TEARS OF THE FOOT GUARDS
RONDO - STAVE LVIX
R O N D O
S T A V E
The North Carolina Backcountry
February 3, 1781 – 5:00 A.M.
Geordie heard the watercourse before he saw it, a hiss like a serpent waiting in the dark. It quickened, the sound of water spilling over rocks. Rains had swollen the lazy Catawba to a torrent half-mile across, shielding the Rebels on the opposite bank. For days Cornwallis watched them. Even with it receding, it should be days before an attack. But this was Cornwallis and the Enemy must watch.
Night march, always a night march, Geordie knowing its Ways and Features. They rule the night, stalking or lying in wait, and always in a miserable season when the hunted should feel safe – the barrier insurmountable: fog, storm, high cliff . . . But this army thrived on the Impossible. It had no choice.
“My situation is most critical,” Cornwallis wrote to Lord Rawdon in January who commanded Ninety-Six, a fort protecting his southernmost flank. “I see infinite danger in proceeding, but certain ruin in retreating. I am therefore determined to go on, unless some misfortune should happen, which God forbid.”
Despite brilliant victories, Cornwallis was in ruin – no medical supplies and a third of the men with Fever – and two major defeats suffered by his chief lieutenants. The day Leslie’s force arrived, the camp was in a State. “We’ve received a ‘check’ by Daniel Morgan,” Lord Charles informed Leslie, his reserved expression grave; when he’d received the news that morning, he leaned so hard on his sword, it broke.
“A check? It happens.” Leslie hoped to minimize.
“Tarleton’s detached division at Hannah’s Cowpens – one hundred dead; forty of them officers. Eight hundred taken prisoner . . .”
“. . . their arms, Tarleton’s grasshoppers, his wagons, horse, ammunition, the Negroes, regimental colours . . .”
“His entire force?”
“All our light infantry.”
“Not to blame him,” the earl said.
“Was he surprised? Outnumbered? A trap?” Leslie flustered. “Is he dead as he should be?”
“Thank goodness, no.”
“And Morgan’s condition?”
“Intact and trying to hook up with Greene’s main army. He’s heading for the Catawba River with our captured light infantry. We must move straight away. I plan to catch him and have those men. Now you’re here we’ll give our loyalist friends in North Carolina a fair trial; if they behave like men, it may be of greatest advantage. And if they are as fucked as our friends to the south, we must leave them to their fate and secure what we’ve got.” If Southern warfare had taught Cornwallis anything, it was only his Regulars could bring victories; Provincial troops, as good as they may be, suffered under their Provincial officers. The loyalist militia, the South Carolina to be exact, were “dastardly and pusillanimous.” In private conversation, they were “shit in fact: to give them muskets was like throwing away good arms – he might as well give them to the Rebels.”
Geordie’s stomach growled from the pan-fried mush of Indian corn they had rasped with the edge of their canteens. Provisions gone; Cornwallis burned them along with their tents and stores, even the rum. The army must be light and fast – no ponderous baggage as plagued Burgoyne. Lord Charles set the example by burning his possessions first; up went his marquee, his bed and his camp desk, his trunks, glassware and linens, his cases of Chateau Lafitte. His commanders followed with cheerful bravado, the bond fire festive like a Holiday. So too the soldiers in good spirits, although over 300 deserted, mostly Germans, but officers and men were leveled, sleeping on the open ground. All that was left were the ammunition and hospital wagons. Cornwallis determined to destroy Nathanial Greene’s rebel Army of the South and would hound them – hound them, General Greene, hoped to the Cornwallis’ exhaustion.
Not too far, Geordie thought as the sound of the river grew louder. The five miles felt like twenty as they pushed through the forest, the wet clay sucking at their feet, naked branches restraining them like arms – a cantankerous and contentious terrain in aid of the Enemy who should fair no better.
Up since 2:00, the women, sickly men and the allotted Negroes had been ordered to stay behind with the empty wagons. Never had Geordie seen so many Negroes, hordes of them marching ‘long the flanks. Is all Africa over here? Every squad had a Man. Yet, better them than a Scotch-Irish dog, said Tim Crotty – no other on Earth is as vile a creature – a Neger any day over an Ulster Man. Negroes of Official Capacity wore a patch on their sleeves with the British Broad Arrow. Those serving officers were in martial dress; Howard’s man wore a hat with black plumes, carrying an old trade-gun whose cracked stock had been spliced by a roll of brass. He had come to the British with a barrel of gun powder, stating it would find better use in their service than with his masters. He had heard if any poor man fought for the Crown, he'd be granted confiscated land. Howard had him lead a batt-horse with gear as he was no longer officially with the Army, General O’Hara taking command at Charleston; Howard now a “Gentleman Volunteer”. The brigade reconstructed again: Norton over 1st Battalion, Lt Col Pennington in command of the grenadiers with Capts. Christie and Home the platoon leaders. It was Captain Home over 2nd Platoon, Lord Dunglas, a sprat of 24 – not that Geordie cared, only that they be well led.
A man of red clay – Geordie, from all his falling; the ground slick and his new soled shoes treacherous – made sense to be in brown trowsers for all the mud. But not so his fully taped coat with its adornments soon to be sodden and in tatters. The hattcap now antiquated – round hats the Fashion, ‘specially in the South with its rain and heat, one side cocked and adorned with rakish black feathers, they looked like a brigade of cavaliers. Except in the rain – more like soaked chickens. It always rained.
Dawn coming up. Geordie saw the fading column of 1st Platoon and the tail of the Light Company. They moved faster having abandoned one of the brass three-pounders that had overturned in the swamp. A Tory guide directed the way, eager to punish the traitors; down south it’s bloody civil war – prisoners hacked to death or burned alive, pregnant mothers with children cut out of their wombs and then tossed up into a tree to hang from a limb by its own cord to bake or freeze depending upon the season – both sides done it.
If ever a people deserved vengeance, it was the Whigs of the South. Kill them all. Even the Loyalists. They’re not worth saving.
It began to drizzle, a clammy mist. Geordie ached, his knuckles swollen and burning. His firelock sloped upon his shoulder, its lock encased in oil cloth and a tampion in its barrel to keep it dry. He balanced himself with a setting pole to be used when going into the water. He missed the summer heat – something he’d decry on the march at Brandywine and Freehold. But the Catawba’s rush could be heard beyond the trees and the temperature just above freezing.
Silence – the order. Cornwallis had divided his force, having assigned Col. Webster the feint at Beatties Ford some five miles north – let the Americans think he’s crossing there. Cornwallis with the Guards, the Welsh Fusiliers, Regiment de Bose and two hundred cavalry paralleled the river south. McGowan’s Ford the target, a crossing of 500 yards – two fords actually, diverging in the middle with a horse ford heading off to the right some 3 to 4 feet deep and a wagon ford if one continued straight away with water up to a man’s shoulder. It was the horse ford they must take and with their local Tory guide, they depended upon it.
They halted, the river still out of view, but a racket. ‘Fix bayonets’ and in the din that unmistakable clink. They placed the setting poles on their shoulders along with their firelocks, their cartridge boxes tied up about their necks. Captain Hall of the Guard’s Light Infantry, rode his horse the length of his company, making sure all was in place. He and Captain Pennington conferred briefly and returned to the front.
The Catawba’s rapids were green glycerine tumbling into torrents of frothy white, surging forward and sucking back into each other. The course was a half mile wide leading to a steep bank, whose base eroded away and hung over the river. R allows of campfires lined the long hilltop, woolly in the fog. Captain Hall spurred his mount in, followed by the first platoon of the Light Company. Each man gripped the soldier next to him as Hall’s gelding chopped at the rapids with its forelegs. The Grenadier Company came upon the bank as the last of the light bobs went in.
Geordie’s eyes widened as if stepping off a cliff and clung to Tim. He plunged with a suck of breath, the water at his crotch with a thousand needles. He strangled Tim’s hand, fighting to keep his balance. Get them, his thoughts commanded as he focused on the camp fires in the distance, and there, several squads ahead, Elliot’s tall frame struggling against the current. That it take him, Geordie’s thought and surged forward.
Bayonets tangled as the current turned ‘round the men. O’Hara spurred his mount from his place in the column to plunge in after them; he cannot let them struggle alone.
That the enemy be sleeping, Geordie prayed. If the pickets should spot them, they’re all dead. Closer, he prayed. That Providence choose us. Be asleep.
The light company halfway across and Captain Hall with words barely spoke and lost in the white noise: “Steady. Everyman across. Steady. Steady. Keep the pouches out of the water.”
Up popped a silhouette on the far bank, though not by Hall. Running to the water’s edge, he kicked a lump on the ground, and rose another silhouette. They crouched. Providence choosing. “The British! The British!” A flash of powder and a rifle report. A shot zipped past Hall’s nose.
“Steady Light Company, keep pace.”
Another shot from the bank and a loud thwack between the eyes of Hall’s gelding. The horse rolled, Hall with it. Two Light Bobs grabbed him as the gelding knocked men over as it tumbled in the rapids. Hall sputtering, shook himself and regained command. More shots, but the Light Company advanced.
Not so the Loyalist guide, who, at the sound of gunfire, failed to turn at the horse ford and the column, suddenly, shoulder-deep and exposed to enfilade.
When the grenadiers came into range, the entire bank was ablaze. Balls flew by and kicked up water. Geordie heard a pop, and the man in front of him went under, his file partner trying to hold him.
And Pennington with no kind words – “Keep going!”
None cried out, though the fire from bank increased. Geordie arched his setting pole to keep the cartridge box up, water at his chin. Some lost their feet and taken under. Up ahead, Elliot’s file partner stumbled. The man done if not for Elliot.
O’Hara’s stallion lost its footing and rolled on him. He popped to the surface forty yards down, thrashing. Luckily, he was thrown against a rock and grabbed on for dear life.
Cornwallis, too, in the river, exposed like any soldier, and unaware his stallion had been hit by several balls.
The Light Company pressed the bank, Hall forever at their head, thrashing, splashing like hounds on the scent. Out of the damn water and onto dry land – Hall first, and took a bullet through the chest to fall dead. The Light Company, under fire, dropped their setting poles to clamber up the steep bank, grabbing onto bushes.
By the time the grenadiers reached the shore, the Light Company had formed and cracked off a volley. The Americans ran.
The Guards first action in the South – a brave assault. Victory? O’Hara rescued as lifeless horses and men were pulled from fishing traps downstream. The river “hummed with carcasses.” The dead buried: Colonel Hall on a nearby hill marked with a head and foot stone; private men, British and American, reconciled in a common grave.
“‘The Spirit of the Officers and Men upon that occasion deserve the highest praise,’” wrote O’Hara. In Cornwallis’s report – “‘Their behavior justified my high opinion of them . . .’”
Morgan joined his force with General Greene. And off went the Brits, chasing.