The Virginians, by William Makepeace Thackeray

CHAPTER XCI

Satis Pugnae

It has always seemed to me (I speak under the correction of military gentlemen) that the entrenchments of Breed’s Hill served the Continental army throughout the whole of our American war. The slaughter inflicted upon us from behind those lines was so severe, and the behaviour of the enemy so resolute, that the British chiefs respected the barricades of the Americans hereafter; and were they firing from behind a row of blankets, certain of our generals rather hesitated to force them. In the affair of the White Plains, when, for a second time, Mr. Washington’s army was quite at the mercy of the victors, we subsequently heard that our conquering troops were held back before a barricade actually composed of cornstalks and straw. Another opportunity was given us, and lasted during a whole winter, during which the dwindling and dismayed troops of Congress lay starving and unarmed under our grasp, and the magnanimous Mr. Howe left the famous camp of Valley Forge untouched, whilst his great, brave, and perfectly appointed army fiddled and gambled and feasted in Philadelphia. And, by Byng’s countrymen, triumphal arches were erected, tournaments were held in pleasant mockery of the middle ages, and wreaths and garlands offered by beautiful ladies to this clement chief, with fantastical mottoes and posies announcing that his laurels should be immortal! Why have my ungrateful countrymen in America never erected statues to this general? They had not in all their army an officer who fought their battles better; who enabled them to retrieve their errors with such adroitness; who took care that their defeats should be so little hurtful to themselves; and when, in the course of events, the stronger force naturally got the uppermost, who showed such an untiring tenderness, patience, and complacency in helping the poor disabled opponent on to his legs again. Ah! think of eighteen years before and the fiery young warrior whom England had sent out to fight her adversary on the American continent. Fancy him for ever pacing round the defences behind which the foe lies sheltered; by night and by day alike sleepless and eager; consuming away in his fierce wrath and longing, and never closing his eye, so intent is it in watching; winding the track with untiring scent that pants and hungers for blood and battle; prowling through midnight forests, or climbing silent over precipices before dawn; and watching till his great heart is almost worn out, until the foe shows himself at last, when he springs on him and grapples with him, and, dying, slays him! Think of Wolfe at Quebec, and hearken to Howe’s fiddles as he sits smiling amongst the dancers at Philadelphia!

A favourite scheme with our ministers at home and some of our generals in America, was to establish a communication between Canada and New York, by which means it was hoped New England might be cut off from the neighbouring colonies, overpowered in detail, and forced into submission. Burgoyne was entrusted with the conduct of the plan, and he set forth from Quebec, confidently promising to bring it to a successful issue. His march began in military state: the trumpets of his proclamations blew before him; he bade the colonists to remember the immense power of England; and summoned the misguided rebels to lay down their arms. He brought with him a formidable English force, an army of German veterans not less powerful, a dreadful band of Indian warriors, and a brilliant train of artillery. It was supposed that the people round his march would rally to the Royal cause and standards. The Continental force in front of him was small at first, and Washington’s army was weakened by the withdrawal of troops who were hurried forward to meet this Canadian invasion. A British detachment from New York was to force its way up the Hudson, sweeping away the enemy on the route, and make a junction with Burgoyne at Albany. Then was the time when Washington’s weakened army should have been struck too; but a greater Power willed otherwise: nor am I, for one, even going to regret the termination of the war. As we look over the game now, how clear seem the blunders which were made by the losing side! From the beginning to the end we were for ever arriving too late. Our supplies and reinforcements from home were too late. Our troops were in difficulty, and our succours reached them too late. Our fleet appeared off York Town just too late, after Cornwallis had surrendered. A way of escape was opened to Burgoyne, but he resolved upon retreat too late. I have heard discomfited officers in after days prove infallibly how a different wind would have saved America to us; how we must have destroyed the French fleet but for a tempest or two; how once, twice, thrice, but for nightfall, Mr. Washington and his army were in our power. Who has not speculated, in the course of his reading of history, upon the “Has been” and the “Might have been” in the world? I take my tattered old map-book from the shelf, and see the board on which the great contest was played; I wonder at the curious chances which lost it: and, putting aside any idle talk about the respective bravery of the two nations, can’t but see that we had the best cards, and that we lost the game.

I own the sport had a considerable fascination for me, and stirred up my languid blood. My brother Hal, when settled on his plantation in Virginia, was perfectly satisfied with the sports and occupations he found there. The company of the country neighbours sufficed him; he never tired of looking after his crops and people, taking his fish, shooting his ducks, hunting in his woods, or enjoying his rubber and his supper. Happy Hal, in his great barn of a house, under his roomy porches, his dogs lying round his feet; his friends, the Virginian Will Wimbles, at free quarters in his mansion; his negroes fat, lazy, and ragged: his shrewd little wife ruling over them and her husband, who always obeyed her implicitly when living, and who was pretty speedily consoled when she died! I say happy, though his lot would have been intolerable to me: wife, and friends, and plantation, and town life at Richmond (Richmond succeeded to the honour of being the capital when our Province became a State). How happy he whose foot fits the shoe which fortune gives him! My income was five times as great, my house in England as large, and built of bricks and faced with freestone; my wife — would I have changed her for any other wife in the world? My children — well, I am contented with my Lady Warrington’s opinion about them. But with all these plums and peaches and rich fruits out of Plenty’s horn poured into my lap, I fear I have been but an ingrate; and Hodge, my gatekeeper, who shares his bread and scrap of bacon with a family as large as his master’s, seems to me to enjoy his meal as much as I do, though Mrs. Molly prepares her best dishes and sweetmeats, and Mr. Gumbo uncorks the choicest bottle from the cellar. Ah me! sweetmeats have lost their savour for me, however they may rejoice my young ones from the nursery, and the perfume of claret palls upon old noses! Our parson has poured out his sermons many and many a time to me, and perhaps I did not care for them much when he first broached them. Dost thou remember, honest friend? (sure he does, for he has repeated the story over the bottle as many times as his sermons almost, and my Lady Warrington pretends as if she had never heard it)— I say, Joe Blake, thou rememberest full well, and with advantages, that October evening when we scrambled up an embrasure at Fort Clinton and a clubbed musket would have dashed these valuable brains out, had not Joe’s sword whipped my rebellious countryman through the gizzard. Joe wore a red coat in those days (the uniform of the brave Sixty-third, whose leader, the bold Sill, fell pierced with many wounds beside him). He exchanged his red for black and my pulpit. His doctrines are sound, and his sermons short. We read the papers together over our wine. Not two months ago we read our old friend Howe’s glorious deed of the first of June. We were told how the noble Rawdon, who fought with us at Fort Clinton, had joined the Duke of York: and today his Royal Highness is in full retreat before Pichegru: and he and my son Miles have taken Valenciennes for nothing! Ah, parson! would you not like to put on your old Sixty-third coat? (though I doubt Mrs. Blake could never make the buttons and button-holes meet again over your big body). The boys were acting a play with my militia sword. Oh, that I were young again, Mr. Blake! that I had not the gout in my toe; and I would saddle Rosinante and ride back into the world, and feel the pulses beat again, and play a little of life’s glorious game!

The last “hit” which I saw played, was gallantly won by our side; though ’tis true that even in this parti the Americans won the rubber — our people gaining only the ground they stood on, and the guns, stores, and ships which they captured and destroyed, whilst our efforts at rescue were too late to prevent the catastrophe impending over Burgoyne’s unfortunate army. After one of those delays which always were happening to retard our plans and weaken the blows which our chiefs intended to deliver, an expedition was got under weigh from New York at the close of the month of September, ‘77; that, could it have but advanced a fortnight earlier, might have saved the doomed force of Burgoyne. Sed Dis aliter visum. The delay here was not Sir Henry Clinton’s fault, who could not leave his city unprotected; but the winds and weather which delayed the arrival of reinforcements which we had long awaited from England. The fleet which brought them brought us long and fond letters from home, with the very last news of the children under the care of their good Aunt Hetty and their grandfather. The mother’s heart yearned towards the absent young ones. She made me no reproaches: but I could read her importunities in her anxious eyes, her terrors for me, and her longing for her children. “Why stay longer?” she seemed to say. “You who have no calling to this war, or to draw the sword against your countrymen — why continue to imperil your life and my happiness?” I understood her appeal. We were to enter upon no immediate service of danger; I told her Sir Henry was only going to accompany the expedition for a part of the way. I would return with him, the reconnaissance over, and Christmas, please Heaven, should see our family once more united in England.

A force of three thousand men, including a couple of slender regiments of American Loyalists and New York Militia (with which latter my distinguished relative, Mr. Will Esmond, went as captain), was embarked at New York, and our armament sailed up the noble Hudson River, that presents finer aspects than the Rhine in Europe to my mind: nor was any fire opened upon us from those beetling cliffs and precipitous “palisades,” as they are called, by which we sailed; the enemy, strange to say, being for once unaware of the movement we contemplated. Our first landing was on the Eastern bank, at a place called Verplancks Point, whence the Congress troops withdrew after a slight resistance, their leader, the tough old Putnam (so famous during the war) supposing that our march was to be directed towards the Eastern Highlands, by which we intended to penetrate to Burgoyne. Putnam fell back to occupy these passes, a small detachment of ours being sent forward as if in pursuit, which he imagined was to be followed by the rest of our force. Meanwhile, before daylight, two thousand men without artillery, were carried over to Stoney Point on the Western shore, opposite Verplancks, and under a great hill called the Dunderberg by the old Dutch lords of the stream, and which hangs precipitously over it. A little stream at the northern base of this mountain intersects it from the opposite height on which Fort Clinton stood, named not after our general, but after one of the two gentlemen of the same name, who were amongst the oldest and most respected of the provincial gentry of New York, and who were at this moment actually in command against Sir Henry. On the next height to Clinton is Fort Montgomery; and behind them rises a hill called Bear Hill; whilst at the opposite side of the magnificent stream stands “Saint Antony’s Nose,” a prodigious peak indeed, which the Dutch had quaintly christened.

The attacks on the two forts were almost simultaneous. Half our men were detached for the assault on Fort Montgomery, under the brave Campbell, who fell before the rampart. Sir Henry, who would never be out of danger where he could find it, personally led the remainder, and hoped, he said, that we should have better luck than before the Sullivan Island. A path led up to the Dunderberg, so narrow as scarcely to admit three men abreast, and in utter silence our whole force scaled it, wondering at every rugged step to meet with no opposition. The enemy had not even kept a watch on it; nor were we descried until we were descending the height, at the base of which we easily dispersed a small force sent hurriedly to oppose us. The firing which here took place rendered all idea of a surprise impossible. The fort was before us. With such arms as the troops had in their hands, they had to assault; and silently and swiftly, in the face of the artillery playing upon them, the troops ascended the hill. The men had orders on no account to fire. Taking the colours of the Sixty-third, and bearing them aloft, Sir Henry mounted with the stormers. The place was so steep that the men pushed each other over the wall and through the embrasures; and it was there that Lieutenant Joseph Blake, the father of a certain Joseph Clinton Blake, who looks with the eyes of affection on a certain young lady, presented himself to the living of Warrington by saving the life of the unworthy patron thereof.

About a fourth part of the garrison, as we were told, escaped out of the fort, the rest being killed or wounded, or remaining our prisoners within the works. Fort Montgomery was, in like manner, stormed and taken by our people; and, at night, as we looked down from the heights where the king’s standard had been just planted, we were treated to a splendid illumination in the river below. Under Fort Montgomery, and stretching over to that lofty prominence, called Saint Antony’s Nose, a boom and chain had been laid with a vast cost and labour, behind which several American frigates and galleys were anchored. The fort being taken, these ships attempted to get up the river in the darkness, out of the reach of guns which they knew must destroy them in the morning. But the wind was unfavourable, and escape was found to be impossible. The crews therefore took to the boats, and so landed, having previously set the ships on fire with all their sails set; and we beheld these magnificent pyramids of flame burning up to the heavens and reflected in the waters below, until, in the midst of prodigious explosions, they sank and disappeared.

On the next day a parlementaire came in from the enemy, to inquire as to the state of his troops left wounded or prisoners in our hands, and the Continental officer brought me a note, which gave me a strange shock, for it showed that in the struggle of the previous evening my brother had been engaged. It was dated October 7, from Major-General George Clinton’s divisional headquarters, and it stated briefly that “Colonel H. Warrington, of the Virginia line, hopes that Sir George Warrington escaped unhurt in the assault of last evening, from which the Colonel himself was so fortunate as to retire without the least injury.” Never did I say my prayers more heartily and gratefully than on that night, devoutly thanking Heaven that my dearest brother was spared, and making a vow at the same time to withdraw out of the fratricidal contest, into which I only had entered because Honour and Duty seemed imperatively to call me.

I own I felt an inexpressible relief when I had come to the resolution to retire and betake myself to the peaceful shade of my own vines and fig-trees at home. I longed, however, to see my brother ere I returned, and asked, and easily obtained an errand to the camp of the American General Clinton from our own chief. The headquarters of his division were now some miles up the river, and a boat and a flag of truce quickly brought me to the point where his out-pickets received me on the shore. My brother was very soon with me. He had only lately joined General Clinton’s division with letters from headquarters at Philadelphia, and he chanced to hear, after the attack on Fort Clinton, that I had been present during the affair. We passed a brief delightful night together: Mr. Sady, who always followed Hal to the war, cooking a feast in honour of both his masters. There was but one bed of straw in the hut where we had quarters, and Hal and I slept on it, side by side, as we had done when we were boys. We had a hundred things to say regarding past times and present. His kind heart gladdened when I told him of my resolve to retire to my acres and to take off the red coat which I wore: he flung his arms round it. “Praised be God!” said he. “Oh, heavens, George! think what might have happened had we met in the affair two nights ago!” And he turned quite pale at the thought. He eased my mind with respect to our mother. She was a bitter Tory, to be sure, but the Chief had given special injunctions regarding her safety. “And Fanny” (Hal’s wife) “watches over her, and she is as good as a company!” cried the enthusiastic husband. “Isn’t she clever? Isn’t she handsome? Isn’t she good?” cries Hal, never, fortunately, waiting for a reply to these ardent queries. “And to think that I was nearly marrying Maria once! Oh, mercy, what an escape I had!” he added. “Hagan prays for the King, every morning and night, at Castlewood, but they bolt the doors, and nobody hears. Gracious powers! his wife is sixty if she is a day; and oh, George! the quantity she drinks is . . .” But why tell the failings of our good cousin? I am pleased to think she lived to drink the health of King George long after his Old Dominion had passed for ever from his sceptre.

The morning came when my brief mission to the camp was ended, and the truest of friends and fondest of brothers accompanied me to my boat, which lay waiting at the riverside. We exchanged an embrace at parting, and his hand held mine yet for a moment ere I stepped into the barge which bore me rapidly down the stream. “Shall I see thee once more, dearest and best companion of my youth?” I thought. “Amongst our cold Englishmen, can I ever hope to meet with a friend like thee? When hadst thou ever a thought that was not kindly and generous? When a wish, or a possession, but for me you would sacrifice it? How brave are you, and how modest; how gentle, and how strong; how simple, unselfish, and humble; how eager to see others’ merit; how diffident of your own!” He stood on the shore till his figure grew dim before, me. There was that in my eyes which prevented me from seeing him longer.

Brilliant as Sir Henry’s success had been, it was achieved, as usual, too late: and served but as a small set-off against the disaster of Burgoyne which ensued immediately, and which our advance was utterly inadequate to relieve. More than one secret messenger was despatched to him who never reached him, and of whom we never learned the fate. Of one wretch who offered to carry intelligence to him, and whom Sir Henry despatched with a letter of his own, we heard the miserable doom. Falling in with some of the troops of General George Clinton, who happened to be in red uniform (part of the prize of a British ship’s cargo, doubtless, which had been taken by American privateers), the spy thought he was in the English army, and advanced towards the sentries. He found his mistake too late. His letter was discovered upon him, and he had to die for bearing it. In ten days after the success at the Forts occurred the great disaster at Saratoga, of which we carried the dismal particulars in the fleet which bore us home. I am afraid my wife was unable to mourn for it. She had her children, her father, her sister to revisit, and daily and nightly thanks to pay to Heaven that had brought her husband safe out of danger.

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Last updated Tuesday, March 4, 2014 at 19:07