TEARS OF THE FOOT GUARDS
ADAGIO - STAVE XXX
S T A V E
26th June, 1778
On the March from Philadelphia –
Hot night. Feels like death. Obedience in a sticky heat trying to sleep, the kind that wraps from legs to neck, made worse by the warm ground. A heat like fever that magnifies sound – Billy Gill, in her dream, raging. She mops his brow. He mumbles, but she can’t make it out and lays him down near the fire pit with its hiss of green wood, the flames beating. Mosquitos buzz her face. Marshland frogs chirp. Jaruesha Tree snores. Friday, Billy died on a Friday. Friday’s Child is filled with woe . . . Too hot to breathe . . . Billy doesn’t breathe. He’s dead and then he’s gone . . . She feels herself walking. Nine days on the march. The baggage train, miles long, on the hot, sandy road; it gets in your shoes and works up blisters. Your feet burn. She holds onto a wagon that pulls her. A cut on her cheek. It throbs and is swollen. She opens her eyes to stare at the night.
Sleep. She shutters in exhaustion.
“Push it,” the Highland sergeant cries. Obedience, Grace and Jaruesha try to rock the wagon wheel. Rain pummels them. “Push,” the sergeant cries again and leans in with a shoulder. Mud sucks at their shoes. Soldiers march around them. Some give a hand. The wagon lurches and Obedience falls, her cheek smacking the wheel’s iron tire. The soldiers leave her there in the mud, facedown. Grace and Jaruesha pick her up. “You all right?” Jaruesha asks. Jaruesha asks! And then the three of them are standing in the village where the army’s camped. Soldiers and women on the ‘grab’ in broad daylight; if a villager resists, they’re beaten to within an inch of their life. Some past an inch, ‘til the dragoons come, rounding the looters up – three soldiers and a woman marched to a tree with their hands tied; the men are weeping, the woman looks unsure ‘til a bag is put over her head and she screams. An officer unsheathes his sword and stabs them in the heart . . . Waste not powder.
She props up on an elbow. Fire pits flank the road on either side; the baggage column laid down where it’d stopped outside the village of Freehold. Nine days out of Philadelphia, a great Column many miles long: Women, Civilians, Troops with a line of wagons. They’re to march to Sandy Hook to rendezvous with Lord Howe and be ferried to New York. Washington followed and General Gates coming down with his army, the same army that took Burgoyne. A rumour of battle, the baggage train harassed by enemy fire. Clinton ordered the columns switched with the baggage train in the middle and the elite, under Lord Cornwallis, to the rear – a restless Cornwallis, back from England. As for Henry Clinton, he welcomed a fight, anything to save face from this Retreat. How it will be perceived. What it looks like, and this, his first act of command. He pitched camp for a Resting Day, clean Arms and prepare . . .
She gets up to pee. A mosquito bites her cheek. She slaps. Slaps again as she trudges off to a field. Her urine’s strong; she’s drunk little water. In the summer kitchen, it’d be hot, but was theirs, and away from this rotten crew – the god-awful barracks with soldiers pissing behind doors, under stairs, shitting in corners and shoveling it into cellars when not burning it to keep warm ‘cause the Latrines, doubling as open graves, stunk to high heaven. A Shit-Hole – Philadelphia, despite the Balls and Plays and the great Mischianza. The Army made it so. Too long a welcome. And Billy off to London so others can sort it out. The Peace Talks fail, the Commissioners hamstrung with the Army’s departure. Tories load furniture into carts. Officers stuffed their saddlebags with plunder; they can hardly mount. Clinton sends the Anspach regiments by sea in fear of their desertion. A French fleet could appear at any time. Clinton left the Rebels nothing: cannon too large to trail with speed were spiked and dumped into the river, tons of salt pork drowned as well. Shipyards torched. Bales of cloth and blankets burned. He kept the rum, the Army would mutiny, might as well hand over the Country. All this after the Mischianza. How quickly it unravelled.
I hate the Ranks – back on her blanket. Get us to New York. Hyde’ll take a house . . . if he don’t go home – floating on the edge of sleep. He mustn’t go home . . . And don’t let ‘im die . . . He mustn’t die – the Guards are with Cornwallis – alarm, she floats on the edge of sleep. Elliot – She curls up despite the heat. The fat thing in her mouth – She pinches her lips and flinches. Kill ‘em, Deorsa . . . – She’s not seen him since the evacuation. Could be dead from the Heat . . . No, she’d sense it . . . – That Elliot be dead . . . You can’t kill the Devil. She looked to Heaven. You’ve sent him for my sins?
Jaruesha with a drunken snore.
I should drink . . . If MacEachran dies . . . If he Dies . . . I must make my way. Sing again and scrape by . . . Need a City . . . If Hyde leaves and MacEachran dies . . . Don’t let him die. Don’t let him die . . . I will die . . . We’ll run away – Him and Me – To the Frontier. Or the South. Have our own Summer Kitchen . . .
Sabbath Day. Heavy fog. The Rebel Army west of Englishtown. Von Knyphausen’s division with the Baggage and Women to march off at 4:00 AM. Cornwallis and his to wait behind; they’re to move off at Dawn.
The soldiers did not talk, marching regiment by regiment over the kiln of a sand road. An American day in Hell, the Fahrenheit climbing. They carried a minimal weight of arms, canteen and haversack. Damn the Blankets. As the fog burned off, so did their patience. Clinton reconnoitered, the Countryside a patchwork of Marshland and Forest, the road from Freehold crisscrossed over deep ravines – unsuitable for an Attack as the British hold the High Ground. Let them Come.
Two companies of Rebel cavalry emerged from the woods and Clinton there with his escort of Queen’s Dragoons. The troopers wheeled and charged, but the Rebels form and fire a well-aimed volley before retreating.
Right smart, Clinton’s reaction. Where’d Washington find these fellows?
Geordie, Tim to his left and Harrison to his right, with an eye on West Hyde leading the Company, upon whom the Heat had no effect. It’s a walk, my boys, his posture cried with a light step. And Geordie determined. If he can do it, so can I. Though he could not see the rash beneath West Hyde’s collar and his nose beetling red.
Ninety-five degrees and not a lick of wind at 10:00 in the Morning. Thermals wriggled up from the road and white sky so hot, the cicadas silent. A man buckled the way a ball takes you down. William Burke, an older man at forty-three, all red like a berry. Blisters on his White skin as if scorched by Coffee. Geordie and Tim broke ranks to place him on the roadside.
“Private Burke is down,” Crookshank called to West Hyde. Tim removed Burke’s leather stock.
“Fainted,” Geordie said.
West Hyde stared – Burke’s pink face spider veined and swollen. A reliable man, Burke, but a talker, never without Opinion. He’s done – just like that. The Rebels don’t need to shoot.
“Have the men remove their neck stocks,” he said. “Make them drink, Sergeant. They won’t drink ‘less you make them. Two swallows every twenty minutes. I order it.”
Rum-laced water with bits of pitch. Geordie coax’d a Swallow from the Tub ‘n Strap, a heated taste of wood. Least it’s wet, like everything on him, wet from his very Self as he leaked from his pours – he took it in to sweat it out – his gingham shirt a sop ‘neath his waistcoat and new regimental with its tape and all – just like on Horse Guards. When one faints on Horse Guards, it don’t kill you – English Junes ain’t American Junes, this very Country fights you. But Geordie resolute not to go down. Not by ball. Not by heat. Goddamn ye America despite yer Beauty. Ye drive men Mad. When action comes, plague the Rebels too. That all suffer. He took a drink and thought of Obedience miles ahead. At least she’s secure.
Obedience, a hand on a rolling wagon and the other on Grace whose pink face no longer sweat. They trundled. Ahead, a mother with a toddler on her shoulder, sponging the girl’s burnt cheeks. The child’s hand still. Dead? A guilt in Obedience . . .‘til the little fingers twitched, absolving her. Of what? She couldn’t say, though always there, demanding.
Grace seized up and grasped the back of her leg. And Obedience, quick on Grace’s knee to keep the leg from contracting. Grace started to drop with gritted teeth . “Don’t let me sit.”
“Mrs. Tree,” Obedience called. “A hand here, if you please.”
The mother and daughter now on the roadside, the little girl’s hand no longer twitched; two soldiers stopped to put them in a wagon.
Gunfire erupted from a hedgerow along the roadside. A zip past Obedience’s nose. She felt its heat, then a splatter against her cheek. Another volley. She dropped and scrambled under a wagon. The civilians screamed. Officers shouted orders.
“Get under here,” she shouted to Grace facedown with an arm over her head. The Regulars formed and returned fire as Rebels emerged from the hedgerow. And there, Grace, eyes speckled and head a pulp of bone and skin. Obedience with a screaming rage grabbed a fallen musket, and gripping it waist-high, fired at the enemy. Flame shot up into her face and she fell just as a ball flew through the spot she’d occupied.
Clinton, before the second division, read a dispatch:
“. . . rebel skirmishing with elements of my Division: lively Action –
– von Knyphausen.”
A courier up from the column’s rear – a message from Cornwallis:
“I am under fire. 4000 attempting to turn our right flank.
Per your Instructions, am going on the Attack – L.C.”
The Guards swept onto the cornfield in two columns. To their right, the 42nd. On their left, a detachment of the Queen’s Dragoons. Americans, wavering in the thermals, displayed in neat ranks at two hundred yards, a spectral foe, as if they might disappear. But there they were, unafraid.
Trelawny ordered the battalion guns unlimbered and played smartly on the Enemy, to which, they right-about in a most Professional manner, giving fire as they withdrew. The Queen’s Dragoons chased, howling like savages. The Guards followed, forming their battle line and coming at the Quick. The sun cooked them and a number fell, but their blood was up and they would not slacken.
Geordie, in the front rank, at the trot, bayonet charged, Tim on his heels at the Recover, hoping to close on the withdrawing enemy. To their right and front – a thick cope of brush and woods surrounding a marshy ravine. On the backside – another open field. Get through the damn woods, he thought, and chase ‘em back to Monmouth, and if the heat don’t kill us, chase ‘em back to English Town.
Their line wavered, some companies pushing forward – Number One and Two along with the Grenadiers. Twenty yards to their right, the brush shook – Rifle reports and the balls flying True. They reeled like a bully punched in the Nose – twenty down – but wiping ‘way the blood, rush to the woods and into the teeth of another volley.
Geordie shanked a rifleman ramming his charge. Tim Butt-Stroked a man with a crimson sash. Marksmen in the treetops opened up. The Companies scattered, mixing in, firing up into the branches; Geordie firing shot after shot until the barrel singed his fingers and one of the charges Cooked-Off. A Melee, men going down: Captain Wottesley bleeding like a pig from buckshot in his neck, West Hyde with a hole in his side from a ball passed clean through, Cosmo Gordon, his bayonet shot away and two balls passing through the gaps in his coat. Still, they cleaned out the grove now littered with uniforms of different colours. And as they reformed on the other side, their lines with gaps and clearly smaller.
Where’s Tim? Geordie looked about frantically. Then up he comes, his miserable face black, tearing powder like a Doxy caught out in a storm – ‘least he’s not bleeding.
The sergeants walked the line replenishing the men’s boxes from their cartridge tins. And before they could catch their breath, the battalion, piecemeal, marched forward. “Make way!” the officers shouted. “Bring them up! Bring them up!” “On me, lads! On me!”
The Continentals continued to withdraw, marching fifty yards, then halt-turn-and-fire, their volleys Sharp Cracks – a Slap with smoke curling off the cornstalks. Enemy cannon tore with Shot and Grape. In reply, the Royal Artillery with larger guns.
Geordie impressed by a brown-coated Continental regiment several hundred yards ahead, a checkerboard of White and Black faces, presenting their Arms as well as any of the Regulars coming towards them. He saw the volleys before he heard them and ten yards to his front, musket balls kicked up the earth. He marched past where they’d fallen. The Americans made ready again, aiming at the Guards, and again too, the Fire in advance of the Report. A Smack on Geordie’s shoulder, then a burn; the ball bounced off having spent its Velocity. Tom Tree stung on the neck and fell, though not bleeding; George Harrison moved into his file. They moved up fast within a Mortal Range. The Americans reloaded, aimed. The Guards broke into a run. The Americans fired. John Price doubled over hit in the groin, Jeffrey True took a tumbler between his mouth and his nose, George Harrison’s kneecap shot off.
On their left, Rebel cannon in enfilade. The earth convulsed. A blast of wind against Geordie. Then a blur past his head, a burning heat and behind him, a grunt.
Tim! He turned, and there Crookshank pitched in the air with a leg torn off. Tim pressed
Geordie’s shoulder and pushed him on; both would fall if he did not run. And run they did, charging the Continentals who filed onto the road and crossed the ravine, vanishing in the smoke
– smoke everywhere, sulfurous and sour, and filled with torment.
Geordie, blinded by perspiration, staggered as they halted. Thank God. Leaning on his firelock, awash in sweat, he looked up. Out of the sulfur cloud – a Giant on a White Charger shouting and waving his sword. Who the Hell’s that? He glanced back at Tim, who clutched his belly. “Look at that bastard there.” Tim wordless. And then, out of the corner of Geordie’s eye – Elliot, beet-red, heaving great draughts of breath.
West Hyde, himself reeling, a leg of his trowsers a sopping red, ordered them to kneel.
The Royal Artillery caught up and lined the ravine’s edge. American batteries mounted a forward hill and the two sides smashed: Howitzers, Gallopers, 16 Pounders, a Hammer on the Ears. Shot screamed Back and Forth. Earth convulsed and Smoke, a noxious Curtain.
Geordie in his water – what was left of it. A shell split the ground yards in front, pelting the line with clods and sand. He looked at Tim and they squeezed each other’s hands.
“Still with me, brother?”