Autobiography of Harry Smith
HARRY SMITH PARTS FROM HIS WIFE BEFORE STARTING FOR THE WAR IN AMERICA.MYhappiness of indolence and repose was doomed to be of short duration, for on the 25th of August I was in the Battle of Bladensburg, and at the capture of the American capital, Washington, Some thousands of miles distant. Colborne, my ever dear, considerate friend, then in command of his gallant Corps, the 52nd, sent for me, and said, "You have been so unlucky, after afl your gallant and important service, in not getting your Majority, you must not be idle. There is a force, a considerable one, going to America. You must go. Tomorrow we will ride to Toulouse to head-quarters; send a horse on tonight - it is only thirty-four miles - we will go there and breakfast, and ride back to dinner." I said, very gratefully, "Thank you, sir; I will be ready. This is a kind act of yours;" but as I knew I must leave behind my young, fond and devoted wife, my heart was ready to burst, and all my visions for our mutual happiness were banished in search of the bubble reputation. I shall never forget her frenzied grief when, with a sort of despair, I imparted the inevitable separation that we were doomed to suffer, after all our escapes, fatigue, and privation; but a sense of duty surmounted all these domestic feelings, and daylight saw me and dear Colborne full gallop thirty-four miles to breakfast. We were back again at Castel Sarrasin by four in the afternoon, after a little canter of sixty-eight miles, not regarded as any act of prowess, but just a ride. In those days there were men.
On our arrival in Toulouse, we found my name rather high up - the third, I think - on the list of Majors of Brigade in the A.G.'s office desirous to serve in America. We asked kind old Darling who had put my name down. He said, "Colonel Elley," afterwards Sir John. He had known my family in early life, and was ever paternally kind to me. He had asked my ever dear friend, General Sir Edward Pakenham, to do so, which he readily did. Colborne then said, "My old friend Ross, who commanded the 20th Regiment while I was Captain of the Light Company, is going. I will go and ask him to take you as his Major of Brigade." Ross knew me on the retreat to Coruna, and the affair, in a military point of view, was satisfactorily settled. But oh! the heaviness of my heart when I had to impart the separation now decided on to my affectionate young wife of seventeen years old! She bore it, as she did everything, when the energies of her powerful mind were called forth, exclaiming, "It is for your advantage, and neither of us must repine. All your friends have been so kind in arranging the prospect before you so satisfactorily." At the word "friends" she burst into a flood of tears, which relieved her, exclaiming, "You have friends everywhere. I must be expatriated, separated from relations, go among strangers, while I lose the only thing on earth my life hangs on and clings to !"
Preparation was speedily made for our journey down the Garonne, which we performed in a small boat, accompanied by our kind friend Digby. My wife was to accompany me to Bordeaux, there to embark for England with my brother Tom, who had recently suffered excessively in the extraction of the ball he had received in his knee five years previously at the Coa. The great difficulty I had was to get my regimental pay (nine months being due to me), and I only did so through the kindness of our acting-paymaster, Captain Stewart, and every officer readily saying, "Oh, give us so much less the first issue, and let Smith have what would otherwise come to us." Such an act, I say, testifies to the mutual friendship and liberality we acquired amidst scenes of glory, hardship, and privation.
Before I left my old Brigade, the 52nd Regiment, the 95th Regiment (Rifle Brigade now), the 1st and 3rd Caçadores1, with whom I had been so many eventful years associated - and I may say, most happily - all gave me a parting dinner, including the good fellows, the Portuguese, whom I never had any chance of seeing again. Our farewell dinner partook of every feeling of excitement. The private soldiers, too, were most affectionate, and I separated from all as from my home. The Portuguese are a brave, kind-hearted people, and most susceptible of kindness. We had also ten men a Company in our British Regiments, Spaniards, many of them the most daring of sharpshooters in our corps, who nobly regained the distinction attached to the name of the Spanish infantry in Charles V.'s time. I never saw better, more orderly, perfectly sober soldiers in my life, and as vedettes the old German Hussar did not exceed them. The 52nd Regiment I was as much attached to as my own corps, with every reason. My old 1st Battalion embarked at Dover just before Talavera, 1,050 rank and file. During the war only 100 men joined us. We were now reduced to about 500. There was scarcely a man who had not been wounded. There was scarcely one whose knowledge of his duty as an outpost soldier was not brought to a state of perfection, and when they were told they must not drink, a drunken man was a rare occurence indeed, as rare as a sober one when we dare give a little latitude. My old Brigade was equal to turn the tide of victory (as it did at Orthez) any day.
It was early in May when we left Castel Sarrasin, where we had been happy (oh, most happy!) for a month - an age in the erratic life we had been leading. We were quartered in the house of a Madame La Riviére, an excellent and motherly woman, a widow with a large family and only one son spared to her - the rest had perished as soldiers. Never was there a more happy and cheerful family, and never did mother endeavour to soothe the acute feelings of a daughter more than did this good lady those of my poor wife. We often afterwards heard of her in Paris in 1815.
Our voyage down the Garonne in our little skiff was delightful. We anchored every night. In youth everything is novel and exciting, and our voyage was such a change after marching! The beauties of the scenery, and the drooping foliage on the banks of the river, added to our enjoyment. We landed each night at some town or village, and ever found a comfortable inn which could give us a dinner. After such privations as ours, the delight of being able to order dinner at an inn is not to be believed. On reaching Bordeaux, the most beautiful city I was ever in, I found I had only three or four days to prepare to reach the fleet and the troops embarked in the Gironde (a continuation of the Garonne), and that I was to embark on board his Majesty's ship the Royal Oak, 74, Rear-Admiral Malcolm, for the troops under General Ross were destined for a peculiar and separate service in America. I did, of course, all I could to draw the attention of my poor wife from the approaching separation. There was a theatre, various spectacles, sights, etc., but all endeavour was vain to relieve the mind one instant from the awful thought of that one word "separation." Digby was most kind to her. He had an excellent private servant, who was to embark with her for London. My brother Tom was to her all a brother could be, and in the transport she was to proceed in were several old and dear Rifle friends going to England from wounds. I wished her to go to London for some time before going down to my father's, for the benefit of masters to learn English, etc. - for not a word could she speak but her own language, French, and Portuguese, - and to every wish she readily assented.
Time rolls rapidly on to the goal of grief, and afternoon arrived when I must ride twenty miles on my road for embarcation. Many a year has now gone by, still the recollection of that afternoon is as fresh in my memory as it was painful at the moment - oh, how painful! To see that being whose devotedness in the field of three years' eventful war, in a life of such hardship at the tender age of fourteen, had been the subject of wonder to the whole community, in a state bordering on despair, possessing, as she did, the strong and enthusiastic feelings of her country-women - who love with a force cooler latitudes cannot boast of - was to me an awful trial, and although she had every prospect of care and kindness, to be separated conveyed to the sensitive mind of youth ( For I was only twenty-four2) - every anguish and horror that is to be imagined. I left her insensible and in a faint. God only knows the number of staggering and appalling dangers I had faced; but, thank the Almighty, I never was unmanned until now, and I leaped on my horse by that impulse which guides the soldier to do his duty.
I had a long ride before me on the noble mare destined to embark with me. On my way I reached a village where I received the attention of a kind old lady, who from her age had been exempt from having any troops quartered on her; but, the village being full of Rifle Brigade, Artillery, and Light Division fellows, the poor old lady was saddled with me. The Artillery readily took charge of my horse. The kind old grandmamma showed me into a neat little bedroom and left me. I threw myself on the bed as one alone in all the wide world, a feeling never before experienced, when my eye caught some prints on the wall. What should they be but pictures in representation of the Sorrows of Werther, and, strange though it be, they had the contrary effect upon me to that which at the first glance I anticipated. They roused me from my sort of lethargy of grief and inspired a hope which never after abandoned me. The good __ lady had a nice little supper of cote/ettes de mouton, and the most beautiful strawberries I ever saw, and she opened a bottle of excellent wine. To gratify her I swallowed by force all I could, for her kindness was maternal.
We soon parted for ever, for I was on horseback before daylight, en route to Pauillac, a village on the Garonne, where we were to embark. On my ride, just at grey daylight, I saw something walking in the air. " It is like a man," I said, "certainly, only that men do not walk in the air." It advanced towards me with apparently rapid strides, and in the excited state of mind I was in, I really believed I was deluded, and ought not to believe what I saw. Suspense was intolerable, and I galloped up to it. As I neared my aeronaut, I found it a man walking on stilts about twenty-five feet high. In the imperfect light and the distance, of course the stilts were invisible. The phenomenon was accounted for, and my momentary credulity in I did not know what called to mind stories I had heard recounted, evidently the results heated imaginations. This walking on stilts is very general in the deep sands of this country.
On reaching Pauillac, I found my trusty old groom West waiting for me. He led me to a comfortable billet, where my portmanteau, all my worldly property, and my second horse, which was to embark with me, were reported "All right, sir." Old West did not ask after " Mrs.," but he looked at me a thousand inquiries, to which I shook my head. I found a note for me at our military post-office from dear little Digby, as consolatory as I could expect.
I was detained two days at Pauillac, in the house of another widow, an elderly lady (all women in France of moderate or certain age were widows at this period). One morning I heard a most extraordinary shout of joyful exclamation, so much so I ran into the room adjoining the one I was sitting in. The poor old woman says, "Oh, come in and witness my happiness!" She was locked in the arms of a big, stout-looking, well-whiskered Frenchman. " Here is my son, oh! my long-lost son, who has been a [prisoner] in England from the beginning of the war." The poor fellow was a sous-officier in a man-of-war, and, having been taken early in the war off Boulogne, for years he had been in those accursed monsters of inhuman invention, "the hulks," a prisoner. He made no complaint. He said England had no other place to keep their prisoners, that they were well fed when fed by the English, but when, by an arrangement with France at her own request, that Government fed them, they were half starved. The widow gave a great dinner-party at two O' clock, to which I was of course invited. The poor o1d lady said, "Now let us drink some of this wine: it was made the year my poor son was taken prisoner. I vowed it should never be opened until he was restored to me, and this day I have broached the cask." The wine was excellent. If all the wine-growers had sons taken prisoners, and kept it thus until their release, the world would be well supplied with good wine in place of bad. Poor family! it was delightful to witness their happiness, while I could but meditate on the contrast between it and my wretchedness. But I lived in hope.
1 - The 3rd Caçadores at this period were commanded by a fine gallant soldier and a good fellow, but as he rejoiced in a name of unusual length - Senhor Manuel Terçeira Caetano Pinto de Silvuica y Souza - we gave him the much shorter appellation of "Jack Nasty Face," for he was an ugly dog, though a very good offlcer.-H.G.S.
2 He was nearly twenty-seven. See p. 1 n.
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