TEARS OF THE FOOT GUARDS
Rondo - Stave LXII
S T A V E
Pornographie of Battle
15th March, Thursday – Hoskins Farm, North Carolina.
They march, the woods backlit and hoary, a vast column, six abreast. The temperature risen when they’d stepped off – in the dark – felt like rain, the air muggy. But a clear sky – the morning cobalt ever brightening. A hint of spring with emergence of buds, and with it, a great sop of Mud. The Salisbury Road with its ruts and puddles snaked through a landscape of forest and scrub. No crunch of hobnails, but a great Suck from heels slogging through muck, yet, a quality to their step, a Determination. And them so Clean – clothing patched and brushed, arms burnished to a lustre, a glint off the Steel. A rout step – a man could Carry as he pleased, but this morning, the firelocks Sloped to keep off the mud. Somewhere ahead, the Rebel Army, and not running.
At midnight Cornwallis had ordered the women and the sick back to Bell’s Mill, Col. Pennington in their company. Geordie, in his restless sleep, had heard them load into the wagons. Jingling tack. Creaking wheels. And him dreaming – Obedience with her arms about him. The touch on his skin . . . Then Elliot . . . giving him a shave. “In my hands now, Kiddie.” The razor to Geordie’s neck. “Would’ve done it if I wanted to. Still love me, brother?”
They march. Good to be moving. Better than last night – the thinking, the waiting. Different men now. Men set apart. Not me – the other fellow – them – out there . . . And such a fine army – the van, some two miles in advance, led by that boy, him and his cavalry, along with the Guards Light Company and Ansbach Jaegers. First Division, at the head of the column, under the command of Webster – steady fellow, an Edinburgh minister’s son. With him – two fine regiments of 600 men: Cornwallis’ own 33rd and the Welch Fusiliers, both hard-fought since ‘76. Leslie with 2nd Division, at 50, the oldest to command. His – Frazier’s Highlanders with their short coats, gaitered pants, and diced feathered bonnets. Behind them, musketeers of the Regiment Von Bose, often ill and deserted more than most, but brave and did what they were told. Among their ranks ‘Neegers’, as the Germans called them, trained and accoutred and on the rolls – boy drummers mostly for their Atavistic streak. A few became musketeers.
The Guards last – two battalions of two large companies: 1st Battalion under Col. Norton, 2nd Battalion under Col. Stuart. O’Hara over all. O’Hara – brave but stupid. Wine and Women. A Most Happy Fellow. He knew how to Fit and the very person “one would wish at the head of the enemy’s army.” Howard wished he was still Brigadier, as did all, and limited his company to his friend, Chapple Norton.
Musket fire in the distance – a long, shattering wave, then sporadic pop, pop, pop, followed by another massed report. The crack of rifles, each with its voice. Every man perks, imagining the zip of hot lead hitting its target. The step quickens. The firing continues as they move closer and hear it moving in starts and stops for the next twenty minutes. And above it all, crisp volleys – the Guards Light Company.
They come to a clearing, the Grenadier Company last on the scene. In the middle stands a Friends Meeting House backed by trees, with soldiers down, bleeding. The lead regiments take ground behind the building and sit for a breakfast of Indian corn while the wounded are taken inside. Up rides the Command – Lord Charles, Webster, O’Hara, Leslie, surrounded by their aids. The boy, Tarleton, gives his report while holding a bloody hand aloft with two fingers missing. To the right of the Quaker Meeting, under a Yellow Buckeye, the Guard officers gather around dead Captain Goodricke, the Light Company commander, hit several times – in the shoulder, through the lungs, in the face, unrecognizable. Captain Maynard of 1st Company is undone, walking away in disgust only to return and look again.
The grenadiers take ground outside the cemetery and like the other regiments, go into their haversacks for dried corn, except Tim, who fiddles with his foot wrappings come loose from the march. A number in the same condition.
In the cemetery, the Light Company lays bodies out.
“Sergeant MacChesnie.” Geordie motions to the cemetery. “Shoes on the dead?”
MacChesnie purses his lips and looks at Capts. Home and Christie over with Goodricke.
“You lot,” he says to his squad and then to Willcock, “Corporal Willcock, I’d like Mr. Elliot if you please.”
“Have him, sergeant.”
Elliot at the cemetery gate, bayonet charged. A group of Fusiliers come up.
“We’ve come for the shoes,” says one, Elliot’s match in every bit.
“Don’t even think about it,” Elliot’s grumble.
The Fusilier steps up to Elliot’s bayonet. “What ye going t’do? There’s six of us and officers about.”
Elliot touches over the man’s heart with the tip. “I’ll stab ye dead.”
“And you with me.”
“Mr. Elliot, have it in hand?” calls MacChesnie and then to the grisly Fusilier, “Look to your own. These are Guards dead.”
Geordie and Tim cut the leather straps of a dead man’s gaiter trowsers and pull off the shoes. Tim measures them to his feet while a First Guards corporal looks on.
“You needn’t search their pockets,” the light bob says, his cheek grazed and bleeding.
“Anything in them?” Geordie asks.
“Same as in yours . . . And leave the haversacks – we’ve gotten them too.” He stares at Tim’s raw feet. “Just the shoes, I’ll give you that. You maybe the ‘Father’ just to save me.”
“That’s the way, you know,” Geordie says and whiffs the air tainted with sulfur.
“They’re up for it,” the corporal says of the rebels, “and in a foul mood.”
“We’ll settle their mood,” Tim says, finding a pair fitting him.
“At the end of the day, make sure someone ain’t taking ‘em off of you, Kiddie.”
Tim smirks. “Nemo me impune lacessit.”
“Honi soit qui mal y pense,” the corporal’s reply.
They tarry another hour, allowing the men to rest. Tarleton’s force now joins the column, changing out their flints and replenishing ammunition. Somewhere the rebel main up ahead. How many does Greene have – 4000, 6000, 9000? To Cornwallis, it doesn’t matter. Nor to the men. They’ll push on whatever the Consequence.
They cut through the forest for another hour, coming onto the lip of the Great Salisbury Road. Geordie sees first platoon up ahead and in front of them, Company 4. The sightline continues with a blur of black hats and feathers along with burnished arms converging to a solid red point amidst a cathedral of trees. An echo of cannon sounds. Six pounders.
A coronet, his coat in tatters, its white facing permanently soiled, gallops down the side of the road. His mount’s hooves barely miss the men as he holds up a hand to swipe away branches. He stops before the artillery train and points to the front. The regiments move to the side as the guns go forward. The men are ordered to drop their blanket rolls.
The brigade moves in starts and stops. The cannon grow louder along with the scream of shot. Up ahead trees shatter.
The Royal Artillery, now at the front, answers with a deafening concussion, a sulfur cloud floating back and each man knows he’ll be in Action.
Drums sound. The regiments come off the road to form: the 33rd on the far left, next to them, the Fusiliers – some 500 officers and men hidden by the tree line. The round shot marks the killing ground, not that they can see, smoke everywhere. On the right of the road – Leslie’s division, another 500: the 71st and Von Bose. The Guards form in support. A harrowing position, they’ll witness the Carnage, and be sent to where the fighting’s desperate.
The grenadiers take up left of the road behind the flanks of the Fusiliers and the artillery. Stuart’s 2nd Battalion Guards form to the road’s immediate right and Norton’s 1st Battalion further down behind the 71st and Von Bose. The Light Company behind the grenadiers with the Jaegers to their left. Tarleton’s cavalry is held in reserve. Typical Cornwallis – straight at them – a punch to the head.
Captain Home, a young aristocrat, and Captain Christie, American born, instruct their grenadier platoons. “Fire low. Take out their legs. Let the buck and ball do its worst. Load fast.”
Geordie – a reflexive nod. Sulfur in his nose. His sweating hand cradles the butt of Brown Bess, heart pounding, ears ringing. He reaches for his canteen and a chill races from his neck. Needles in his chest. He hears. He sees. He feels. Get to it. Cock-of-the-Walk. Cannon’s roar. Concussion. Give it to them. They’re waiting – out there. They’re ready. Smash ‘em up. Give it to them. A pressure to shit, all sudden. What’s different? Nothing’s different. Pay attention. He looks back at Tim in whose eyes is cruelty. Over to Willcock, a long and vacant stare. Then at Elliot – hard, so very hard, like stone. Did he feel like Geordie, boiling? Or dead inside? A dead man already . . . No different than Geordie’s dour look.
Howard cants his horse up near the grenadiers. In a fight, he’s “Jack” and a Hard Customer. Geordie catches his stare. A regret. A care.
Cannons fall silent and a strange calm. A sober O’Hara, no parade ground shout, orders fix-bayonets. Smoke lingers.
Geordie startles – a hand on his shoulder – Tim. “You and me, brother.”
Ahead, the command voice of Webster, noted for making himself heard over great distance. “The battalion shall advance. Quick – March!” Off on the right, Leslie, fainter, ordering the same. Off step the Fusiliers, the 33rd to their left. O’Hara orders the Guards at the quick and they struggle through the underbrush to keep order. The artillery, on the road, keeps pace.
At fifty yards, the woods begin to clear. The Fusiliers break from the treeline onto a patchwork of muddy fields. Highlanders on the right of the road meet a farmhouse, barn and outbuildings. They break ranks to march around, dodging woodpiles and farmyard debris. On their heels – 2nd Battalion Guards. The field a morass from the rains.
With the sun at its zenith, Geordie can see the rear rank of the Fusiliers, stalwart and steady. What he can’t see beyond them, at four hundred yards, is the enemy lining a rail fence.
Rifle shots. Fusiliers fall, but keep moving. Webster rides in the gap at their center. Rifle fire intensifies. Geordie sees the Fusiliers halt and deliver a tremendous volley. The air splits to be filled by smoke. And charging bayonets, they break into a run, their very ardour pulling the Guards forward – Geordie at a jog through the mud, and the Fusiliers racing for the rail fence.
Abruptly, the Fusiliers halt – stopped to be exact. Something ghastly by their posture. Would they break and run?
Webster spurs his horse to the front before every enemy gun. “COME ON, MY BRAVE FUSILIERS!”
A shout to Shake the Heavens, the Fusiliers plunge. In their face, a most horrible concussion. Ranks tear apart.
Before Geordie catches his breath, a volley into the Highlanders on the right. And though shaken, they too volley and charge.
The grenadiers move up to those who’d fallen, clasping legs, clasping guts. Some stone-dead; before Geordie a Fusilier with his eyes and nose gone. And Geordie’s vision, from seeing all things, tunnels.
Before them a vacant treeline, shattered by British shot. The Fusiliers and Highlanders up ahead and in their wake, bayonet militiamen.
At Geordie’s feet, a farmer holding his stomach – a scruffy, skinny man with a sharp nose and high cheeks, whose hunting frock sops with red. Geordie kicks him and jams him through the chest, the bayonet popping the breastbone. Blood rolling out the farmer’s nose and eyes to paint his face.
Rifle reports to the front and left, Jaegers and rebels in a running fight from tree to tree. O’Hara orders the Guards at the double. Into the woods again, the brume, the smoke, like a living thing, recoiling from the zip of shot. Ghosts in the soup, the Fusiliers to the left somewhere. A gap opens. 2nd Battalion and Grenadiers move up. Then shouts in the fog – “They’re coming! They’re coming!” Gunfire from all directions.
A rebel pops out from a tree and fires his musket at ten paces. The Crash and Heat. A hot sting to Geordie’s arm. Buck-and-Ball. Jack Waddley hit in the throat and down. The American vanishes in the smoke. Another jumps out. More shots. Whole volleys. A ramrod flies past Geordie’s ear to spear a tree behind him.
The Fusiliers engage once more on the left, the American second line on the attack. In the smoke and confusion, Virginia Militiamen pass by the Grenadiers. Home wheels the company to fire. A tremendous blast, the Grenadier line bucks back from the first well-seated round. The militiamen stagger, but do not run. Instead they turn, all former Continentals, to deliver a volley. They square off, closing on each other in the woods until fifteen paces a part.
Geordie loads fast, dumping the charge down the barrel and smacking the butt on the ground. Didn’t notice Tim shooting past his head. Didn’t see his mates drop, or Howard with sword raised, shot in the foot. “Aim low! Aim low!” Christie shouting.
Virginians fall. Groin wounds. Leg wounds. “Charge!” The Grenadiers on them. Virginians retreat, stop and volley – charge and counter charge.
Geordie fires and fires, the barrel like a fry pan. He casts about to dump a charge, his thumb bleeding by a cut from the flint, burn blisters on his left hand fingers. The powder hits the breach and cooks-off. A flame knocks him back as Tim levels over his shoulder. It saves them both for buck-and-ball flies through the place they’d been standing. Geordie jumps up, to douse the barrel from his canteen, Tim scrambling.
The Grenadier fire flags as they have to turn the blocks for the next set of rounds. The Virginians see this and fire a withering volley. Down goes O’Hara, a ball in his thigh. Down goes Captain Home, a ball into his belly and passing out his back. Down goes Christie with buckshot to his ribs. Howard hit again with a ball in his shoulder. Down goes half a rank of First Guard Grenadiers.
They fall back, dragging their officers.
“Halt! Halt!” Christie shouts, clutching his ribs.
Grenadiers rifle through the boxes of the fallen.
Out of the corner of Geordie’s eye, an officer coming through the woods, his horse led by a Fusilier sergeant – Cornwallis, hatless, breeches bloody, on a dragoon horse whose saddlebags had rolled under its belly. The sergeant walks him up to the Grenadiers and 2nd Battalion. Cornwallis raises his sword. “Form on me!”
Stuart and a hobbling Christie dress their lines. The Virginians come on again.
“Make ready,” Cornwallis orders, taking command himself. “Present . . . Fire.” The volley goes off in the Virginians’ faces and Cornwallis shouts, “Skiver the hounds!”
A howl and charge. None glorious. The Virginians flee.
“Get my horse,” O’Hara cries from the artillery, gunners bandaging his leg. He bleeds like a spigot, senseless to pain.
Cornwallis goes over to him. “Can you go on?”
“I must go on.” O’Hara, wild. He remounts, his gelding bleeding from the shoulder.
Colonel Stuart reforms 2nd Battalion while Captain Home is down on a knee. His face freezes and he falls over.
“We go on,” O’Hara says to Stuart and then to Christie holding his side, “Get patched, sir. You must join us.”
How thin their ranks. Geordie and Tim side-by-side in a warpaint of spent powder. Elliot too, his face all streaked, looking like a terror with blood about his mouth. Blood on them all. Mangled men. Don’t stop! The very air breaking. Don’t stop!
2nd Battalion breaks onto an open field. Overhead a clear sky yet to be poisoned, though battle smoke clouds to the far left and down the way, bodies. Webster among them. On the far side, to 2nd Battalion’s front, a brown-coated regiment of Continentals with a battery of cannon. Stuart orders a Double Quick. Arms snap to recover, the Guards in a near run. Down into a vale, the soft earth sucking at them. If the cannons open up, they’re done. On they come – O’Hara, Stuart, the officers, sergeants and men – Coldstream and Third Guards. They rush within fifty yards. The Continentals stunned. The Guards halt, fire a volley, then platoon fire, squad fire till the barrels’ too hot. The brown-coats with a weak answer, a sporadic pop-pop-pop. The Guards charge. The brown-coats run. Never mind the battery. Kill them all.
As the Grenadiers break from the treeline, the vale in a Cloud. It vibrates. The cry of close-quarter fighting. They move fast, Fighting ‘Jack’ filled with holes leads with Christie down. Geordie doesn’t see, doesn’t care, O’Hara and Stuart somewhere ahead, when – a tremendous concussion – two hundred guns.
Back tumbles 2nd Battalion, a blue-coat regiment on them like hounds. They fire muzzle to muzzle, flames touching, then locked, officers and men, hand-to-hand.
The Grenadiers, seeing it, come on the run.
As they cross mid-field, a troop of Rebel cavalry break from the surrounding woods and charge into the back of 2nd Battalion. They howl and trample Guardsmen down, sabering heads. As they pass through, the Grenadiers hit the brawl. Chaos. Fury. Pornography of Battle: MacChesnie hit with buckshot, Webb shot through the lungs and turned around, the ball passing out his back to hit the man next to him. Geordie, screaming, butt-strokes a pale man’s jaw, then bayonets a lean quadroon up through the ribs until the point pops below the neck. Tim on a Negro. They claw and bite. Ringing sweat. A reek of shit. Rancid breath. A head-butt and Tim staggers. A bayonet raised, but Geordie with a bash to the Black man’s ear, and he and Tim beat him to death. Ahead, Col. Stuart down, a sword taking off the top of his skull. Guards and Marylanders fight for his body, tugging it this way and that.
Geordie pushes forward, but is spun around – horses and riders hurtling through the crowd – dragoons on a second pass. A slash to Geordie’s nose and cheek, and the trooper’s murderous stare. Has he a face? Brown eyes. A mole above his lip. He stares at the Devil and doesn’t feel the cut . . . A Coldstreamer shanks his bayonet through the rider’s knee into his thigh. Attacker and Attacked tug it free, and Geordie beneath the stamping hooves, sees the dragoon cleave the Coldstreamer down to his shoulders. Geordie tries to rise but again knocked down. A dragoon cuts at him, when Tim, like lightening, shanks him up the spine.
Yards away, Elliot, a whirlwind, sabres ringing off his firelock barrel. He hauls a trooper down, gouges out his eyes. The trooper’s teeth find his wrist. Both scream till Elliot snaps his neck.
All fall back. O’Hara tries to rally when he’s hit by buckshot. Down he goes and the enemy upon him. 2nd Battalion and Grenadiers slam into the fray before the Marylanders can take him off. Still alive, they pass him through their ranks and slump him on his horse back across the field to the artillery unlimbering. The dragoons complete their pass and form for another charge, 2nd Battalion near shattering and the Marylanders irresistible. British guns are loaded with grapeshot. And Cornwallis rides up.
“Quickly,” he yells at Lt. McLeod, the artillery Captain, “before they charge again.”
The dragoons race toward the center.
Geordie, on his back wrestling a Continental, and Tim again to his aid, coming over the rebel’s shoulder. Cannons roar. The side of Tim’s head splatters. Geordie blistered with bits.