Another preview from THE PLAINS OF CHALMETTE
CRESCENT CITY is my Austen-inspired take on the history of America’s most unique city, New Orleans, and the people who dare to live there. I propose to relate the history of the Crescent City though the eyes of members of the Darcy and Fitzwilliam families who have left England to immigrate to the New World.
Most people only know of the Battle of New Orleans through Johnny Horton’s very catchy song (you can hear it here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=50_iRIcxsz0). However, there is a lot more to this event. For example there were SIX engagements during the campaign, beginning with the Battle of Lake Borgne.
Today’s excerpt covers the actual invasion of Louisiana by the British army, where Major James Fitzwilliam finds the country not as he expected it. Meanwhile, US Major Matthew Darcy is at General Jackson’s headquarters in New Orleans, unaware of what is occurring.
Friday, December 23, 1814 – Lake Borgne
James Fitzwilliam sat in the bow of the rocking landing barge, holding his cloak tightly around his body against the sharp, damp, cold wind. The hundred or so infantry troops jammed about him grumbled, and their commanding officer demanded to know why the barge had stopped right in the middle of Lake Borgne.
“Begging your pardon, sir,” the midshipman addressed the infantry officer with thinly-disguised contempt, “my men have been at the oars these five hours. Surely you cannot begrudge them a rest and a bite of breakfast. We shall arrive at the landing spot as soon as may be.”
The infantrymen were hungry, too, and freezing, as well, the officer pointed out. “How much farther to shore?”
The midshipman glanced at the cloudy sky. “In this wind, another four hours, I should think.”
The groans redoubled.
James well knew the frustration of the infantry officer. Beginning a week ago, the army had been ferried piecemeal from the fleet anchored at Cat Island thirty miles to a windswept spit of sand known as Pea Island. The place was barren of wood or shelter, so the men sat in the open with no fire to warm their bones or cook their food. No tents had been brought, for it was expected the conquest of New Orleans would take only a few days. Worse, they were plagued by cold, torrential rains, the likes of which none had ever experienced. It was beyond misery for the English, Scots, and Irish in the army, but at least they were raised in a hardy clime. No such upbringing prepared the troops from the West Indies for killing frosts, and many succumbed to exposure.
Now, a barge filled with wet, cold, and hungry soldiers bobbed offshore, hours from relief. Theirs was not the only one. Scores of boats dotted the surface of the water, but there was nothing for it. The sailors were the ones pulling at the oars. They had rowed an army thirty miles through the sea only days before, and now they had to move that army another thirty miles to land. The only benefit to the seamen’s pitiful lot was the drudgery of rowing kept them warm.
At least the downpour at dawn had just ended, leaving them in a light fog.
Where had this weather come from? James knew from maps that New Orleans was on the same latitude as Alexandria in Egypt. Cold like this was expected in England, but this was the tropics! It should be warm, or at the very least pleasant, even in December. It was a wonder ice did not cover their bodies.
James silently gave thanks to his wife’s foresight. Meg had insisted that he take his heavy weather cloak. Many others had no winter gear among their belongings, and they eyed the garment jealously.
Finally, the midshipman recalled his men to the oars. With herculean effort, the sailors dug into the water, forcing the barge forward. Stoke after stoke, the boat moved faster, momentum helping the oarsmen’s exertions. Slowly, the Louisiana coast grew closer.
Hours later, James learned that Captain Elliot did not exaggerate the condition of the coast. They rowed for miles along a reed-infested shoreline, a few odd cypress trees or short bushes here and there breaking the monotony. James could not believe there was any dry land in that green, swampy wilderness.
Finally, a single pole with a red flag could be seen. Closer inspection proved it was the entrance to an inlet about a hundred yards wide. His barge followed the other boats into the inlet and up the bayou. Still, there was no dry land in sight. The flotilla continued up Bayou Bienvenu some distance, the channel becoming too narrow to allow more than one barge at a time, before grounding on the mud. The bayou was barely more than a creek now, branching out in several directions.
Admiral Cochrane’s pendant flew from a pole erected beside a crude series of huts. Once James disembarked, he made his way to one of the naval officers overseeing the operation.
“Where may I find General Kean’s headquarters?” As the man was a naval lieutenant, equal to his rank, salutes were not exchanged.
“Inland, Major,” the lieutenant said. “Just follow the troops up the road. You will find him in a plantation house, close to the Mississippi.” The man turned back to his tasks.
James had been in one of the last barges of the 95th Foot, the 85th Foot being in the vanguard. Kean had gone with the 85th, along with most of the staff. James hurried to report to headquarters. Surely the advance on New Orleans was imminent.
The going was incredibly difficult. The road was no better than a footpath through reeds and brush, and a wet, muddy one at that. Men sometimes had to move in single file, bringing the expedition to a near-halt. Soldiers left and right slipped and fell into the muck and water, only to get up and trudge on, leaving the path in a worse state than before. James stepped as carefully as he could, keeping Elliot’s warning of crocodiles and vipers in mind.
About a half-mile in, the reeds gave way to a swampy forest of cypress trees and palmettos, growing close together. For two miles he continued, and just before breaking into solid wood, he came across a party of soldiers working to improve the road. There, he saw Lieutenant-Colonel Burgoyne, overseeing the work. James made for him.
He saluted. “My compliments, Sir John. Where is headquarters?”
Burgoyne returned the honor. “Good to see you, Fitzwilliam. Welcome to Louisiana. Damnable place, ain’t it? You are just in time for a noon staff meeting. Come, we shall go together.”
As they walked through the hardwood forest, James vented his spleen. “Are we certain that bloody Spaniard informant told the truth? I have never seen such miserable excuse for a road in my life!”
“Indeed. I have no idea if it can carry any guns heavier than nine-pounders. But the way was unguarded, and we are less than ten miles from New Orleans. We have prisoners at the plantation house, including officers.” Burgoyne lowered his voice. “A word to the wise, Fitzwilliam. You should keep such opinions to yourself. Your conduct has been noted.”
“What?” hissed James. “What have I been accused of doing?”
“Nothing—not that it matters. Fitzwilliam, I know your worth. We were in the Peninsular together. General Ross thought the world of you. But Ross is dead, and Admiral Cochrane is in charge until Pakenham gets here, no matter what General Keane thinks. He knows nothing of you, except your . . . condition in life. You have no influence, and you are not Royal Navy. That is all that counts to a scrub like Cochrane. To be truthful, he hardly thinks better of me. Just watch your words in public, and give your opinion to Keane in private—when asked, and not before.”
It took a moment for James to cool his Fitzwilliam temper. “Thankee, Sir John. I shall keep your good counsel in mind.”
The colonel patted the major’s back. “We shall soon be in New Orleans, and all this will be forgot.” The forest parted before a broad, open farm. “Ah, there is the headquarters now—that long, white house. They call it Conseil.”
“General, what is the army doing?” demanded Admiral Cochrane. “You must march on New Orleans immediately.”
“My men are in no condition to move forward, Admiral. They are exhausted.” General Keane appeared as drained as his troops, James thought. “The 85th Foot is bivouacked forward with picquets, and the 4th and 95th have just arrived. I understand the 21st will be here soon.”
Cochrane turned to a naval captain at his side. “The 21st Foot should land at dusk, General,” he reported.
“There you are. By tonight, I shall be able to muster two thousand in the field. Tomorrow we shall see what the enemy is about.”
“General, I must respectfully disagree.” Lieutenant-Colonel Thornton of the 85th spoke up. “The enemy does not know we are here. We should take the city by coup de main this afternoon. We will shock them with one swift, bold attack.”
General Keane would not be moved. “Colonel Thornton, may I remind you of Fort St. Charles and their cannon? We have nothing larger than 3-pound field pieces. The prisoners said General Jackson has twenty thousand under his command.”
“Sir, surely they lied about the number. Besides, they are militia, not trained regulars.”
“No doubt, but that does not mean that we outnumber them. Numbers count, Colonel, militia or not. The navy is bringing heavier guns as we speak. To be blunt, sir, this army is in no condition to fight. They must rest and eat. Gentlemen, we must form foraging parties for firewood and food. New Orleans can wait.”
“The Americans are nothing but rabble, in any case,” agreed Cochrane. “We shall chase them off the field, as we have done before.”
“Indeed, Sir Alexander,” said Keane. “Gentlemen, you have your orders.” He turned to an aide. “Have someone stoke that fire. I’m chilled to the bone.”
James walked out with one his fellow aides. “Who is interrogating the prisoners?”
“The militiamen? They know nothing.”
“And the officers?”
“Haven’t you heard?” was the response. “The buggers jumped through a window not an hour ago and ran for the river. Last we saw, they were making for the other side in a dugout canoe.”
“What?” James came to a dead stop. “Prisoners escaped?” And Keane does nothing? No wonder Thornton is in such a mood! “Why are we not moving forward?”
“Did you not understand? The army is dead on its feet. Besides, the cowards are on the wrong side of the river from the city. They are probably soiling their trousers hiding in the swamps. There is nothing to worry about.”
General Jackson’s headquarters on Rue Royal was abuzz with activity. Since the defeat on Lake Borgne, every day had brought a new report of a British landing. Each report was investigated, and each one was disproved.
This day had been no different. Boats had been seen on Lake Borgne, but not towards the Rigolets Pass. It did not make sense, but Jackson sent out scouts to reconnoiter. The general’s eye was on two areas: the Chef Menteur Road through the Gentilly Plain and Baton Rouge. He thought the British landing to the north and marching around Lake Pontchartrain most likely, but worried that they might try the shorter route. Major Latour announced he wanted to conduct his own inspections and had ridden out that morning.
It was half past one in the afternoon when there was a commotion at the front door. In rushed Major Gabriel Villeré, Colonel Laronde, and M. de la Croix, a member of the city’s public safety committee. All three were stained with mud.
“General!” cried de la Croix, “Important—highly important news! The British have arrived at the Villeré plantation! Here is Major Villeré. He was captured, but escaped and will now tell you his story!”
Major Villeré spoke only French, so de la Croix had to translate. The gist of the report was that the British had surprised the detail at Conseil Plantation and were now encamping there, only nine miles east from the city, on the Chalmette Plain.
Both Matthew and Jacob were shocked. No one had anticipated an attack from the east; their attention had been on the north and west. This was a disaster.
General Jackson rose from his chair, incensed. He slammed a fist on the desk. “By the Eternal, they shall not sleep on our soil! Gentlemen, the British are below. We must fight them tonight!”
It is 1814, and America’s second war against Great Britain is going badly. Now the enemy is ready for its knock-out punch. They seek to take New Orleans, and by doing so, control the Mississippi River and North America forever.
Major Matthew Darcy of Baltimore is dispatched to help defend the beleaguered city, and discovers an alien place that does not trust its new countrymen. He also finds forbidden love with a lovely Cajun-Creole lady.
Now, with a devastating invader at the city’s door, Darcy joins General Andrew Jackson’s rag-tag army of backwoodsmen, Creoles, free blacks, and buccaneers in the face of overwhelming odds.
THE PLAINS OF CHALMETTE – A Story of CRESCENT CITY is scheduled for release through White Soup Press in January of 2015.
The cornerstone of the project is my three-volume novel about the events leading up to, during, and after Hurricane Katrina. Some of you may have read this story when it was posted on several Jane Austen fan fiction boards. Completely updated and revised, CRESCENT CITY is now three books:
• BOURBON STREET NIGHTS (Volume 1)
• ELYSIAN DREAMS (Volume2)
• RUIN & RENEWAL (Volume 3)
These books will be published over the summer of 2015, to coincide with the tenth anniversary of Katrina.
Until next time, this has been the Cajun Cheesehead Chronicles. Happy Thanksgiving, everyone!