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Headquarters In 1776

( Originally Published 1916 )


On September 15, a group of horsemen, occupying a slight eminence of ground on the island of Manhattan, were gazing eastward. Below and nearer the water were spread lines of soldiers behind intrenchments, while from three men-of-war lying in the river came a heavy cannonade that swept the shore line and spread over the water a pall of smoke which, as it drifted to leeward, obscured the Long Island shore from view.

"'Tis evidently a feint, your Excellency," presently asserted one of the observers, " to cover a genuine attack elsewhere—most likely above the Haarlem."

The person addressed—a man with an anxious, care-worn face that made him look fifty at least lowered his glass, but did not reply for some moments. You may be right, sir," he remarked, " though to me it has the air of an intended attack. What think you, Reed? "

" I agree with Mifflin. The attack will be higher up. Hah ! Look there ! "

A rift had come in the smoke, and a column of boats, moving with well-timed oars, could for a moment be seen as it came forward.

" They intend a landing at Kip's Bay, as I surmised," exclaimed the general. " Gentlemen, we shall be needed below." He turned to Reed and gave him an order concerning reinforcements, then wheeled, and, followed by the rest, trotted over the plowed field. Once on the highway, he spurred his horse, putting him to a sharp canter.

" What troops hold the works on the bay, Mifflin? " asked one of the riders.

" Fellows' and Parsons' brigades, Brereton."

" If they are as good at fighting as at thieving, they'll distinguish themselves."

" Ay," laughed Mifflin. " If the red coats were but chickens or cattle, the New England militia would have had them all captured ere now."

" They'll be heard from today," said a third officer. " They've earthworks to get behind, and they'll give the British anuther Bunker Hill."

Then you ought to be quick, General Putnam," said Brereton, " for that's the fighting you like."

The road lay in the hollow of the land, and not till the party reached a slight rise were they able once more to get a glimpse of the shores of the bay. Then it was to find the flotilla well in toward its intended landing-place, and the American troops retreating in great disorder from their breast-works.

Exclamations of surprise and dismay sprang from the lips of the riders, and their leader, turning his horse, jumped the fence and galloped across the fields to intercept the fugitives. Five minutes brought them up to the runaways, who, out of breath with the sharpness of their race, had come to a halt, and were being formed by their officers into a little less disorder.

" General Fellows, what was the reason for this shameful retreat?" demanded the general, when within speaking distance.

" The men were seized with a panic on the approach of the boats, your Excellency, and could not be held in the lines."

Washington faced the regiments, his face blazing. with scorn. " You ran before a shot had been fired! Before you lost a man, you deserted works that have taken weeks to build, and which could be held against any such force." He paused for a moment, and then, drawing his sword, called with spirit : " Who's for recovering them? "

A faint cheer passed down the lines ; but almost as it sounded, the red coats of fifty or sixty light infantry came into view on the road, a skirmishing party thrown forward from the landing to reconnoiter. Had they been Howe's whole army, how-ever, they could not have proved more effective, for instantly the two brigades broke and dissolved once more into squads of flying men.

At such cowardice, Washington lost all control of himself, and, dashing in among the fugitives, he passionately struck right and left with the flat of his sword, thundering curses at them; while Putnam and Mifflin, as well as the aides, followed his example. It was hopeless, however, to stay the rush; the men took the blows and the curses unheeding, while throwing away their guns and scattering in every direction.

Made frantic by such conduct, Washington wheeled his horse. " Charge ! " he cried, and rode toward the enemy, waving his sword.

If the commander-in-chief had hoped to put some of his own courage into the troops by his example, he failed. Not a man of the runaways ceased fleeing. None the less, as if regardless of consequences in his desperation, Washington rode on, until one of the aides dashed his spurs into his horse and came up beside his general at a mad gallop.

" Your Excellency ! " he cried, "'tis but hopeless, and will but end in " Then, as his superior did not heed him, he seized the left rein of his horse's bridle, and, pulling on it, swung him about in a large circle, letting go his hold only when they were riding away from the enemy.

Washington offered no resistance, and rode the hundred yards to where the rest of his staff were standing, with bowed head. Nothing was said as he rejoined the group, and Blueskin, disappointed in the charge for which he had shown as much eagerness as his rider, let his mind recur to thoughts of oats ; finding no control in the hand that held his bridle, he set out at an easy trot toward headquarters.

They had not ridden many yards ere Washington lifted his head, the expression of hopelessness, which had taken the place of that of animation, in turn succeeded by one of stern repose. He issued three orders to as many of the riders, showing that his mind had not been dwelling idly on the disaster, slipped his sword into its scabbard, and gathered up his reins again.

" There ! " thought Blueskin, as a new direction was indicated by his bit, " I'm going to have another spell of it riding all ways of a Sunday, just as we did last night. And it's coming on to rain."

Rain it did very quickly; but from post to post the horsemen passed, the sternly silent commander speaking only when giving the necessary orders to remedy so far as possible the disaster of the afternoon. Not till eleven, and then in a thoroughly drenched condition, did they reach the Morris House on Haarlem Heights. It was to no rest, however, that the general arrived; for, as he dismounted, Major Gibbs of his life guards informed him that the council of war he had called was gathered, and only awaited his attendance.

" Get you some supper, gentlemen," he ordered, to such of his aides as were still of the party, " for 'tis likely that you will have more riding when the council have deliberated."

"'Tis advice he might take himself to proper advantage," said one of the juniors, while they were stripping off their wet coverings in a side room.

" Ay," asserted Brereton. " The general uses us hard, Tilghman, but he uses himself harder." Then aloud he called, " Billy!"

" Yis, sah ! "

" Make a glass of rum punch and take it in to his Excellency."

" Foh de Lord, sah, I doan dar go in, an' yar know marse neber drink no spirits till de day's work dun."

" Make a dish of tea, then, you old coward, and I'll take it to him so soon as I get these slops off me. 'Fore George ! How small-clothes stick when they're wet ! "

The make-shift meal was still unfinished when the general's body-servant appeared with the tea. Taking it, Brereton marched boldly to the council door, and, giving a knock, he went in without awaiting a reply.

The group of anxious-faced men about the table looked up, and Washington, with a frown, demanded, " For what do you interrupt us, sir?"

The young officer put the tea down on the map lying in front of the general. " Billy didn't dare take this to your Excellency, so I made bold to e'en bring it myself."

" This is no time for tea, Colonel Brereton."

"'Tis no time for the army to lose their general," replied the aide. " I pray you drink it, sir, for our sake, if you won't for your own."

A kindly look supplanted the sternness of the previous moment on the general's face. I thank you for your thoughtfulness, Brereton," he said, raising the cup and pouring some of the steaming drink into the saucer.

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