Back | Next
Contents


Chapter 47

By the time Colonel Rennie and his Forty-third Light Infantry came ashore, Rennie already knew the expedition on the west bank was in danger of disintegrating. He'd seen enough from the barges while crossing the river to know that much. The continuing sound of gunfire from the north told him that Thornton was stalled somewhere upriver.


The delay in ferrying all the troops across had badly scrambled the original plan of action. Instead of hitting the enemy with a solid mass of two thousand men, they'd been forced to feed their troops into the action piecemeal. Thornton and his Eighty-fifth were already engaged before Rennie's men had even finished climbing into the boats.


As soon as all the men were ashore, Rennie started the march. He was so preoccupied with the situation to the north that he completely failed to realize there was still an active American battery on the scene. The first thing he saw as his column entered the wide area in the swamps where Morgan had constructed his feeble breastworks were the British soldiers manning the overrun American battery by the riverbank.


The men were waving a banner. A bit frantically, it seemed. Perhaps they were coming under attack.


Rennie started to order the column to step up the pace when the bastion he'd overlooked on the far left of the field erupted with cannon fire. An instant later, round shot was ripping into the head of his column.


Perfect grazing shots, too.


"What a bloody fucking mess," he snarled.


"Give it to 'em again, boys! Give it to 'em again!" Charles Ball was bouncing about as if he were a ball in truth. "Forget those bastards over there!" He waved his cutlass at the British battery across the field, somehow managing to make it a derisive gesture. "We've already pounded them silly. Keep your feeble minds on these new bastards!"


Ball's derision notwithstanding, Driscol kept his eye on the enemy battery. True enough, in the time that had elapsed since the main force of the Eighty-fifth marched off to the north, Driscol's men had won the artillery duel that had followed. They'd dismounted one of the enemy's six-pounders from its carriage and battered the crew of the twelve-pounder so badly that it had been out of action after the first few minutes. But the last six-pounder was still intact, as far as he knew.


He paid little attention to the newly arrived British column, other than to note that they were shifting from column to line formation. Soon enough, they'd be charging across the field. But Ball could handle the business until then, well enough.


Driscol was getting worried, although he did not think any of that showed in his expression. Very little ever did, after all.


He was wrong, though. The Rogers brothers had become quite familiar with him over the past months. John Rogers put his worries into words.


"Do you think Sam should have been here by now?"


Perhaps oddly, hearing his fears expressed aloud calmed Driscol. "No, not quite that. It's true that we're coming into the time range during which I expect him to show up. But that range is one of at least two hours, and we're just coming into it. Besides, battles are always unpredictable. I've never seen a precise time schedule yet that didn't get shredded once the fighting started."


How are mighty trolls fallen. Driscol hadn't fretted during a battle for years. Like his unwonted desire to survive, that was Tiana's doing.


Seeing the crooked smile that appeared on Driscol's face, James Rogers cocked his head inquisitively. As he had since the engagement began—his brother John also—James had never been more than ten feet from Driscol's side. The reputation Indians had among white men for being unreliable certainly couldn't be proven here. As bodyguards, the Rogers brothers were like barnacles.


"I was just worrying about the fact that I was worrying," Driscol explained. "It's your sister's fault."


James nodded. "She's always been a nuisance, that way."


Ball sprang from the six-pounder to the twelve-pounder and back again. "Round shot! One more time! Goddamn you bastards, you've got plenty of time for another round before we change to grape! Don't tell me you don't. What was that, Jones? Say that joke one more time and you're in the cook pot! Marie will salt and pepper you good, she will!"


"At a guess, I'd say your man is still alive," Robert Ross murmured. "Would you care for some more tea?"


Tiana shook her head. "Why do you say that?"


"That sudden eruption of artillery. Can you hear the solidity of those volleys? That's an American battery—has to be; my people couldn't have ferried across much in the way of guns— with a hard commander in charge. Who else would it be but Driscol?"


Tiana swallowed, and swiveled her head to the south. "It could be someone else. Charles Ball, maybe. Patrick thinks the world of him, even if he won't say it out loud."


Ross tried to place Ball in his mind. "Ah, yes. The very dark sergeant he often has with him. Seems a solid man, true enough. But he's still a sergeant, not a commander. Trust me, Tiana. If Patrick had fallen, his battalion would be too unsteady to maintain such a fire."


"You can't be sure."


"No, of course not. It's simply my educated guess. But on this subject, my guess is extremely well educated. I've been at war for almost thirty years."


She looked back at him. "Why? It seems a stupid thing for a man to do."


"Family tradition got me started. Thereafter . . ." He shrugged. "It's a career, and I'm quite good at it."


"You should learn to do something else."


"And what would that be, young lady?"


"Something that wouldn't get you killed. I'd miss you, Robert. I really would. Patrick would, too, even if he'd never admit it. So would your wife and children. So would probably lots of other people, I'm sure of it. You should learn to do something else. You're almost fifty. Too old for this, but not too old to change your life."


It was his turn to swallow. Ross hadn't seen his family for almost a year now. There'd been many times since he'd arrived in the New World when he'd been sure he never again would.


"Well." He cleared his throat. "We shall see. Between my injuries"—he shifted his half-crippled arm a bit—"and the threat of peace breaking out before I can return to service . . ." He raised his cup and took a sip. The tea was really quite good. "Perhaps. I may have no choice anyway."


There came a distant hissing sound, as if a giant snake lurked somewhere in the swamps to the south.


"That'll be the Congreves. Yes, I'd say Patrick Driscol is still alive. See how angry they sound? Only that stubborn Ulsterman could enrage British rockets so."


* * *

"Forget those silly fucking rockets!" Ball hollered. "Just forget 'em, God damn your souls! We sneered at 'em at the Capitol, and you'll damn well sneer at 'em here!"


Finally, as Driscol had been expecting, the six-pounder in the British battery fired.


"Take that gun out for me, if you would," he said quietly to the crew of their own six-pounder, which was facing toward the river. "You can do it, lads. I know you can. Quickly, mind you. The British will start their charge soon."


As the crew of the six-pounder went about their newly assigned work, Driscol gazed back across the field. Three minutes, he estimated. Then the enemy would be ready to start the charge. Given the confidence with which his gun crew was operating, he thought the enemy's six-pounder would be silent by then.


"Iron Battalion indeed!" he said, loudly enough to be heard all over the bastion. The pace of his gunners seemed to pick up a bit.


"I have no choice," Rennie said to the commander of the West Indian troops. He was almost growling with frustration. "That battery is far too effective to leave in place. We've got to cross that field in the face of their fire anyway, if we're to reinforce Thornton and the Eighty-fifth. So we may as well do something besides die while we're at it, eh?"


The men of the Forty-third were poised in line formation, by then. "It'll be bayonets, lads! We'll not waste time matching muskets against six-pounders! Just a taste of cold steel and Cousin Jonathan will be off and running!"


He would have shouted anyway, simply for the effect it would have on his men's confidence. But the hiss of the Congreves as they darted off, and the roar they made as they landed, gave him no choice, if his words were to be heard at all.


"I wish we had real artillery," growled the West Indian commander. Another Congreve exploded somewhere in the swamps, slaughtering the American cypress.


So did Rennie. But such was fortune.


"Charge!"


"They're pulling back, Colonel Houston!" said Lieutenant Pendleton. "Look at 'em run!"


In point of fact, the British were doing no such thing. Pulling out, yes. But the smooth precision and discipline with which the enemy began marching to the rear was as far from "running" as Sam could imagine. Especially after having watched hundreds of Kentucky militiamen give such a splendid demonstration of the term "rout" a short time earlier.


"Should we charge after 'em, sir?"


Sam glanced at the sailors who were standing by the nearest three-pounder. The chief gunner was almost glaring at him. Sam could easily read his mind.


The gunner, a veteran, knew perfectly well what would happen if Colonel Houston was foolish enough to order his half-trained regiment to "charge after" a regiment of British regulars undertaking a well-ordered retreat. The same thing that would happen to a hound dog who went into the brush "charging after" a wounded bear.


The bear would turn and—chomp—the dog would learn the difference between a mutt and a monster.


"No," he said. "We will pursue them, but at a steady march, and maintaining line formation. The gun crews will set the pace."


The chief gunner made no attempt to disguise the relief that swept across his face. "You heard the colonel, boys! Let's get this gun moving forward."


Thereafter, the biggest problem was restraining the enthusiasm of the Baltimore dragoons, who insisted on helping the artillerymen move their guns. They had no draft animals, so it had to be done by hand—with, now, a hundred pair of them getting in the way.


But they managed, well enough. The British regiment was retreating rapidly, as Sam had thought they would. From the sound of gunshots, war whoops, and occasional screams, they were being harassed along the way by Major Ridge and his Cherokees, darting in and out of the cypress on their right flank.


Driscol would just have to hold. Sam would get there as soon as he could, without risking the loss of his regiment. As long as Houston's regiment kept the British away from Patterson's guns, the battle was won. And if Driscol's battalion got shredded in the process, well, Sam was quite sure that Driscol would make the British pay for it dearly. They might overrun him, but if they did, they wouldn't be in any shape to fight further that day.


* * *

"Give 'em the grape, boys, give 'em the grape!" Ball wasn't bouncing around any longer. He was just standing behind the twelve-pounder—far enough to the side not to be struck by the recoil, of course—and quivering like a bowstring. "Give it to 'em good!"


That first round of grapeshot struck the British line hard. Driscol didn't think a single gun crew had missed its mark.


"Reload! Reload! Goddam you, Jones, you can move faster than that!"


In point of fact, Corporal Jones was doing a quick and splendid job, as were all the men at the twelve-pounder. Driscol knew it was the grin on his face that kept riling Ball. Quiet and solemn Henry Crowell was on the same gun crew, and Ball hadn't yelled at him once.


The crews had their guns reloaded as fast as any gun crews in Driscol's experience. "Iron Battalion indeed!" he shouted.


"Fire!"


The Forty-third staggered under the blows, but kept pressing the charge. Rennie was appalled at the casualties they were taking, but also as proud of his men as he'd ever been. The line of bayonets was leveled and gleaming in the sun, as unwavering as any commander could have asked for.


"At them, men! We'll have them at cold steel before you know it! And we'll butcher the bastards!"


They even gave out a cheer. God, what a splendid regiment!


"Oh, yes, Driscol's alive, I'd say." Robert Ross looked at the teapot and decided he'd had enough for the moment. He'd learned to ignore the demands of his bladder, up to a point, over the years of campaigning. But once he reached that point he'd have no choice but to leave the square for a time. Something he couldn't imagine doing while those raging sounds kept coming from the south.


The battle down there was reaching a climax.


Finally, to Sam's relief, the retreating Eighty-fifth broke into a trot. That was partly the cumulative effect of the Cherokees tearing at their flank. Mostly, though, it was the sound of the battle ahead of them. They were almost back to the original American line, and the British soldiers knew as well as Houston did that their reinforcements had been stymied by Driscol's battery. They intended to join the fray, to see if they could turn the tide.


So would Sam.


"Pick up the pace!" he shouted.


The Whale loomed up in the dimness of the cypress trees.


"I've been down there," he said to Major Ridge and John Ross. "Driscol and his men are going to be hit hard before too long. Real hard."


Ridge nodded, and glanced through the trees at the retreating British column.


"We'll let this group be, then. Let's go see how well the British down there can fight."


Quickly, in their undisciplined but vigorous manner, two hundred Cherokees slid through the swamp toward the beleaguered American battery.


"Canister! I want canister, boys!" Ball held his cutlass below waist level now, lashing it back and forth like the tail of an angry leopard. "You know what canister looks like, don't you? Black ugly little beads—just like your balls will look in my voudou queen's soup, if you fuck up and piss me off!"


Driscol found it necessary to add an element of dignity to the affair. For the first time in his life, ha!


"The Iron Battalion will stand! As surely as its name!"


This officer business is treacherous, he thought. If a man wasn't careful, it'd rot his brain. He'd die, in the end, from terminal pomposity.


Close enough. "Now, lads, now! At the charge!"


The Forty-third raced toward the bastion, which stood less than fifty yards ahead. A great broom of lead swept two dozen of the men aside, but the rest never flinched.


"We'll have our blades in the bastards!"


Sam thought it was time to throw caution to the winds. The Eighty-fifth was spilling into the open area beyond "Morgan's Line," their ranks starting to fray a bit. If his men charged now...


He glanced at the gunner chief standing a few feet away, alongside one of the three-pounders. The man, who'd been watching him, nodded.


"Yes, sir. I think we can push our way into that battery redoubt. That'll give the men an anchor point."


Houston had been thinking the same thing.


If 'twas to be done, best to do it quickly.


"All right, boys! Now we'll charge them."


He set off at a trot. Eagerly, their confidence filled like a great sail, the Baltimore and Capitol dragoons thundered after him.


Thundered past him.


Hollering and whooping and running way too fast.


"Slow down, you idiots! Or you'll be gasping for breath when a British bayonet empties your lungs. You cretins! Obey me, blast you, or I'll—"


He charged after them. "You stupid fucking bastards! I'll skin you alive!"


The three-pounder crews brought up the rear, laughing all the way.


"One more round! You got time, you lazy currees! You got time! See if you don't! Wipe that grin off your face, Jones!"


Driscol wasn't sure the gunners would have the time for another round. Maybe. The iron grillwork might stall the British who came clambering up the breastworks, just that little bit needed.


After that—


He swiveled his head, bringing his pale-eyed glower to bear on that half of his battalion that had been standing by, while the gunners did their butcher work.


"One round from the muskets, that's all. Then it'll be the pikes and blades. D'you understand me, lads?"


"AYE, SIR!"


It was quite a splendid roar. "Gallant," Driscol would have called it, if he'd been a bloody fool of an officer.


The reckless charge of the Baltimore and Capitol volunteers didn't break the retreating Eighty-fifth, much less rout them. But the sheer enthusiasm of the thing did make the British regiment recoil—and far enough to expose the battery by the riverbank.


Seeing his chance, Houston and those men he still had paying any attention to him overran the battered British artillery unit within seconds. There was no quarter asked, nor mercy given. Those gunners who didn't flee just died next to their guns, by gunshot and bayonet and saber.


What was left of the guns, anyway. After a quick inspection, Sam realized that only one of the six-pounders could be put into action.


Patterson's gunners saw to that, while they brought the two three-pounders to bear. Sam left the bastion and did what he could to impose order on the milling mob of volunteers who were now on the open field, blazing away at the British.


He needed to do it quickly, too.


Ten feet to his left, a Capitol volunteer dropped to his knee and shot a redcoat some thirty yards away. It was a fine shot, in and of itself. The British soldier collapsed to the ground, hit in the chest. But it was obvious that the volunteer wasn't even thinking about working with his mates, trying to put a volley together.


Worse yet—much worse—was that some of Sam's soldiers were starting to grapple with the enemy in hand-to-hand combat. The results of that were a foregone conclusion. Even as Sam took a deep breath to bellow out an order, he saw a British veteran expertly butt aside a Baltimore dragoon's awkward lunge, and rip the man's throat open with his own bayonet.


"Form a line, damn you! Form a line!"


Most of Sam's men began to do so. But, with a sick feeling in his stomach, he could see they wouldn't manage it in time. The British had already formed their own line facing him, and their muskets were coming up for a volley.


There was a crash like thunder, and the sight of the enemy was obscured by a huge cloud of gunsmoke. At least a dozen of the American soldiers were struck, many of them knocked flat to the ground.


It was a real, hammering, professional soldiers' volley. For a moment, Sam was sure he'd see his volunteers crumple under the blow.


Yet, they didn't. Their responding volley, fired at Sam's command, was a ragged thing. But it was fired nonetheless—and even the men who hadn't joined the volley were still blazing away on their own. Not one soldier, as far as Sam could see, was even thinking about running away.


Glory be.


Under most circumstances, they would have. But their fighting spirits were high, and they could sense a victory in the offing. Houston's men had driven off the Eighty-fifth, and hounded them down the road—and now, by God, they wanted some real blood.


So, for the next three minutes, a half mob of American soldiers exchanged ragged half volleys and individual fire for the professional volleys that were coming from the enemy. It should have been no contest at all, but it was turned into one by the sheer determination of the amateurs.


Sam never did bring any real order to his ranks during that stretch. He didn't even try, after the first half a minute, realizing that he had no time, and he'd most likely just confuse his men. He simply stood his ground and kept bellowing the order to fire.


A meaningless order, in itself, since his men had every intention of firing anyway. But he'd been told that if a commander was seen to be resolute by his men—sounded resolute, anyway; the gunsmoke covering the field made "seeing" almost meaningless—that their spirits would be bolstered.


It seemed to work, too.


Then the six-pounder and the three-pounders opened up, and grapeshot started tearing at the Eighty-fifth's flank. Finally, finally—Sam thought almost all of their officers were dead or injured by now, except low-ranked ones—the regiment gave way.


Even then, they weren't routed. But the Eighty-fifth had had enough. Their retreat off the field and back to the barges waiting downriver was as precipitous as you could ask for.


Pakenham finally stopped pounding the tree trunk.


"The Eighty-fifth is in full retreat, sir."


"Yes, I can see that." The view across the river was quite good, even without a glass, now that the mist had burned away.


The battle was lost. Today's battle, at least. There was no chance—certainly not at this late hour—that a charge across Chalmette field could carry the day.


Perhaps tomorrow. The Forty-third and the West Indians were still in the fray. Perhaps if they seized that battery—finally!— something might be possible on the morrow.


"Tell the men to stand down. There will be no assault today." ***


Jackson just stared, from the window of the Macarty house. He'd finally come to realize that the British attack across the river had been no feint at all. No diversion. Houston had driven back one of their regiments, but at least two others were still in action. The only thing standing in their way, beyond Houston's few hundred men, were Driscol and his battalion.


Why hadn't he recognized the danger that the British might go for Patterson's guns? He cursed himself for an idiot.


The curses were silent, of course. Andrew Jackson was as good at cursing himself as he was at cursing anyone else. But he didn't do it out loud. He might be an idiot, from time to time, but he wasn't a blasted fool.


Tiana rose from her chair and went to stand by the riverbank. Ross remained seated, staring at an empty teacup. The noise from the south was like a constant roll of thunder.


Back | Next
Framed