TEARS OF THE FOOT GUARDS
ALLEGRO - STAVE VII
S T A V E
“Get up! Get up!” NCOs strode among the men. The musicians, topside, ‘beating the bounds’.
They needed no prodding. Few had slept the night for all the lightning and thunder – a tremendous storm over the heart of New York. An Overture for the coming Action. Orders: draw their arms and sixty rounds – sixty, blanket rolls, tubs and straps with a gill of rum mixed with the water and rations for a three-day march.
Finally! After weeks of endless drill in the Evolutions for Light Infantry. The twice per week hike the length of Staten Island in full kit. The maneuvering in companies, battalion and brigade. And always back to the stinking ship with its heat and poor rations. And there the enemy on Long Island as comfortable as you please with all the perquisites of Country Life and Town, terrorizing loyal citizens. Not much longer, by God. Today’s the Day. Invasion!
Obedience stirred. A crash of footsteps overhead. Fifes trilling. Mates shouting. The squeal of ropes through davits and the turn of the windlass. And Geordie pushing through the crowd of men dressing. She sat up.
The ship pitched.
“We’re moving,” she said.
He held a piece of black ribbon. “Do up my hair?”
“Turn ‘round.” She pleated it through the braids the way she’d done for Billy. “Got the nail?” He handed her the ornament and she swept up the queue to pin it proper, her fingertips on his neck. “Will there be battle?”
And in his mind the King’s men coming off the ships to the rebels waiting. Another Breed’s Hill? “We’ll smash ‘em on the beach.”
“Like last night’s storm.” Such a tremendous Storm, a portent of what’s coming . . .
He searched her face. Would it be the last good thing he’d see? Soldiers clambered topside to the sounding of “the General.” She inclined her chin. His imagination? The air suddenly churned. An odd breeze for so deep in the ship. Then a tremendous rattle from cannon fire and a stink of rotten eggs. Kiss her, fool. But stood there stupid. Much to her relief. He took her fingers. “In Providence’s Hands – you and me.”
In the Narrows, hundreds of landing barges pulled for Long Island. The 1st Assault Division, a flotilla of red with muskets barrels like electrum. Shot whistled overhead, HMS Rainbow pounding. The beach convulsed with coughs of sand with no answer from enemy batteries. Magnificent. A singing of oars – Get them.
The Guards grenadiers assembled on deck. Colonel Osborn, his gorget in black silk and his duty sash swooped up the back of his ‘private’s coat’, addressed the company. “General Mathew requests that general order of 11th August instant be read for the benefit of the brigade:
The Brigadier flatters himself that the Corps will never have the occasion to go right about in the presence of the enemy, but as it may happen to be necessary to change disposition and take ground to the rear, he wishes it may be clearly understood by every soldier, as not meaning retreat, and therefore this maneuver may be executed with as much steadiness and good order as any to the front.
Osborn eyed his hounds. “No retreat Grenadiers. His Majesty’s soldiers will always receive fire first.” And nodded as a good father should.
1st Division almost across, its first wave one hundred yards from shore. Up kicked the breeze and the water chopped. Rainbow continued pounding.
“Company,” Osborn said. “Incline your attention to the reading of the Articles of War.”
And pulled the book from his coat pocket after a swig of water cut with rum.
“Rules and Articles
For the better
G O V E R N M E N T
Of His MAJESTY’S
Horse and Foot Guards,
Great Britain and Ireland
Dominions beyond the Seas, and
From the 24th of March, 1762.
“Section I, Divine Worship . . .”
It begins with God, thought Geordie. Always with God. God watches. He only watches. I believe in God, The Father Almighty, Creator of Heaven and Earth . . .
The cannonade ceased, a breathless hush. The air sour. Landing craft scraped the shore. Light Infantry jumped from the boats, fanning out in extended order, some diving to their bellies, others taking cover. The rebel troops still left, opened up. The Light Bobs returned fire.
. . . And in Jesus Christ, His Son, our Lord . . .
He rarely prayed, but did when he was supposed to.
. . . Who was conceived by the Holy Ghost . . .
The pickets ran. Another wave hit as empty barges pulled away.
He believ’d in God, even as he’d fucked Livinia in her bend over. A minor sin. Everyone does it. Not like cuckolding some husband –
2nd Division began its crossing.
God’d take exception at that –
A bouquet on the water.
Might allow a ball to find its mark –
Madder Red. Prussian Blue. Great brass miters with bags of white, stripes and yellow.
Soldiers cry to Jesus when they’re down’d.
Grenadiers. Chasseurs. Fusiliers.
Leg bones shattered and breasts ripped apart –
The Germans sang their Lutheran hymns as their boats pulled forward.
The first Name they cry out –
“‘Section VI, article I., Desertion. All officers and soldiers who having received pay . . .”
For a living dog is better than a dead lion, the Scriptures say –
“‘. . . Any person belonging to our Forces employed in Foreign Parts, who shall cast away his Arms and Ammunition, shall suffer Death, or such punishment . . .’”
A ragged enemy volley. The report a delayed echo. A Light Bob went down.
We’re all lions.
“‘. . . Any Non-commissioned officer or private soldier that shall happen to die, or be killed in our service . . .’”
He scanned the deck choked with soldiers. The Guards! . . . Their grenadiers! Immortal, ain’t we?
Passenger Vessels knocked against the ship. Time to go. Enough of the Articles, the Consequence they should be call’d.
“Prime and load.”
Geordie electric plucking a cartridge, the black powder like opium on his tongue. He seated the ball as the fifers played the order – a kick no civilian knows. By God, by God, let no man dare oppose him.
A tremendous fleet, the third wave: four British infantry brigades and the Brigade of Guards – twelve regiments, five generals. All silent as they watched the upcoming shore. The air charged. How different this time on the water. Seagulls wheeled overhead, standing on the wind, spying with their black pearl eyes; where men go, there’s carrion and garbage. More so when they assemble like this. Geordie looked up and there a gull just above him, staring. Begging or waiting? The boats rolled on flaps of waves all crazy quilt from a thousand pulling oars. Ahead, the beach where the Hessians formed with Colours flying and stepped off the strains of der Hohenfriedberger. While the Brits scrambled forward. Beyond, grain fields high to the hip, looking all innocent ‘til a battalion springs up to hit you with a volley at thirty yards. But nothing, the beach pockmarked and empty save for their own forming corps.
Thank Christ, Geordie’s nod. God’s truly with them.
“Is it your plan?” General Howe asked Sir William Erskine before sipping his Madeira.
General Erskine, a tall aristocrat and the army’s most popular officer downed his and then held the glass aloft to be refilled by Howe’s man – an impromptu lunch at headquarters in Gravesend – chicken and ham, raw greens, pork pie, boiled red potatoes and fresh bread – General Erskine, General Howe and Major Cuyler.
“Harry Clinton’s,” Erskine said, not hesitant to answer. “Rawdon and I rode over the ground with him.”
“I see.” Howe shot Cuyler a look. What’ll Clinton have next: subalterns picketing his door? Every day another Clintonian plan, especially with the arrival of the Guards and Germans; Clinton loves all things German. Stiff and slow, rigid to a man – bunch of Lutherans, uniforms bright, personalities drab. He’d rather have the Russians and had told Clinton so: “Germans will not act with the same willingness as your northern friends, but we must make the best of them.”
“An ingenious plan,” Erskine said
“I’ll consider it.”
Erskine knew Howe’s inclination with Clinton’s whiney voice even now in his head: “If he’ll listen to anyone, he’ll listen to you.” “It’s marvelous and daring,” Erskine had said, “but why not present it yourself?” “He finds deficiency in all I present. Some of his niggling is legitimate, but he dismisses the entirety out of hand . . . It could be me, I grant you. I push too hard. Not that I wish to manipulate. Or take credit. God forbid, I’m fond of the man, but I tell you, he’s not up to it.” “Not up to it?” “For making plans.” “He knows how to fight in this country.” “Yes . . . Oh yes, of course, he’s the very man. None better. But he doesn’t know New
York as I do. I know it like the back of my hand.”
“The plan is quite good,” Erskine now said over his mauled chicken breast. “You should look at it.”
They went to the long table, pulling the map of Long Island’s western end.
“The strategy comprises of three movements culminating in the flanking of the enemy’s right,” Erskine said.
“Three movements – a veritable symphony!” Howe quipped.
“General Clinton’s observations determine the rebel defenses begin on the left where the heights meet the swampland at the island’s southern tip and continue north for about three miles. The trees and brush on the ridge’s summit are so dense no corps can penetrate them in good order and are virtually impassable for artillery and horse. Therefore, the only passage through the Heights to the rebel forts beyond are by four passes: the Narrows Road on the left skirting the Gowanus Swamp, the Flatbush Pass about two miles to the north leading to town, and still farther north by a mile or two – Bedford Pass – ”
“Yes-Yes-Yes,” Howe said. “General Clinton has made it a habit to point out the useless skirmishing Cornwallis would face if he took post there.”
“Harry believes the rebel forces are concentrated along the ridge from the Narrows to Bedford Pass.”
“You said there are four avenues through the Heights.”
“Jamaica Pass, a small road five miles north of Bedford Pass. The Old Jamaica Road winds through the gentler northern slopes and then parallels the Heights in the rear. If a considerable force were to distract the rebels on their right near Gowanus Swamp, the Main could move into position and hit the enemy in the rear. As this is happening, the Germans could move against the enemy center from Flatbush completing the pincer.”
Howe pursed his lips. “And how is Harry Clinton so sure there will be no defense in Jamaica Pass?”
“I think it safe to assume Washington has over stretched his lines. Besides, there is really nothing there – just a tavern on a little traveled road. And if there are, by the time the enemy sees us, we’ll be engaged. It is too far from their main positions. Even if it is held by two battalions, they could not withstand our main force. The trick will be appearing in the pass without detection, but once reaching this Howard’s Tavern in the pass, the battle’s good as over.”
“Plausible . . . on paper, but there is a crucial point General Clinton has overlooked: we will be behind Washington’s first line of defense, but his main fortifications will be in our backs. We could be trapped between his two lines.”
“There is always an element of risk,” Erskine said, masking his impatience. “But this is the British Army. If we have not faith in it, we have no business here.”
“Nothing new in this,” Howe said. “Breed’s Hill on a larger scale---” Then a flash in his mind, just a flash – Billy on Breed’s Hill turns to speak to Captain Sherwin, his aide, who, at that moment takes a ball through the head--- “If we would have managed to drive the rebels from the rail fence, we would have flanked their position, and even so, that would have drawn fire from Bunker’s Hill in our rear---” Sherwin’s blood flicked in his eye. He blinked--- “And you need not remind me of the British soldier’s valour . . . I’m not saying it’s unworkable, but it must stand criticism.”
“Autumn is drawing nigh, General.”
“We have greater adversaries than Washington. Heat. Force march an army under sweltering conditions adds twice to Washington’s defenders. We must check him hard, but fight on our terms. Loyalist informants have well appraised me regarding the Brooklyn fortifications. We might lose 1000 to 1500 men – a price I’m grieved to pay. Still, I’ll consider it.”