TEARS OF THE FOOT GUARDS
SCHERZO - STAVE XXXIX
S T A V E
Come Mariot Arbuthnot, Vice Admiral of the Blue, a seventy-year old Fossil. A Fossil despite his age and would be so if he was fifty. Clinton thought him eighty by the look of him and wondered what the Ministry had been thinking. Large eyes, a jowly face, big forehead, big frame. Boisterous, Labile and Crude: “I’ll kick the Rebels’ bloody arse up and down the coast until they’re pishing green sea water.”
Quite, thought Clinton – still, give him a chance though reports are Cryptic: “A bit of a poser,” Lord Eden had written, “but, if you can make him Act, that will not signify. He is a man of known Probity and Honour.” What the deuce does that mean, Clinton wondered?
Arbuthnot arrived late, delayed by winds and the prospect of a French fleet off Dover. Of the six thousand six hundred reinforcements Lord Germain promised, Arbuthnot brought half, and half of these with Fever, one hundred already dead. Upon disembarkation, the fever spread until the hospitals swelled with six thousand men.
A farce, thought Clinton – Commedia dell’Arte and he, Punchinello squawking with his swazzle to be heard across the Pond. Sounding quite the fool and the Ministry, like the Mob, mocking him – Mr. Punch beaten by his Wife, the Constable, the Clown – Mr. Punch given charge of the American Baby only to drop it in the sausage maker. What happened to that Tactical Light who gave Billy Howe his victories? Gone out by the Weight of Command, by betrayal and conspiracy; once trusted comrades now thinking only of themselves and their agendas. A Commander-in-Chief of paper, made so by malcontents, by Germain and the King, himself. Let the Americans go and they can kill each other. If we cannot fight a proper war, why fight at all? O’ to have Billy’s ’76 Army, officered and manned and completely whole, instead of peeling ‘way divisions to Florida and Georgia and the Caribbean on the Ministry’s order. He’ll invade the South when he has the men. Rally the Loyalist majority – as able to fight as the Fusiliers or Guards. Germain was convinced. Do it, he instructed.
I shall . . . Capture Charlestown and with the ready Southerners, toss the Rebels out . . . Even with Arbuthnot’s slim reinforcements, even with Arbuthnot himself . . . So long as we command the Sea. We must command the Sea! Without Canvas Wings the army’s Lost . . . More than lost, it’s Defeated! And the French? With Arbuthnot in the North and Byron in the West Indies, they’ll be kept out.
But the French fleet did not keep out and roamed at will, and could appear anywhere: Halifax, Newport, New York, or south in the West Indies. What to do?
Clinton and Arbuthnot, in Manhattan and Sandy Point, conferred by letters. Communication styles indirect, and Arbuthnot, a ditherer: “If Monsieur d’Estaing should appear in Long Island Sound, I shall take all precautions for a vigorous defense, but if the enemy should cross the bar, the Navy could do no more. The Army would have to fend for itself.”
“‘Fend for itself’?” Such an old woman, thought Clinton. The French would not cross on Black Dick’s watch no matter how few ships; Lord Richard would trim them down, then beat them to a pulp. Clinton responded in an equivocal manner, “Should Rhode Island be abandoned and concentrate forces in the defense of New York? If d’Estaing has any designs on Newport the only question is whether we should give it or he take it.”
Arbuthnot paced his decks. Sir Henry brooded. Weeks of indecision. The Obtuse are lions when coming to a verdict, but such makes of Coward of Precise men.
“Yes, abandon Newport,” Arbuthnot wrote finally, all ruffled and flustered like a dame needing salts. “I’ve never seen it as an Advantage to the Navy.” He retired to his cabin and soothed himself with Port, informing his command he was ‘Indisposed’.
Reports flew in from north and south – d’Estaing turning up in multiple locations: Jamaica, Florida, Halifax, Quebec.
“I must save Halifax,” Arbuthnot wrote with a flush of courage, “and am sailing at once. Newport thus is needed.”
Sir Henry replied: “You intend to sail against twenty-two ships in the open water with your five ships of the line and you believe you cannot stand fast behind an impenetrable bar? You will leave New York defenceless if the French appear. Newport’s works are too dismantled to be defensible. The taking of this new resolution would have been attended with much less difficulty had I received a hint on the subject earlier.”
To which Arbuthnot complained to a fellow officer: “The General deals unfairly, always trying to ensnare me with letters.”
“Should I thus abandon Newport?” Clinton wrote again. “You wanted the island abandoned and now you want it held. What shall it be? Colonel Stuart has already denuded the works. If he is caught there, his command is lost.”
“I am tired to death by the General,” Arbuthnot wailed. “I’ve been abused in the grossest terms. I can see why the American campaign is full of blight and any officer of quality abandons him. Why would the American Secretary give him more men? The General is full of deceit and artifice. How can I ever agree with one whose intent is to mislead me?”
“Are you sailing for Halifax?” Clinton wrote. “Prescott has arrived in New York with his Newport garrison.”
“I will not make for Halifax,” Arbuthnot replied. “If attacked, it must fend on its own.”
Lucky Halifax – Clinton sarcastically.
Then a terse communique from General Prevost, commander over forces in Savannah, late arrived on a badly damaged Packet:
17th September, 1779 instant: D’Estaing landed – thirty seven ships, twenty-two of the line and the combined Franco-Rebel force of over seven thousand men. Maitland force marched and entered the town with a reinforcement of Highlanders. A precarious position as the town is under siege though I procured from Mons. d’Estaing a twenty-four hour truce to confer with town officials regarding a surrender. I used the time to further strengthen our defenses. We shall stand firm –
Yours etc. etc. A. Prevost.
A precarious position? Disastrous! Clinton in panic. The garrison outnumbered three to one, and Prevost a rickety commander. ‘Old Bullet Head’ his men called him from a ball that indented his skull in ’59. Still, a campaigner, and cautious – he would not dig in unless confident. And Maitland of the 71st – a good man – He waited, invasion plans on hold as the fate of the Southern colonies rested on a battle in the bottomlands of Georgia . . . In Georgia! . . . Whatever happens in Georgia?
How quickly things devolved. France and Spain, with their combined navies and thirty-thousand men, planned to cross the Channel and sail up the Thames. Or better, strike Portsmouth, take the Isle of Wright and terrify Whitehall to surrender. No Englishman slept safe, listening for the bark of dogs and the clang of church bells – Damn Americans, look what they’ve wrought! And always on Another’s shore – Screens of dragoons patrolled the Sussex coast while regiments and militia hug along the Thames. Household Calvary and Guards at the ready to strike out from London . . .
Then, they appeared – sixty-six ships of the line and one hundred thirty thousand men off Portsmouth.
The Home Fleet summoned, every ship, gunboat and packet, with a desperate plan to lure the Enemy into the narrow waters of the Downs and engage them one by one – Britannia never more dangerous than on her back.
Then a Miracle – the Enemy withdraws to Brest; their victuals running low and smallpox ravaging the crews. They did not come again. ‘God is an Englishman.’
Now to d’Estaing who surrounds Savannah. Should he prevail, the French’ll have a base and all British garrisons in the South will fall in total.
Another Miracle: Prevost, after suffering a five day bombardment, repulsed a multiple-front attack. Many French and Rebel casualties, d’Estaing himself twice wounded, and the British with little loss. The Rebels retreat and the French limp back to their ships. All withdraw.
“I think this is the greatest event that has happened the whole war,” Sir Henry writes to friends. “I need not say what will be our operations in consequence.” He orders at evening parade in all cantonments a Feu de Joie.