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Rolf in the Woods(Chapter74)

2006-09-08 20:00

  CHAPTER LXXIV Rumours and Papers

  MacDonough's orders were to hold control of the Lake. How he did it will be seen. The British fleet at Isle au Noix was slightly stronger than his own, therefore he established a navy yard at Vergennes, in Vermont, seven miles up the Otter River, and at the mouth erected earthworks and batteries. He sent for Brown (of the firm of Adam and Noah Brown) a famous New York shipbuilder. Brown agreed to launch a ship of twenty-four guns in sixty days. The trees were standing in the forest on March 2d the keel was laid March 7th, and on April 11th the Saratoga was launched —— forty days after the timbers were green standing trees on the hills.

  Other vessels were begun and pushed as expeditiously. And now MacDonough's wisdom in choice of the navy yard was seen, for a British squadron was sent to destroy his infant fleet, or at least sink stone-boats across the exit so as to bottle it up.

  But their attempts were baffled by the batteries which the far-seeing American had placed at the river's mouth.

  The American victory at Chippewa was followed by the defeat at Lundy's Lane, and on August 25th the city of Washington was captured by the British and its public buildings destroyed. These calamities, instead of dampening the spirits of the army, roused the whole nation at last to a realization of the fact that they were at war. Fresh troops and plentiful supplies were voted, the deadwood commanders were retired, and the real men revealed by the two campaigns were given place and power.

  At the same time, Great Britain, having crushed Napoleon, was in a position to greatly reinforce her American army, and troops seasoned in Continental campaigns were poured into Canada.

  All summer Rolf was busied bearing despatches. During the winter he and Quonab had built a birch canoe on special lines for speed; it would carry two men but no baggage.

  With this he could make fully six miles an hour for a short time, and average five on smooth water. In this he had crossed and recrossed Champlain, and paddled its length, till he knew every bay and headland. The overland way to Sackett's Harbour he had traversed several times; the trail from Plattsburg to Covington he knew in all weathers, and had repeatedly covered its sixty miles in less than twenty-four hours on foot. The route he picked and followed was in later years the line selected for the military highway between these two camps.

  But the chief scene of his activities was the Canadian wilderness at the north end of Lake Champlain. Chazy, Champlain, Odelltown, La Colle Mill, Isle au Noix, and Richelieu River he knew intimately and had also acquired a good deal of French in learning their country.

  It was characteristic of General Wilkinson to ignore the scout who knew and equally characteristic of his successors, Izard and Macomb, to seek and rely on the best man.

  The news that he brought in many different forms was that the British were again concentrating an army to strike at Plattsburg and Albany.

  Izard on the land at Plattsburg and Champlain, and Macomb at Burlington strained all their resources to meet the invader at fair terms. Izard had 4000 men assembled, when an extraordinary and devastating order from Washington compelled him to abandon the battle front at Champlain and lead his troops to Sackett's Harbour where all was peace. He protested like a statesman, then obeyed like a soldier, leaving Macomb in command of the land forces of Lake Champlain, with, all told, some 3400 men. On the day that Izard left Champlain, the British troops, under Brisbane, advanced and occupied his camp.

  As soon as Rolf had seen them arrive, and had gauged their number, he sent Quonab back to report, and later retired by night ten miles up the road to Chazy. He was well known to many of the settlers and was welcome where ever known, not only because he was a patriot fighting his country's battles, but for his own sake, for he was developing into a handsome, alert, rather silent youth. It is notorious that in the drawing-room, given equal opportunity, the hunter has the advantage over the farmer. He has less self-consciousness, more calm poise. He is not troubled about what to do with his feet and hands, and is more convinced of his native dignity and claims to respect. In the drawin-room Rolf was a hunter: the leading inhabitants of the region around received him gladly and honoured him. He was guest at Judge Hubbell's in Chazy, in September of 1814. Every day he scouted in the neighbourhood and at night returned to the hospitable home of the judge.

  On the 12th of September, from the top of a tall tree on a distant wooded hill, he estimated the force at Champlain to be 10,000 to 15,000 men. Already their bodyguard was advancing on Chazy.

  Judge Hubbell and anxious neighbours hastily assembled now, discussed with Rolf the situation and above all, "What shall we do with our families?" One man broke into a storm of hate and vituperation against the British. "Remember the burning of Washington and the way they treated the women at Bladensburg."

  "All of which about the women was utterly disproved, except in one case, and in that the criminal was shot by order of his own commander," retorted Hubbell.

  At Plattsburg others maintained that the British had harmed no one. Colonel Murray had given strict orders that all private property be absolutely respected. Nothing but government property was destroyed and only that which could be construed into war stores and buildings. What further damage was done was the result of accident or error. Officers were indeed quartered on the inhabitants, but they paid for what they got, and even a carpet destroyed by accident was replaced months afterward by a British officer who had not the means at the time.

  So it was agreed that Hubbell with Rolf and the village fathers and brothers should join their country's army, leaving wives and children behind.

  There were wet bearded cheeks among the strong, rugged men as they kissed their wives and little ones and prepared to go, then stopped, as horrible misgivings rose within. "This was war, and yet again, 'We have had proofs that the British harmed no woman or child'." So they dashed away the tears, suppressed the choking in their throats, shouldered their guns, and marched away to the front, commending their dear ones to the mercy of God and the British invaders.

  None had any cause to regret this trust. Under pain of death, Sir George Prevost enforced his order that the persons of women and children and all private property be held inviolate. As on the previous raid, no damage was done to non-combatants, and the only hardships endured were by the few who, knowing nothing, feared much, and sought the precarious safety of life among the hills.

  Sir George Prevost and his staff of ten officers were quartered in Judge Hubbell's house. Mrs. Hubbell was hard put to furnish them with meals, but they treated her with perfect respect, and every night, not knowing how long they might stay, they left on the table the price of their board and lodging.

  For three days they waited, then all was ready for the advance.

  "Now for Plattsburg this week and Albany next, so good-bye, madam" they said politely, and turned to ride away. a gay and splendid group.

  "Good-bye, sirs, for a very little while, but I know you'll soon be back and hanging your heads as you come," was the retort.

  Sir George replied: "If a man had said that, I would call him out; but since it is a fair lady that has been our charming hostess, I reply that when your prophecy comes true, every officer here shall throw his purse on your door step as he passes."

  So they rode away, 13,000 trained men with nothing between them and Albany but 2000 troops, double as many raw militia, and —— MacDonough of the Lake.

  Ten times did Rolf cover that highway north of Plattsburg in the week that followed, and each day his tidings were the same —— the British steadily advance.

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