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The Eagles at York Town


Chapter 1 - sample


I got the fellow in my sights and held him there.

‘Militia?’ said Campbell; but I could not tell.

The man was coming around behind the rocks on the headland of the cove, his musket held across his chest. He was a hundred yards off from us, advancing cautious and slow. He picked his way about the rocks as though to keep hid from the muddy beach, stopping every few yards to look ahead. But we had made no fire, and the fallen pine behind which we crouched hid us from his view. The fellow came on, looked about, and stopped again. I had a quick suspicion of the reason.

‘Alone?’ said I quietly.

Campbell at once turned from me. He moved along behind the fallen pine, gained the cover of the scrub, and then rose and went silently into the wood.

There was shade where the stranger was now, so that he was almost invisible. The barrel of my musket still rested on the pine, trained upon the dark shadow. The last week of our journey had sharpened our distrust of everyone that we met with; for Cornwallis’s army had but recently come by, and the whole tidewater country hereabouts was under arms. After my sojourn beyond the mountains I was returned now to the front lines of the war.

After ten minutes Campbell returned.

‘Alone,’ said he, taking up his musket. While he sighted the stranger I fetched my spyglass and turned it upon the river.

The James River was wide at that place, for we were near where the mouth opened into the Chesapeake Bay; but though I studied the quiet water a full minute there was no sign yet of the boat that must take me off.

‘Ride on with me,’ said Campbell.

I considered it, certainly. I had considered it all the while that he scouted the wood. Our horses were hobbled by a tidal creek but a short way inland, and we might be gone in a trice if we chose. But two days would then be added to my journey, which I baulked at. We had travelled weeks since leaving the Indian country, and I was impatient now to get myself directly around to Cornwallis in York Town and thence north to New York, where my latest instructions from Jenkinson and the Deciphering Department awaited. But as I turned to answer Campbell ‘No,’ he clicked his tongue in warning.

Out from the shadows the stranger was advancing. I put the spyglass on him again. He was no Continental soldier, but though he wore the buff breeches and the loose white shirt of a farmer, and had also a farmer’s broad-brimmed hat to ward against the sun, yet I much suspected the caution of his advance and the ready state of his musket. In the last farmhouse we had stopped at, though they were Loyalists, they were frightened, and only too willing to see us gone. They had sent a message ahead to arrange my crossing, but I wondered now at the chance of some betrayal. As the stranger came nearer, Campbell sighted carefully, put his finger to the trigger, and only stopped when I whispered, ‘Hold. Let him come.’

One minute, and then two, and the fellow came on with the same crablike advance. Upon reaching the small creek that ran from the wood across the beach and down into the river, he stopped. Here he must decide whether to turn back, or to go into the woods, or to cross over the creek; which last choice, if he made it, would bring him within thirty yards of us, directly under our muskets.

Campbell settled upon one knee. The heat was thick in the air, and I envied him now the Cherokee headband that kept the sweat from his eyes. I dipped my own face to my sleeve, and when I looked up again the stranger was stepping into the creek. The water went over his boots, and then to his thighs. But the creek was narrow, and after a few wading paces he rose and then stepped again onto the beach. By his movement, he was a younger man than I had first supposed. His hat was low over his eyes, and his face half-hidden.

Campbell took careful aim. And then the stranger put one muddy boot forward, looked up into the woods, and called, ‘We are in the next cove!’ and I reached to prevent Campbell firing. ‘Mr Douglas!’ called the stranger, and straightway turned Campbell’s musket aside.

A log-canoe is no canoe but a boat native to the Chesapeake, low-cut and shallow-drafted, used by all the oystermen of the Bay. And it was in Cable Morgan’s log-canoe that I now set out upon the James River.

‘We must put the girls down at home before we go around. You do not mind, Alistair?’

‘Only get me to York Town today,’ I answered Cable Morgan, ‘and I shall not mind any slight diversion.’

Cable hauled up the sail while his son David (who was that young stranger Campbell had nearly shot) took the tiller. Cable’s wife Sally, and their daughter Elizabeth, sat opposite me in the bow. It was only by the merest accident that the whole family was there; for my message had found them upon the Portsmouth side, where Sally Morgan visited a cousin.

‘Have you left someone?’ asked Cable as we came into the river; for he had seen me look back along the shore. But Campbell had stayed hidden while I went down to the Morgans, and by now he must be mounted and riding up toward the Richmond road. Campbell had troubles enough without I make a general announcement of his presence, and so I told Cable no, that I had left no one behind me.

The sail once hoisted, Cable put out the flatboard over the gunwale and sat there to keep the boat trimmed. It was almost five years since I had last been in company with the Morgans. Five long years of the war. And in that time Lizzy had grown from a babe to a child, and David from a twelve-year-old boy into a young man. Cable looked little changed, his face just as dark from the sun, his smile just as broad and open as I remembered. But though he answered me now some few questions concerning Lord Cornwallis’s movements about the Bay, and the disposition of the rebel force near Williamsburg and Richmond, I sensed a reticence in him. His several quick and uncertain glances toward his wife soon gave me the reason. I held off then, for I saw that we might talk more freely once Sally and Lizzy Morgan were set down at the farm.

As we went further downriver I turned my spyglass toward the Bay. Two ships stood out there.

‘That to the north is the Guadeloupe,’ said Cable. ‘The other is British too, the Loyalist. The Guadeloupe shall leave for New York upon the night tide.’

After so many months spent inland, and then the hard journey, they were an unexpectedly cheering sight. At length I closed up my spyglass and put it in my satchel. Then glancing up I found Sally Morgan watching me with an expression quite melancholy. I ventured a smile, but she said only, ‘You look tired, Mr Douglas.’


‘Shall you stay a time now on the Chesapeake?’

‘I should not think so.’

Her hand rested upon her daughter’s shoulder. Though I saw there was more she would say to me, she at last forbore and turned away to look out over the water. A strand of silvered hair had escaped from beneath her white bonnet, the breeze moving it about her face till she pushed it behind her ear. She had passed from thirty years to thirty-five since I had seen her last, and though she spoke of my tiredness it was her own looked the deeper. She remained a slight woman, but with nothing of the lively gaiety I remembered, nor in her eyes the clear-hearted joy.

In less than an hour we arrived at the muddy shore the far side of the James, below the Morgans’ farm. While Cable and David made some necessary repair to the tiller, I carried Lizzy onto the beach. Then I fetched the baskets up to the leaning pine where Sally Morgan now stood watching her husband and son at work together down in the boat.

‘I shall not take them from you for so very long,’ said I.

‘I would stop them if I could,’ said she, which remark surprised me. For she had ever been a help to her husband, not only when I had first recruited him as a spy for us, but throughout the war, as I had learned from Major Andre and others. She faced me now directly. ‘Do not receive this ill, Mr Douglas, but I must ask that you keep from our house while you are here.’

Somewhat taken aback, I said that I should speak to Cable on the matter. She shook her head.

‘He shall say only that you must not listen to me. He shall tell you that you are most welcome to call on us.’

‘And am I not?’ said I. She hugged her arms about her and avoided my gaze. ‘Has something happened that I should know of, Mrs Morgan?’

‘Your work is very important, I am sure, Mr Douglas. But it is work done in passing. Our whole life is here. It is here that Cable and David must live when you are gone.’

‘I understand that.’

‘You do not understand. You do not understand what the war has done here.’

‘I work as your husband works, that the war shall end.’

‘It shall not end here, but only for the soldiers. We must live with our neighbours after.’

‘Is Cable suspected?’

‘All men are suspected who are not under arms in the militia. And only one man in each family may be excused to earn his family’s bread.’

Understanding came to me, and I looked down to the log-canoe. ‘David is now of an age to join the militia,’ said I, and she nodded. But when I asked had any recruiting sergeant come to demand his service with the Continentals or the militia she again turned her head.

‘But they shall,’ said she. ‘You cannot know what bitterness there is in every quarter, either against the Congress or against the King.’

‘And so you fear to have me near your house.’

‘I wish to God the war had never been,’ said she with a depth of feeling quite remarkable. Raising her eyes boldly to me, she added, ‘And though you may despise me for it, Mr Douglas, I tell you truly: I cannot find it in my heart to care any longer who shall win. While you are here now, I beg of you, stay away from my house. And once Cable has set you down in York Town, I would that you ask no further service of him.’

Lizzy came skipping up from the river, calling out to her mother. Sally Morgan took up the two baskets from by my feet, dipped her head to me, and turned quickly onto the path homeward.

‘She has read you the Riot Act,’ said Cable Morgan, amused as he helped me aboard again; for he had seen his wife talking with me up by the leaning pine, and well knew the meaning of it. ‘You must not mind her, Alistair. She likes you well enough. It is the coming here of all the soldiers has frightened her.’ He made light of the whole business, though when I told him of her warning that I should keep from their farm, he agreed that it might be as well for our mutual safety. He did not think that he was suspected of spying for the British, but nor did he wish at this moment to invite the closer scrutiny of his neighbours. He spoke all this within earshot of his son, and by some few remarks that then passed between them I surmised that the lad had become a helper in his father’s secret business.

Cable raised the sail again, and as we went down toward Old Point Comfort he told me what he knew of Cornwallis’s recent campaigning in the south, and of a skirmish nearby between the British forces and Lafayette’s rebel soldiers. There was little that I had not heard on my way northward. The one surprise to me was how often he must turn to his son David for confirmation of some number, of either boats or horses or men. The lad was become like a second eyes and ears to the father, and a very close helper indeed.

As we emerged from the mouth of the James River into the Bay, I turned my spyglass once more upon those two ships. The nearest, the Guadeloupe, was but two or three leagues off from us.

‘What chance you might take me out to her?’ I asked Cable.

‘It is calm enough,’ said he, glancing over the water and then up at the clear sky. ‘But you cannot want to leave us so quickly.’

I said that I would write a letter to my superiors in London, and that the Guadeloupe might carry it the first part of the journey. Cable made no hesitation then, but reefed the sail and called David to steer for the ship.

The breeze was fresh, and our boat cut clean through the small waves, so that I was reminded of those times I had sailed the Bay with Cable at the start of the war. In those days I had worked with him hauling in his crabpots and dredging with the oyster rakes, and there had been almost an innocence in it; for though I must sketch every landing place and cottage near the shore, and with Cable’s help enlist several Loyalist fishermen as the eyes of the British fleet, yet our day’s work would invariably end with a return to Morgan’s farm. There young David would meet us upon the muddy beach and help his father rope the sail before we took our catch of crab and fish up to the farmhouse. Sally would cook the evening meal, and with one eye always upon Lizzy in the cot. Then we would do nothing very much, but only talk, and the Morgans with some surprise at my travels, and I thankful to be momentarily becalmed in the bosom of a good family. We little thought in those happy evenings how very long and vicious might be the war.

Now we were soon to the Guadeloupe, and one of her officers hailing us from the quarterdeck as we came around her anchor-line. But no sooner had I called across to identify myself as Douglas of the Board of Trade and Plantations than the familiar face of Captain Symonds appeared at the rail.

‘Douglas is it, by God.’

‘You are a long way from Jamaica, sir.’

‘Stop your fellows messing about there, and come aboard.’

David Morgan having a great curiosity to inspect a ship-of-the-line, he came aboard with me, while his father stayed in the boat and stood off.

‘You shall get your pen and paper soon enough,’ Captain Symonds told me as we two repaired to his cabin. David Morgan we had left with a midshipman to make a tour below decks. Symonds called back through the open door for his man to bring in the Madeira, then he offered me a chair.

He was a square-built fellow, rosy-cheeked, and though I had never sailed with him, I had often been in his company whilst ashore in the West Indies; for he was a long-serving captain in Admiral Rodney’s fleet. By repute, his captaincy answered much to his appearance: nothing handsome or extraordinary, but dependable and solid. When the Madeira came he gave me a short account of how he had come to be in Chesapeake Bay, and he told me of his current intention to sail north to join Admiral Graves. I asked after Admiral Rodney, and he said Rodney was temporarily returned to London and that Hood commanded in his stead. We had some minutes more talk of this kind, each asking after different ones of our acquaintances now scattered along the coast and across the West Indies. He was disappointed to discover that I had been inland for some while and so had no recent news from London. He confessed himself not unhappy to be leaving the Chesapeake. Cornwallis, he told me, was now entrenching in York Town, and might even winter the army there.

‘It shall be a dreary winter for some unfortunate captain upon the York River. Thank God it shall not be me.’

At this moment his First Lieutenant entered to report the sighting of a sail off the cape.

On the poop deck, we found the officers scanning the mouth of the bay. There were two ships coming wide around the cape, standing well out to sea in avoidance of the extensive and dangerous shallows closer in. Seamen now gathered along the Guadeloupe’s rail, and some climbed into the rigging; but there were as many more continued their several duties about the deck. Cable Morgan, fifty yards off from us, was standing in his boat with his own spyglass turned likewise upon the mouth of the bay. As I watched him, he dropped the spyglass and went in some hurry to the tiller.

‘Sir, there is another sail to the south,’ reported the First Lieutenant. And no sooner had this new arrival emerged fully from behind the southern cape than there came another directly in its wake. ‘Sir—!’

‘Yes, I see the flag,’ said Symonds. ‘We cannot get past them now, I think.’

‘No, sir.’

‘Give the order to weigh anchor. Call up all hands.’

The lieutenant hurried to the rail, crying orders to the junior officers.

‘They cannot be French,’ said I.

‘They surely are, Mr Douglas. And more of them yet,’ said Symonds; for trailing those first vessels around the southern cape were more ships appearing, and no longer singly but in twos and threes. It was a French fleet, and a large one. And a mystery, and a shock to all of us aboard, how it should come to be in these waters. Symonds, when he was over his first surprise, decided that it must be Admiral de Grasse come across from the West Indies.

‘Sir, they are coming around.’

It was the van swinging leeward, while the trailing vessels held their line, continuing wide, to seal up the bay. Crossing to the rail I called out to Morgan. He was already bringing his boat quickly in. Then I ran down to the quarterdeck and almost knocked over a lady and her black maid who had come up to see the reason of the commotion.

‘You had better stay in your cabin now, madam,’ said I.

‘The captain has not told me so.’

‘He tells you so now!’ roared Symonds from above. ‘Get below, madam, and stay below till I call you!’

The woman blanched, but she had the good sense not to argue. She turned the maid about and they went hastily below. After sending a midshipman to seek out David Morgan, I returned to the poop deck.

A few leagues off from us, much nearer the French, the Loyalist appeared to be about the same urgent business as ourselves. But so sudden and unexpected was the French arrival, and so near to her mooring, that it was doubtful the Loyalist could now weigh anchor, set sail, and outrun the French van. There were a half-dozen French ships-of-the-line bearing down upon her, and yet more enemy sail appearing around the southern cape. Further north, those first two vessels we had sighted now barred any escape to the open sea.

Symonds called the local Chesapeake pilot to him. Between them they swiftly decided that the Guadeloupe’s best chance lay in a run for the York River, thence a dash up to York Town, where we might gain the protection of Lord Cornwallis’s guns.

David Morgan appeared on the quarterdeck, seeming in some confusion at emerging from below into the midst of a great scramble of seamen.

‘You must go down into your boat now, Mr Douglas,’ said Symonds, ‘or you shall lose your own chance to get clear.’

But should the Morgans be overtaken and captured, I knew that they would be much safer without me. So I went down and took David across to the rail. His father had the boat already below.

‘Is it the French?’ Cable Morgan called up to me.

‘It is,’ I answered. Then I told David to go down to his father; which when he had done, I called down to ask Cable if he thought he could make Old Point Comfort before the enemy.

‘Only if you come away now,’ cried he.

‘I shall keep aboard here and go up to York Town. Cast off now!’

David cast off upon the instant, and they cut away under our bow, making straight for the safety of the shallows near the Point.

‘We have a sporting chance,’ remarked Symonds when I rejoined him. ‘But it looks not so well for the Loyalist. It is mere good fortune we did not anchor with her. And look there – still they come.’ The waters about the southern cape were now crowded with sail, and the First Lieutenant called up into the yards for a count of the enemy ships. ‘It is certainly de Grasse’, remarked Symonds to his officers. ‘And it looks to be his whole West Indies fleet with him.’ I asked if our own ships in these waters had the guns to dislodge de Grasse should he anchor; for control of the Bay must be vital to our army ashore. ‘That is not a present concern to us, Mr Douglas. Let us only preserve ourselves till York Town, it shall be work enough for today.’ And so saying he moved away from me to consult again with the pilot who stood by the wheel.

At the capstan the men bent their backs like oxen, and not a one of them shirking in the labour. The sight of French ships was a goad much sharper than a mere midshipman’s order. Aloft, the seamen moved sprightly along the yards releasing the sails, and the count finally came down from them of twenty enemy ships certain.

I stood well clear of the officers now as the anchor came up to be lashed. The first breath of wind caught our unfurling mainsail, and we listed leeward. Far astern of us, three French vessels peeled away from the main fleet to give chase. It was a minute later that a frigate broke from the fleet and appeared to make toward Old Point Comfort. I crossed with some anxiety to the aft rail. But the Morgans had a sharp breeze in their sail, and their log-canoe skimmed over the small waves. They had a good start on the frigate, and they knew the waters and the shallows well. The frigate would quickly close upon them, but I had a fair hope they might outrun her.

After several minutes, and the greater part of the French fleet now spread like a chain across the mouth of the Bay, I asked a lieutenant for another count of the ships. The number returned this time was twenty-four.

‘And there must be stragglers yet in a fleet so large,’ remarked the young officer who brought me the count. ‘There may be thirty by tomorrow.’

‘You are not alarmed, Lieutenant?’

‘Not alarmed, sir, but struck, you might say. It is a rare sight.’ A rare sight indeed, and a very fine and welcome sight it must be for those rebels about the Bay that witnessed its arrival. The breeze ruffled the blue water, and the full white sails of the fleet looked like clouds blown in from the sea. But poisonous clouds they were to us, for that fleet was certainly filled with guns and munitions and French infantry. ‘They have got the Loyalist,’ said the lieutenant unhappily.

Like a fox overrun, she disappeared into the midst of the French pack. Her sails were struck, her flight finished almost before it began. The lieutenant made an oath beneath his breath and then returned to his station near the wheel. The Guadeloupe’s three pursuers were under full sail now, but two of them visibly lagging the leader.

‘West Indies weed slows them,’ said Symonds, joining me at the aft rail. ‘They have had no scraping yet. The front ship has perhaps recently joined the fleet. She is the only one may catch us.’

‘She does not appear to be closing.’

‘She is, but slowly. It shall be a quarter-hour before she brings us within range. You must come for’ard, now, Mr Douglas. These guns may be needed.’

Ahead, the mouth of the York was not easy to discern, the green line of tidewater vegetation being identical both sides of the river. Our Chesapeake pilot kept the wheelman steering straight before the wind.

‘One league,’ the First Lieutenant reported, peering astern through his spyglass.

Symonds screwed up his eyes against the sun and looked ahead to where the York River and safety must be. ‘You are standing us well out,’ he remarked to the pilot.

‘Sandbar,’ replied the pilot, pointing. ‘Tack too early, we’ll ground.’ He must have felt Captain Symonds’s hard eye upon him then, for he added, ‘Never you fear, sir. I’ll not give you to the French from too much caution.’

The wind stayed steady, neither strong nor light, and we carved a clean line through the choppy water. But so too did our nearest French shadow. In a short time it appeared she was gathering speed and closing ever more quickly.

‘Half a league, sir.’

All eyes went between the French ship and Symonds, the seamen apprehensive and impatient for the order to tack. But Symonds’s gaze stayed fixed upon the pilot. The men at the guns aft began murmuring together, seeming in doubt of the supposed sandbar that kept them from safety. The pilot was unmoved, he continued his quiet orders to the wheelman to hold steady.

At last Symonds broke. ‘How long, man?’

‘A minute more,’ the pilot answered, very calm.

‘One minute and no longer.’ Symonds then turned to his First Lieutenant. ‘As we go about we shall make a pretty target. Prepare the stern and larboard guns.’ While the order was passed, Symonds rocked upon the balls of his feet. He clasped his hands behind his back as if to prevent himself from snatching the wheel. But after a minute that seemed an hour the pilot turned to him and nodded.

‘Give them a shot from the stern chaser,’ Symonds sharply commanded his First Lieutenant. ‘Then take us about smart.’

A bellowing of orders cascaded through along the decks and up into the rigging. And it was then that the first French gun fired. A puff of smoke showed at her bow before the clap of thunder reached us. A spume of spray then rose a hundred yards to our stern.

‘Fire!’ shouted the First Lieutenant, and our two rear guns fired in quick succession. The smoke bloomed about us, the sound of the shots still roaring in my ears as the ship listed sharply and came about. We were becalmed for a moment, but then the wind caught our sail and I clutched the rail to steady myself as we came upright just as easily as we had listed.

Our larboard guns fired next, and the French answered with a broadside. All empty sound and fury. We remained just beyond their range as they beyond ours, and every shot fell useless into the water. As our sails refilled we moved again, and now the French must either risk the shallows and the bar or give up the chase.

‘She’ll put herself aground,’ the pilot muttered, peering astern as if he willed the French to make the rash attempt.

Turning my spyglass toward the Point, I made out the Morgans’ log-canoe running close into the shore, and the French frigate standing a quarter-mile off. Should a smaller boat be launched from the frigate, the Morgans might easily outrun them into the James River. And once there Cable Morgan would be certain to elude them, secreting his log-canoe in one of the creeks. With some relief I returned my attention to the nearer danger.

But it was little time the pursuing French captain astern of us now wasted in reaching his decision (indeed, he must have his own Chesapeake pilot aboard who had warned him of the bar). After a minute he swung her away, and she at once set sail to rejoin the main fleet.

In silence our crew watched her go. Captain Symonds removed his tricorn and congratulated our pilot, which though the congratulation was sincere, it was muted; for we had preserved ourselves, but the Loyalist was lost, and the French fleet now held the Bay. A quiet and sombre ship we continued against the tide, ten miles upriver to York Town.

  © Grant Sutherland