TEARS OF THE FOOT GUARDS
RONDO - STAVE LXXII
S T A V E
A Hell. Comets of Fire. They streak like messengers. If only to watch, one might think them pretty. They whistle and pop and burst like flowers, each with their shape, soft and puffy. Where’s the Hell, you say? On the ground, raked. In the trenches. Every bloody inch. The Dead in the open like so much debris. Indeed, debris, as soup bones, kettles, empty barrels, a broken wheel; no one moved them. Try and you might join them. One must constantly dash. Little good it do – One must try. Both Fool and Brave stand erect. Neither last . . . No more than those who hunker, just Conspicuous . . .
“Have you the range, sergeant?” Geordie heard the artillery officer in the battery down the row; he and Elliot against the Hornwork wall, knowing what will come.
“I do, sir,” the artillery sergeant replied.
“Give them a live one,” the lieutenant said.
Geordie flinched and pressed tighter. Better here than their place in town; their Lights and Grenadiers pulled to different stations. This night, the Hornwork, to support a battalion of light infantry desperately thinned.
The gunner trimmed the shot’s fuse, estimating burn time and distance – that it explode over the ditch where the Americans were digging. That it blow off their fucking heads – the Allies had seized the outer works as predicted. The Royal Artillery harried them, but they scattered at the muzzle blasts and the shot arrived with little effect. The British took to flashing powder, and when the Americans got used to it, they’d give them a live round. The Allies would hit back and hard. Damn the French gunners.
The young lieutenant peered into the dark, sounds of digging across the field. “Fire when ready.” The gunner touched the powder. A hiss. A flash. Explosion. The eighteen pounder rocked.
Geordie poked up his head to on the glow of shot. A flash over the outer works and the concussion that followed.
The digging stopped . . . for a while. Then out of the blackness, their big guns.
“Here it comes!” the gunner shouted and dove to the ground.
Geordie and Elliot bunched up. The barrage whistled. The Hornwork convulsed, shot fore and aft. Geordie, like a ragdoll on a table shaking. His ears bled. Elliot on his stomach knocked topsy-turvy. A clang and concussion. A British gun shot into the air, rocketing end over end, its carriage shattered. Another hit behind the wall, its fuse hissing. A burst. The lieutenant lifted off the ground in pieces. What was once his head bounced.
Then the cannonade stopped.
Ghastly quiet. Geordie on all fours like a dog, his snotty nose streaming, his body slick. The smell of guts and shit. He sat himself down and shook. Then a voice from beyond – “I’m hit. I’m hit.” Quiet again.
A bouncing light coming up the way. Geordie saw it double, triple.
“You men all right?” asked Lt. Col. Lake, a Guards replacement officer. He held up the lamp and saw the lieutenant’s scattered remains. “Get up,” he ordered that they might not have seen it. Geordie and Elliot stared at him dumb. “Get up now, I say.” And pointed down the line. “Sergeant, take your squad over there. Try to sleep.” Elliot took Geordie’s arm, the sleeve of his coat soaking wet from the lieutenant.
Some distance, from Redoubt #6, another British cannon fired.
They flopped on a ground no different, their breaths heaving, eleven exhausted men.
“Where’s Clinton?” a new man asked.
“Better come soon for fuck sake,” another said.
“They complete that line, we’re dead men.”
“Dead men already.”
“Clinton is coming.”
“Should’ve been here by now.”
“I come out of this,” a voice trembled, “I give my life to God –”
“God put ye here. That’s what He thinks of you, stupid bastard.”
Redoubt #6 received its pounding. Geordie strangled his firelock as if the ground would open up.
A new man jumped and ran out the sally port, as if anyone would stop him – crazy, weak New Man, running across the field. Desertion? Suicide? It didn’t matter.
“Idiot,” Elliot said. “If you’re going to die, do it when it does some good.”
M Y L O R D ,
YOU may be assured that I am doing everything in my power to relieve you by a direct move, and I have every reason to hope, from assurances given me this day by Admiral Graves, that we may pass the bar by the 12th of October, if the winds permit, and no unforeseen accidents happens; this, however, is subject to disappointment; if I hear from you, your wishes will of course direct me, and I shall persist in my idea of a direct move even in the middle of November, should it be your lordship's opinion that you can hold out so long; but if you tell me you cannot, and I am without hopes of arriving in time to succour you, I will immediately make an attempt upon Philadelphia by land. If this should draw any part of Washington's force from you, it may give you an opportunity of doing something to save your army...
I have the honour to be, &c.
H. C L I N T O N.
S I R,
I have only to repeat what I have said that nothing but a direct move to the York River, which includes a successful naval action can save me. The enemy has made their first parallel at a distance of 600 yards, and have perfected it, and constructed batteries with great regularity and caution. On the evening of the 9th, their batteries opened and have continued firing without intermission, with about forty cannon, mostly heavy, and sixteen mortars from eight to sixteen inches. We have lost about seventy men and many of our works are considerably damaged: With such works on disadvantageous ground, against so powerful an attack, we cannot hope to make a very strong resistance.
C O R N W A L L I S
“If you can get through, he can get through," Cornwallis said to Major Cochrane, his newly appointed aide-de-camp as they toured the front lines. “Does he know how desperate we are?”
“It is Admiral Graves, my lord; he says the conditions are not right to go to sea as yet,” Cochrane said exasperated.
“Well, you got a boat down here, by God. 'Hold out until November', if we can't stop their parallels, we won't have a few days. Going to Philadelphia, what good in hell is that going to do?"
Cornwallis put his fingers to his nose – the smell. Corpses about – whole men, half men and some just pieces. Happy the rats, in their battalions. “We haven’t a chance to get them buried,” he said. “The men must be at their posts.”
“Have the Negroes –” A whistle of shot stopped him in mid-sentence, the ball exploding several yards behind them. Cochrane, one of these ‘upright men’ stood undaunted. “Might we return to the bombproof, my lord?”
“No.” Cornwallis also standing. “They must be out here as do we.”
“Yes,” Cochrane agreed. “But the Negroes, my lord – Where are all the Negroes?”
“I let them go. We haven’t the provisions and they were coming down with smallpox. I sent them over to the rebel lines. Let them infect the French. Maybe Nature can reduce where we cannot.”
They came to a battery brought off a ship. Twenty-four pounders. The commanding ensign tipped his hat.
“Primed and ready, ensign?” The earl with a personable manner.
“Yes, your lordship,” the boy officer replied – all these boys. Cochrane was no ‘boy’ having been here since ’74, passed over time and again for being Lord Percy’s man with no promotion in Billy’s Army.
“Excuse me, my lord.” Cochrane took the polearm, forever showing his mettle.
“Sir?” the ensign bleated. “My lord –”
The twenty-four pounder poked out of the small embrasure in the works. Cochrane touched the piece. The cannon barked and recoiled, their insides rattling. And following almost immediately, a French gun’s reply.
Cochrane hoisted himself to the top of the works to see where his shot would hit. At the moment he cleared, a ball took off his head. Such a fountain. All showered as his body flopped and slid back down. Cornwallis stumbled and landed on his arse.
“My lord! My lord!” the ensign cried.
“God in heaven!” Cornwallis cried through his hand. “The poor boy. Take him away. All of him! Not one piece shall be lying out!”
The Allies started their second parallel only 300 yards from the inner works, but British fire from the advanced redoubts #9 and #10 kept the diggers scattered. As long as these held, the enemy was checked. Even so, the British were running out of powder, food, and time.
Elliot locked his arm around the draft horse’s muzzle while a New Man pulled the reins taunt. Geordie put his firelock to the animal's temple and shot.
They crept through the dark: New England men of the American light infantry, to storm redoubt #10 closest to the bluffs, the Royal Deux-Ponts and Gatinois to take the more fortified redoubt #9. Eight hundred men.
The diamond shaped earthworks rose eighteen feet from the surrounding ditch with a fraise work of sharpened stakes bristling from their facings. Cherry trees and ash were laid lengthwise down their slopes, with the branches trimmed and sharpened to thwart any attempt to storm. The British and Germans man their posts warily, certain an attack would come; the French Grand Batteries had been at them all day, softening them up.
loyal Deux-Pont grenadiers, Zweibruckeners in French pay, moustaches waxed neat, their great brown bearskin caps atop their powdered white hair, moved quickly across the field to #9. The German sentry could not see their powder blue coats, but he heard their bayonets rattle. “Werda?” he called. The rattle came closer. “Werda?” he shouted and fired his musket towards the noise. The garrison clambered up to the parapet.
"Vive le Roi!" an officer cried and with a shout, the Deux-Ponts surged forward. Onto the abatis they rushed, their pioneers chopping at the branches while the British and Germans poured down fire. The grenadiers and chasseurs hoisted onto the fraising only to be shot down. They kept coming.
Americans rushed redoubt #10 with muskets unloaded, using only the bayonet. Up the abatis they charged to entangle in the branches, the Regulars ready for them. Still, up and over they come.
The tumult heard across the field.
"They're going for the redoubts!" a new man cried from the inner works.
"Come on, you Bloodybacks, hold them!" Geordie shouted.
"Hold them! Hold them!" the soldiers shouted from the parapets. Across the field, flashes of grenades and musketry.
Drums sounded down the line: Prime and load. The inner works lit up in a tremendous fire as they tried in vain to support the forward positions.
S I R,
L A S T evening the enemy carried two advance redoubts on the left by storm, and during the night have included them in their second parallel, which they are at present busy in perfecting. My situation now becomes very critical; we dare not shew a gun to their old batteries, and I expect that their new ones will open tomorrow morning: Experience has shewn, that our fresh earthen works do not resist their powerful artillery; so that we shall soon be exposed to an assault in ruined works, in a bad position, and with weakened numbers. The safety of this place is, therefore, so precarious, that I cannot recommend that the fleet and army should run great risk in endeavouring to save us.
I have the honour to be, &c.
C O R N W A L L I S.