TEARS OF THE FOOT GUARDS
ALLEGRO - STAVE V
S T A V E
Rollcall on the weatherdeck. Correct, proper and Fit for Service. Dress of the Day and Orders:
Clean trousers, clean gingham shirt, waistcoat, ammunition shirt, fatigue Caps.
Coats are to be collected by the tailors to remove their tape and be cut to the pattern authorized by the Brigadier.
Each man is to draw his firelock, box and strap from the company quartermaster for exercise ashore. Bayonets are to be off the belt and attached to the box by a carriage according to the pattern authorized by the Brigadier. If any private’s bayonet is still on the belt, he will return the box and bayonet to the quartermaster after the exercise to have it placed on the box.
The battalion companies are to have their hats cut round according to the pattern authorized by the Brigadier. All battalion company hats to be collected by the quartermaster for alterations.
Every private’s firelock shall have a proper sling. Those that do not have a proper sling will report to the quartermaster to receive one. Any private whose firelock is without a proper sling shall be subject to court martial and punishment.
Women are to report to the Company Quartermaster to receive twenty yards of coarse linen and make clean bandages according to the pattern . . .
Sir George Osborn, a pleasant-faced Englishman of thirty-four, need not smile to convey Satisfaction. A fine pack of hounds, the finest, and he would dash into peril at their head as his duty, his Privilege. He paid for it – Thirty-Five Hundred, no pittance and over twice the amount for an equal rank in any foot regiment, and here – the brigade’s grenadiers. Not that they’re all good fellows, some blackguards that would’ve swung if not for the Service. Some might still. But all aspired to Excellence – a fine thing. They expected as much from him and deserved to be well led.
“Grenadiers,” he addressed them. “Providence has smiled on us – a pleasant day. American weather can be beastly this time of year. Enjoy it. It’ll be short-lived. We go ashore for the first time in four months and shall exercise with the light company in the Evolution for the Light Infantry as well as some marksmanship to scrape off the rust. Americans have the conceit for fighting like the Savages and for the skill of their aim. No doubt they’ve never imagined that Foot Guards can draw a bead as fine as them. Won’t they be surprised?” The grenadiers chuckled. “I am confident you will purport yourselves as becoming Household Troops. Still, heed the following general order for his Majesty’s Forces.” He nodded to Crookshank.
“General order by General William Howe, Commander-in-Chief, 29th June instant:
As the Inhabitants of the Country are known to be well affected to the Government, and have suffered great depredations from the Rebels; the Commander-in-Chief fully convinced of the superior Discipline and Humanity of Troops under his command recommends to their protections the families and Property of the People of the Country; and any soldier straggling from his platoon, will be executed on the Spot.”
“I am certain,” Sir George said, “none of you will dishonour the Company and the Brigade being shot as a Straggler.”
Boats knocked against the ship followed by shifting of oars. The officer of the watch, a scrawny navy lieutenant, called from the quarterdeck, “They’re ready, Sir George.”
The company dispersed to receive their arms and assembled squad by squad to descend the plank. As Geordie hefted his firelock and started down, he looked back to where he and Obedience had slept. She was alone and him now walking out with Brown Bess.
The grenadiers were silent as oars churned. Dry land was no certainty until ashore; a rogue swell could overturn them and they’d sink like stones in their kits. Such things happen. Life’s cruel and commensurate to the heart’s fear and desire. For what reason? Reason, indeed. Did it have a part?
As they eased past a weary transport, an old Seventy-Two stripped of her guns, a shower of offal rained down.
“Goddamn,” Dan Burrows blurted as the muck sailed past his head.
“Fuck ye, bowsies!” one of the rowers shouted up.
“Look to your oars,” the midshipman cried, but then he too shouted at the offending ship. “I saw you, you blackguards. You’ll think it not funny after a Hundred . . . Halloo Niobe, officer of the watch . . .”
“He ain’t here,” a stupid voice from behind the gunwale followed by laughter.
“Well he ain’t?” roared the little midshipman. He looked at his watch. “Niobe – 8:45. I’ll remember and have your hides!”
“Fuck yer self, chit,” from behind the transom.
“Gobshites!” a rower shouted.
“Heave to,” the midshipman cried. “Board that rascal . . .”
“Mr. Hewitt,” a navy lieutenant scolded from the boat behind. “What do you think you’re doing? The shore, Mr. Hewitt!” But as the lieutenant’s boat came under Niobe he cried, “Try that with me and I’ll goddamn board you myself!”
“Welcome to America,” a jack tar said to Geordie, an ugly leather face and one great tooth in his mouth. “British might and power,” he grinned, knowing the truth of it. “Rule, Britannia, rule the waves: Britons never will be slaves.” His smile widened and he croaked with a craggy sing-song:
“The nations, not so blest as thee,
Must, in their turns, to tyrants fall;
While thou shalt flourish great and free,
The dread and envy of them all.
Rule, Britannia! Britannia rule the waves:
Britons never will be slaves."
The Guardsmen smiled, taking up the chorus. Brave Hearts – how soldiers love to sing. “Rule, Britannia! Britannia rule the waves: Britons never will be slaves.”
The jack tar rocked as if swinging a pint.
Thee haughty tyrants ne'er shall tame,
All their attempts to bend thee down
Will but arouse thy generous flame;
But work their woe, and thy renown.
“Rule, Britannia! Britannia rule the waves: Britons never will be slaves!”
The song raced to the other boats fore and aft, a jolly tune for the expedition. Such fun. Who did not think himself brave enough to rescue the Colours as he was going down? All cheered after the last chorus.
The wind picked up and Geordie started looking green.
“You sick?” a rower asked him. “Pitch it over the side if you are.”
“MacEachran’s never been good on the water,” Dan Burrows said.
“Pay him no mind,” said Tim Crotty. “The fool’s smitten.”
“Shut it,” Geordie snapped.
“He don’t even know the wench . . .”
“What’s this?” Burrows beamed.
“Nothing,” Geordie said.
“Better a woman’s touch than yer mate’s,” the jack tar cackled. “But if it’s a woman you want, I’d wait. These Staten Island girls . . .” He winked. “Pretty faces, soft white bellies . . .
That’s what I hear.”
“You seen them?” Willcock pressed.
“Been ashore only once,” the tar said. “We come up from Charleston two weeks ago with Clinton and Commodore Parker. The Regulars on Staten Island are going wild. A girl can’t walk out without some soldiers grabbing her – they think they’re at Covent-Garden. Very entertaining court-martials, I hear. One girl complains to Lord Percy a couple of soldiers hauls her into the bushes. She tells his Lordship they must be grenadiers. His Lordship asks her how she knows? She says they could be nothing else being so large. If his Lordship will only examine them, he’ll find it so!”
“Our luck they’ll move us off,” said Daniel Cameron, a private in the Third.
“Take New York and you’ll have Holy Ground,” the old tar said. “Some five hundred blowers.”
“We’ll take it,” George Harrison boasted.
“You better,” the sailor replied.
“It’ll be over in a few weeks,” Harrison said.
“I’ve been here since ’73” the old tar said. “I’ve seen these people.” He darkened.
“Well?” Crotty asked.
“My brother’s wife’s American, a good girl, part of my family, treats my brother well. I’ve stayed with them when in Boston – in a house, a good house, better than they can afford in Portsmouth, that they couldn’t afford any house there but some small rooms. And they’re in cash because of the small taxes, but God bless’em I said. Isn’t that the way we should all be? She’s an ardent patriot and makes no bones. I had sympathies – they’re Britons the same as me and no man jack among us should be ill-used be he rich or poor. But the truth is she ain’t like me or my brother. When there’s something her kind don’t like, the Mob forms, and when they scream “Liberty”, look to your skins. I see them truss up a Tory merchant, a neighbour of theirs I say “good day” when in town. My sister-in-law was the one to come up to him tied and gagged and poured the boiling tar over his head. I hear the word ‘Liberty’ and shake – someone’s gonna Dance On A Pin. I’ve seen them cut men’s throats and burn them alive. Animals. All should be shot – my good sister-in-law among ‘em. I hate ‘em. Kill ‘em all I say. You get into battle, you kill them all – the animals.”
“They can’t all be bad,” Dan Burrows said.
“So I thought. Even fell in on their side, thinking them ill-used. But it don’t matter what I think. They hate me cause I’m a King’s man. They’d just as soon put a ball in my head . . . Cause I serve the King. Is that a reason?”
“Most Americans are good,” Crotty skeptical.
“Good for what? The good ones are gone or dead. The rebels don’t care who they string up – women, children. They’re crazy and stupid. Bunch of savages.”
“New England hotheads,” Crotty said. “They ain’t like that down here.”
“They ain’t? They toppled King George’s statue, ripped off the head and threw it in the river. They melted down the rest of it for musket balls.”
“Damn, you say.”
“When a musket ball hits you, you wonder – what part of the King?”
“You get us over there and you’ll see,” Sergeant Crookshank said. “We’ll bring them to heel and they’ll be good Britons again.”
“Then you don’t know,” the sailor said.
The soldiers stared.
“They don’t know,” he exclaimed to his mates. “The Continental Congress has declared the colonies Independent. They’re their own countries now and we’re invaders.”
Astonishment on Captain Bourne as he sat with Mr. Hewitt.
“We thought you knew,” Hewitt whispered.
“Then there’s this muck with Clinton,” the sailor went on.
“What about Clinton?” Sergeant Crookshank snapped.
“Before the army quit Boston, orders come that part of the fleet is to sail south and take Charles Town. Clinton comes with us and we wait off Cape Fear for a fleet from home. We wait three weeks and try to stir up Loyalists. Nobody comes. Finally, the fleet’s sighted and we all sail for Charles Town. But once there, foul weather keeps us out. Bloody American weather; you fight it as much as anything else – gives the rebels time to fortify works on Sullivan Island. There’s this sandbar at the mouth of the harbour; we had to light’n each ship to cross over. Then come these three Neger pilots; says the water between Long and Sullivan Islands only eighteen inches at low tide. The Command throws a fit ‘cause they can’t assault the island’s north end. They find out most of the water is seven feet, but by that time, the rebels have mounted breastwork and cannon.
“Commodore Parker starts blasting Sullivan Island. The harbour’s shrouded with smoke. Clinton starts the army over in long boats, but the rebel cannon on the north end stops them.
And all Clinton can do is sit on his thumb and watch the navy duel with the fort.
“I ain’t heard or seen nothing like it. You’d think two hundred Navy guns to their thirty would win the day, but the sand walls suck up our shot as if they was nothing. Then because of them Neger pilots, three of our ships collide and get stuck on the shoals. Then the rebels give it to us. Parker’s uniform blown clean off; he stands on the quarterdeck naked and bleeding like some sacrificial goat. Captains of the Bristol and the Experiment both had their arms tore clean off. My ears, my eyes and my nose bled. I thought I was dead and in hell. We come limping back here only two weeks ago. And now you come.”
“What have the rebels got here?” George Harrison asked.
“Enough, Andres,” Mr. Hewitt said.
“Look to your front, grenadiers,” Captain Bourne cautioned.
The grenadiers readied. They would jump into the shallows and storm the beach, mar it cruelly with their heels. Had their bayonets been fixed, they’d stab the very ground. If only the enemy was here, they’d strike him without waiting. But as the boats scraped the shore, they disembarked without furor. Falling in with the Lights, they wheeled into a single column.
“Ragged,” Colonel Osborn said to Captain Archer of the Light Company.
“That shall straighten out,” Archer replied.
They stepped off to Scipio, the slow march of the First Guards, under the gaze of grazing cattle. That they should slow-march with all pomp their first step on America. Despite all threats, Britannia will endure. Unlike other monarchs, the King is the people’s servant. What Briton has not pride in this, everything that is right and good? Let America take notice, the Guards are here. But it was them that noticed – bucolic pasturelands, fields thick with wheat, orchards of peach, pear and apples. America was about them: in their eyes, on their skin – they breathed it in, and to those who had never crossed the sea, that breath fable.
On Fort Izzard’s parade, they exercised – General Howe’s Evolutions for Light Infantry. They moved to the sound of whistles, forming quickly in open order, advancing line through line to halt and take cover as they will, pretending to give fire. The whistle trilled again and each man to his feet and off on a jog, cartridge boxes banging on their hips, the firelocks, not hefted these many months, growing heavy.
“Quickly,” Sir George instructed. “Move briskly to reform. Hit the enemy with spirit. Receive his fire. Odds he’ll shoot high. Then dash at him. Dash, I say, but wait for the order. Take him before he can reload. Give him the bayonet. It avails us little in a fire-fight. But when we do give fire, load quickly and take careful aim. Always seat the charge with your rammers; do not dump the cartridge and smack the butt against the ground. The ball will not seat properly. In action, we will not shoulder. We will slope or trail arms. You will always look to the front. Given the irregular terrain, we will form at open or extended order, which means, the company may find itself on its own . . . This is not the Continent . . . Have a care. Handle yer firelocks. Fix’yer . . . Bayonets!”
They were moving again. Bayonets ordered to charge. The pace quickened.
The war cry and the front line thrust forward with the companies in a full-tilt run. The whistle to halt. Recover arms. The whistle again and then back to open order. Wheel . . .
Two hours later they were dropping.
“Rest them Captain Archer.” And then on the side: “They’re not ready. Heaven – give us time.”
Elliot against a tree, beet red and veins popping. A scar, from brow to cheek, normally white, beaded purple. Acquired, it was said, in the raid on Cherbourg where he’d killed ten French grenadiers. True or no, it suited him, that, and his tight lips now cracked like stitching and gray eyes, cold, even in fatigue. Elliot the tanner. That also suited him, standing solitary with his squad mates at his feet. Every so often one would look up as if to say: For Christ sake, Elliot, sit down. None would.
MacEachran and Crotty stumbled up and dropped to the ground. Elliot scowled, the same as when Obedience snubbed him, and Geordie not so tired to catch his eye.
“What-cha look’n at, Kiddie?” Elliot hissed in that odd high voice of his.
“I’m look’n at you.”
Elliot sneered. “What for, Kiddie?”
“I think you know.”
“What’s that to you?”
“Let her be.” Geordie’s impulsive mettle.
Elliot smirked. “You her dad?”
“I’ve seen you.” Sopping stains circled the armpits of Geordie’s shirt.
“Seen me what?” Elliot’s gray eyes flinty. “What you see, Kiddie?” he hissed.
“Whatever you’ve said, she doesn’t want it.”
Elliot glared at Crotty. “Get this chit away or I’ll cut him.”
“What’s this about?” Sergeant Crookshank striding up.
“Nothing,” Tim said.
Crookshank pressed his fingers into Tim’s ribs. “I heard something about cutting . . . You all in on this?” The squad looked down. “First day ashore and this is how you do?” He called to Captain Bourne. “Captain Bourne, sir, 2nd platoon has two squads fully recovered and wishes to use the rest time for more exercise.”
“As you see fit, Sergeant Crookshank.”
Thirty minutes later and a panting mess, they join the rest to shoot at marks.
“Have you lost all sense?” Crotty scolded as gunfire echoed over the lot. Haybale targets at fifty yards puffed if and when the balls hit them.
“Sight down the barrel,” the sergeants admonished. “With the bayonet lug . . .”
Geordie, in his nose the stink of sulfur. “I know what I’m doing.”
“Do you?” Crotty said, stepping up to take his turn. He fired and the ball popped the bale’s left shoulder.
Geordie flummoxed. “I don’t.” He made ready and fired. The bale untouched.
“You’re killing worms, MacEachran.” Crookshank passing by. “Barrel up.”
“You’re lucky the platoon don’t pummel you.” Crotty plucked a cartridge and bit off the end. “And if not them, surely Elliot.” He loaded the piece, presented in the proper manner. Whoosh. Bang. Smoke. The bale took it near the groin.
Geordie took aim and fired. Nothing.
“MacEachran,” Crookshank’s voice. “Have you eyes in your bloody head? How many shots have you taken?”
“Six? And you haven’t hit the bloody thing. You been up all night, MacEachran? You been at bloody drink? Prime and load.” Geordie obedient. “Make ready.” Geordie cocked the piece. “Present.” Geordie leveled. “Now MacEachran, there’s your enemy, the man that would take everything from you: burn your home, topple your Country, cut your mother’s throat, rape your sweetheart.” Geordie sights down the barrel. “Now put the devil down.”
The firelock bucked and the bail untouched.