Council Of Fire – Snippet 39
We might as well take our ships apart
Neptune was nine days out from New York when the topman sighted the other ship, off in the mist, making difficult headway toward the mainland. It was a big one, a ship of the line, enough for Admiral Saunders to call the men to quarters and run out the guns.
Sir Charles Saunders considered himself a fair tactician, and though he would not praise them aloud too highly, he was proud of the crew of Neptune. But the ship that was sighted was clearly bigger and better armed than his own: 80 guns, or perhaps 90. He had no desire to be brought down or pinned on a lee shore, especially on the rocky shoals of Virginia’s Outer Banks; but he was damned if he was going to let a Frenchman cruise with impunity off the outer coasts of His Majesty’s Atlantic plantations.
There were two saving graces to the situation. First, it did not seem as if the big ship had sighted Neptune just yet. And second, it seemed clear that it was making insufficient headway for a landfall anywhere on the Virginia or Maryland coasts–it was almost as if it didn’t know where it was. That was an opportunity–some careful sailing might give Neptune the weather gauge, and that might give Saunders’ crew a chance to show the other side what British seamanship was really about.
Then, as Neptune made its careful way upwind, the top called down with a remarkable report: the ship was flying His Majesty’s colors, along with a familiar blue pennon–one that Saunders had not expected to see ever again. As the ship made its way out of the fog, it was clear that it was indeed a Royal Navy vessel: Namur, the flagship of Admiral Boscawen.
“You are most welcome aboard, Sir Charles,” Boscawen said. The quarterdeck was vacant except for the two admirals. Saunders had brought his sailing master aboard, and he was consulting with his opposite number aboard Namur.
“Thank you, my Lord. I have to say that I am surprised to see you here.”
“No more than I. There are stories I could tell that you would not believe.”
“Actually, sir,” Saunders said, “you might be surprised what I am disposed to believe. It is certain that some great change has taken place, and we are now essentially on our own.”
“You do? How did you–I mean to say, sir, not to be disrespectful in any way; but how do you come to be off the Virginia coast?”
Boscawen looked at Saunders for several moments, as if he was unsure what was meant by the question. At last he answered, “I did not expect to be off Virginia, Admiral. It was my intention to try and reach Charles Town in the Carolinas. But I have very few charts for the Atlantic Coast. I did not realize that we had been drawn so far north.”
“That was not the precise nature of your questions, was it?”
“No, sir. Not exactly. I . . . there were two squadrons bound for Halifax to assist in the investment of New France. As a result of the–event–only a few of the ships and a fraction of the troops reached North America. I had not known that your Lordship had also been designated to this command.”
“The Lords of Admiralty hadn’t done, Saunders,” Admiral Boscawen said. “We were underway to the Mediterranean, and somehow found ourselves transported near Barbados. I am reliably informed that there is some sort of barrier that will not permit us to return. Any of us.”
“A barrier, sir?”
“A mountain range in the ocean. I have seen it, east of the Leeward Islands . . . I am not sure how far north it extends.”
“The world has become strange,” Saunders said, looking away from Boscawen, toward the mist from which Namur had emerged. To Boscawen it seemed that the younger admiral was apprehensive.
“We are still at war,” Boscawen replied.
“The French have the same problem as we do, my Lord. If we cannot return home, or receive help from there, they cannot either. We had planned to take six thousand soldiers up the St. Lawrence to take QuÃ©bec and MontrÃ©al. Most of them . . . are not with us.
“We may be at war with something more dangerous than the soldiers of His Christian Majesty, My Lord. I don’t know what you have seen–”
“Let us be honest with each other,” Boscawen said, stepping closer to the rail. “Sir Charles. The navy’s lifeline runs from England and Ireland. Without ship’s stores, without powder and shot, without water and provisions, we might as well take our ships apart and use them for firewood.
“I had hoped to reprovision at Charles Town, or–I suppose–at Williamsburg, now that we have been driven this far north. But any help they can offer will be only temporary; the Atlantic plantations are not well-equipped to supply the Royal Navy. This is our greatest advantage, and if we cannot deploy at sea, it vanishes–no matter who the enemy might be.”
“The Royal Navy is not equipped for–”
“Sea monsters,” Saunders said. His face was stony, matter of fact. “Whatever you might choose to call them. None of us are equipped in any way to handle them. As for the French, My Lord, they cannot do so either; but we have more in common with them than with any . . . supernatural forces we face. We must make peace with them, and we must do it soon.”
“Neither you nor I are entitled to make peace with anyone,” Boscawen said. “To do so without the express orders of our king is tantamount to treason.”
Saunders took a moment to reply, and then said, “If Europe is inaccessible to us, my Lord, then our king is my executive officer, Prince Edward. And you, as the ranking naval officer in this changed world, are First Lord of the Admiralty. If you wish to call that treason and place me in irons, I humbly suggest that you do so now–but there are not enough ships and not enough admirals as it is. I think, sir, you are far more pragmatic and sensible than that.”
“First Lord of the Admiralty?”
“Pro tempore, if it please your Lordship. But yes.”
Though he had not intended to end up in the West Indies, Admiral Boscawen had been taking Namur on station; accordingly, he was reasonably well equipped for most contingencies, including the opportunity to meet a royal prince. The dress uniform, including gloves and sash and his very best cocked hat, had been carefully packed aboard, and he was wearing it as he came down the gangplank onto the grimy dock of the city of New York. Jeffrey Amherst and an honor guard were there to receive him–but no royal prince.
The explanation for Prince Edward’s absence was a surprise to Sir Charles Saunders, but it was a shock for Boscawen.
“Let me be completely clear,” he said to Amherst, forcefully enough to convince the general that he was carefully leashing his anger–but quietly enough not to embarrass the man before his own subordinates. “You let the prince–who, by what Saunders tells me, might as good as be our king–travel into the interior? On an inspection tour?”
“I could scarcely refuse.”
“You were under no obligation to permit it, sir.”
“It was tantamount to a royal command. I imposed a suitable escort on the young man and sent Wolfe with him. Much to that . . . worthy’s . . . consternation.”
“I can well imagine.” Boscawen and Wolfe had taken Louisbourg together, after all, and the admiral had experience with Wolfe’s supercilious and arrogant nature. “But the prince . . .”
“Our king, God save him,” Amherst answered, “led troops at Dettingen less than twenty years ago as a sitting monarch. The prince himself has been a naval officer aboard Sir Charles Saunders’ flagship for some time. You know, and I know, that at any time during that period, a single musket ball or a stray shot from a broadside could have killed him. I know,” he continued, holding up his hand as Boscawen continued, “that he is the only prince we have. But we can only shelter him so much. He is due to return shortly, and his firsthand observations will be valuable.”
“I do not like it, sir. I do not like it at all.”
“Your opinion is duly noted, my Lord. And you are more than welcome to express it personally to him when he returns to New York.”
The evening of Neptune and Namur‘s arrival, the matter was resolved by the appearance of a messenger at Fort George. Amherst and his staff had brought out a wealth of records and ledgers, tracking the logistical requirements of His Majesty’s forces in North America. Whatever Boscawen had privately concluded regarding Amherst’s judgment in permitting the prince to be exposed to danger, he was impressed by the man’s exceptional attention to detail.
If this was the whole world, it was clear that Amherst had a good deal of it counted and sorted, which wholly appealed to Boscawen.
The messenger was not dressed at all like a soldier. Boscawen took him at first to be a courier de bois, one of the French trader/explorers who roamed the backwoods of New France; he supposed the man to be, perhaps, a captured prisoner. But he offered something resembling a salute to Amherst, who received it with diffidence.
“My Lord,” Amherst said, “this is one of Major Rogers’ men. We have at our command a small contingent of highly skilled . . . irregular soldiers. They are quartered at Albany, His Royal Highness’ destination.”
“Well, man. Let’s have your report.”
“I was directed to come with all speed to report to you, General,” the man said. “Prince Edward and General Wolfe do not intend to directly return to New York. They have other business among the Iroquois. His Highness has been . . . reinforced.”
“By . . . the Highland Brigade, if the General pleases.”
“They were decimated at Carillon last summer! How could they… ”
Amherst stopped suddenly, surprise crossing his face. He looked from the ranger to Admiral Boscawen, then back to the ranger.
“You mean to say,” he said quietly, “that the Scotsmen have somehow . . . manifested?”
“They have been there since the battle, General Amherst. They seem to have materialized–and they now follow Prince Edward’s command.”
“And what has he ordered?”
“The Iroquois report that some force they do not understand has extinguished the Onondaga Council Fire. There was some indication that the Highlanders wished to seek out the cause of that event.”
“Are the Iroquois now our enemies?” Boscawen asked.
“I cannot say, My Lord,” the ranger answered. “We once counted the Iroquois as our friends, but the war with the French has divided them. Some of the western tribes threw in their lot with the enemy, but the Fire was considered to be neutral territory, where hatchets could be buried, and graves could be covered. The French are not behind this event, so Major Rogers says.”
“Is he a reliable source?” Boscawen asked Amherst.
“Then who is the enemy?”
“If I were to answer simply, my Lord, I would have to say that our enemy might well be the future.”
To the best of my knowledge there are no “Rocky” shoales off of the Outer Banks, whether Virginia or North Carlolina. Lots of sandy shoals.