Cat Island - December 23, 1814.
Richard Sharpe stared gloomily at the long, low, green shape of Cat Island, Louisiana, lying off the starboard bow of the frigate Statira, at whose rail he stood. The dawn fog was dissipating, morning sunlight sparkled off the calm waters, and low flying gulls cried and wheeled. From the tangle of mangroves that bordered the island, something splashed, perhaps a fish. Aside from that, all was silent.
What the bloody hell was I thinking, coming here?
If Sharpe had not left the morning after De Lancey's visit, he probably would never had left at all. The temptation of staying with Lucille would have been overpowering. He had ridden their one horse, Champion, to Caen. From there he had paid a boy to take Champion back to the farm and hired a horse to take him to Cherbourg. There, he caught a late night ship across the Channel to Portsmouth. He had waited there for five days until Pakenham and the rest of his staff arrived from London. Pakenham remembered Sharpe from the court-martial; he seemed to regard the whole affair as an embarrassment. He had been polite, but discouraged Sharpe from any interchange.
The voyage across the Atlantic had been slow and uneventful. Seasickness had been neither better nor worse for that time of the year, and the time-honored remedies of the sailors worked neither better or worse than they usually did. Captain Swain had opened his orders three days out from Spithead. It came as no surprise to anyone that their destination was New Orleans (it had been in all the newspapers), by way of Jamaica. The Captain was new to his command and unfamiliar with his crew. Every night, he had shortened sail, a wholly unnecessary precaution that amused many of the old tars. General Pakenham had chafed at the Captain's apparent lack of haste, but he and his officers had put the best face possible on it, maintaining a festive air. Concerts, dramatic entertainments, and dances, mostly put on by the officer's wives, had broken the monotony. Spirits were high, nonetheless. They were, after all, on a great adventure to teach the impudent Yankees a much-needed lesson in humility. Compared to Spain, where they had faced real soldiers, there was little danger.
Major Sharpe, as was his right, had dined with Pakenham and his officers. He had forgotten how much he detested officers until he was trapped on a ship with them for over two months. He was able to endure it for two weeks. The officers were gentlemen, of course, and Sharpe was not. He was never allowed to forget this. Not that there were any overt insults, of course. On the surface, Sharpe was treated with all courtesy. But underneath it all were the mocking smiles, the knowing glances, the whispered comments, and Sharpe knew what it meant. He was common, and in the eyes of these silk stocking filled with shit, he would always be common. His officer's commission was nothing but a freak of nature, rather like the two-headed calves that one saw sometimes in carnival sideshows.
Things came to a crisis one night at supper as Sharpe was cutting his salt-beef. Captain Wylly of the 44th leaned over towards his commander Lieutenant Colonel Mullens and spoke in his ear, making only a perfunctory effort to whisper:
"I find it surprising that Mister Sharpe even knows how to use a knife and fork."
Two weeks of half-heard insults came to a head. Sharpe abruptly rose to his feet and left the dining table. It was the only way he could keep himself from breaking the Captain's jaw. He stalked out of the officer's mess, over to the frigate's rail, stared out to sea, and wondered what Lucille was doing. He wished that Patrick Harper could have been with him, his quiet support had always helped at times like this. But Patrick was in Donegal, raising fine horses and running a pub he had bought with his share of the plunder of Vittoria. Even if Sharpe could have persuaded him to go with him, there had been no time. He remained at the rail until Major Harry Smith came, stood beside him, and put a hand on his shoulder.
"Don't let them get to you, Richard. They wouldn't know a real soldier if he bit them on the arse."
Of all the officers on board, Smith was one of the few who treated him with respect. A capable, experienced soldier, he was a major in the 95th, having served in Spain through Toulouse and then gone to America on Ross' staff. Fredrickson had served under him there, though he had since been reassigned to the 3rd Battalion of the 95th here in New Orleans.Smith and Sharpe had known each other since the siege of Badajoz, though their respective commands had allowed them little contact. Like Patrick Harper, Smith had taken a bride in Spain; a beautiful young Spanish girl named Juanita. He had left her behind in England when he had gone to America. Hastening back to England in only twenty-one days with Ross' last dispatches, he had been reassigned as assistant adjutant general to Pakenham. After only the briefest reunion with Juanita, he set out again. Already, he missed her.
From then on, Sharpe had dined privately with Smith in his quarters, keeping apart from the other officers. Sharpe had found him a kindred spirit as he thought of Lucille.
This morning, she would have gone to early Mass in Seleglise. Right now, she'll be preparing a Christmas goose, stuffing it with sausage and wild rice. There'll be snow on the farm by this time, and everything will be white. The fire will be burning on the hearth, and she'll have a pot of hot mulled wine ready for carolers. Later, she'll make apple tarts with the last of the fall's crop taken from the kitchen pantry. Her belly would be big by this time, and the baby would be kicking her. She would go to bed alone. Did she think of me as she drifted off to sleep?
It would have been his first Christmas with her.
Merry bloody Christmas.
What if she didn't wait for him?
On December 6th, the Statira had passed St. Lucia and sighted the brig Swaggerer, commanded by Lieutenant Alexander Sandilands. This officer told Pakenham that the force that had burned Washington and bombarded Baltimore, commanded by General John Keane, had stopped at Jamaica a month earlier and then continued on towards Louisiana. Six days later, the Statira had rendezvoused with the expedition's reinforcements under General Major General John Lambert. They had taken on fresh water and provisions and moved out to link up with Keane.
And now, here they were, after a voyage of fifty-three days.
Cat Island was a tiny finger of land guarding the entrance to the bay called Lake Borne, which led to the entrance to Lake Pontchartrain, the large, shallow, brackish lake to the north of New Orleans. The fleet drawn up was an impressive sight; over fifty capital ships lay at anchor. And here they would stay, for their drafts were too deep to go any further. Pakenham had inquired after General Keane. He was informed that, having destroyed or captured the fleet of American gunboats that defended Lake Borgne, Keane had proceeded by barge through the lake, and was now making his way inland by way of Bayou Beinvenue towards New Orleans. There he hoped to either capture the city without a fight, or, failing that, to bring the American defenders to battle and defeat them.
Now Pakenham was preparing to follow and give support to Keane. Sharpe would go with him.
He started out at the maze of waterways that marked the entrance to Louisiana. Somewhere out there, with the 3rd battalion of the 95th Rifles, would be the man he had come across the world to see.
Sharpe wondered how Fredrickson was doing.
Major William Fredrickson was a thoroughly villainous looking figure, with his eye-patch, his outdated wig, and his two ill-fitting false front teeth. As he crouched in the prow of the barge, he might have been a pirate captain come to bury his treasure. His single eye gazed intently at the green maze of water and weed before him, searching for the least hint of movement. Aside from the grunts of the oarsmen and the dull slap of the oars as they struck the limpid green surface rhythmically, there was little sound. The dim chill of pre-dawn still lay on the land, and his uniform was damp from the soaking rain he had endured a short while ago. His bones ached. Earlier, each boat had had the benefit of a charcoal fire in a brazier, but they had been extinguished for fear of alerting the Americans. He wanted to shift position to give his back some relief, but with two hundred men crammed into the barge, there was no room to do it. Water in the bottom of the boat reached up to his ankles, and he hoped it would get no deeper. Fredrickson looked with some apprehension at the many scaly snouts floating in the water; if anything, there were more alligators here than on Pea island. He eyed the tall reeds that choked each side of the bayou, thick enough to hide a line of enemies, gripped his rifle and reflected that if they were ambushed before they could get to shore, they would be slaughtered like sheep in a pen. Private Turner, a new recruit to the 95th, evidently thought the same thing.
"If the Yankee Doodles get word of us - "
"It'll be because they heard the flapping of your jaw!" Fredrickson snapped. "More watching and less talk, Turner."
They had disembarked on Pea Island a week before, and found it little more than a slightly more solid portion of the surrounding swamp. It was barely above the water level, with a few stunted trees the only vegetation. The surface was crisscrossed with pools and creeks, and the alligators had the soldiers outnumbered. Their blankets were buried somewhere in the fleet's baggage, and their first night on land in Louisiana was pure misery in a driving rain. Fredrickson had spent the night wrapped in his sodden cloak, half hoping that some large reptile would eat him and end his torment. By morning, their clothes were frozen to their bodies, and most of the men were sick and coughing. The West Indian black troops had fared the worst, and many of them did not survive the week. The barges that had gone back to the fleet for supplies were slow in returning, and breakfast was salt meat and ship's biscuit moistened with rum. The second night was even colder. As was the next night. And the next night. And the next.
While his army froze, General Keane had interrogated some prisoners and sent ahead some scouts. They reported back that the Bienville Bayou was navigable by barge through its length. Its tributary, Manzant Bayou, was less so, but came out on the Villere Plantation, only nine miles from New Orleans. It would make an excellent staging area for the army.
Because the number of barges were limited, Keane had decided to divide his force into thirds, to be transported to the plantation in three stages. The first detachment, some sixteen hundred men, consisted of the 85th Light Infantry, part of the 4th Light Infantry, a troop of rockets, two three-pounder cannons, and the 3rd Battalion of the 95th Rifles. Keane himself would accompany this detachment, with the brave, energetic Lieutenant-Colonel Thorton of the 85th as his second-in-command.
And now, here they were. They bayou was wide, almost five hundred feet in places. The barges rowed ten abreast, with the 95th's barges in the front line. Two light cutters served as their vanguard, two more protected the flanks, and two brought up the rear. Then as it narrowed, they went five abreast. And then single file.
So far, so good. At the collection of hovels at the bayou's mouth known as the Fisherman's village, they had caught the pickets napping and taken them prisoner. The enemy had neglected to clog the narrow entrance to Bienville. And as far as any one could tell, the Americans were unaware of their presence. Though they were cramped, cold, and wet, the soldiers were in high spirits. They had beaten the Americans before, beaten them handily, and this time, the richest seaport the enemy had was to be their prize. Rumor had it that the city's population was sick of the autocratic ways of General Jackson and would not fight for him. They would have an easy time of it, and then rich booty.
Still, Fredrickson was uneasy. He couldn't say why. Perhaps it was because the war had gone so well for the British for more than two years, and disaster was overdue. Or perhaps it was because he was cold, wet, and felt vulnerable in this narrow channel with its wall of brush on either side.
His unease increased as dawn broke and they reached the mouth of the tributary, Bayou Manzant. It was barely wide enough for one barge. Now rowing was no longer possible, and the oarsmen stood up and used the oars to punt the crafts down the increasingly narrow channel. Still smaller bayous opened up on each side, breaking up the banks. Keane's barge was in the lead, Fredrickson's second. A dull thud was heard as the lead barge grounded, and the pilot held up his arm to signal a halt. The boats had come as far as they could. It was time to march.
Fredrickson leapt over the side into ankle-deep muck. The soldiers filed out of the barge and lined up. There was no speaking, they were confident, but also aware they were deep in enemy territory. Some scouts were sent out, and returned in a few minutes to report to Keane. Fredrickson heard them say that there was a path next to the bayou that was solid enough to bear their column. They set out. The land they filed through was a vast, flat swamp, covered with weeds as tall as a man, intersected with stagnant pools and narrow but deep creeks. A misstep, either to the right or the left would plunge a man waist deep into a quagmire. With every step, their feet sunk ankle-deep in mud and rotten vegetation. The stench, which had been putrid, became a choking miasma that hovered over their heads. It smelled as if something that had stunk when alive had died and rotted. Fredrickson fought to keep his breakfast down. Periodically, the column would stop while the engineers in the lead cut away cane and reeds or dumped bundles of them into the creeks to bridge them for crossing.
Mercifully, the ground soon grew firmer and the path wider and clearer. The column widened out, turning to a low, stunted cypress wood. They kept alert in case they encountered pickets, but saw no one. Late in the morning, on the edge of the Villere plantation, Keane called a halt and turned to Fredrickson.
"Major, we seem to have caught the enemy completely unprepared. Deploy your riflemen out in skirmish formation. You will circle around the plantation and surrounding buildings while Lieutenant-Colonel Thorton approaches them from the front. Make doubly sure that no one escapes to give the alarm."
Fredrickson nodded and signaled companies 1 and 2 of the Chosen Men of the 95th. Two hundred and fifty strong, they spread out in a broken pattern. With rifles cocked and ready, they trotted down the wide path to the plantation. The woods gave way to wide, cultivated fields. The sugar cane had been harvested, and only stubble remained. Up ahead, they saw a grove of orange trees, and beyond them, three low outbuildings. They drew nearer the buildings, and could see beyond them a stately mansion, blazing white in the morning sun. Beyond it, the mile-wide, green-brown Mississippi flowed lazily. Fredrickson turned to his second, Captain Hallen.
"You take the right, I've got the left."
The Captain nodded and the riflemen split into two companies, each officer taking one. They began a wide, sweeping jog to take the mansion in the rear, moving around the perimeter of the fields.
Gabrielle Villere leaned back on his chair on the porch of his mansion, gazing lazily at the spread of his sugar fields. He was a typical Creole aristocrat, dark skinned with curly black hair and a mustache. He took a long draw on his fine Cuban cigar, only half listening to his brother Celestin talking about the drop in the sugar market since rumors of the coming British invasion had started. It looked to be a fine day, he was young, handsome, and prosperous, and he felt far too comfortable to worry about invading Britons. His brother, however, insisted on bringing up unpleasant subjects.
"Speaking of the British," Celestin said, "shouldn't you deploy the militia you're supposed to command? At least set up pickets."
Gabrielle let out a long plume of fragrant smoke.
"Celestin, we have all morning for that. You need to learn to relax and enjoy life. There can't be any British within thirty miles."
Then he saw the figures in red dashing out of the cover of his orange trees, heading towards the mansion. Towards him. He leaned forward and squinted in the sunlight.
"What the - those are British soldiers! Get to the men!"
He and his brother leapt to their feet, overturning the chairs. They had to raise the alarm before they were all captured. They dashed in the front door, through the foyer, parlor, and dining room, then out the kitchen door.
And there they found a force of soldiers in green uniforms waiting for them with guns aimed. Their leader, a ruffian with an eye-patch and a wig, motioned with his rifle.
"That's far enough, my friends! Put your hands up."
They complied. From behind the riflemen, more green-jackets came running up, herding Gabrielle's militiamen and farmhands. All had been captured, without a shot fired. Gabrielle and Celestin were marched back through the mansion to the parlor. Fredrickson motioned with his rifle, and they sat down in two of the plush chairs in that room, while other riflemen moved to keep them covered. A moment later, more British soldiers, these red-coated regulars, came through the open front door, led by Lieutenant-Colonel Thorton. Fredrickson saluted.
"We've got the plantation owner here, plus this one who looks to be his brother."
Thorton nodded, and turned to Gabrielle and Celestin.
"You'll be unharmed so long as you cooperate."
Gabrielle half rose out of his chair.
"I must protest - "
Two of the riflemen whipped their rifles up from pointing to aiming, and he sat back down. Ignoring him, Thorton turned back to Fredrickson.
"Keep them under guard. General Keane will want to question them."
A few minutes passed, while the soldiers looked around at the finery of the Villere mansion. Coming up from the lower class, most had never seen much of luxury, and they pointed out one wonder of wood or cloth, porcelain or brass after another. Fredrickson inhaled a bit of smoke from Gabrielle's cigar, still clenched in the plantation owner's jaw. He reflected that it had been a long time since he had smelled such fine tobacco. He heard a noise at the front door and turned to see General Keane and his staff officers enter. Lieutenant-Colonel Thorton stood at attention.
"General Keane, I have the pleasure of presenting to you -"
For a moment, all eyes shifted to the general. It was the chance Gabrielle had been waiting for. There was a scuffle from behind, the sound of someone hitting the ground, a shout of warning. Fredrickson whirled to see Gabrielle Villere leaping through the parlor's open window. Several riflemen lay where they had been knocked down by his sudden break. One of them got off a quick shot that shattered the window's sash in a cloud of splinters. Fredrickson rushed to the window to see the young gentleman rushing across the yard, hurdling a high picket fence without pausing. From behind him, he heard Thorton shout.
"Catch him or kill him!"
Fredrickson brought his rifle up to his shoulder, aimed between the fleeing man's shoulders, and squeezed the trigger just as another rifleman crowded into the open window, upsetting his aim. The rifle ball went high, above Villere's head. Already, regulars and riflemen were pouring out the front door in pursuit. Fredrickson joined them. They fanned out across the fields to surround their quarry, as Fredrickson saw him disappear into the cypress forest that fringed the swamp. Rushing to the front of the crowd, Fredrickson entered the shade of the tree line, looked to the left and the right through the greenery, but the young man had already disappeared. The soldiers spread out, searching.
Following a hunch, Fredrickson bore to the right, heading at an angle towards the river. His rifle held at the ready, he walked closer. He hoped the young fool would surrender without a fight, it would be a shame to kill him. As he began to hear the noise of the river through the trees, he stopped, his senses tingling at a familiar odor. The cigar! The smell grew stronger as he approached a large oak tree, overgrown with moss. He came around the corner at a rush, his rifle poised to fire.
There was no one there. At his feet, still smoldering, was the cigar.
Fredrickson shook his head ruefully. He had been tricked, and tricked royally.
He bent, picked up the cigar, and stuck it between his lips, sucking the fragrant smoke into his mouth. It tasted wonderful.
When Fredrickson reported his failure back at the mansion, General Keane philosophically reconciled himself to the fact that the Americans would soon know of his presence, the advantage of surprise would be lost. Lieutenant-Colonel Thorton, however, was loath to give it up so easily.
"General Keane, we must press our advantage. There can be no significant force between us and New Orleans. As yet, they have no idea of our presence or our location. We can take the city with the forces we have in hand, before they can marshal a defense!"
Keane shook his head.
"We shall halt here. The pickets we captured put the American forces at about twenty thousand men. Even if they inflated the numbers, we cannot take the chance while our forces are piecemeal. Our lines of communication and supply stretch back sixty miles to Pea Island. Our men are in a state of near total exhaustion."
At this point, a Lieutenant of the 85th entered and stood at attention. Keane turned to him as he gave his report.
"Sir, our scouts have advanced half a mile upriver to the Lacoste plantation. We have seen no sign of enemy troops."
"Thank you, Lieutenant. That will be all."
He turned back to Thorton.
"Deploy a company to secure our rear. Have the rest of the men bivouac in three columns between the cypress trees and the river and then pile arms. They may prepare a hot meal. We will wait here for the other two detachments from Pea Island."
"Sir, that will take two days -"
"At which time, Lieutenant-Colonel Thorton, we will proceed to march on New Orleans. Never fear, we will still eat Christmas dinner in the city."
Thorton saluted and left the mansion, Fredrickson following. He had agreed with the Colonel, but he knew from long experience that there was nothing in God's creation so unmovable as a British general who has made up his mind. In any case, there was nothing he could have added to Thorton's arguments, so he had kept silent. He and the first two companies of the 95th took up their bivouac positions on the left, nearest the river. The remaining two, under his senior commander, Major Samuel Mitchell, would bivouac in the rear of the mansion. Those riflemen who were on picket duty shouldered their Bakers and set off. Some foraged through the farm, coming back with squawking chickens or huge hams. Others brought big kettles, which they filled from the river and set up over the fires their mates had built. Others made makeshift shelters from planks taken from the buildings. Still others stripped off their uniforms and plunged into the river to bathe. Most however, simply lay down where they were and went to sleep. It was a little past noon.
Fredrickson sat down on a hickory stump near the river's edge and surveyed the area. He didn't like what he saw, and his sense of unease increased.
Their right rested on a swamp of which they knew nothing about, but which the Americans might be able to navigate.
Their rear was inadequately protected, with lines of communication running through near impassable bayous for sixty miles.
Worst of all was their left, which was completely unsecured on the river. If the Jonathans had any warships under sail . . .
They were only sixteen hundred exhausted troops. It would be a full day before they were reinforced.
Fredrickson unslung his rifle, leaving it where he could reach it without problem. He unsheathed his sword, looking at it speculatively. Then he produced a whetstone from his jacket pocket and began to methodically run it across the blade. It was a Light Cavalry saber, a formidable weapon of German forging, with a much finer balance and quality of steel than his previous British saber. He had bought it after Toulouse from a retiring captain in Sommerset's Light Cavalry for seventy guineas and a dozen bottles of good French cognac. Its heavy, curved blade was almost three feet long, capable of dealing a devastating slash. Not quite so good on the thrust as the Heavy Cavalry sword, but Fredrickson had partially overcome that by sharpening the top of the blade a few inches from the tip to the same razor's edge. He now applied the stone to this surface, then finished whetting and examined the Kligenthal blade. He could easily have shaved with it. He sheathed the sword. What with the Baker's slow rate of reload, it was good to have a back-up weapon (something better than the Baker's bayonet) for those times when fighting was face-to-face and furious. Richard Sharpe had always believed so.
Damnation. Why am I thinking about him again?
And why did he feel like one of those face-to-face times was coming?
Late that afternoon, Fredrickson heard some scattered musket-fire from the direction of the Lacoste mansion, where they had set up their advance pickets. It crackled for a few minutes, and he saw units of the 85th running up to support. But by the time they got to the house, the firing had already died out, and the soldiers returned to their positions. Lieutenant Colonel Rennie of the 85th cantered by on his sorrel mare, his face alight with enthusiastic confidence. Fredrickson opened his mouth, but had no chance to ask what had happened.
"A squad of so-called American dragoons approached our pickets. They dismounted and formed a skirmish line, but one volley sent them scuttling off like a bunch of crabs! Did you ever see the like, Fredrickson? This will be as easy a romp as Bladensburg!"
Fredrickson smiled and nodded, but he kept his thoughts to himself as Rennie rode off. He sat down at the foot of the stump with his back resting against it and pulled his shako over his eyes to grab some much-needed sleep.
The sun dipped towards the horizon.
A few hours earlier, Gabrielle Villere, in the company of his fellow plantation owners Dussau de la Croix and Denis de Laronde, had arrived at the Macarte mansion. They were shown into the upstairs room that served as headquarters for General Jackson. The General was at his desk reading documents when a sentry reported the visitors.
"Show them in."
The three mud-stained, breathless Creoles were admitted.
"What news do you bring, gentlemen?"
De la Croix acted as spokesman.
"Important, highly important! The British have arrived at Villere's plantation, nine miles below the city, and are there encamped. Here is Major Villere, who was captured by them, and will now relate his story."
Villere blurted out his story, while Jackson sat, listening intently. When Villere was finished, Jackson rose to his full height, his eyes smoking with anger, and smote the desk with his fist.
"By the Eternal, they shall not sleep on our soil! I will smash them, so help me God!"
He issued a flurry of orders to his secretaries and aides, and began to pull in troops from the surrounding area.
The sun set early that dark December day, and darkness had fallen across the swampland. It covered the approach of a force of Tennessee riflemen, Louisianan militia, Continental marines, and unhorsed dragoons who began to deploy across the fields of the Lacoste Plantation, a little over a mile from where the British were camped. General Jackson had taken Villere's warning seriously.
The British had assumed that Jackson had mostly untrained, ill-equipped militia.
They were wrong; many of them were Indian fighters, veterans of the Creek War.
The British had assumed that the Jackson could not marshal enough troops to challenge them before the following day. They were wrong; he had assembled over two thousand troops.
Above all, they were not expecting a night attack. Night attacks were too confusing, with too many risks to chance it.
They were wrong again.
That evening at half past seven, Fredrickson snapped to alertness. Several of the riflemen were standing on the levee at the river's edge, hailing something he could not see, waving their hats back and forth. He got to his feet and peered through the darkness. A large ship was making its way down the river. As he watched, it dropped anchor opposite the 95th's position. Fredrickson could make out no details in the dim light. More riflemen and Redcoats were running to the water's edge. Private Benton turned and spoke excitedly to Fredrickson.
"It's one of Admiral Cochrane's squadron, Sir, come to give us support!"
As Benton ran to join the others, Fredrickson hung back, peering at the ship.
Could it be . . . but why would Cochrane only send one ship?
Then the ship's seven starboard gunports opened.
"GET DOWN!!!" Fredrickson bellowed.
He threw himself flat, his cheek pressed against the damp grass. The crashing boom of gunnery tore across the water. Overhead whirled the angry insect sound of grape-shot. A handful of agonized screams told him that all had not followed his example, at least not fast enough. He looked up. A series of flashes rolled down the ship's length as it poured a broadside directly into the camp's center. Fredrickson heard a distant voice roar "Give them this for the honor of America!"
The ship turned on its anchor chain to deliver another broadside. A rain of shot came down like thunderbolts among the troops. Surprise was total. They ran about like disturbed ants, kicking over stands of muskets, knocking kettles from the fires. Soldiers tripped over the freshly wounded or killed. From the darkness that hid the Lacoste plantation, Fredrickson could here the crack of musket volleys. Throwing off his wig, he removed his eye patch and false teeth, sticking them in his tunic pocket. He scrambled to his feet and drew his saber. The men had to be rallied before they panicked beyond all recall.
The 95th were recovering quickly. Kneeling behind the levee, they returned fire with their rifles, their muzzles flashing in the darkness, aiming for the ship's gun crews. Campfires were doused across the bivouac. The shouts of officers competed with the call of bugles. Fredrickson ran to the levee and stood tall on top of it. Heedless of his own safety, he held his saber over his head and shouted out at the top of his voice.
"95th! 95th to me! To me!"
A dozen shapes came towards him, and in the dimness, he could make out the green riflemen's uniforms. Waving his sword, he deployed them along the levee. More rallied to him each second. Then from behind him, he heard a familiar voice of command, Lieutenant-Colonel Thorton.
"Major Fredrickson, hold here at the levee. I'll bring up the 85th to support your flank."
He turned to signal his understanding with a wave of his hand as Thorton rode off into the night. Overhead, he heard a whistling scream in the darkness as a battery of Congreve rockets sailed over head, their fiery tails almost close enough to touch, to splash down in hissing steam in the river, short of the American ship. With each second, more and more of the 85th rallied on the riflemen's right, but they did not fire. They could see no targets in the black gloom.
On the other side of the battlefield, Red Gator stalked through the night like death unleashed. It was too dark for the rifle, tonight would be a night for cold steel. And that was just as he liked it. He drew his great fighting knife and tomahawk from his belt and let the blood thirst wash over him in all its terrible power. His eyes saw better in the darkness than most men, seeing in shades of gray where others would see only black. So he was aware of the outpost of British pickets long before they knew of him. All they saw was a hideous, half-seen form looming out of the darkness like a demon out of the pit. Two soldiers got off shots, both of which went wide. They had a dim impression of flashing blades, and by that time, they were all dying, their blood spilling out on the cane stubble. As the warm fluid splashed on him, Red Gator felt the old familiar thrill. It felt so good to kill again! He threw back his head and let out a long scream of sheer satisfaction.
Suddenly, Fredrickson started; a scream echoed across the battlefield, a scream not of pain or fear, but of sheer bloodlust, of the joy of killing. Nothing human could have made it, it rang on and on, dying abruptly, and people all around him stared in horror off into the darkness from which it had issued.
What in God's name was that? Is the devil himself fighting for the Jonathans?
Now fierce musket fire could be heard from the darkness in the direction of the Lacoste plantation house. It grew closer, the British pickets were being forced back. Units of the 85th disappeared into the darkness to the north, to support them. The firing grew no closer.
Then round shot began to fall among the 95th, coming from their side of the river.
Fredrickson looked towards the Lacoste fields. He saw several red-coated pickets running towards him, and behind them, in the dimness, he could make out a battery of two cannon being serviced by their teams, and then pushed forward down the levee road
to shorten the range. A company of riflemen deployed and fired, their accuracy dropping most of the crews, and the others fell back for a moment. Fredrickson sheathed his saber and raised his rifle over his head.
"Charge the guns! Charge the guns!"
He was running across the cut field, sensing that some riflemen ran behind him, but not stopping to see how many. In front of him, the cannons came closer and closer, and he could see the team's frantic sponging, loading, and ramming. He didn't let himself think of what would happen to him if they fired now. Then he was among the cannon, and the artillery teams turned and ran. Some riflemen made to pursue, but Fredrickson called them back.
"No, let them go! Capture the guns!"
The riflemen, accompanied by Redcoats of the 85th, gripped the gun carriage's wheels and began the laborious task of rolling the six-pounders back to their lines. Then, off in the distance, Fredrickson saw some mounted officers, and the same distant, commanding voice he had heard before rang out: "Save the guns, my boys, at every sacrifice!"
The Americans responded, and a hail of rifle and musket balls fell among Fredrickson's men. He saw several fall, and then they returned fire at the dim figures charging at them out of the gloom. Fredrickson brought his Baker to his shoulder, but there was no need to aim, all he had to do was point and shoot. He didn't even notice the recoil as the American marine he had targeted went down. Then they were among his men and it was hand to hand. Fredrickson saw a blue uniformed figure lunge at him with a bayoneted musket, he reversed grip on his Baker, knocked the blade aside, and then cracked his enemy across the skull with the back swing. As the man dropped, he threw down his rifle and drew his saber, slipping his hand through its knot. Another bayonet stabbed above him, he gripped the musket barrel and pulled it towards him as he stepped aside, then he pivoted and cut low across the small of the man's back, deep into the spine, hearing a grunt of agony as his opponent dropped. Then someone crashed into him from the rear, and he went down under him. His saber flew from his hand, but the knot kept him from losing it. With the speed of panic he rolled onto his back underneath his attacker, and with a flick of his wrist, snapped his saber hilt back into his hand. A hand gripped his throat, while another raised a hatchet high against the night sky. Then his saber took the Jonathan underneath the armpit and slipped between the ribs and on in. The man jerked convulsively, dying, as Fredrickson threw him off and scrambled to his feet. He looked around. More and more Americans were rallying to save the guns, his men were outnumbered more each second. He saw what had to be done. Snatching up his Baker in his left hand, he gestured with his saber in his right.
"Withdraw! Withdraw! Back to our lines!"
The British left the cannons and broke off from the increasingly unequal combat, firing, stabbing and slashing as they disengaged. Slinging his rifle over his shoulder, Fredrickson caught up a rifleman who crouched, wounded on the ground, and with a hand under his arm, dragged him back towards safety as more musket balls whirled about his ears. Out of the corner of his eye, he could see the Jonathans hustling the guns to safety.
Fredrickson got back to his original position by the levee. Someone took the wounded man off of him. To the right, the sound of musketry was deafening, a ferocious battle was going on in the darkness of the British center, but all he could see were the muzzle flashes. Then the musketry dwindled, to be replaced by the clash of steel, it was bayonet and sword now over there. He took a reload out of his cartridge box, bit out the grease-patched ball, primed the pan, then reversed to load powder and wadding. He spat the ball down the barrel and rammed it until it was snug against the load. All around him, his men were doing the same. He worked methodically, without thinking, still keeping his attention on the fighting. As far as Fredrickson could tell, the 85th was being pushed back, but he and his men still could see no enemy in the black night.
Then, from the rear right, he glimpsed fresh troops running forward to be swallowed up in the night. Most were Redcoats, that would be the 4th, kept in reserve 'til now. And among them were green jackets; Major Mitchell was bringing up the 3rd and 4th Companies of the 95th. A fresh and intensified crackle of musketry and rifle fire sang in the darkness, and it seemed that now the Americans were giving way. The troops Fredrickson could see were no longer being pushed back. But then a new round of musketry sounded off in the distance, heralding the arrival of fresh Jonathans. No shots were coming from the area of the Lacoste mansion now, and Fredrickson guessed that the British had abandoned their forward positions and stabilized their front on the boundary line with the Villere plantation.
The moon now came out from behind its cloud cover, high in the western sky, and by its light, Fredrickson could make out more of the enemy forces that were pressing the 85th. There was no need to tell the Chosen Men what to do. They aimed, fired, reloaded, and fired again, pouring a galling fire into the newly exposed American flank. Fredrickson fell easily into the rhythm, he did not count the number of men he killed. The gods of battle seemed to be favoring the British for the moment, for a thick fog was now rolling in from the river, shielding them from the broadsides of the Yankee ship.
A group of six American soldiers of the 7th Infantry moved forward at the double-time, heading towards the sounds of musketry in the distance. Suddenly, a huge shape loomed up before them. The man nearest recognized Red Gator, and opened his mouth to ask him how distant the fighting was. Before he got the chance, a massive knife slashed across his throat, nearly decapitating him. As he fell to the ground, the man heard his friend's death screams as knife and tomahawk tore into them, and a scream more terrible drowning theirs out. His last thought was one of confusion: Wasn't he supposed to be on our side?
Someone should have warned him that when the blood-thirst was on Red Gator, he didn't care what uniform his victims wore.
Once, more distant now, Fredrickson again heard that terrible, blood-hungry scream. Whoever made it was no one he wanted to meet.
But now a new round of musketry was heard, from their right rear. The Villere mansion! Lieutenant Colonel Rennie spurred his horse out of the darkness, stopping before Fredrickson.
"They're all over the mansion. If they drive to the river, they'll cut us off. Take one company of the 95th and smash them!"
Fredrickson held up his rifle.
"1st Company, follow me, 2nd Company, hold position!"
He headed towards the Villere mansion at a quick jog, followed by some one hundred and twenty riflemen. In the distance, perhaps a thousand yards away, he could see the mansion and its outbuildings, with muzzle flashes and dimly seen struggling figures all over them. Occasionally, they were silhouetted against an undoused cooking fire. As they drew nearer, the fighting seemed to grow even more frantic. Fredrickson could see Redcoats of the 85th engaged in the most savage and confused hand to hand combat he had ever seen, sword against gun butt, bayonet against knife and hatchet. Their opponents wore homespun hunting shirts and black slouch hats. They carried long rifles, and used them with deadly efficiency. A large portion of them stood on the perimeter of the fight, sniping at any Redcoat that came within their sights. British soldiers were dropping with every shot. The men of the 85th couldn't last long.
As they came to the outbuildings, Fredrickson turned and shouted.
"Deploy in the farmhouses!"
The riflemen spread out to the three outbuildings that were nearest. Fredrickson kicked down the back door of one. He rushed across the one-room interior and swung open the front door partway, kneeling and taking aim. Another rifleman stood behind him, following his lead. Still others crowded in the windows. On either side of them, the rest of the company was doing the same in the other two buildings. Still, no one had seen them. Their position flanked the line of Jonathan sharpshooters perfectly, the range about two hundred yards.
The flame and crackle of the Bakers ripped across the field. The whole right flank of the Americans crumpled under the withering volley. Fredrickson had sighted on a tall, lean shooter third from the end. He saw him fall, but never knew if it was his rifle ball that put him down.
Fredrickson saw a huge, black haired man, probably their commander, shouting orders. As he reloaded, he determined that that one would be his next target. He had half expected the Jonathan riflemen to turn and run from this unexpected attack. But they did not. With a cool precision that would have made any British officer proud, they swung around, facing towards the farmhouses. Oblivious to the frenzy all around them, they aimed their rifles, some kneeling, the others standing.
Their return fire was terrible.
Even as he saw the orange tongues of flame and heard the rolling crackle from the Americans' guns, Fredrickson heard and sensed the rifleman behind him thrown back as a rifle ball struck him. On both sides, other green-jackets were falling to the ground, wounded, dead or dying. Fredrickson was impressed, even as he finished re-loading.
Damn! These boys are good!
For the first time in their history, the Chosen Men of the 95th Rifles had met marksmen of equal skill to themselves, armed with weapons equally lethal.
They had met the Tennessee Rifles.
The second exchange of fire stretched out still more dead on both sides. Fredrickson sensed that the farmhouses would provide little cover for his men against marksmanship of this quality. If they continued to trade shots like this, they would lose as many men as they killed. Fredrickson knew what to do, and turned to the riflemen.
"File out of the farmhouse, by twos and threes. Re-deploy just behind it! Keep a fire up! We'll see how they do at close quarters. Go!"
A few at a time, the green-jackets began to exit out the rear, while their mates kept on trading shots with the Jonathans. Soldiers ran to the farmhouses on either flank, repeating his orders. Fredrickson brought his rifle to his shoulder. The Americans were advancing in a broken line, loading and firing as they came. He sighted on the big officer, and fired. The man must have had a charmed life that day, for the rifleman to his left fell.
Fredrickson fell back and exited the rear, closing the door. He frantically reloaded, counting off the seconds he estimated it would take the Jonathans to reach the buildings he and his men crouched behind as they fixed bayonets. From within the cabin, he heard the bang of a door and the firing of a rifle. He gripped his own and drew in his breath.
The 95th came pouring from around either side of the three outbuildings, firing as they came. The Americans were surprised, and many went down, but the rest returned fire. Greenjackets fell, and then once again it was hand to hand. For once, the sword-bayonet of the Baker rifle proved useful for something other than chopping wood or toasting bread. The Jonathans fought with their rifle butts and with knife and hatchet. Chaos reigned as the two crack units tore into each other. All around Fredrickson, men were killing and dying. He shot a rifleman at six feet range (it was not the officer) as the man's own rifle ball whistled past his ear. His saber was out of its scabbard before the American hit the ground. He raised it above the head of another of the enemy, who raised his rifle to block the downward stroke. Without even thinking, Fredrickson shifted like a cat and drove the blade deep into his belly. The man screamed in pain and fury through his clenched teeth, and gripped the blade with both hands as Fredrickson tried to pull it out. He sensed rather than saw the rifle butt coming at him from his blind side, and dropped to his knees. As it went over his head, he finally jerked his saber free and stabbed behind him without wasting any time turning. He aimed for the groin. A scream of pain told him he'd found his target. Then the butt smacked into his temple and he fell to the ground in a surge of stars.
He woke after what seemed hours, but must have been seconds. Someone was shaking his shoulder, and he heard the voice of Corporal Morgan.
"Major! Major! Are ye killed?"
Fredrickson groaned and put his hand to his temple. It came away bloody. His head ached.
"If I'm killed and talking to you, you've got real trouble."
"More Americans are coming, Sir. We've got to pull back!"
Fredrickson stumbled to his feet, and looked around blearily. His men were still trading shots with the Jonathan riflemen, who had drawn off about a hundred yards. But from behind them, more Americans were pouring onto the field. And they looked to be riflemen too.
Fredrickson nodded, wincing as he did so.
"Make a fighting retreat towards the levee. No running."
He picked up his saber and sheathed it, then found his rifle. All along the riverward side of the Villere plantation, the British were falling back, but they were shooting as they did so, and Americans were still falling. It became a drill of firing, reloading as you withdrew, firing again, reloading as you withdrew, again and again. The Jonathans' blood was up; they pressed forward in spite of their losses. Finally, they took up a position on the remains of the old levee, while the British reformed with their backs to the present one. Then it simply became a slugging match, of firing and firing at each other until one side broke.
But then, as fog from the river and smoke from the shooting masked the battlefield, the firing began to dwindle and slacken, to become desultory. The Americans were drawing off. Fredrickson paused in the midst of reloading for the he-didn't-know-how- many time, and then only then did he realize how exhausted he was. He fished his eye patch out of his tunic pocket and replaced it, then did the same with his false teeth. He then planted the Baker's butt on the ground and leaned on it for a moment to keep from toppling over. He looked around for his wig, he knew he'd left it somewhere.
Red Gator looked over the battlefield. Only the dead were near him, there were none left to kill. But still, the blood-thirst burned within him! He raised his weapons to the uncaring night sky, threw back his head, and screamed out his lust for death.
Fredrickson started up again: once more, barely on the edge of his hearing, he heard the scream.
As its echoes died away, the battlefield grew silent, except for a scattering of shots here and there. For tonight, it was finished. The British began to pick up the pieces of the night's work. Wounded of both sides had to be collected, and a proper defensive perimeter set up in case the Jonathans attacked again. Keane's reinforcements were beginning to arrive, and would continue to file in through the night.
Perhaps they wouldn't eat Christmas dinner in New Orleans after all. So much for an easy campaign.
It was half past nine in the evening.
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Last update 15/7/01