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Rolf in the Woods(Chapter73)

2006-09-08 20:00

  CHAPTER LXXIII Why Plattsburg Was Raided pic

  The owl's hull reputation for wisdom is built up on lookin' wise and keepin' mum. —— Sayings of St Sylvanne

  THE owl incident was one of the comedies of their life, now they had business on hand. The scraps of news brought by Quonab pieced out with those secured by Rolf, spelt clearly this: that Colonel Murray with about a thousand men was planning a raid on Plattsburg.

  Their duty was to notify General Hampton without delay.

  Burlington, forty miles away, was headquarters. Plattsburg, twenty miles away, was marked for spoil.

  One more item they must add: Was the raid to baby land or water? If the latter, then they must know what preparations were being made at the British naval station, Isle au Noix. They travelled all night through the dark woods, to get there, though it was but seven miles away, and in the first full light they saw the gallant array of two warships, three gunboats, and about fifty long boats, all ready, undoubtedly waiting only for a change in the wind, which at this season blew on Champlain almost steadily form the south.

  A three-hour, ten-mile tramp through ways now familiar brought Rolf and his partner to the north of the Big Chazy where the canoe was hidden, and without loss of time they pushed off for Burlington, thirty miles away. The wind was head on, and when four hours later they stopped for noon, they had made not more than a dozen miles.

  All that afternoon they had to fight a heavy sea; this meant they must keep near shore in case of an upset, and so lengthened the course; but it also meant that the enemy would not move so long as this wind kept up.

  It was six at night before the scouts ran into Burlington Harbour and made for Hampton's headquarters.

  His aide received them and, after learning that they had news, went in to the general. From the inner room now they heard in unnecessarily loud tones the great man's orders to, "Bring them in, sah."

  The bottles on the table, his purple visage, and thick tongued speech told how well-founded were the current whispers.

  "Raid on Plattsburg? Ha! I hope so. I only hope so. Gentlemen," and he turned to his staff, "all I ask is a chance to get at them —— Ha, Ha! Here, help yourself, Macomb," and the general pushed the decanter to a grave young officer who was standing by.

  "No, thank you, sir," was the only reply.

  The general waved his hand, the scouts went out, puzzled and ashamed. Was this the brains of the army? No wonder our men are slaughtered.

  Now Macomb ventured to suggest: "Have you any orders, sir? These scouts are considered quite reliable. I understand from them that the British await only a change of wind. They have between one thousand and two thousand men."

  "Plenty of time in the morning, sah. Plattsburg will be the bait of my trap, not one of them shall return alive," and the general dismissed his staff that he might fortify himself against a threatened cold.

  Another young man, Lieut. Thomas MacDonough, the naval commandant, now endeavoured to stir him by a sense of danger. First he announced that his long boats, and gunboats were ready and in six hours he could transfer three thousand troops from Burlington to Plattsburg. Then he ventured to urge the necessity for action.

  Champlain is a lake of two winds. It had brown from the south for two weeks; now a north wind was likely to begin any day. MacDonough urged this point, but all in vain, and, shocked and humiliated, the young man obeyed the order "to wait till his advice was asked."

  The next day Hampton ordered a review, not an embarkation, and was not well enough to appear in person.

  The whole army knew now of the situation of affairs, and the militia in particular were not backward in expressing their minds.

  Next day, July 30th, the wind changed. Hampton did nothing. On the morning of July 3Ist they heard the booming of guns in the north, and at night their scouts came with the news that the raid was on. Plattsburg was taken and pillaged by a force less than one third of those held at Burlington.

  There were bitter, burning words on the lips of the rank and file, and perfunctory rebukes on the lips of the young officers when they chanced to overhear. The law was surely working out as set forth by Si Sylvanne: "The fools in command, the leaders in the ranks."

  And now came news of fresh disasters —— the battles of Beaverdam, Stony Creek, and Niagara River. It was the same story in nearly every case —— brave fighting men, ill-drilled, but dead shots, led into traps by incompetent commanders.

  In September Lieutenant Macomb was appointed to command at Plattsburg. This proved as happy an omen as it was a wise move. Immediately after, in all this gloom, came the news of Perry's famous victory on Lake Erie, marking a new era for the American cause, followed by the destruction of Moraviantown and the British army which held it.

  Stirred at last to action General Wilkinson sent despatches to Hampton to arrange an attack on Montreal. There was no possibility of failure, he said, for the sole defence of Montreal was 600 marines. His army consisted of 8000 men. Hampton's consisted of 4000. By a union of these at the mouth of Chateaugay River, they would form an invincible array.

  So it seemed. Rolf had not yet seen any actual fighting and began to long for the front. But his powers as a courier kept him ever busy bearing despatches. The road to Sackett's Harbour and thence to Ogdensburg and Covington, and back to Plattsburg he knew thoroughly, and in his canoe he had visited every port on Lakes Champlain and George.

  He was absent at Albany in the latter half of October and first of November, but the ill news travelled fast. Hampton requested MacDonough to "swoop down on Isle au Noix" —— an insane request, compliance with which would have meant certain destruction to the American fleet. MacDonough's general instructions were: "Cooperate with the army, but at any price retain supremacy of the lake," and he declined to receive Hampton's order.

  Threatening court-martials and vengeance on his return, Hampton now set out by land; but at Chateaugay he was met by a much smaller force of Canadians who resisted him so successfully that he ordered a retreat and his army retired to Plattsburg.

  Meanwhile General Wilkinson had done even worse. His army numbered 8000. Of these the rear guard were 2500. A body of 800 Canadians harassed their line of march. Turning to brush away this annoyance, the Americans were wholly defeated at Chrystler's farm and, giving up the attack on Montreal, Wilkinson crossed the St. Lawrence and settled for the winter at Chateaugay.

  In December, America scored an important advance by relieving Hampton of his command.

  As the spring drew near, it was clearly Wilkinson's first play to capture La Colle Mill, which had been turned into a fortress of considerable strength and a base for attack on the American border, some five miles away.

  Of all the scouts Rolf best knew that region, yet he was the one left out of consideration and despatched with papers to Plattsburg. The attack was bungled from first to last, and when Wilkinson was finally repulsed, it was due to Macomb that the retreat was not a rout.

  But good came out of this evil, for Wilkinson was recalled and the law was nearly fulfilled —— the incompetents were gone. General Macomb was in command of the land force and MacDonough of the Lake.

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