TEARS OF THE FOOT GUARDS
ALLEGRO - STAVE IX
S T A V E
Two-day old corpses in the heat. Black clouds of flies. A Nor’easter. Then fog. The Quartermaster Corp relied on their noses and crows signaling to each other. The King’s Men collected first with the Rebels marked and staked as to their location. Not that it mattered, the mass graves flooded. So too the ‘Regular Approaches’, the zig-zag trenches of siege – water up to the diggers’ waists as they closed within six hundred yards.
“Attack!” detractors grumbled. “The Rebels are wet. We are wet. Their guns will not discharge and we’ve every advantage with the bayonet.”
“Billy’s sweating them out,” his defenders countered – he protects his boys. “Why shed blood?”
“His American Holiday – dawdling to keep his mistress and his army.”
“Nonsense. It’s diplomacy, and diplomacy’s begotten by Liberal men, who by intellect build Consensus. Ever know a Conservative to bring parties to the Table? Right Thinking saves the day. And in saving the day, the Liberal Man increases.”
As to the Private Man, fighting and digging, it’s Roast Beef and Beer . . . And Quim . . . And to Win and go Home.
“They’re bagged,” Billy reminded his generals in the upper parlour of the Vechte House, an impassive stone manse that had stood at the nexus of the battle. “We hold the Heights from Wallabout Bay to the millpond. Lord Howe controls the rivers and the harbours between Brooklyn and New York. The Rebels sit and quake. Mr. Washington wants our attack. He needs it. He’s got them standing on their arms day and night. They’re exhausted.”
“Then give him what he wants,” said Lord Percy. “Push him over and be done.”
“And sacrifice the men when the Americans are collapsing on their own?” He looked out the window at the fortified lines and the star-shaped Fort Putnam. “They’re . . . undone. Mr. Washington will surrender. Congress will sue for peace and be confined to await a “hearing”. No one shall be hung. In the end, everyone gets what they want.”
“Independence?” asked General Erskine.
Henry Clinton silent.
“Most everything,” Howe conceded. “A provincial legislature for one, little tax, representation in Commons.”
“And his Majesty’s Government?” inserted beefy General James Grant, who’d fought on both the Continent and America – knew the Rebel generals intimately and loath them intimately – the Cowards, the Blackguards, the Want-to-Bes, to which Billy cocked his head.
“All the rest.”
Geordie and Tim on picket, soggy and miserable with blankets over their heads in a fog thick with sound. And everything to the imagination as they tied kerchiefs to their noses filled with tobacco and pine needles. Geordie leaned against a tree splintered from round shot at the height of a man’s head. The unfortunate victim near about. God – the smell.
“Ja-sus,” Tim gasped after a held breath.
Geordie wiped his hands on his sleeves, smelled them and winced. Tim loosed another gasp and breathed through his mouth, spitting and spitting.
“They’ll hear you.” Geordie said of the Rebel second line.
“Like they don’t know we’re here.” Tim then shouted in the fog, “Hear me ye bastards?” No answer, not even a clink of a pot. “Maybe they’re all drunk. I’d be drunk.”
Geordie pulled his blanket tighter and mashed the bouquet to his nose.
Tim poked about.
“Gabh Transna Ort Fhéin.”
“Falbh Dàirich Fhéin.”
It was not the spot where the man was hit, but where he landed, sprawled like a rag doll, his spine ripped out – a consequence of a twelve-pound shot. The redcoat and sinew indistinguishable. The breeches blown off and his genitals exposed – the pale, limp, uncircumcised prick never exposed to the sun, the only thing human. Of the thirty-two thousand engaged, there were acceptable casualties – sixty-three outright Killed, Private Men and Officers, two hundred seventy five Wounded or Missing. Now two hundred seventy four if they can identify him. Nothing to identify. Light Bobs and grenadiers bore the brunt. What’s this fellow? They couldn’t tell. But acceptable.
They pulled him by the ankle fearing he’d come apart. Beneath the spatterdashes the shoes freshly blackballed. No doubt the leathers been whitened and the coat brush’d. The queue or club just so as if some Wife had done it up for him. The coat was red, but so was everything about him. Were the facings green? If they looked at him at all, it was at his prick and balls. They pulled him some twenty yards. Let him be acceptable behind a large rock, the kind that grows on Long Island. Afterall, his sacrifice would win the war.
To their front, a crack of a branch.
Geordie unslung his firelock and he and Tim dropped low. Geordie tapped Tim to go forward and they separated.
“Halt,” Tim commanded, his bayonet charged and ready to pull the hammer to full cock. The footsteps stopped. Geordie slipped from the bush and tiptoed to get behind whoever was coming. “Advance the sign,” Tim ordered.
“Guildford,” a voice answered from the fog.
Tim raised his bayonet to strike. “Again,” he commanded. Geordie raised his bayonet too.
“Guildford,” the voice louder – Crookshank.
“P Countray,” Tim replied.
Crookshank came forward, behind him, Captain Bourne. The sergeant eyed the nose coverings. “Fall in,” he said just above a whisper.
They moved toward the rebel works. So all the pickets down the line. A slow and silent crawl over an uneven no-man’s land. Thank God for the fog, they’d be under rifle fire at three hundred yards. The grade rose and after a good twenty minutes the abatis appeared. They held their breaths. A snap of a twig could mean their slaughter. Geordie scaled a felled tree only to have his sleeve become entangled. He slipped on a limb and in a slow fall, cracked a branch.
Geordie stared up at the fog-shrouded parapet.
The fair-faced Bourne, signaled them forward. Geordie made ready to thrust his bayonet as he drew onto the work’s lip. Over he came.
The fog began to thin.
They peered into the redoubt. Campfires smoldered, waiting for breakfast. Hundreds of footprints pocked the muddy ground leading in one direction – out.
“They’re trying for New York,” Bourne said. “But the Navy’s at their back. We’ve got them! Sergeant Crookshank,” his voice grew louder, “send a man to Major Trelawney. We must move forward.”
Men raced back. Little need, the battalions at alarm.
They swept across the Heights, certain to hear at any moment the six-raters opening up. But coming upon the rise, they stared agog at Brooklyn Ferry. Not a frigate or a bomb ketch, but the East River far from empty – dinghies, fishing boats, gundalows crammed with Rebel soldiers. The advance British pickets began firing on the fleet. A battalion gun was brought into action. No matter – the Rebels sat upright proud as you please. Some stood, arrogant in their common and military dress, presenting a target. They waved obscene gestures. They laughed. They shouted: “What now, you whore’s melts? You sons of bitches?” “Stick your prick up your mate’s back door!” “Get ye back to Mother Clap’s Howe’s little piss boys! You – yes, you! I’m talking to you with the feathers, you king bird bastard, you catamite of drummer boys!”
The Impossible. Nothing like it since the Resurrection. Nine thousand – Man, Horse and Gun – secured like a pigeon in a hat box only to vanish and reappear in the Morning light in the evaporating fog on the East River as smooth as a millpond. Magick. An Artist – Georgie Washington. And Admiral ‘Black Dick’ Howe, his unwitting accomplice. Where’s the British
“Go, you filthy buggers!” Tim shouted while ramming down a charge.
Geordie, next to him, presented and fired, but the flint wouldn’t spark. He pulled his bayonet to knap it. Took aim at a cargo barge at a hundred-plus yards. Fired. No spark. “Goddamn it!”
“We’ll see you soon enough over there.” – Tim. “See how you caper with your guts stomp’d out.”
“What were you thinking?” Billy fumed at his brother in the Eagle’s main cabin, a splendid third rater launched in ’74. Lord Richard, in his captain’s chair, sipped a Frapin XO from the family’s Ravenscroft crystal he had brought. Billy's glass untouched.
“My report was clear,” Lord Richard replied without need to justify.
Billy, normally docile, shot back. “I’m no sailor, but I know there was enough time to move a gun boat up the river. You had hours before the weather set in. If I know this, so does every subaltern in the whole fleet. And Germaine will know soon enough.” – Lord George Germaine, 1st Viscount Sackville, soldier-statesman-politician, Secretary of the American Colonies, Architect and Director for the American Solution.
“That fox can be handled,” Dick said. “Besides we’ve the venerable General Sullivan in hand. He is our advocate.”
“Sullivan?” Billy exclaimed. “That lawyer, that New Hampshire man? When has New Hampshire been convinced of anything; they started the rebellion in ’75 . . . He started it.”
Dick motioned to Billy’s Ravenscroft crystal. “Drink it . . . Sullivan’s to be paroled to Congress with our letters of reconciliation.”
“Who’ll be convinced by him? He has a terrible reputation.” Billy drained his glass by half.
“He lacks no courage though,” Dick said. “Engaged the Hessians with a pistol in each hand as they took him.”
“An Irishman,” Billy said, “His own people hate him. I’ve heard Washington’s glad he’s taken.”
“You’ll see and you know it already: a delegation from Philadelphia will come.”
“At what cost? They were bottled up. They were broken. Now Washington is back in New York with his army intact. We look like fools.”
“An honourable peace will be signed very soon.”
“Oh wonderful – we send him back to negotiate a peace in our grasp.”
“Still in our grasp. A minor delay and broken nonetheless. Burgoyne coming down from Canada and with our actions here, they’ll unravel one colony at a time. And you have your Army notwithstanding. What more can a general ask for – to have Victory and still the War.”