TEARS OF THE FOOT GUARDS
ADAGIO - STAVE XVIII
A D A G I O
S T A V E
London – The Gazetteer and New Daily Advertiser 31st July, 1777:
LOST, this SUMMER,
in the enclosures about New-York, In North America,
The BRITISH ARMY.
Whoever can give an account of it to his Majesty’s
Secretary of War, shall not only receive a large premium,
but have the high honour of kissing his Majesty’s hand.
A part of it is said to have been seen, in the Spring,
near Danbury; but its stay was so short,
that its tracks were not deep enough to be traced.
Thirty days out of New York – 15,000 rank and file on the water again, choking the decks and crammed into holds: soldiers, women, baggage and arms, horses, carts and wagons, Loyalists too, packed and tidy, bobbing in a tub.
Billy, now Sir Billy, Knight of the Bath, took ‘em to Sea. Not that he liked it, the Sea’s a damn Monster, but American topography was not a Friend, especially with Washington holding it.
Winter ’77 – the Forage War: Spanktown, Quibbletown, Drake’s Falls. Fifty-eight actions, nine hundred casualties in drips and drabs foraging for vittles. In June, Billy tried a final smash, a pincer movement near Short Hills, New Jersey – Washington came down from the ridge on Watchung Mountains and displayed on the plains from the Scotch Plains to Quibbletown. A rolling fight to a pitched battle – Musket Balls like Showers of hail stones . . . Cornwallis with eleven thousand to break Washington’s flank – Alexander’s twenty-five hundred. The Rebels, of course, got the worst – a hundred killed and the loss of three brass cannon. Billy’s loss not so much – thirty wounded, five killed and only one officer, a Foot Guards captain – the Light Company’s impetuous Captain Finch trying to take the cannon with sword and pistol by himself . . . Actually did. Drove ‘em off single handed, then spied the august Alexander and shouted at him: Come here, you damned rebel, and I will do for you! (a nice flair if truly said), to which Alexander ordered four marksmen to unload on him, the bright, happy boy . . . His parents will receive him in a box.
Billy then took off, flying on Canvas Wings – better to fight the Sea than cross Hostile Country – too many defiles to stretch an Army out, an Army that must carry all it had. It is but a string of vulnerable bands. Burgoyne must find it so coming down from Montreal, even with the finest Troops, even in Victory. How the Rebels must snipe at him. But on the Water, there’s no spying eyes. No trees to hide the Enemy. Away from shore, it’s you with Invisibility. Bo-Peeping on the Ocean – where’d he go? Up the Hudson to link with Burgoyne? On the Delaware to take Philadelphia? Off the Cape for another go at Charleston? Philadelphia first, then Albany – Billy’s sound plan – sail south away from the coast and take the Capital by means of the Delaware or the Chesapeake. Establish order and then march north to link with Burgoyne. Does he need linking?
Every general disliked it except for Cornwallis and Grant. Then news: Burgoyne had captured Ticonderoga. Howe was free and wrote Burgoyne on 17th July:
Dear Sir, I have received yours of the 2.d ins.+ on the 15th, have since heard from the Rebel Army of your being in possession of Ticonderoga, which is a great Event carried without loss. I have rec.d your two letters viz.+ from / &Quebec your last of the 14th of May, & shall observe the contents. There is a report of a messenger of yours to me having been taken, & the letter discover.d in a double wooded canteen, you will know of any consequence; nothing of it has [ ] to us. I will observe y/ in writing to you, as you propose in your letters to me. Washington is waiting our motions here, & has detached Sullivan with about 2500 men, as I learn, to Albany.- My intention is for Pensilvania where I expect to meet Washington, but if he goes to the Northw.d contrary to my / and you can keep him at Bay, be assured I shall soon be after him to relieve you. After your arrival in Albany, the movements of the Enemy will guide yours; but my / wishes are that the Enemy be drove out of this Province before any operation takes place in Connecticut. S.r Hen.y Clinton / remains in the command here, & will act as occurrences may direct. Putnam is in the Highlands with about 4000 men.- Success be ever with you.
In a word – Depend not on Me.
“Johnny’s got the bit,” he said to Lord Richard as they departed from Sandy Hook – Billy and his brawling boys out to sea in his brother’s fine ships – the British Navy. And that made all the difference.
The hurricane hit without warning, to be merrily on course with no predictions, then lightening rents the sky in two. What can one do? To the Enlightened Mind, the cold unerring Mind – indifferent Nature. To a Mind of Faith – a portent: If we’d only known this . . . If we’d only seen that . . . Little did we fathom it under our noses . . . Shorten sail and lay to.
From the deck of the Aolus, Geordie and Obedience watched. Black/green/gray clouds shot themselves with lightening like a mad man laying open his chest. They watched believing they’re protected. Such things lovers think.
The waves grew tight as a battalion of clouds rushed into line. A raindrop pinged off the deck like a shot. Another on the rail, then a pepper like independent fire. The soldiers went below, the hatches sealed behind them. A tossing world, the air began to cook. Soldiers lay on their bedding. None could stand. A squall, they thought. It will pass. Some smoked. Others tried napping. A few tossed off under their blankets – that’ll distract you – no man dies with his prick in his hand . . . Those with liquor, drank . . . Could’ve marched to Philadelphia by now . . . Least when Rebels shoot at you, you can shoot back . . . Could’ve captured Phillie and see Congress hanged. Then Festivals and Celebrations. And the Army, triumphant, returned home, home to cheers of merchant and tradesmen, to the stinking civilian crowds with their beef faces soldiers hate – “you’re not like me” “I’d just as soon shoot you” . . .
Stomachs churned. Goddamn the ocean. Goddamn the sailors. Damn the putrid ships be they sloops or first-raters. Damn the salt fish and brackish water, the desiccated lemons they squeezed against their gums. Damn the women with their stinking periods, their balling brats. Damn the bone-hard decks. And damn Black Dick, he’s still Navy. And damn and double damn that prick of a Virginia planter with his arse up near his shoulders . . .
She hung on Geordie while he and Tim effected playing cards. Swinging lanterns measured the storm. She watched as they rocked, anchored on his shoulder. Anchored, how odd. Had she felt it before? Not with Billy Gill. . . She should be afraid; the ship rising and falling, but Geordie and Tim undaunted, though Tim ignored her – like a no-thing.
The deuce with him, she thought. Jealous bogtrotter. Geordie’ll rise in the Service and take her with him, leave them all behind – a sergeant’s silver tape and buttons, fine rooms near Birdcage Walk. And when old and gray, an Out Pensioner, if he hadn’t made his fortune at a trade . . . Sergeant Major – an interior smile . . . Might they have a child? Why not? She should want a child . . . She hadn’t had a period in months . . . Not that she’s pregnant . . . She knows when she’s pregnant, how easily back home. Back home she’s curvy: good hips, full breasts, hour glass and pretty. All a boy need do is look at her . . . But On the Ration’, she spots one month, maybe two, then nothing . . . Glad to be rid of it if she starts all this swiving. And she’s still pretty despite being thin. No doubt though, army life will change that as her face hollows, her breasts grow flat, the nose will turn and chin lengthen. The heavy work will make her hands big. Then she’ll flow on cycle with the rest of the Bitches, a Sorority on the rag. But not yet, she thought. Better the company of men. She turned and leaned back against Geordie, his face in her mind, the way she preferred to see him.
An explosion overhead followed by thunder. The transport shuddered and debris banged the deck above. The ship suddenly pitched. Screams. A wave punched the hull. Obedience banged her head, while George Harrison flew across the deck to fall on her ankle. Geordie, fighting for his balance, pushed him off. The ship breached, rising on its hip, its ribs screaming, then crashed nose down, suspending the helpless passengers. Obedience shrieked. All were shrieking. Objects flew like indiscriminate shot. Decks awash. Soldiers puked as they pressed against the flooring. Geordie grabbed Obedience, shoving her on her back and laying on top. Eyes wild, she could not breathe, and grabbed his neck as he pressed himself tighter.
Again the ship punched, groaning, heeling.
“We’re capsizing!” someone shouted.
“Jesus! Jesus!” Obedience bawled, having never had use for Jesus before. The bow rose and slammed. Geordie on top of her compressing her lungs. Get off! She pushed. Get off! And with a burst, tossed him.
Geordie, a bucket flying past his head, called to her, his face welling red. She didn’t hear. The ship tossed and he rolled. There, clinging to the After Bits, like an ape with its arms around a tree – Elliot.
He rode with his eyes fixed, but in the midst of it, he lifted his stare to see Obedience clinging to a post same as him.
On the Eagle, Lord Richard and Sir William, in their sealskins, witnessed the desolation.
“Admiral!” the captain called, his storm hat snapping. “Admiral!” He took Lord Richard’s shoulder and pointed to Aolus two hundred yards larboard.
The ship heeled over.
“Right,” the admiral cried with rare emotion. Sir William nearly jumped over the rail as a father would save his children. “Right,” Lord Richard cried as if his authority could force it.
Aolus cut windward.
Billy imagined them locked in the holds and in a flash saw Patrick Downs with his cheek shot away; in the wind, the screaming on Breed’s Hill, the cannonade, the thunder. Off the Eagle’s beam, a lightning bolt struck a transport filled with horses.
“God!” he cried, undone.
Lord Howe grabbed his arm. “Go below.”
“I cannot leave them.”
“Go below, for God sake. For your wits – you serve no purpose here. Mr. Murray,” he called to a lieutenant, “General Howe is retiring to his cabin.”
“It’s worse down there,” Billy said as he watched the transports tossed about with hatches sealed and below decks his soldiers suffering. I shall not desire anyone of you to a step farther than I would go at your head.
“I’ll join you shortly,” Lord Richard said.
In his hanging rack, in the dark, banging against the wall with collateral motion, Billy all still like the Dead in a coffin. Objects fly. Waves against the casements. Surely they’ll break and him helpless. Banshee winds screaming, laughing. Such a flight – not that he’s incapable. What’s happening? To feel – What? Over one’s head? That he should know the difference? He sees. He acts. And that should signify. That he should realize he’s Scared. Do men know their leaders are Scared? Blame the Storm. Underlings are always certain . . . Better obtuse than complex, the complex man’s a cripple. Distract to clarify. Distract. Distract!
He rested his hand on his fleshy belly, the stubby fingers spread wide and soothed it the way Betsy often did. She loved to rub his belly, that emblem of power. Loved to lay naked on it, rocking hip on hip, swiving England like the crashing storm. What better conceit to have? And on these shores, he is England – Sir William Howe, Knight of Bath, the third son, the baby brother, the subaltern, the colonel, the Commander-in-Chief.
He imagined her on top – her young fluid form, dark eyes, dark hair, audacious and completely American. Billy the Savage – putty in her hand. Elizabeth Lloyd Loring, wife of a prominent loyalist – his little Boston cooze . . .
He tossed off hard. And with his spurt, the storm’s mollification – its teeth knocked out just like that. Is that what it wanted – the Commander-in-Chief’s shot? Just rain and all things fine and true.
“Sir William, he, as snug as a flea
Lay all this time a-snoring
Nor dreamed of harm
As he lay warm
In bed with Mrs. Loring."
A Johnny boat trolled gaffing bodies between the ships. Starboard of Aolus – a capsized sloop, its copper-trimmed hull reflecting the sun with a greenish tint. Larboard, sailors heaved dead horses over the side. On Aolus’ deck wood shards, frayed rope, broken spars and dead fish. The mizzenmast dragged in the water from the stern. A fine morning – mild sea, mild sky, calm and blue. In the Histories, it could’ve ended here: the Great Fleet beating up the Chesapeake, the Capital in its sights, the great army of Mechanical Men who serve themselves up mindlessly to slaughter the Poor, Valiant Souls struggling for Liberty, but God intervened and drown them in a great Storm . . .
But not to be. God is an Englishman.
They anchored between the estuaries of the Susquehanna and the Elk. More dead horses: one hundred seventy bobbing from the river mouths to the Maryland Neck. Still, Billy was confident.
Then came dispatches: Burgoyne requesting help, the Northern Army is stalled in its drive for Albany.
Is he now going to blame me, Billy wondered. I writ him clearly on the 17th, Clinton’s in Newport should he need support. Why request aid from me?