human, sure, but there's some troll blood in him. There's trolls in Scotland, and that's where his family comes from originally."


One of the sailors was bold enough to argue the point. "Ah, I don't think so. My family's from Scotland, too, back when, and they never talk about no trolls." Hastily, seeing McParland's gathering frown, he added: "I don't doubt you, mind. Not about Driscol! I've seen him. But don't forget that Scots got a lot of old Viking blood in us, too—and, sure as shooting, there's trolls in Norway and places like that."


Two or three of the sailors nodded sagely.


Mollified, McParland continued. "Well, yeah, you might be right at that. Anyway, there I was, standing in front of a firing squad. General Scott himself was watching, sitting on his horse. I looked him square in the eye and said, 'Fire away and be damned!'"


McParland paused, chuckling.


"What happened then?" asked one of the sailors eagerly. He looked to be no older than McParland.


"Well—heh—I was young and stupid, in those days. I didn't think they'd actually do it. But Driscol—he's a troll, didn't I tell you?" McParland looked momentarily aggrieved. "Why, the bastard took my own words as the signal and ordered them to fire. Next thing I knew I was knocked off my feet by the blast. 'Sa good thing—I found out later—Driscol had told all the men to aim no higher than my chest, or the powder burns would have scarred me for life, point-blank range like it was. But the guns were loaded with blanks, it turned out. General Scott's mean as a snake about some things, but he's still a general as good as they come. He just wanted to establish what was what. As it was..."


He shook his head. "Well, let's put it this way, boys. General Scott never told me again to shine his boots, but if he had, I'da done it and not given him no back talk. Don't think I wouldn't. And I never again doubted that Patrick Driscol would do exactly what he said he'd do. You might as well argue with a rock as argue with him."


Silence fell on the little group squatting about the campfire. Then, as one man, they all looked at the squat flare positioned not twenty feet away.


"So, you gonna do it?" asked one of the sailors. "We all heard General Morgan, when he come by earlier, telling you not to fire it unless he gives you the order."


McParland hawked, spat. Another gobbet caused a small hiss in the fire. "Don't matter what Morgan says. The sergeant—ah, Major Driscol—told me to fire that flare the moment I think the British are coming for sure. And start waving that big flag over there."


There was a furled banner resting against a nearby tree. Patterson hadn't noticed it earlier.


Hawk. Spit. Hiss.


"So General Morgan can go fuck himself, for all I care. If he hollers about it afterward, the troll will eat him."


Smiling, Commodore Patterson walked quietly away. He didn't believe most of that story. Someday, if he had the chance, he'd ask Driscol what really happened. But he didn't wonder any longer why Driscol had left McParland in charge of the flare.


The sun was setting now.


It would happen tomorrow. The commodore had spent most of the day downriver, watching the enemy with an eyeglass, making their preparations. Patterson knew that Jackson still thought they'd do no more than send a token force across the Mississippi; a feint, essentially, to distract him while they launched a massive frontal assault on his own lines. But Patterson had seen the effort the British had put into widening the canal over the previous week. That was no feint.


The enemy would strike here first, and they'd strike hard and fast, with their best units. He was sure he understood their battle plan: overwhelm the Americans on the right bank, seize Patterson's big guns and turn them to fire enfilade on the Jackson Line. And only then start their assault on the east bank.


They might well succeed, too, given the weakness of the American forces on the west bank and the incapacity of its commanding general. But, if nothing else, Patterson was now confident that Driscol would hold them off long enough to allow Patterson to destroy his own cannons. Whatever else, the British would not use those splendid American guns against American soldiers. And without those guns, any victory on the west bank would be ultimately meaningless. They couldn't reach New Orleans from this side of the river. Not when Patterson still had the Louisiana anchored there to destroy any attempt to cross over.


"Are the spikes ready?" he asked his chief gunnery mate.


"Yes, sir." The sailor nodded toward freshly dug pathways leading to the riverbank. "And I've got everything ready, like you said, so we can pitch the guns into the Mississippi after we've spiked them."


Patterson nodded. He hoped he wouldn't have to, of course. But...


Just like McParland, and Driscol, he'd do whatever needed to be done.


Across the river, Colonel Thornton lowered his eyeglass slowly. He hadn't been able to get a good view at any time over the past two days, as the new American unit had arrived to reinforce Morgan's forces. Just enough to know that they were an artillery unit, which seemed mostly composed of black soldiers.


That probably meant U.S. Navy regulars, which was the last thing Thornton wanted to encounter after he crossed the river. At least, he knew of no other American forces that had large numbers of black soldiers who handled cannons with such apparent familiarity.


Damnation.


The key to the whole assault was speed. It wasn't enough to just defeat the Americans over there. They had to be routed. Sent scampering in such haste and confusion that they wouldn't have time to spike the big guns or pitch them into the river. Or haul them out of danger altogether.


Until that new unit had arrived, Thornton had thought he had an excellent chance of doing so. British intelligence was quite good now, with a number of American deserters coming across the line, in addition to the runaway slaves, and Thornton had known that most of the forces over there were militia units. Some of them newly arrived from Kentucky, ill trained, inexperienced, and apparently almost completely unsupplied.


Now...


Thornton did his best to look on the bright side. Even if he failed to capture the guns, he was still confident that he could seize the west bank. In that event, the siege would simply settle in. Over time—not without great difficulty, but it could be done—the British could transport the big guns from the naval vessels on Lake Bourgne, down the canals and across the river. Step by step, day by day, if they controlled the west bank they could keep shifting those guns closer and closer to New Orleans, forcing Jackson to retreat to the city. Wellington's veterans had plenty of experience with sieges—far more, after all the years in the Peninsular War, than the Americans did.


Thornton shook his head. He wasn't privy to the inner councils of the British high command, but he knew that Cochrane and the top generals thought a peace treaty was in the making. However good the British army was at fighting sieges, it was still a fact that sieges took time. And time was probably the one essential item of which they were in the shortest supply.


"Well, Colonel?"


Thornton almost jumped, he was so startled. He turned to find General Pakenham standing behind him.


"Sir. Sorry, I didn't hear you coming."


"Yes, I know. You seemed quite lost in your thoughts. I'd appreciate knowing what they are."


Thornton hesitated. He wasn't familiar enough yet with Pakenham to know how much his new commander would welcome in the way of frankness. Robert Ross had always encouraged his subordinates to speak their mind, although he'd never shuffled the responsibility for making a decision onto them. But many British generals regarded a contrarian view from subordinate officers as just a hair short of treason—or cowardice in the face of the enemy—both of which were capital crimes.


Pakenham was personally intimidating, too, in a way that the relatively lowborn, plain-faced and easygoing Ross had not been. He was tall, handsome, vigorous, poised—the spitting image of an Anglo-Irish aristocrat. Add to that his own reputation, and the fact that his sister had married Wellington...


Pakenham smiled, slightly. "I am quite aware of your splendid reputation as a commander in battle, Colonel Thornton. I really would appreciate hearing what you think."


"Yes, sir." Thornton nodded across the river. "They've added a new artillery unit over there, sir. They've got a twelve-pounder and at least one six-pounder. Somewhere around three hundred men, as near as I can determine. Most of them seem to be black soldiers. That probably means U.S. Navy regulars."


Pakenham gazed across the Mississippi. There was nothing to be seen over there now but darkness, with only the last moments of sunset to illuminate the area.


"Possibly. But I think not. Just this morning, two more runaway slaves arrived in our lines. From the city itself, these, not one of the nearby plantations. They tell us that Jackson had a new battalion of freedmen formed up, less than three weeks ago. That's probably them, in which case they'll be even more inexperienced than the usual militia force."


Thornton started to speak; then, still hesitant despite Pakenham's tacit reassurance, closed his mouth.


"Yes, Colonel?"


"Something still doesn't make sense here, sir. A new black battalion wouldn't be given guns. Muskets, at the most, and probably the poorest ones available. But twelve-pounders? There has to be more involved."


Pakenham nodded. "Oh, surely. From what we can glean from the runaways, the unit indeed has a core of U.S. Navy sailors. But nine-tenths of them are completely new. Former slaves, mostly, who were employed in various crafts throughout the city."


"I see. Do we know the name of the commanding officer?"


Pakenham shook his head. "The slaves—as usual—knew precious little in the way of details."


The tall British commander paused. He was looking down at Thornton in a peculiarly stiff-necked way that made the colonel uneasy, until he remembered that Pakenham had suffered two neck wounds in his career. The first, according to rumor, had given his head a peculiar cock to the side. The second, fortunately, had done the same on the other side. So now Pakenham's head sat unerringly straight, but to the natural stiffness of an Anglo-Irish aristocrat was added the immobility of matching wounds. Under other circumstances, it might all have been quite amusing.


U.S. Navy regulars...black sailors...an unknown commander. Thornton had an uneasy feeling he knew who they were. Might be, at least.


His own Eighty-fifth, blessedly, had not suffered badly at the Capitol because Ross had chosen to give them a rest after Bladensburg. So he'd used the Fourth as the lead regiment in the assault there.


Used them up, it might be better to say. The Fourth had suffered terrible casualties in that assault, even during the brief time it had lasted. The American battery positioned between the two wings of the American legislative house had been murderous.


"Sir, have you considered the possibility—"


"Yes, Colonel, I know. It might be the same men who were at the Capitol. And with the same commander. Driscol, if I recall the name properly. Ross told me about him. Still..."


Pakenham studied the darkness across the river. "War is always a murky business. It might not be them, too. And even if it is, there aren't more than a dozen or so veterans in the lot. Most of that unit will be greener than an Irish spring. We have no choice other than to press forward as we planned, and I'm confident we can handle the worst."


He paused, for a moment. "Still, let's not be foolhardy. I was trying to decide anyway, and now I have. I'll add one of the two new regiments to your assaulting force, Colonel, along with some of the West Indian troops. That'll give you about two thousand men. Even if that new unit is in fact Driscol's, you'll outnumber them heavily."


That would be a help. A tremendous help.


All the more so, because of the quality of the reinforcements. Major General John Lambert had just arrived with the Seventh Fusiliers and the Forty-third Light Infantry: seventeen hundred men, in all. Both were veteran units, fresh from the campaigns in Spain and southern France and covered with laurels from them. Like Pakenham himself, Lambert had served under Wellington and was one of his young protégés.


The colonel's spirits were rising quickly. Thornton was a very experienced combat commander, and he knew full well that the single most important factor when it came to winning battles was usually the crudest and simplest. Numbers. With two thousand men instead of a thousand, he'd have an overwhelming force, once he got across the river.


That assumed, of course, that he'd be able to send the militia forces scampering. But Thornton was quite confident on that matter. It was the American artillery units over there that worried him. With two thousand men, though, he should be able to simply overrun them. And he'd have enough men to be able to afford heavy casualties, if that was what it took to do the job.


"The Forty-third, I think," Pakenham mused. "They're light infantry and will move faster. I'd planned to keep them in reserve, but if your assault fails, they'd probably prove useless to me anyway."


"Yes, sir. I'd much appreciate that, sir. And..."


Pakenham's smile, this time, was not thin at all. "Oh, you needn't be concerned about that, Colonel. I shall make it clear to the Forty-third's commander—that's Colonel Rennie, by the way—that you are in command."


Thornton nodded. The one problem with adding a new unit on the eve of an operation was that quarrels might arise between the commanders. All the worse when, as in this instance, Thornton hadn't even known the name of the Forty-third's commander, so recently had the regiment come into camp. But Rennie would be familiar with Pakenham—and Thornton, to his considerable relief, was discovering that Pakenham had the same sureness as a commander that Robert Ross had possessed. He'd make clear enough to the fellow that Thornton was his superior officer in the coming assault.


"You'd best get ready now, Colonel Thornton," Pakenham stated. "I want your men starting into the barges as soon as the sunrise fades."


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