Autobiography of Harry Smith
CAPTURE OF FORT BOWYER - DISEMBARCATION ON ILE DAUPHINE - END OF THE AMERICAN WAR-VISIT TO HAVANA AND RETURN-VOYAGE TO ENGLAND - NEWS OF NAPOLEON'S RETURN TO POWER - HARRY SMITH AT HIS HOME AT WHITTLESEY.AFTERthe Army was somewhat refreshed, an attempt on Mobile was resolved on, for which purpose the fleet went down to the mouth of Mobile Bay. Here there was a wooden fort of some strength, Fort Bowyer, which some time previously had sunk one of two small craft of our men-of-war which were attempting to silence it. It was necessary that this fort should be reduced in order to open the passage of the bay. It was erected on a narrow neck of land easily invested, and required only a part of the army to besiege it It was regulary approached, and when our breaching batteries were prepared to burn or blow it to the devil, I was sent to summon it to surrender. The Americans have no particular respect for flags ___ of truce, and all my Rifle education was required to protect myself from being rifled and to procure a reception of my flag. After some little time I was received, and, upon my particular request, admitted into the fort, to the presence of Major Lawrence, who commanded, with five Companies, I think, of the 2nd Regiment. I kept a sharp look-out on the defences, etc., which would not have resisted our fire an hour. The Major was as civil as a vulgar fellow can be. I gave him my version of his position and cheered him on the ability he had displayed.
He said, "Well, now, I calculate you are not far out in your reckoning. What do you advise me to do? You, I suppose, are one of Wellington's men, and understand the rules in these cases." " This," I said, " belongs to the rule that the weakest goes to the wall, and if you do not surrender at discretion in one hour, we, being the stronger, will blow up the fort and burn your wooden walls about your ears.
All I can say is, you have done your duty to your country, and no soldier can do more, or resist the overpowering force of circumstances." " Well, if you were in my situation, you would surrender, would you?" "Yes, to be sure." "Well, go and tell your General I will surrender to-morrow at this hour, provided I am allowed to march out with my arms and ground them outside the fort." "No," I said, "I will take no such message back. My General, in humanity, offers you terms such as he can alone accept, and the blood of your soldiers be on your own head." He said, "Well, now, don't be hasty." I could see the Major had some hidden object in view. I said, therefore, "Now, I tell you what message I will carry to my General. You open the gates, and one of our Companies will take possession of it immediately, and a body of troops shall move up close to its support; then you may remain inside the fort until tomorrow at this hour and ground your arms on the glacis."
I took out pen and ink, wrote down my proposition, and said; "There, now, sign directly and I go." He was very obstinate, and I rose to go, when he said, "Well, now, you are hard upon me in distress." "The devil I am," I said. "We might have blown you into the water, as you did our craft, without a summons. Good-bye." "Well, then, give me the pen. If I must, so be it;" and he signed.
His terms were accepted, and the 4th Light Company took possession of the gate, with orders to rush in in case of alarm. A supporting column of four hundred men were bivouacked close at hand with the same orders, while every precaution was taken, so that, if any descent were made from Mobile, we should be prepared, for, by the Major's manner and look under his eyebrows, I could see there was no little cunning in his composition. We afterwards learned that a force was embarked at Mobile, and was to have made a descent that very night, but the wind prevented them. We were, however, perfectly prepared, and Fort Bowyer was ours.
The next day [12 Feb.] the Major marched out and grounded his arms. He was himself received very kindly on board the Tonnant, and his officers were disposed of in the Fleet. The fellows looked very like French soldiers, for their uniforms were the same, and much of the same cut as to buttons, belts, and pipe-clay.
In a few days after the capture of this fort the Brazen sloop-of~war arrived with dispatches [I4 Feb.] The preliminaries of peace were signed, and only awaited the ratification of the President, and until this was or was not effected, hostilities were to cease. We were all happy enough, for we Peninsular soldiers saw that neither fame nor any military distinction could be acquired in this species of milito-nautico-guerilla-plundering-warfare.
I got a letter from my dear wife, who was in health and composure, with my family all in love with her, and praying of course for my safe return, which she anticipated would not be delayed, as peace was certain. I for my part was very ready to return, and I thanked Almighty God from my heart that such fair prospects were again before me, after such another series of wonderful escapes.
Pending the ratification, it was resolved to disembark the whole army on a large island at the entrance of Mobile Bay, called Isle Dauphine1. This was done. At first we had great difficulty in getting anything like fresh provisions; but, as the sea abounded with fish, each regiment rigged out a net, and obtained a plentiful supply. Then our biscuit ran short. We had abundance of flour, but this began to act on the men and produce dysentery. The want of ovens alone prevented our making bread.
This subject engrossed my attention for a whole day, but on awakening one morning a sort of vision dictated to me, "There are plenty of oyster-shells, and there is sand. Burn the former and make mortar, and construct ovens." So I sent on board to Admiral Malcolm to send me a lot of hoops of barrels by way of a framework for my arch. There was plenty of wood, the shells were burning, the mortar soon made, my arch constructed, and by three o'clock there was a slow fire in a very good oven on the ground. The baker was summoned, and the paste was made, ready to bake at daylight. The Admiral, dear Malcolm, and our Generals were invited to breakfast, but I did not tell even Sir John Lambert why I had asked a breakfast-party. He only laughed and said, "I wish I could give them a good one!"
Oh, the anxiety with which I and my baker watched the progress of our exertions! We heard the men-of-war's bells strike eight o'clock. My breakfast-party was assembled. I had an unusual quantity of salt beef and biscuit on the table, the party was ready to fall to, when in I marched at the head of a column of loaves and rolls, all piping hot and as light as bread should be. The astonishment of the Admiral was beyond all belief, and he uttered a volley of monosyllables at the idea of a soldier inventing anything. Oh, how we laughed and ate new bread, which we hadn't seen for some time! At first the Admiral thought I must have induced his steward to bake me the bread as a joke, when I turned to Sir John and said, "Now, sir, by this time tomorrow every Company shall have three ovens, and every man his pound and a half of bread."
I had sent for the Quartermasters of Corps; some started difficulties, but I soon removed them. One said, "Where are we to get all the hoops?" This was, I admit, a puzzle. I proposed to make the arch for the mortar of wood, when a very quick fellow, Hogan, Quartermaster of the Fusiliers, said, "I have it: make a bank of sand, plaster over it; make your oven; when complete, scratch the sand out." In a camp everything gets wind, and Harry Smith's ovens were soon in operation all over the island. There were plenty of workmen, and the morrow produced the bread.
The officers erected a theatre, and we had great fun in various demi-savage ways. Bell, the Quartermaster-General, dear noble fellow, arrived, and a Major Cooper, and, of some importance to me, my stray portmanteau. I was half asleep one morning, rather later than usual, having been writing the greater part of the night, when I heard old West say, "Sir, sir." "What's the matter?" "Thank the Lord, you're alive."
"What do you mean, you old ass?" "Why, a navigator has been going round and round your tent all night; here's a regular road about the tent." He meant an alligator, of which there were a great many on the island. The young ones our soldiers used to eat. I tasted a bit once; the meat was white, and the flavour like coarsely-fed pork.
In this very tent I was writing some very important documents for my General; the sandflies had now begun to be very troublesome, and that day they were positively painful. I ever hated tobacco, but a thought struck me, a good volume of smoke would keep the little devils off me. I called my orderly, a soldier of the 43rd, and told old West, who chawed a pound a day at least, to give him plenty of tobacco, and he was to make what smoke he could, for of two evils this was by far the least.The old Peninsular soldiers off parade were all perfectly at home with their officers, and he puffed away for a long time while I was writing, he being tinder my table. After a time he put his head out with a knowing look, and said, "If you please, sir, this is drier work than in front of Salamanca, where water was not to be had, and what's more, no neither." I desired West to bring him both rum and water. "Now, your honour, if you can write as long as I can smoke, you'll write the history of the world, and I will kill all the midges."
The ratification at length arrived [5 March], and the army was prepared to embark. Sir John Lambert, Baynes his Aide-de-camp, ancd I were to go home in the Brazen sloop-of-war, with a Captain Stirling, now Sir James, who was ultimately the founder of the Swan River Settlement. A more perfect gentleman or active sailor never existed: we have been faithful friends ever since. As many wounded as the Brazen could carry were embarked, and we weighed with one of our noble men-of-war.
As soon as the word was given, we sailed to Havannah for fresh provisions. We spent a merry week there, when Stirling and I were inseparable. We were all feted at the house of a Mr. Drake, nominally a wealthy merchant, but actually in every respect a prince. I never saw a man live so superbly. He put carriages at our disposal; one for Sir John Lambert, and one for me and Stirling. He was married to a Spanish woman, a very ladylike person, who played and sang beautifully. I could speak Spanish perfectly, and the compatriot connexion I told her and her maiden sisters of made us friends at once.
My spare time, however, was spent in the house of the Governor, Assuduco, who had a daughter so like my wife in age, figure, etc., and speaking English about as much as she could, I was never so much amused as in her society; and my wife and she corresponded afterwards. We stayed in the Havannah a week, and the public drives brought us all back again to the Prado of Madrid. Although the beauty of the ladies of the capital was wanting, the costumes were equally elegant.
The celebrated Woodville, the cigar manufacturer, asked us to a public breakfast at his house, four or five miles out of the city. He was about six feet two, as powerful a man as I ever saw; his hair in profusion, but as white as snow ; the picture of health, with a voice like thunder. He was rough, but hospitable, and after breakfast showed us the various processes of his manufactory, and the number of hands each went through. "Now," says he, "Sir John, I have another sight to show you, which few men can boast of." With his fingers in his mouth, he gave a whistle as loud as a bugle, when out ran from every direction a lot of children, of a variety of shades of colour, all looking happy and healthy. Not one appeared above twelve or thirteen. "Ah," he said, "report says, and I believe it, they are every one of them my children." "Count them," he said to me. I did; there were forty-one. I thought Stirling and I would have died of laughing. Sir John Lambert, one of the most amiable and moral men in the world, said so mildly, "A very large family indeed, Mr. Woodville," that it set Stirling and me off again, and the old patriarch joined in the laugh, with, "Ah, the seed of Abraham would people the earth indeed, if every one of his descendants could show my family."
After a week of great amusement we sailed from Havana. The harbour and entrance are perfectly beautiful: the works most formidable, but the Spaniards would not let us inside. Sailing into the harbour is like entering a large gateway; the sails are almost within reach of the Moro rock, and there is a swell setting into the harbour, which gives the ship a motion, as if every wave would dash her on the Moro. In the Gulf of Florida we encountered a most terrific gale, wind and current at variance, and oh, such a sea! We lay to for forty-eight hours; we could not cook, and the main deck was flooded. Sir John and I never got out of our cots: he perfectly good-humoured on all occasions, and always convincing himself, and endeavouring to convince us that the gale was abating. The third morning Stirling came to my cot. "Come, turn out; you will see how I manage my craft. I am going to make sail, and our lubberly cut may set us on our beam-ends or sink us altogether." A delightful prospect, indeed. He was and is a noble seaman, all animation and he was so clear and decided in his orders!
Sail was made amid waves mountains high, and the Brazen, as impudent a craft as ever spurned the mighty billows, so beautifully was she managed and steered, rode over or evaded seas apparently over-whelming; and Stirling, in the pride of his sailor's heart, says, "There, now, what would you give to be a sailor ?" It really was a sight worth looking at - a little bit of human construction stemming and resisting the power of the mighty deep.
As we neared the mouth of the British Channel, we had, of course, the usual thick weather, when a strange sail was reported. It was now blowing a fresh breeze; in a few minutes we spoke her, but did not make her haul her main-topsail, being a bit of a merchantman. Stirling hailed as we shot past. "Where are you from?" "Portsmouth." "Any news?" "No, none." The ship was almost out of sight, when we heard, "Ho! Bonaparter's back again on the throne of France." Such a hurrah as I set up, tossing my hat over my head! ³ I will be a Lieutenant-Colonel yet before the year's out!" Sir John Lambert said, "Really, Smith, you are so vivacious! How is it possible? It cannot be." He had such faith in the arrangements of our government, he wouldn't believe it. I said, "Depend upon it, it's truth; a beast like that skipper never could have invented it, when he did not even regard it as news: 'No, no news; only Bonaparte's back again on the throne of France.' Depend on it, it's true." "No, Smith, no." Stirling believed it, and oh, how he carried on!
We were soon at Spithead, when all the men-of-war, the bustle, the general appearance, told us, before we could either see telegraphic communication or speak any one, where "Bonaparter" was.
We anchored about three o'dock, went on shore immediately, and shortly after were at dinner in the George. Old West had brought from the Havannah two pups of little white curly dogs, a dog and bitch, which he said were "a present for missus." They are very much esteemed in England, these Havana lapdogs; not much in my way.
The charm of novelty which I experienced on my former visit to England after seven years absence, was much worn off; and I thought of nothing but home. Sir John and I started for London in a chaise at night, and got only as far as Guildford. I soon found our rate of progression would not do, and I asked his leave to set off home. At that time he was not aware of all my tale. I never saw his affectionate heart angry before; he positively scolded me, and said, "I will report our arrival; write to me, that I may know your address, for I shall most probably very soon want you again." My wife and Sir John were afterwards the greatest friends.
So Mr. West and I got a chaise, and off we started, and got to London on a Sunday, the most melancholy place on that day on earth. I drove to my old lodgings, where I had last parted from my wife. They could assure me she was well, as she had very lately ordered a new riding-habit. So I ordered a post-chaise and ran from Panton Square to Weeks' in the Haymarket, and bought a superb dressing-case and a heavy gold chain; I had brought a lot of Spanish books from the Havannah. So on this occasion I did not return to my home naked and penniless, as from Coruna.
I got to Waltham Cross about twelve o'clock. I soon found a pair of horses was far too slow for my galloping ideas; so I got four, and we galloped along then as fast as I could wish. I rattled away to the Falcon Inn in my native place, Whittlesea; for I dare not drive to my father's house. I sent quietly for him, and he was with me in a moment. The people were in church as I drove past. My wife was there, so as yet she was safe from any sudden alarm. She and my sisters took a walk after church, when servants were sent in every direction in search of them, with orders quietly to say that my father wanted my sisters. A fool of a fellow being the first to find them, and delighted with his prowess, ran up, shouting, "Come home directly; a gentleman has come in a chaise-and-four "-who, he did not know. My poor wife, as he named no one, immediately believed some one had arrived to say I was killed, and down she fell senseless. My sisters soon restored her, and they ran home, to their delight, into my arms. My wife and I were never again separated2, though many an eventful scene was in store and at hand for us.
We were now all happiness. During my few months' absence nothing had occurred to damp their contentment; so we all blessed God Almighty that I had again been protected in such awful situations both by land and sea, while so many families had to grieve for the loss of their dearest relatives. Pug and Tiny recognized me. I heard from Sir John Lambert that he was to be employed with the army assembling at Brussels under the Duke, that I had better be prepared to join him at a few hours' notice, that my position near him would require horses. I knew that "Major of Brigade" was the berth intended for me. My wife was to accompany me again to the war, but nothing affected us when united; the word "separation" away, all was smooth. All was now excitement, joy, hope and animation, and preparation of riding-habits, tents, canteens, etc., my sisters thinking of all sorts of things for my wife's comfort, which we could as well have carried as our parish church.
3, and his departure added to the excitement. I never was more happy in all my life; not a thought of the future (though God knows we had enough before us), for my wife was going and all the agony of parting was spared.
I immediately set to work to buy a real good stud. Two horses I bought at Newmarket, and two in my native place; and as Tiny the faithful was voted too old, as was the mare I had with me in Spain and Washington, I bought for my wife, from a brother, a mare of great celebrity, bred by my father, a perfect horse for a lady who was an equestrian artist.
In a few days I had a kind letter from Sir John Lambert, saying I was appointed his Major of Brigade; and as he was to proceed to Ghent in Flanders, recommending me, being in Cambridgeshire, to proceed via Harwich for Ostend, as I must find my own passage unless I went on a transport. West was therefore despatched with my four horses via Newmarket for Harwich, and I intended so to start as to be there the day my horses would arrive.
The evening before we started, my father, wife, sisters, myself, and brothers had a long ride. On returning, at the end of the town, there was a new stiff rail, with a ditch on each side. I was riding my dear old mare, that had been at Washington, etc., and off whose back poor Lindsay
1 - Cope's order of events (p. 192)is as follows Disembarcation of troops on Ile Dauphine, Feb. 8; surrender of Fort Bowyer, Feb.11 ; arrival of news of the preliminaries of peace, Feb.14. According to the text, the disembarcation on Ile Dauphine would appear to have followed the peace-news. There is no inconsistency, however. Only one Brigade (the 4th, 21st, and 44th Regiments) was employed in reducing Fort Bowyer. This Brigade disembarked on Ile Dauphine after the capture of the Fort, the rest of the army having disembarked previously. Back
3 During the Peninsular War, and how long before I know not, it was very occasionally permitted to young men who had difficulty in getting a commission, with the consent of the commanding officer, to join some regiment on service before the enemy. In action the Volunteer acted as a private soldier, carrying his musket and wearing his cross-belts like any other man. After a campaign or two, or after having distinguished himself at the storming of some town or fortress, he would probably obtain a commission. He messed with the officers of the company to which he was attached. His dress was the same as that of an officer, except that, instead of wings or epaulettes, he wore shoulder-straps of silver or gold, to confine the cross-belts."-W. Leeke, Lord Seaton's Regiment at Waterioo (1866), vol. i. p.6. Back
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