Autobiography of Harry Smith
VOYAGE TO BERMUDA-RENDEZVOUS IN THE CHESAPEAKE - BATTLE OF BLADENSBURG AND CAPTURE OF WASHINGTON - HARRY SMITH SENT HOMEWITH DISPATCHES.THAT afternoon, after seeing my horses off; I embarked in a boat, and I and all my personal property, my one portmanteau, reached the Royal Oak, at her anchorage a few miles below, about eight o'clock. I found General Ross had not arrived, but was hourly expected. We soldiers had heard such accounts of the etiquette required in a man-of-war, the rigidity with which it was exacted, etc., that I was half afraid of doing wrong in anything I said or did. When I reached the quarters, the officer of the watch asked my name, and then, in most gentlemanlike and unaffected manner, the lieutenant of the watch, Holmes (with whom I afterwards became very intimate), showed me aft into the Admiral's cabin. Here I saw wine, water, spirits, etc., and at the end of the table sat the finest-looking specimen of an English sailor I ever saw. This was Admiral Malcolm, and near him sat Captain Dick, an exceedingly stout man, a regular representation of John Bull. They both rose immediately, and welcomed me on board in such an honest and hospitable manner, that I soon discovered the etiquette consisted in nothing but a marked endeavour to make us all happy. The fact is that Army and Navy had recently changed places. When I joined the Army, it was just at a time when our Navy, after a series of brilliant victories had destroyed at Trafalgar the navy of the world. Nine years had elapsed, and the glories of the Army were so fully appreciated by our gallant --brothers of the sea service, we were now by them regarded as the heroes whom I well recollect I thought them to be in 1805.
The Admiral says, "Come, sit down and have a glass of grog." I was so absorbed in the thought that this large floating ship was to bear me away from all so held so dear, that down I sat, and seized a bottle (gin, I believe), filled a tumbler half full, and then added some water. "Well done!" says the Admiral. "I have been at sea, man and boy, these forty years, but d--- me, if I ever saw a stiffer glass of grog than that in my life." He afterwards showed me my cabin, telling me he was punctual in his hours. " I breakfast at eight, dine at three, have tea in the evening, and grog at night, as you see; and if you are thirsty or want anything, my steward's name is Stewart, a Scotchman like myself - tell the Marine at the cabin door to call him and desire him to bring you everything you want." I shall never forget the kindness I received onboard the Royal Oak, and subsequently on board the Menelaus (commanded by poor Sir Peter Parker), and from every ship and every sailor with whom I became associated. Our Navy are noble fellows, and their discipline and the respect on board for rank are a bright example to the more familiar habits of our Army.
General Ross arrived next morning, with his A.D.C., Tom Falls, a Captain in the 20th, and Lieut. De Lacy Evans (subsequently of great notoriety), both as good-hearted fellows as ever wore a sword. The fleet sailed in the afternoon. The troops all embarked in men-of-war, with the lower-deck guns out. We had on board a Company of Artillery; otherwise the force consisted of the 4th Regiment, the 44th, and the 85th We had a very slow but beautiful passage to St. Michael's, one of the Western Islands, where, as Admiral Malcolm said, "that d---d fellow Clavering, the Duke of York's enemy, had the impudence to call on me," and we embarked live bullocks, fruit) and vegetables.
The parts capable of cultivation in this island are most fertile, and the inhabitants (all Portuguese) looked cheerful and happy. I could then speak Portuguese like a native. One day on shore I walked into a large draper's shop, where I was quite struck by the resemblance of the man behind counter to my old clerk, Sergeant Manuel. After some little conversation, I discovered he actually was his brother. At first I doubted it, but he fetched me a bundle of letters in which my name frequently appeared. It was an extraordinary rencontre, and my friend Senor Manuel's attention to me was very "gostozo" indeed.
We sailed for Bermuda in a few days. It was a long passage, but we had fine weather until we neared Bermuda, when we fell in with a violent thunderstorm, which carried away the mizen top-mast of the Royal Oak.
Much of my time was spent with my friend Holmes, and many is the time I have walked the quarter-deck with him. In any state of grief or excitement, some one who participates and sympathizes in your feeling is always sought for, and this warm-hearted fellow fully entered into all I must feel at the fate of my wife-a foreigner in a foreign land, to whom, though surrounded by many kind friends, everything was strange, everything brought home the absence of that being on whom her life depended.
On reaching Bermuda we found the 21st Regiment awaiting us, and a communication from the Admiral, Cochrane, Commander-in-chief of the Navy (who commanded on the coast of America 170 Pennons of all descriptions), that a Battalion of Marines was organized under Colonel Malcolm, the Admiral's brother, upwards of 8oo strong, so that General Ross's force became respectable. Thie Admiral proposed to rendezvous in Chesapeake Bay so soon as possible.
Ross organized his force into three Brigades, one commanded by Colonel Thornton, the second by Colonel Brooke, the third, which comprised all Naval auxiliaries, by Colonel Malcolm. A Brigade-Major was appointed to each. I was put in orders Deputy Adjutant-General; Evans, Deputy Quartermaster-General. The price of things on this spot in the ocean was enormous; I, Evans, Macdougall, of the 85th, Holmes of the Navy, etc., dined on shore at the inn one day, and were charged fifteen Spanish dollars for a miserable turkey; but the excellent fish called a "groper" made up for the price of the turkey.
General Ross left the troops here, and proceeded to join the Naval Commander-in-chief in a frigate. I was the only Staff officer left with Admiral Malcolm, Who was quite as much a soldier in heart as a sailor; he prided himself very much on having brought home the Duke of Wellington (when Sir A. Wellesley) from India, and he landed his army at Mondego Bay, before Vimiera. I never saw a man sleep so little: four hours a night was plenty, and half that time he would talk aloud in his sleep, and if you talked with him would answer correctly, although next morning he recollected nothing.
To get from the anchorage at Bermuda is difficult, and the wind was contrary, and appeared so likely to continue so, that the Admiral resolved on the boldest thing that was ever attempted, viz. to take the whole fleet through the North-east Passage - a thing never done but by one single frigate. There was only one man in the island who would undertake to pilot the 74 Royal Oak through. The passage is most intricate, and the pilot directs the helmsman by ocular demonstration, that is, by looking into the water at the rocks. It was the most extraordinary thing ever seen, the rocks visible under water all round the ship. Our pilot, a gentleman, said there was only one part of the passage which gave him any apprehension. There was a turn in it, and he was afraid the Royal Oak was so long her bows would touch. When her rudder was clear, on my honour, there appeared not a foot to spare. The breeze was very light; at one period, for half an hour, it almost died away. The only expression the Admiral was heard to make use of was, "Well, if the breeze fails us, it will be a good turn I have done the Yankees." He certainly was a man of iron nerves. The fleet all got through without one ship touching. The Admiral's tender, a small sloop, ran on a rock, but was got off without injury.
At night, after the fleet was well clear (and the bold attempt was of every importance to the success of our expedition, which, as we now began to observe, evidently meditated the capture of Washington), we had rather a good passage to the mouth of the Chesapeake, where we met the Admiral Chief in Command and General Ross. We did not anchor, having a leading wind to take us up the bay. We were going ten knots when the frigate struck on the tail of a bank, with a crash like an earthquake; she got over, however, without injury. We anchored off the mouth of the Patuxen, the river which leads to Washington.
Next day all the Staff were assembled on board the Tonnant and all the Admirals came on board. We had present - Sir A. Cochrane, Admiral Cockburn (of great renown on the American coast), Admiral Malcolm, Admiral Codrington, Captain of the Fleet, and, if I recollect right, Sir T. Hardy, but he left us next day. After much discussion and poring over bad maps, it was resolved the force should sail up the serpentine and wooded Patuxen in the frigates and smaller vessels. This we did, and it was one of the most beautiful sights the eye could behold. The course of the large river was very tortuous, the country covered with immense forest trees; thus, to look back, the appearance was that of a large fleet stalking through a wood. We went up as far as we could, and the Navy having very dexterously and gallantly burned and destroyed Commodore Barney's flotilla, which was drawn up to oppose our passage [19, 20 Aug.], the army was landed about thirty-six miles from Washington. I cannot say my dear friend General Ross inspired me with the opinion he was the officer Colborne regarded him as being. He was very cautious in responsibility - awfully so, and lacked that dashing enterprise so essential to carry a place by a coup de main. He died the death of a gallant soldier, as he was, and friendship for the man must honour the manes of the brave.
We fell in with the enemy on our march, well posted on the eastern bank. We were told that the only approach to their position was by a bridge through the village of Bladensburg. The day we landed, a most awful spectacle of a man named Calder came in to give us information. He was given in my charge, the secret service department having been confided to me. The poor wretch was covered with leprosy, and I really believe was induced to turn traitor to his country in the hope of receiving medical [aid] from our surgeons, in the miserable state of disease he was in. If such was his object, he is partly to be pardoned. He was a very shrewd, intelligent fellow, and of the utmost use to us. He was afterwards joined by a young man of the name of Brown, as healthy a looking fellow as he was the reverse, who was very useful to us as a guide and as a scout.
When the head of the Light Brigade reached the rising ground, above the bridge, Colonel Thornton immediately proposed to attack, which astonished me [Battle of Bladensburg, 24 Aug.]. We old Light Division always took a good look before we struck, that we might find a vulnerable part. I was saying to General Ross we should make a feint at least on the enemy's left flank, which rested on the river higher up, and I was in the act of pointing out the position, guns, etc., when Colonel Thornton again proposed to move on. I positively laughed at him. He got furiously angry with me; when, to my horror and astonishment, General Ross consented to this isolated and premature attack. "Heavens!" says I, "if Colborne was to see this!" and I could not refrain from saying, "General Ross, neither of the other Brigades can be up in time to support this mad attack, and if the enemy fight, Thornton's Brigade must be repulsed." It happened just as I said. Thornton advanced, under no cloud of sharpshooters, such as we Light Division should have had, to make the enemy unsteady and render their fire ill-directed. They were strongly posted behind redoubts and in houses, and reserved their fire until Thornton was within fifty yards. Thornton was knocked over, and Brown, commanding the 85th Light Infantry, and Captain Hamilton, a noble fellow from the 52nd, were killed, and the attack repulsed. "There," says I, │there is the art of war and all we have learned under the Duke given in full to the enemy!" Thornton's Brigade was ordered to hold its own until the arrival of the Brigade consisting of the 4th and 44th under Brooke, many men having dropped down dead on the march from the heat, being fat and in bad wind from having been so long on board. As the Brigades closed up, General Ross says, "Now, Smith, do you stop and bring into action the other two Brigades as fast as possible." │Upon what points, sir?" He galloped to the head of Thornton's people, and said, "Come on, my boys," and was the foremost man until the victory was complete. He had two horses shot under him, and was shot in the clothes in two or three places. I fed the fight for him with every possible vigour. Suffice it to say we licked the Yankees and took all their guns, with a loss of upwards of 300 men, whereas Colborne would have done the same thing with probably a loss of 40 or 50, and we entered Washington for the barbarous purpose of destroying the city. Admiral Cockburn would have burnt the whole, but Ross would only consent to the burning of the public buildings. I had no objection to burn arsenals, dockyards, frigates building, stores, barracks, etc., but well do I recollect that, fresh from the Duke's humane warfare in the South of France, we were horrified at the order to burn the elegant Houses of Parliament and the President's house. In the latter, however, we found a supper all ready, which was sufficiently cooked without more fire, and which many of us speedily consumed, unaided by the fiery elements, and drank some very good wine also.1 I shall never forget the destructive majesty of the flames as the torches were applied to beds, curtains, etc. Our sailors were artists at the work. Thus was fought the Battle of Bladensburg, which wrested from the Americans their capital Washington, and burnt its Capitol and other buildings with the ruthless firebrand of the Red Savages of the woods. Neither our Admirals nor the Government at home were satisfied that we had not allowed the work of destruction to progress, as it was considered the total annihilation of Washington would have removed the seat of government to New York, and the Northern and Federal States were adverse to the war with England.
We remained two days, or rather nights, at Washington, and retired on the third night in a most injudicious manner. I had been out in the camp, and when I returned after dark, General Ross says, "I have ordered the army to march at night." "Tonight?" I said. "I hope not, sir. The road you well know, for four miles to Bladensburg, is excellent, and wide enough to march with a front of subdivisions. After that we have to move through woods by a track, not a road. Let us move so as to reach Bladensburg by daylight. Our men will have a night's rest, and be refreshed after the battle. I have also to load all the wounded, and to issue flour, which I have also caused to be coIlected." (I had seized in Washington everything in the shape of transport, and Baxter, the Surgeon, brought away every wounded man who could travel.) General Ross said, "I have made the arrangement with Evans, and we must march." I muttered to myself, "Oh, for dear John Colborne!"
We started at nine, and marched rapidly and in good order to Bladensburg, where we halted for about an hour to load the wounded. The barrels of flour were arranged in the streets, the heads knocked in, and every soldier told to take some. Soldiers are greedy fellows, and many filled their haversacks. During a tedious night's march through woods as dark as chaos, they found the flour far from agreeable to carry and threw it away by degrees. If it had not been for the flour thus marking the track, the whole column would have lost its road. Such a scene of intolerable and unnecessary confusion I never witnessed. At daylight we were still not three miles from Bladensburg. Our soldiers were dead done, and so fatigued, there was nothing for it but to halt and bring into play the flour, which was soon set about, while we Staff were looking out like a Lieutenant of the Navy in chase, to see the Yankees come down upon us with showers of sharpshooters. Thanks to their kind consideration they abstained from doing so, but we were very much in their power.
I now began to see how it was that our Light Division gentlemen received so much credit in the army of the dear Duke. I recommend every officer in command to avoid a night march as he would the devil, unless on a good road, and even thus every precaution must be taken by all staff officers to keep up the communications, or regularity cannot be ensured. I have seen many night marches, but I never yet saw time gained, or anything beyond the evil of fatiguing your men and defeating your own object. You may move before daylight, i.e. an hour or two, if the nights are light. By this means, about the time the column requires collection, daylight enables you to do it. You have got a start of your enemy, your men are in full vigour either to march rapidly or, in case of difficulty, to fight. But avoid night marches. However, owing to their want of knowledge of the art of war, the enemy on this occasion allowed us to get to our boats perfectly unmolested.
On one of the days we were near Washington a storm came on, a regular hurricane. It did not last more than twenty minutes, but it was accompanied by a deluge of rain and such a gale that it blew down all our piles of arms and blew the drums out of camp. I never witnessed such a scene as I saw for a few minutes. It resembled the storm in Belshazzar's feast,2 and we learnt that even in the river, sheltered by the woods, several of our ships at anchor had been cast on their beam ends.
We gave out we were going to Annapolis, and thence to Baltimore to re-act the conflagration of Washington, and the bait took. Some American gentlemen came in under a flag of truce, evidently to have a look at us, but avowedly to ask how private property had been respected. Their observations were frustrated by our vigilance. I was sent out to receive them, and nothing could exceed their gentlemanlike deportment. I loaded them with questions about roads, resources, force, etc., etc., at Annapolis and Baltimore. It was evident they took the bait, for that night we heard their army was off in full force to Annapolis, leaving us quietly to get down to our ships. We made arrangements for the care and provisioning of the wounded we had left at Bladensburg, and the attention and care they received from the Americans became the character of a civilized nation.
We reached our landing.place unmolested, and at our leisure embarked our army, which began to suffer very much from dysentery. A long sea voyage is the worst possible preparation for long and fatiguing marches. The men are fat, in no exercise, have lost the habit of wearing their accoutrements, packs, etc. - in short, they are not the same army they were on embarcation. Before our men left the Gironde, thirty miles a day would have been nothing to them.
General Ross, just before we went on board, sent for me (there never was a more kind or gallant soldier), and said, "Smith, the sooner I get my dispatch home the better. As you know, it is nearly ready, and as poor Falls, my A. D. C., is too unwell, it is my intention you should be the bearer of my dispatches, and that Falls should go home for the benefit of his health." This most unexpected arrangement set me on the qui vive indeed, I had not been in England for seven years. Wife home, country, all rushed in my mind at once. The General said, "A frigate is already ordered by the Admiral."
This day my information man, Calder the Leper, came to me, and told me that Brown had been taken and would be hung. I was much distressed. Although one cannot admire a traitor to his country, yet I was some degree of gratitude in his debt, and I said, "Well, Calder, but can we do nothing to save him?" "Well, now I calculate that's not to be denied, and if I hear General Ross say, îIf I catch that rascal Brown, I will hang him like carrion,╣ he may be saved, for I would go at once among our people (they will not injure me), and I will swear I heard General Ross say so." I immediately went to the General. On the first view of the thing, his noble nature revolted at making an assertion he never intended to abide by. At length, however, to save the poor wretch's life, he consented, and in course of a desultory conversation with Calder, dovetailed the words required into it. I saw Calder catch at it. When he left the General's tent, he said to me, "Well, now, I calculate Brown may yet live many years. He left us that night with a purse of money and a long string of medical instructions for the benefit of his health from one of our surgeons. "Ah,"Says he, "this will save me" (meaning the medical advice); "I can save Brown." I had an hieroglyphical note from him brought by a slave, just before I sailed [30 ? Aug. 1814], to say "AIls right, you may reckon." I told this story afterwards to the Prince Regent. He was exceedingly amused.
The Iphegenia frigate, Captain King, was to take me home, and Captain Wainwright of the Tonnant was to be the bearer of the naval dispatches. Sir Alexander Cochrane, Admiral Cockburn, and Evans, burning with ambition, had urged General Ross to move on Baltimore. The General was against it, and kindly asked my opinion. I opposed it, not by opinions or argument, but by a simple statement of facts.
- "1.We have, by a ruse, induced the enemy to concentrate all his means at Baltimore.
- "2. A coup de main like the conflagration of Washington may be effected once during a war, but can rarely be repeated.
- "3. The approach to Baltimore Harbour will be effectually obstructed." "Oh," says the General, "so the Admirals say; but they say that in one hour they would open the passage." I laughed. "It is easier said than done, you will see, General." (The passage defied their exertions when tested.)
- "4. Your whole army is a handful of men, and the half of them are sick from dysentery.
- "5 Your success in the attack on Washington is extraordinary, and will have a general effect. Your success on Baltimore would add little to that effect, admitting you were successful, which I again repeat I doubt, while a reverse before Baltimore would restore the Americans' confidence in their own power, and wipe away the stain of their previous discomfiture."
General Ross says, "I agree with you. Such is my decided opinion. " "Then, sir, may I tell Lord Bathurst you will not go to Baltimore?" He said, "Yes." I was delighted, for I had a presentiment of disaster, founded on what I have stated.
The day we were to sail in the Iphegenia as I left the Tonnant kind-hearted General Ross, whom I loved as a brother, accompanied me to the gang-way. His most sensible and amiable wife was at Bath. I promised to go there the moment I had delivered my dispatches, and of course I was charged with a variety of messages. In the warmth of a generous heart he shook my hand, and said, "A pleasant voyage, dear Smith, and thank you heartily for all your exertions and the assistance you have afforded me. I can ill spare you." My answer was, "Dear friend, I will soon be back to you, and may I assure Lord Bathurst you will not attempt Baltimore?" "You may." These were the last words I ever heard that gallant soul utter. He was over-ruled: attempted Baltimore [ 12 Sept. 1814], failed, and lost his noble life. A more gallant and amiable man never existed, and one who, in the continuance of command, would have become a General of great ability. But few men, who from a Regiment to a Brigade are suddenly pushed into supreme authority and have a variety of conflicting considerations to cope with ~ Navy, Army, country, resources, etc., are at the outset perfectly at home.
The Iphigenia had a most extraordinary passage from the Chesapeake to our anchorage at Spithead. We were only twenty-one days. The kindness I received from Captain King I shall never forget The rapidity of our voyage was consonant to my feelings and in perfect accordance with my character.
1 Ross wrote, "So unexpected was our entry and capture of Washington, and so confident was Madison of the defeat of our troops, that he had prepared a supper for the expected conquerors and when our advanced party entered the President's house, they found a table laid with forty covers" (Dictionary of National Biography, "Ross"). Back
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