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Fire & Blood

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Fire & Blood
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Author(s): G. R. Gleig
Date Published: 04/2007
Page Count: 260
Softcover ISBN-13: 978-1-84677-161-3
Hardcover ISBN-13: 978-1-84677-163-7

This is an account of a young Subaltern of the British Army in Southern France at the time of Napoleon’s abdication, who finds himself celebrating the end of hostilities in a way that belies his true emotions. He needs a good war. Enthusiastically he embarks for the war in America, where he takes part in the landings, the Battle of Bladensburg and witnesses the fall and burning of Washington and the attack on Baltimore. After fierce fights with American Regulars and Militia Riflemen, and sea battles with Privateers, events turn to the fateful attack on New Orleans and scenes of one of bloodiest actions experienced by the British in America – all is graphically related by a serving soldier who was an active participant.

A heavy fire of musketry instantly opened upon us; but so fearful was Grey of doing injury to our own troops, that he would not permit it to be returned. We accordingly pressed on, our men dropping by ones and twos on every side of us, till having arrived within twenty or thirty yards of the object of our curiosity, it became to me evident enough that we were in front of the enemy. Grey’s humane caution still prevailed; he was not convinced, till he, should be convinced it was but natural that he should alter his plans. There chanced to be near the spot where we were standing a huge dung-heap, or rather a long solid stack of stubble, behind which we directed the men to take shelter whilst one of us should creep forward alone, for the purpose of more completely ascertaining a fact of which all except my brave and noble-minded comrade were satisfied.
The event proved that my sight had not deceived me: I approached within sabre’s length of the line; and having ascertained beyond the possibility of doubt that the line was composed of American soldiers, I returned to my friend and again urged him to charge. But there was an infatuation upon him that night for which I have ever been unable to account: he insisted that I must be mistaken; he spoke of the improbability which existed that any part of the enemy’s army should have succeeded in taking up a position in rear of the station of one of our outposts, and he could not be persuaded that the troops now before him were not the 95th Rifle corps. At last it was agreed between us that we should separate; that Grey with one half of the party should remain where he was, whilst I with the other half should make a short detour to the right, and come down upon the flank of the line from whose fire we had suffered so severely. The plan was carried into immediate execution. Taking with me about a dozen or fourteen men, I quitted Grey, and we never met again.
How or when he fell I know not; but, judging from the spot and attitude in which I afterwards found his body, I conceive that my back could have been barely turned upon him when the fatal ball pierced his brain. He was as brave a soldier and as good a man as the British army can boast of; beloved by his brother officers and adored by his men. To me he was as a brother; nor have I ceased even now to feel, as often as the 23rd of December returns, that on that night a tie was broken than which the progress of human life will hardly furnish one more tender or more strong. But to my tale.
Leaving Grey—careless as he ever was in battle of his own person, and anxious as far as might be to secure the safety of his followers—I led my little party in the direction agreed upon, and fortunately falling in with about an equal number of English riflemen, I caused them to take post beside my own men, and turned up to the front. Springing over the paling, we found ourselves almost at once upon the left flank of the enemy; and we lost not a moment in attacking it. But one volley was poured in, and then bayonets, musket-butts, sabres, and even fists, came instantly into play. In the whole course of my military career remember no scene at all resembling this. We fought with the savage ferocity of bull-dogs; and many a blade which till to-night had not drunk blood became in a few minutes crimsoned enough.
Such a contest could not in the nature of things be of very long continuance. The enemy, astonished at the vigour of our assault, soon began to waver, and their wavering was speedily converted into flight. Nor did we give them a moment’s time to recover from their panic. With loud shouts we continued to press upon them; and amidst the most horrible din and desperate carnage drove them over the field and through the little village of huts, of which notice has already been taken as surrounding the mansion on our advanced right. Here we found a number of our own people prisoners, and under a guard of Americans. But the guard fled as we approached, and our countrymen catching up such weapons as came first to hand, joined in the pursuit.
In this spot I halted my party, increased by the late additions to the number of forty; among whom were two gallant young officers of the 95th. We had not yet been joined, as I expected be joined, by Grey; and feeling that we were at least far enough in advance of our own line, we determined to attempt nothing further except to keep possession of the village should it beattacked.When I say that we came in sight of the enemy, I do not mean that he was gradually exposed to us in such a manner as to leave time for cool examination and reflection. On the right, indeed, he was seen for some time, but on the left a few houses built at a turning in the road entirely concealed him; nor was it till they gained that turning, and beheld the muzzles of his guns pointed towards them, that those who moved in this direction were aware of their proximity to danger. But that danger was indeed near they were quickly taught; for scarcely had the head of the column passed the houses when a deadly fire was opened from both the battery and the shipping. That the Americans are excellent marksmen, as well with artillery as with rifles, we have had frequent cause to acknowledge; but, perhaps, on no occasion did they assert their claim to the title of good artillery-men more effectually than on the present. Scarce a ball passed over or fell short of its mark, but all striking full into the midst of our ranks, occasioned terrible havoc. The shrieks of the wounded, therefore, the crash of firelocks, and the fall of such as were killed; caused at first some little confusion; and what added to the panic was, that from the houses beside which we stood bright flames suddenly burst out. The Americans, expecting this attack, had filled them with combustibles for the purpose; and directing against them one or two guns, loaded with red-hot shot, in an instant set them on fire. The scene was altogether very sublime. A tremendous cannonade mowed down our ranks, and deafened us with its roar; whilst two large chateaux and their outbuildings almost scorched us with the flames, and blinded us with the smoke which they emitted.
The infantry, however, was not long suffered to remain thus exposed; but being ordered to quit the path and to form line in the fields, the artillery was brought up, and opposed to that of the enemy. But the contest was in every respect unequal, since their artillery far exceeded ours, both in numerical strength and weight of metal. The consequence was, that in half an hour two of our field-pieces and one field-mortar were dismounted: many of the gunners were killed; and the rest, after an ineffectual attempt to silence the fire of the shipping, were obliged to retire.
In the mean time the infantry having formed line, advanced under a heavy discharge of round and grape shot, till they were checked by the appearance of the canal. Of its depth they were of course ignorant, and to attempt its passage without having ascertained whether it could be forded might have been productive of fatal consequences. A halt was accordingly ordered, and the men were commanded to shelter themselves as well as they could from the enemy’s fire. For this purpose they were hurried into a wet ditch, of sufficient depth to cover the knees, where, leaning forward, they concealed themselves behind some high rushes which grew upon its brink, and thus escaped many bullets which fell around them in all directions.