Keith Hunt - Vainglory goes before Destruction! - Page Twohundred-one   Restitution of All Things

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Vainglory goes before Destruction!

What a way to learn about vanity!

              CONCEIT AND EOGTISM GOES BEFORE DESTRUCTION !!


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     AMHERSTBURG, UPPER CANADA, January 19, 1813. It is long past
midnight. From the windows of Draper's tavern comes the sound of
music and merriment, laughter and dancing. The young people of
the town and the officers of the garrison have combined to hold a
ball to celebrate the birthday of Queen Charlotte, the consort of
the mad old king of England. Suddenly the music stops and in
walks Procter's deputy, Lieutenant-Colonel St.George, equipped
for the field. His voice, long accustomed to command, drowns the
chatter.

"My boys," says the Colonel, "you must prepare to dance to a
different tune; the enemy is upon us and we are going to surprise
them. We shall take the route about four in the morning, so get
ready at once."

     Procter has just received word of the British defeat at the
Raisin. The Americans, he knows, are in an exposed position and
their numbers are not large. He determines to scrape up as many
men as possible and attack at once. This swift and aggressive
decision is not characteristic of Procter, a methodical, cautious
officer who tends to follow the book. It was Procter, after all,
who strongly opposed Brock's sally against Detroit. Now Brock's
example - or perhaps Brock's ghost - impels him to precipitate
action. The moves are Procter's, but the spirit behind them is
that of his late commander.
     He plans swiftly. He will send a detachment under Captain
James Askin to garrison Detroit. He will leave Fort Amherstburg
virtually defenceless, manned only by the sick and least
effective members of the militia under Lieutenant-Colonel
Jean-Baptiste Baby. The remainder - every possible man who can be
called into service, including provincial seamen from the
gunboats - will be sent across the river. In all, he counts 597
able men and more than five hundred Indians - Potawatomi
displaced from their homes by Harrison, with bitter memories of
Tippecanoe; Miami, victims of the recent attacks at Mississinewa;
and Chief Roundhead's Wyandot, formerly of Brownstown.
     The first detachment leaves immediately, dragging three
threepound cannon and three small howitzers on sleighs. John
Richardson, the future novelist, is young enough at fifteen to
find the scene romantic - the troops moving in a thin line across
the frozen river under cliffs of rugged ice, their weapons,
polished to a high gloss, glittering in the winter sunlight.

     Lieutenant Frederic Rolette, back in action again after the
prisoner exchange that followed the battle of Queenston Heights
and fresh from his losing struggle to regain the gunboat Detroit
from the Americans, has charge of one of the guns. He is
suffering from such a splitting headache that Major Reynolds
urges him to go back. Rolette looks insulted, produces a heavy
bandanna. "Look here," he says, "tie this tight around my head."
Reynolds rolls it into a thick band and does so. "I am better
already," says Rolette and pushes on.
     The following day the rest of Procter's forces cross the
river, rest that night at Brownstown, and prepare to move early
next morning. As darkness falls, John Richardson's favourite
brother, Robert, aged fourteen, a midshipman in the Provincial
Marine, sneaks into camp. His father, an army surgeon, has given
him strict orders to stay out of trouble on the Canadian side,
but he is determined to see action and attaches himself to one of
the gun crews.
     In the morning, Procter moves his force of one thousand to
Rocky River, twelve miles from Brownstown, six miles from the
American camp. Two hours before dawn on the following day they
rise, march the intervening distance, and silently descend upon
the enemy.

     The camp at Frenchtown is asleep, the drum roll just
sounding reveille. This, surely, is the moment for attack, while
the men are still in their blankets, drowsy, brushing the slumber
from their eyes, without weapons in their hands. But the ghost of
Isaac Brock has departed. Procter goes by the book, which insists
that an infantry charge be supported by cannon. Precious moments
slip by, and the army's momentum slows as he places his pieces. A
sharp-eyed Kentucky guard spots the movement. A rifle explodes,
and the leading grenadier of the 41st, a man named Gates, drops
dead: a bullet has literally gone in one ear and out the other.
Surprise is lost. The battle begins. Procter's caution will cost
the lives of scores of good men.
     It is still dark. The British and Canadians can see flashes
of musketry several hundred yards to the front but nothing else.
Slowly, in the pre-dawn murk, a blurred line of figures takes
shape, standing out in front of the village. They fire a volley
at this welcome target, but the line stands fast. They fire again
without effect. Who are these supermen who do not fall when the
muskets roar? Dawn provides the answer: they have been aiming,
not at their enemies, but at a line of wooden pickets that
protects them.
     A second problem frustrates them. Procter has placed one of
his three-pounders directly in front of his centre, so that the
American fire aimed at the gun plays upon the men behind it while
the gunners themselves are in jeopardy from their own men in the
rear.
     A British musket ball strikes Frederic Rolette in the head.
The tightly rolled silk bandanna saves his life. The ball is
caught in the fold and flattens against his skull, increasing his
headache and causing a goose egg but no further damage.
     The fire grows hotter. Behind the palisades the Americans
can easily pick out targets against the lightening sky. When the
British abandon a three-pounder twenty yards from the fence, the
Kentuckians leap over the puncheons to capture it. But Rolette's
mate, Second-Lieutenant Robert Irvine, the same man who tried to
beat off the attack on Caledonia, seizes the drag rope and hauls
it back to the British line just as a musket ball shreds his
heel.
     Private Shadrach Byfield, whose name was left off the fist
for prize money after the fall of Detroit, is fighting in Adam
Muir's company of the 41st when the man on his left falls dead.
It is light enough now to see the enemy, and he spots a
Kentuckian coming through the palisades. "There's a man!" cries
Byfield to a friend. "I'll have a shot at him." As he pulls the
trigger, a ball strikes him under the left ear and he topples to
the ground, cutting his friend's leg with his bayonet in the
process. He is only twenty-three, a Wiltshire man who joined the
British army at eighteen - the third in his family to enlist - an
action that caused his poor mother to fall into a speechless fit
from which she never recovered. Now he believes his last moment
has come. "Byfield is dead!" his friend cries out, and Shadrach
Byfield replies, in some wonder, "I believe I be." An age-old
question flashes across his mind, a question that must occur to
every soldier the instant he falls in battle. "Is this death?" he
asks himself. Is this how men die?
     But he is not dead. He raises his head and begins to creep
off on his hands and knees. "Byfield," calls a sergeant, "shall I
take you to the doctor?" But Shadrach Byfield at twenty-three is
an old soldier. "Never mind me, go and help the men," he says,
and makes his way to a barn to have his wound dressed. Here he
encounters a spectacle so affecting that he can never forget it -
a young midshipman, wounded in the knee, crying in pain for his
mother, convinced he is going to die.
     At the palisade, John Richardson feels as if he were
sleep-walking. The early call and the six-mile march have
exhausted him. Even as the balls begin to whistle about his head
he continues to feel drowsy. He tries to fire his musket, finds
it will not respond; someone the night before has stolen his
flintlock and replaced it with a damaged part. The infantry
manual lists twelve separate drill movements for firing a Brown
Bess musket and Richardson goes through all of them without
effect, but all he gets is a flash in the pan. He finds a bit of
wire, tries to fix his weapon, fires again, gets another flash.
He feels more frustration than fear at being fired upon by an
unseen foe and not being able to fire back, even though he later
comes to realize that if he had fired fifty rounds not one of
them would have had any effect on the pickets (and probably not
on the enemy, either, for the musket is a wretchedly inaccurate
weapon).
     To his horror, Richardson notes that the American
sharpshooters are picking off the wounded British and Canadians
as they try to crawl to safety and that some are making use of
the tomahawk and scalping knife. He is still struggling vainly
with his useless weapon when he hears his name called. Somebody
shouts that his brother has been wounded - young Robert's right
leg was shattered as he applied a match to a gun. Now, in great
pain, Robert begs to be carried off, not to the staff section
where his father is caring for the wounded, but to another part
of the field so that he may escape his parent's wrath. And there
Shadrach Byfield is witness to his suffering.
     On the left of the British line, Richardson can hear the
war-whoops of the Indians who, with the help of the Canadian
militia, are driving directly through the open field in which
Lieutenant-Colonel Wells insisted on placing the regulars of the
17th U.S. Infantry. Wells is still at the Maumee. His
second-in-command, Major McClanahan, cannot hold his unprotected
position. The troops fall back to the frozen Raisin, and the
American right flank is turned.
     The Americans are in full flight across the river with
Caldwell and his Indians under Roundhead, Split Log, and
Walk-in-the-Water in hot pursuit. One of the Wyandot overtakes an
American officer and is about to tomahawk him when Caldwell
intercedes, makes him prisoner, takes him to the rear. The
Kentuckian, catching him off guard, draws his knife and slits
Caldwell's throat from ear to ear, but the wound is shallow and
Caldwell, who is as tough as his Indian followers, catches his
assailant's arm, pulls the dagger from his throat, and plunges it
again and again into his prisoner's body until he is dead.
Caldwell survives.

     But where, when all this is going on, is the General?
Winchester has awakened to the sound of musket fire and howitzer
bombs exploding. He runs to the barn, borrows a horse from his
host (who, fearing British retribution, is glad to be rid of
him), dashes into action. His two battalion commanders, Lewis and
Allen, join him, and the three attempt to rally the fleeing men
under the bank of the Raisin. It is too late; the troops, pursued
by the Indians, are in a panic. Lewis has sent two companies to
the right flank to reinforce the regulars, but these too are in
retreat.
     The three officers withdraw across the river and attempt a
second rally behind the fences on the south side. It is futile.
The men dash past into a narrow lane leading to the main road.
This is suicide, for the Indians are ahead of them and behind
them, on both sides of the lane. One hundred men are shot,
tomahawked, scalped. Winchester attempts a third rally in an
orchard about a mile and a half from the village. It also fails.
The right flank is in full retreat, the men throwing away their
weapons in panic. The Potawatomi are in no mood to offer quarter.
Lieutenant Ashton Garrett tries to form up a group of fifteen men
but finding some sixty Indians running along both sides and in
front with their arms at the trail decides instead to surrender.
The Indians order Garrett and his men to ground their arms; then,
securing all the weapons, they coolly shoot and scalp every one
except Garrett himself.

     John Allen, shot in the thigh during his attempts to stem
the retreat, limps on for two miles until he can go no farther.
Exhausted and in pain, he slumps onto a log, resigned to his
fate. One of the Potawatomi chiefs, seeing his officer's uniform,
determines to capture and ransom him, but just as he signals that
intention a second Indian moves in. Allen dispatches him with a
swipe of his sword. The other shoots the Colonel dead and scalps
him.
     Winchester and Lewis are more fortunate. They fall into the
hands of Roundhead, the principal chief of the Wyandot, who,
after stripping the General of his cocked hat, coat, and
epaulettes, takes the two officers and Winchester's
seventeen-year-old son by a circuitous route back behind the
British lines. The battle for the village is still raging, but
Winchester, noting Procter's artillery, dazed by the rout and
despairing of any reinforcements from Harrison, has given up
hope. As the Indians return with as many as eight or nine scalps
hanging from their belts, he asks to see Procter. The British
commander is blunt:

     "Some of your troops, sir, are defending themselves from the
fort in a state of desperation - had you not better surrender
them?"
     "I have no authority to do so," replies Winchester,
shivering in the cold in his silk shirt. "My command has devolved
upon the senior officer in the fort, as you are pleased to call
it."
     Procter now makes the classic answer - Brock's threat at
Detroit, Roberts's at Mackinac: if there is no surrender he will
be forced to set the town on fire; if he is forced to attack, he
cannot be responsible for the conduct of the Indians or the lives
of the Americans; if Winchester will surrender, he will be
responsible for both. Winchester repeats that he is no longer in
command but will recommend surrender to his people.
     The command of the American forces still fighting inside the
palisade has devolved on Major George Madison, a
forty-nine-year-old veteran of the Revolution and of St.Clair's
defeat at the hands of the Indians in 1791 and for twenty years
keeper of public accounts for the state of Kentucky. At this
moment he is concerned about the possession of an empty barn 150
yards from the palisade. If the enemy seizes that building, they
will hold a commanding position overlooking the defenders.
     Madison calls for a volunteer to fire the barn, and a young
ensign, William O. Butler, steps forward, seizes a blazing stick
of firewood, vaults the fence, and dashes toward the barn under
direct fire from the British and Indians on both sides.
     Butler reaches the barn, flings the burning brand into a
pile of hay, races back through a hail of musket balls, has
almost reached the safety of his own lines when he realizes that
the hay has not caught. Back he goes, re-enters the barn, fans
the hay into a roaring blaze, outstrips the Indians trying to
head him off, and with his clothes ripped by passing musket balls
tumbles across the pickets and comes to a full stop, standing
upright, trying to catch his breath. It is then that a musket
ball strikes him full in the chest. Fortunately, it is spent, and
Butler survives. Like his commander, George Madison, he will one
day run for governor of Kentucky.

     Now comes a lull in the fighting. Of the sixteen British
gunners, thirteen are casualties; the remainder are too numb with
cold to fire their weapons. Moreover, their ammunition is low; a
wagon bearing additional rounds has been shot up and its driver
killed by Kentucky riflemen. Procter has withdrawn his forces
into the woods, waiting for the Indians to return from the chase
before resuming the attack. The defenders seize this interlude to
devour some breakfast. This is the moment when Winchester agrees
to attempt a surrender.
     The Americans, seeing a flag of truce, believe that Procter
is asking for a respite to bury his dead. It does not occur to
any that surrender is being proposed. When he learns the truth,
George Madison is mortified; yet he knows his position is
hopeless, for he has only a third of a keg of cartridges left.
The reserve supply remains at the Navarre house across the river.
He insists, however, on conditions.

"It has been customary for the Indians to massacre the wounded
and prisoners after a surrender," he tells Procter. "I shall
therefore not agree to any capitulation which General Winchester
may direct, unless the safety and protection of all the prisoners
shall be stipulated."

     Procter stamps his foot: "Sir, do you mean to dictate for 
me?"
     "I mean to dictate for myself," Madison coolly replies. "We
prefer to sell our lives as dearly as possible rather than be
massacred in cold blood."
     Procter agrees, but not in writing. Private property, he
promises, will be respected; sleighs will be sent the following
morning for the American sick and wounded; the disabled will be
protected by a proper guard.

     Thus the battle ends. Some of the troops plead with their
officers not to surrender, saying they would rather die in
action. Many are reduced to tears. Others, in a rage, throw down
their guns with force as to shiver the stocks from the barrels.
Some joke and One stands on a stile block and shouts to the
English, "You taken the greatest set of game cocks that ever came
from Kentuck." But the general feeling is one of despair.
Atherton notes that news of the surrender is "like a shock of
lightning from one end of the fines to the other." To Thomas P.
Dudley, another Lexington volunteer, "the mortification at the
thought of surrender, the Spartan band who fought like heroes,
the tears shed, the wringing of hands, the swelling of hearts,
indeed, the scene beggars description."
     Only thirty-three men have managed to escape. McClanahan,
Wells's second-in-command is one. Private John J. Brice is
another; he gets away by pulling off his shoes and running
through the snow in his stocking feet in order to leave tracks
resembling those of an Indian in moccasins and so becomes the
first man to report the defeat and surrender to Harrison.

     Winchester's loss is appalling. Two hundred Kentuckians are
dead or wounded, another seven hundred are prisoners of the
British, and the worst is yet to come. The blow to American
morale, already bruised by the losses at Mackinac, Detroit, and
Queenston, is overwhelming. As for Harrison, the Battle of
Frenchtown has wrecked his plans. His left wing has been
shattered, his advance on Detroit halted indefinitely. He must
now withdraw up the Maumee, out of reach of the enemy. The idea
of a swift victory over Canada is gone forever.

     FRENCHTOWN, MICHIGAN TERRITORY, January 23, 1813. William
Atherton wakes at dawn, the wound in his shoulder throbbing. He
cannot escape a feeling of dread that has tormented his sleep. An
ominous stillness hangs over the village where the American
wounded are still hived. Procter, fearing an imminent attack from
Harrison, has long since dragged his own wounded off on sleds,
and since there are not enough of these for the Americans, he has
promised to return early in the morning to take them all to
Amherstburg.
     No one points to the illogic of this. If Procter fears
Harrison's early arrival, why would he return for the wounded? If
he doesn't fear it, why has he departed, taking everybody with
him except one officer, Major Reynolds, and three interpreters?
Actually, Harrison, learning of the disaster, has withdrawn his
relief force. 

                         ........................


To be concluded

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