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Rolf in the Woods(Chapter75)

2006-09-08 20:00

  CHAPTER LXXV Mcglassin's Exploit

  There was a wonderful spirit on everything in Plattsburg, and the earthly tabernacle in which it dwelt, was the tall, grave young man who had protested against Hampton's behaviour at Burlington —— Captain, now General Macomb. Nothing was neglected, every emergency was planned for, every available man was under arms. Personally tireless, he was ever alert and seemed to know every man in his command and every man of it had implicit confidence in the leader. We have heard of soldiers escaping from a besieged fortress by night; but such was the inspiring power of this commander that there was a steady leaking in of men from the hills, undrilled and raw, but of superb physique and dead shots with the ride.

  A typical case was that of a sturdy old farmer who was marching through the woods that morning to take his place with those who manned the breastworks and was overheard to address his visibly trembling legs: "Shake, damn you, shake; and if ye knew where I was leading you, you'd be ten times worse."

  His mind was more valiant than his body, and his mind kept control —— this is true courage.

  No one had a better comprehension of all this than Macomb. He knew that all these men needed was a little training to make of them the best soldiers on earth. To supply that training he mixed them with veterans, and arranged a series of unimportant skirmishes as coolly and easily as though he were laying out a programme for an evening's entertainment.

  The first of these was at Culver's Hill. Here a barricade was thrown up along the highway, a gun was mounted, and several hundred riflemen were posted under leaders skilled in the arts of harrying a foe and giving him no chance to strike back.

  Among the men appointed for the barricade's defence was Rolf and near him Quonab. The latter had been seasoned in the Revolution, but it was the former's first experience at the battle front, and he felt as most men do when the enemy in brave array comes marching up. As soon as they were within long range, his leader gave the order "Fire!" The rifles rattled and the return fire came at once. Balls pattered on the barricade or whistled above. The man next to him was struck and dropped with a groan; another fell back dead. The horror and roar were overmuch. Rolf was nervous enough when he entered the fight. Now he was unstrung, almost stunned, his hands and knees were shaking, he was nearly panic-stricken and could not resist the temptation to duck, as the balls hissed murder over his head. He was blazing away, without aiming, when an old soldier, noting his white face and shaking form, laid a hand on his shoulder and, in kindly tones, said: "Steady, boy, steady; yer losing yer head; see, this is how," and he calmly took aim, then, without firing, moved the gun again and put a little stick to raise the muzzle and make a better rest, then fired as though at target practice. "Now rest for a minute. Look at Quonab there; you can see he's been through it before. He is making a hit with every shot."

  Rolf did as he was told, and in a few minutes his colour came back, his hand was steady, and thenceforth he began to forget the danger and thought only of doing his work.

  When at length it was seen that the British were preparing to charge, the Americans withdrew quickly and safely to Halsey's Corner, where was another barricade and a fresh lot of recruits awaiting to receive their baptism of fire. And the scene was repeated. Little damage was done to the foe but enormous benefit was gained by the Americans, because it took only one or two of these skirmishes to turn a lot of shaky-kneed volunteers into a band of steady soldiers —— for they had it all inside. Thus their powder terror died.

  That night the British occupied the part of the town that was north of the Saranac, and began a desultory bombardment of the fortification opposite. Not a very serious one, for they considered they could take the town at any time, but preferred to await the arrival of their fleet under Downie.

  The fight for the northern half of the town was not serious, merely part of Macomb's prearranged training course; but when the Americans retired across the Saranac, the planks of the bridges were torn up, loop-holed barricades were built along the southern bank, and no effort spared to prepare for a desperate resistance.

  Every man that could hold up a gun was posted on the lines of Plattsburg. The school-boys, even, to the number of five hundred formed a brigade, and were assigned to places where their squirrel-hunting experiences could be made of service to their country.

  Meanwhile the British had established a battery opposite Fort Brown. It was in a position to do some material and enormous moral damage. On the ninth it was nearly ready for bloody work, and would probably begin next morning. That night, however, an extraordinary event took place, and showed how far from terror-palsy were the motley troops in Plattsburg. A sturdy Vermonter, named Captain McGlassin, got permission of Ma. comb to attempt a very Spartan sortie.

  He called for fifty volunteers to go on a most hazardous enterprise. He got one thousand at once. Then he ordered all over twenty-five and under eighteen to retire. This reduced the number to three hundred. Then, all married men were retired, and thus again they were halved. Next he ordered away all who smoked —— Ah, deep philosopher that he was! —— and from the remnant he selected his fifty. Among them was Rolf. Then he divulged his plan. It was nothing less than a dash on the new-made fort to spike those awful guns —— fifty men to dash into a camp of thirteen thousand.

  Again he announced, "Any who wish to withdraw now may do so." Not a man stirred.

  Twenty of those known to be expert with tools were provided with hammers and spikes for the guns, and Rolf was proud to be one of them.

  In a night of storm and blackness they crossed the Saranac; dividing in two bodies they crawled unseen, one on each side of the battery. Three hundred British soldiers were sleeping near, only the sentries peered into the storm-sleet.

  All was ready when McGlassin's tremendous voice was heard, "Charge front and rear!" Yelling, pounding, making all the noise they could, the American boys rushed forth. The British were completely surprised, the sentries were struck down, and the rest assured that Macomb's army was on them recoiled for a few minutes. The sharp click, click, click of the hammers was heard. An iron spike was driven into every touch hole; the guns were made harmless as logs and quickly wheeling, to avoid the return attack, these bold Yankee boys leaped from the muzzled redoubt and reached their own camp without losing one of their number.

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