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Chapter 44

January 8, 1815

The British assault started falling behind schedule almost immediately. Admiral Cochrane had insisted from the beginning on having his sailors widen the canals, where the British soldiers would have preferred simply to haul the barges across land using rollers and brute force. Unfortunately, Pakenham had chosen not to dispute the issue with the admiral—and now Colonel Thornton was paying the price.


The British engineers and sailors had labored round the clock. They'd erected a dam across the canal a short distance from the river, and left a levee standing between the end of the canal and the Mississippi. The plan was to load all the soldiers in the barges, and cut the levee. The canal was lower than the Mississippi, so the water rushing in would reach the dam, be blocked, and quickly fill the lower portion of the waterway, enough to enable all the barges to sortie as one.


After his men had clambered into the barges, the levee was cut and the waters rushed in. To his horror, Thornton watched the dam collapse. In their hurry to make the deadline, the engineers had been sloppy in their work. The thing was just too flimsily made to withstand the sudden pressure.


To make things worse, the banks of the canal also caved in at several points. Looking up and down the line of the canal, Thornton saw that most of the barges were hopelessly stuck in the mud.


"God damn all admirals and their schemes," he hissed.


"What was that, sir?" asked one of his aides.


Thornton shook his head. "Never mind. Nothing for it, now. We've got no choice but to offload the barges and haul them down to the river by brute force."


He didn't add what he could have, which was that the army could have done that from the very beginning. In fact, that had been the army's proposal, but Cochrane had overruled them.


So the soldiers would wind up doing it their way anyhow— except now they had to do it waist-deep in mud. Cocksure naval officers had cost Thornton hours of precious time. And by the time he got his men onto the river, they'd be exhausted from the labor.


It was as bad a way to start a battle as he could think of.


"We've only got thirty barges ready so far, sir," protested the same aide, several hours later.


"I know," Thornton growled. "That'll just have to do. It's already three o'clock of the morning. We can't afford to wait any longer. We'll start the attack with the men we can fit into those thirty barges. My own Eighty-fifth, of course. The Royal Marines, also."


He turned to Colonel Rennie. "You'll have to follow us with your Forty-third Light Infantry and the West Indian troops, when you can. As soon as I reach the opposite shore, I'll start my march to the north."


"You'll have less than a thousand men, sir."


It was all Thornton could do not to snarl: I know that, you idiot! D'you think I can't do simple arithmetic?


But he restrained himself to a simple nod. In truth, Rennie had proven to be a most competent and helpful subordinate, showing none of the resentment that Thornton had feared he might. The man was just doing his job, pointing out problems to his superior.


"Just join me as soon as you can, once you get across the river."


Once you get across the river.


Such a simple and innocuous phrase. But no sooner had Thornton gotten his force fifty yards into the river than he encountered yet another unexpected problem. The British navy had never been able—never really tried, actually—to force its way up the Mississippi past Fort St. Philip. So the British had little experience with it. So Thornton and his men were discovering what he suspected any competent American riverboat captain could have told them: that the slow-moving, muddy Mississippi had currents far more powerful than it seemed.


Thornton watched helplessly as his flotilla of barges was swept downstream. They'd cross the river, sure enough—but they'd finally make landing almost a mile farther south than they'd intended.


The British had planned to land their force about three miles from Morgan's main line of defense. Just far enough away that Morgan couldn't get a solid force to the bank soon enough to drive off the barges, but close enough that the British could undertake a forced march on his position as soon as they arrived. Instead, they'd land so far away that if Thornton tried a forced march in full gear, his men would be too tired to fight once they reached the American lines. Especially since they'd be starting off already tired from the labor of getting the barges to the river.


In that respect, at least, this new unexpected delay yielded an advantage. Whether Thornton wanted it that way or not, the current was giving his soldiers a longer period of rest than they would have had if things had gone as scheduled.


Trying to eke what little solace he could from that thought, the colonel adjusted his plans. He had no choice now but to give the Americans more time to prepare their defenses. He wouldn't be able to get his men in place until well after daybreak.


No choice, no choice. If the assault on the west bank was delayed too long, the Americans would have the time to extract the precious guns, or destroy them. Moreover, Pakenham would have to delay his own assault on the east bank. No commanding general wanted to start a major attack with that much of the day already gone, if it could be avoided. Certainly not Pakenham on January the 8th of the year 1815, on the field of Chalmette. Even if Pakenham broke the enemy line, Jackson had created two fallback lines of defense. If Pakenham was forced to halt the advance because of nightfall, the enemy would have the time to regroup—if not at the Line Dupre, then at the Line Montreuil. Thornton knew that Pakenham wanted to break the Americans where they were, and then pursue them relentlessly all the way to New Orleans. But to do that would require a full day, not half of one.


So be it. Thornton was still leading some of the best soldiers in the world, against some of the worst.


Some of the worst. Thornton wished he knew for sure how true that would prove to be. The black water of the Mississippi at night reminded him that he still didn't know the nature of that new artillery unit.


* * *

Charles Ball trotted up to Driscol. "Just got the word from Henry, down at the river. He says the racket they're making— they been hollering all night, he says, every time they got another barge into the water—this has got to be it."


Driscol nodded. He'd sent Henry Crowell and three other soldiers to scout for him, although he hadn't done so until after nightfall. That wasn't because he cared if the British spotted them, but because he saw no reason to get into another argument with the idiot Morgan. The general had explained to Driscol— clearly, explicitly, and at amazing length—that Driscol's unit was raw, untrained, unfit even if they had been trained since they were darkies, and under no circumstances were they to act as skirmishers or leave their position.


Driscol had nodded sagely, keeping silent and not arguing the point with the good general. Why bother? Driscol had realized long since that one of the advantages to having black troops was that they were hard to spot at night. Provided, of course, that their uniforms were dark also. Since official uniforms were scarce these days in New Orleans, Driscol had had his unit design their own and have them made by seamstresses in the city's Negro quarters. Who were, often enough, their wives or mothers or sisters.


I don't care what they look like, he'd told them, except they'll have no shiny buttons—nothing shiny—and they'll be blue. Dark blue.


"Morgan didn't spot them, I assume?"


Charles grinned. Despite his part-Irish ancestry, the gunnery sergeant was very dark-skinned, even for a black man. At four o'clock in the morning, in that uniform, his teeth shone like beacons. "Major, I can't spot 'em thirty feet off."


He glanced at James and John Rogers, who were standing nearby. "Maybe Cherokees or Choctaws could. But Morgan don't have any."


Driscol scratched his chin. By now, that gesture was smooth and certain. He'd gotten so used to the missing arm that he didn't think about it much anymore. Much sooner, in fact, than he would have thought possible. He was pretty sure that was because Tiana never seemed to notice its absence at all.


For the first time in his life, on the eve of a battle—except that first battle outside Antrim where his brother had died—Driscol found himself fervently hoping he'd survive.


Tiana...


But that was a treacherous thought. So, ruthlessly, he ground it under.


"All right, then," he stated firmly. "I don't want to wait any longer than I have to. If McParland fires that flare after sunrise, Houston might not spot it. Right now, though—any time within the next hour—there's no way he couldn't. So get up there as fast as you can, making sure that jackass Morgan doesn't—"


A bright yellow plume flared into the sky, in the distance to the northwest.


"Never mind," said Driscol. "Nice to see young McParland's alert."


"You won't do it," stated one of the sailors. Like the others, he was half hidden behind a nearby tree. But he said it very uncertainly.


McParland sneered, advancing toward the flare. The fuse was now burning. The teenage sergeant had lit it in the campfire, after giving the fire the benefit of another gob of phlegm.


"Think I care about Morgan? The sergeant—ah, major— given me my orders. Nobody but a fool would think all that noise down there"—McParland jerked his head toward the south—"is anything but what it has to be. And my mama didn't raise no fools."


For all his braggadocio, when McParland tossed the fuse into the gaping maw of the barrel-shaped flare, he did so gingerly and from a distance—and then scampered away.


Fortunately, the thing did what it was supposed to do, instead of just blowing up. McParland hadn't been at all sure it would work, even with Driscol's assurances. Still, better to get blown up than cross the troll.


"Wow!" hissed one of the sailors. Like all the rest, only his head peeked from around the trees. "That's some Roman candle!"


Now that he was sure that the flare would burn out without any harm to him, McParland was back to braggadocio. He stepped out into the open—no trees for him—and stood there, hands planted firmly on his hips.


"Yup. It's the salt, you know." His tone was that of an expert, sure of his trade, even though he was no such thing. "Driscol said that just adding salt to the gunpowder would give it that color."


Bright yellow, flaring briefly into the night.


"You gonna wave the flag, too? Can't nobody see it across the river yet."


But McParland was already moving toward the furled banner. "Course I am! Like I said, my mama didn't raise no fools. A troll tells you to do something, you do it. Unless you wanta be soup."


Thornton also spotted the flare. "Damnation!" he shouted. And why not? He'd been completely unable to keep his frustrated men from maintaining silence since midnight. Now, quite clearly, silence was pointless. He might as well give vent to his own exasperation.


Sam Houston was dozing in his tent, so he didn't spot the flare. He'd finally had to force himself to try to get some sleep, so he wouldn't go into the battle having gotten no rest at all. He was normally a heavy sleeper, but tonight he was so keyed up with excitement that he woke up instantly when John Ross came into his tent.


"Driscol's sent the signal," Ross said.


Houston sprang to his feet. "Did you tell the general?"


John shook his head. "I came to you first. But I sent a courier to give him the word."


Houston wondered if he should wait to hear from Jackson before starting across the river. But his hesitation was brief. Jackson had agreed to the plan already, and Houston was no General Morgan to dither and dally using the excuse that he hadn't been given explicit orders at the moment.


Besides, there was no time to waste. Because of the danger of hot shot fired from the British artillery, the ferries that would carry Houston and his men across the river were waiting several miles upstream. They'd have to march for an hour upriver, then cross, then march the same distance back down before they could reinforce the American troops on the other side of the Mississippi.


He clamped on his colonel's hat. He'd slept without taking off anything else, even his boots.


"Let's go, then," he said, stooping and passing through the tent flap.


Jackson hadn't seen the flare himself. The general, sure that the British would launch their final assault on the morning of the 8th, had not slept much that night either. But he had finally managed to nap for a short time on the couch of the Macarty plantation house where he'd set up his headquarters.


Major Reid shook him awake. "Sir, the flare went off across the river a short while ago. Colonel Houston's already pulled out of the lines, to reinforce Morgan."


Jackson sat up, shaking his head to clear it.


He wasn't surprised that Houston hadn't waited to receive permission to cross the river. Would have been surprised if he had, in fact. Still, though he wasn't irritated by the youngster's initiative, he was a bit disgruntled by the situation.


Jackson didn't think the British intended any serious assault over there. He wasn't sure, of course, which was the reason he'd agreed to Houston's proposal. But Jackson thought the young colonel and his men would be spending most of the day doing nothing more valuable than crisscrossing the river. Soon enough, once it became clear that the British thrust across the Mississippi was just a feint, Houston would be marching his men back.


By the time they returned to the Jackson Line, however, the battle would probably be over—and they'd most likely be too tired to fight anyway, even if it weren't.


"Oh, well," he murmured. He was philosophical enough about the matter not to dwell on it. Houston had left his artillerymen behind with Jackson, since they'd move too slowly with their guns to be of any use to him. In truth, by now Jackson had so many men on the line that he'd been keeping the rest of Houston's regiment in reserve anyway. A reserve that he really didn't expect he'd need.


Pakenham would need a miracle to get his men across the killing field at Chalmette—and God, Jackson was sure, was on the side of America.


Besides, even if the British attack on the west bank was a diversion, Jackson didn't want to see his forces defeated across the river. Which they were almost bound to be, if the British landed in any numbers. Even leaving aside his doubts concerning Morgan, Jackson knew full well that most of the Kentuckians over there were in no shape to fight.


He muttered under his breath.


"What was that, sir?"


Jackson rose from the couch, shaking his head more vigorously still. Not to shake off weariness, but in sheer disbelief. "I still can't believe those Kentuckians arrived without guns, the most of them. Talk about miracles! I never in my life seen a Kentuckian without a gun, a pack of cards, and a jug of whiskey."


Once they finally reached the shore, Thornton got his men into marching order very quickly. The Eighty-fifth was a superb regiment. The veterans knew what to do, even without the officers' orders.


Captain Money and his Royal Marines, he was pleased to see, got into formation just as swiftly and surely. Now that the fight was finally at hand, Thornton could feel all the frustration of the past hours vanishing. Late or not, behind schedule or not, he was leading one of the finest fighting forces anywhere in the world.


"We'll win, by God!" he almost shouted.


He spoke loudly enough for Money to hear him, as the marine officer trotted up to get his final marching orders.


"So we will, sir," he said, smiling. "I assume you'll want us to leave most of our gear behind?"


"Yes. The men will have gotten some rest from that overlong voyage on the river. But if they have to undertake a forced march for miles, with all their equipment, they'll be too exhausted at the end to fight well."


Money nodded calmly, even though he knew that meant they'd be fighting with just a few rounds of ammunition for each man.


"Be a lot of bayonet work," he predicted.


"Yes, it will." Thornton's grin was savage now. "Cousin Jonathan is about to discover that the facts of life are made of cold steel."


* * *

Miles upstream, Sam Houston was cursing the weather. As was not unusual in New Orleans for that time of year, the river was half obscured by fog that the rising sun had not yet burned away. It was a good thing Driscol had set off the flare before daybreak. Had he set it off now, it might well never have been seen on the east bank.


"Don't dare risk it, sir," said the captain, for the tenth time since the ferry left the shore. "Got to move slowly and carefully, under these conditions."


For the tenth time, Houston was tempted to curse the man along with the weather—or just toss him overboard and pilot the boat himself. But...


Piloting a ferry on the Mississippi was a real skill, and not one that Houston possessed himself. Nor, as far as he knew, did any of the men who were following him. Certainly the Cherokees didn't. Whether he liked it or not, he had no practical way of overriding the captain's caution.


So he distracted himself by pestering his men, making sure they were all prepared for the coming fray. The young Baltimore dragoons and First Capitol Volunteers took his fretting fairly seriously; Major Ridge and his Cherokees paid him no attention at all.


Finally, the ferries started coming ashore. Houston was the first off the boats, charging onto the pier on the west bank like Achilles storming off the waters of the Aegean at Troy.


After striding three steps later, his boot caught on a loose plank and he was sent sprawling. Flat on his belly, Sam glared at the wooden flooring. He was feeling quite indignant.


Achilles hadn't tripped within ten feet after landfall.


Of course, Achilles hadn't had to deal with the hazards of a hastily constructed pier. On the other hand, Achilles had certainly stormed ashore waving his sword, and Sam was mightily glad he hadn't.


An ignominious end, that would have been, to a glorious life just barely under way. Alas, in his enthusiasm, the Young Hero of the Capitol skewered himself dreadfully at the beginning of the battle. His remains were interred—


It didn't bear thinking about. Just didn't.


* * *

Hours, they'd lost! Precious hours.


It was past nine o'clock in the morning and Major General Edward Pakenham, Knight of the Bath, was practically exploding with frustration.


Pakenham knew, from somewhat-veiled comments offered by Admiral Cochrane, that Robert Ross had expressed strong reservations concerning the wisdom of launching directly into battle with a new commander in charge of the army. Even though Pakenham understood that the reservations didn't actually involve his own abilities, he'd still resented them a bit.


Now, he was coming to realize just how wise Ross had been, with his greater experience. The army under Pakenham was a very good one, and he knew that he was a very good general. But the fact remained that war was a messy business, always full of unexpected difficulties—and there did not yet exist the smooth interaction between himself and his subordinates that would have come from weeks or months of working together on a longer and better-planned campaign.


The result had been a series of setbacks and mishaps. Most of them fairly minor, in themselves. But, added together, they were beginning to undermine the entire plan of the battle.


He was doing his very best not to take out his frustration and anger on his subordinates.


And succeeding, for the most part. The only officer who'd received the full brunt of Pakenham's wrath had been Lieutenant Colonel Thomas Mullins, the commander of the Forty-fourth Foot. The Forty-fourth had been charged with the task of carrying the fascines and ladders that the rest of the army would need to storm the Jackson Line, and by eight o'clock it had become obvious to Pakenham that the man was hopelessly incompetent. The fool hadn't even bothered to check if the fascines and ladders were actually in place where they were supposed to be, even though he'd been explicitly instructed to do so the night before.


But, General Pakenham. I made inquiries and was told—


Told by whom? And why didn't you look for yourself? The entire attack plan depends on those ladders and fascines, you— you—


Pakenham had experienced a nightmarish vision of his soldiers piling up at the Jackson Line, and being ripped to pieces by American fire, with the means of storming the fieldworks somewhere lost in the rear because a blithering idiot who only held his command due to the fact that he was the son of Lord Ventry had not taken so simple and obvious a measure with regard to so critical a matter as to look for himself.


You are dismissed, Colonel Mullins. Inform your subordinate that he is now in command of the Forty-fourth.


Dismissed, I said!


For the tenth time that morning, Pakenham resisted the urge simply to launch the assault across the field of Chalmette, regardless of where things stood on the opposite bank. It was a difficult urge to resist.


Very difficult. Pakenham, like the hapless Mullins, certainly owed the start of his career to family connections. But his rise thereafter had been due to his own ability and temperament. Even by the standards of Wellington's army, Pakenham was an aggressive general. Every instinct he had was shrieking at him to begin the attack.


He probably would have done so, in truth, had it not been for Robert Ross. Partly due to Ross's words of caution based on his own experience at the Capitol; partly based on the deep respect Pakenham, like all officers in the British army, had for Ross as a general. And partly, in the end, simply because he had made a personal promise to the man.


So he took a long, slow, deep breath, controlling his urges.


"Perhaps I was a bit hard on Mullins," he said to Gibbs.


His second in command's jaws were tight. "You saved him from a court-martial, sir. I just got word from Lambert. The ladders and fascines weren't in place."


Pakenham's face turned pale. "Good God."


"Yes. Can you imagine what would have happened?"


Pakenham could, all too well. A pure massacre.


"Good God," he repeated.


Tiana Rogers had been watching Robert Ross for almost an hour, sitting silently in the chair in the corner of his room where she often spent time while tending to him. The British general was normally courteous—even mildly flirtatious, at times, in the harmless way that a middle-aged man will sometimes be with a young woman. But today he had been completely oblivious of her. Other than a glance he'd spared when she'd come into the room that morning, all his attention had been directed at the open window.


He must have opened it himself, before daybreak, since she'd left it closed the night before to ward off the winter cold. Ross had been lying in his bed staring at the window ever since.


His eyes were open, but they weren't really seeing anything. He was listening. Trying, with his very experienced ear, to gauge the progress of the conflict now starting to unfold miles down the Mississippi.


"Would it make you feel any better if we waited down by the river?" she asked. "Mind you, it'll probably rain—drizzle, for sure—and it's already cold and damp. So if you take ill again, it's your own fault."


Startled, he looked at her. Then smiled.


"Sorry. I've been very rude, I'm afraid. Yes, dear girl, it would make me feel immensely better."


He looked back at the window, cocking his head a bit. "From the sounds of the street, though, I'd say I'll be in greater danger of being slaughtered by frenzied females, than dying of a chill."


Tiana barked a laugh. "Those hens! They're all rushing about in a tizzy because they're sure they're about to be raped by oncoming hordes of Englishmen. Slaughter's the last thing on their minds, or they'd be doing something useful like sharpening their knives." She rose from her chair, smiling in a rather predatory manner. "I sharpened mine days ago."


Ross flushed. "I realize the reputation of the British army suffered badly after Badajoz. But I can assure you, young lady—"


"Spare me, Robert. British soldiers are no more saints than any other. What will happen, will happen. The one thing I can assure you is that if any gang of soldiers tries to rape me, the second or third man in the party might succeed. The first one will either be dead or singing falsetto. Probably the second, too."


Ross chuckled. "You are a formidable creature, have I ever told you that?"


"Yesterday. Again. After I told you—again—that you were welcome to empty your own chamber pot any time you were stupid enough to decide you're fit and hearty. Which you aren't."


She shrugged on her shawl, which was a very attractive Creole one. Before they got outside, Ross knew, she'd supplement it with a Cherokee blanket. Tiana Rogers simply didn't care what other people thought of the way she dressed or carried herself. To be sure, as young and beautiful as she was, she didn't really need to. But Ross was quite certain that she'd be the same way as an old woman.


"Formidable," he repeated, as Tiana helped him out of the bed.


She did not, thankfully, offer to help him change from his bedclothes into his uniform. She was formidable enough to do it, if he'd needed the help. But he'd manage well enough, and it would have embarrassed him. It was bad enough that she did the sort of unpleasant chores for him that a servant should properly do. Cherokees were odd, that way. They'd employ slaves for productive labor as readily as white Americans, from what Ross could tell, but didn't seem to feel that personal servants were appropriate.


One woman on the street did shriek, seeing Robert's uniform. Then, scampered away in panic, insofar as an overweight matron in her fifties could be said to "scamper" at all. Several others gaped at him.


None, however, advanced upon him with mayhem in their hearts. Ross decided he would survive.


Down by the riverbank, he couldn't really hear what was happening all that much better than he could have staying in his hotel room. Still, he felt relieved being there, out in the open of the Plaza de Armas. They were fairly comfortable, too, soon enough. Tiana bullied a Creole baker whose shop fronted the city's main square into providing them with a small table, two chairs, pastries, and a pot of tea. The tea in New Orleans was even good, unlike the normal American travesty.


"There fails only a parasol to ward off the drizzle," Robert chided.


"Suffer," she replied.


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