After ferrying General George Washington's troops across the East River and through the hell known as the Battle of Long Island, Captain Isaac Biddlecomb receives a monumental order. He is to transport to France the most powerful secret weapon in the country's arsenal scientist, philosopher, and spirit of the enlightenment Dr. Benjamin Franklin. With a new team of men forging through the wintry North Atlantic, and braving the cordon of the Royal Navy, Biddlecomb's seemingly simple mission is just the first volley in a grand scheme: to topple France's neutrality by gaining its vital support, and turn the colonial uprising into a full-scale world war for freedom.
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After three days men grow Weary,
Of a Wench, a Guest, & Weather Rainy.
-POOR RICHARD'S ALMANACK, 1733
Capt. Isaac Biddlecomb stood in the pouring rain, his shoes firmly fixed in the thick mud underfoot, the water running in three rivulets out of the corners of his cocked hat. His clothing was soaked through entirely, right down to his skin. He was more wet than he could recall ever having been while on land it could not be called dry land and had it been any later in the season, he might have been chilled as well, which would have made his discomfort complete.
Fortunately it was only the twenty-ninth of August, the end of the summer of 1776, and the evenings were still fairly warm in the former Crown colony of New York, which meant he was spared the misery of being both wet and cold.
He stood in the gathering dusk, confused and uncertain, while around him rushed dozens of men, hundreds of men, all of them even more confused and uncertain than he, an army apparently in full retreat. They were heavy laden with haversacks and cartridge boxes and soaked blankets tied in bundles, and they clutched muskets rendered useless by the rain.
"13th Pennsylvania, form up here! Form up!" a sergeant cried, waving his hat over his head to attract the attention of the men who streamed by, but no one paid any attention to him.
"Pardon me Biddlecomb took a step toward the sergeant, and as he did so, he was bumped hard from behind. He stumbled but his shoe stayed put, held fast in the mud, and his now stocking-clad foot came forward and sank inches deep in the muck. "Son of a bitch..."
"Keep clear, you stupid whoreson," said the man who had bumped him. The man rushed on past, bearing the head of a litter on which lay a soldier, thrashing and moaning, his formerly white breeches soaked with dirt, rain, and blood.
Biddlecomb extracted his foot from the mud, pushed it back into the shoe, and made his way over to the sergeant who had managed to round up three of the 13th Pennsylvania and was calling for more.
"Pardon me, pardon me, where might I find General Washington's staff?"
The sergeant did not look at him but jerked his thumb over his shoulder. "Tent, over yonder."
Biddlecomb looked in the direction the sergeant was pointing. A cluster of tents stood one hundred yards away, a group of smaller ones surrounding one much larger. They looked gray and indistinct through the rain and the failing light. "Thank you."
"If you see anyone of any rank worth piss," the sergeant said, meeting Biddlecomb's eyes, "tell him my men skirmished with some pickets that was thrown out in front of the sappers. Them saps are extending out northeasterly, about three hundred yards now, and they're still digging like fucking badgers."
"Yes, indeed..." Biddlecomb began to ask for an explanation of the sergeant's words, less than half of which he understood, but the man had returned to calling for his troops, so Biddlecomb left him and made his way toward the distant tent.
He was on the Brooklyn Heights, the high, wooded ridge that stood between the little town of Brooklyn, which he could see in glimpses through the trees down and to his right, and the rest of Long Island to his left. From where he stood he could just see the East River, but Manhattan Island and the harbor of New York were both lost in the poor visibility.
Still, he knew what was there. He knew that on Manhattan Island, behind hastily constructed fortifications, were huddled the few reserves from Washington's army, those who had not been thrown into the battle on Long Island. And he knew that in the harbor by Staten Island there were dozens of British transports, while just through the Narrows in Gowanus Bay were ten British ships of the line, twenty frigates, and hundreds more transports, the greatest expeditionary force ever mounted by the British military.
He had seen them both that morning, and had heard about the fleet beyond the Narrows, during a break in the weather, as he stood on the landing at the tip of Manhattan trying with great difficulty to find someone to ferry him across the river to Long Island.
It had taken him five days to get that far, five days from Philadelphia, which was not above ninety miles away.
The first part of the journey had been undertaken by coach, the coach that was supposed to go clear to Manhattan, crossing the Hudson at Jeffery's Hook, well north of the known British positions. The driver, however, had gone as far as Harlem and refused to go farther, swearing that he would not risk getting killed or having his horses requisitioned by plunging into the middle of a fight between them damnable German murderers and them godforsaken Whig rascals.
Biddlecomb had then been forced to walk the length of Manhattan Island, only to be stopped from his mission of seeing General Washington by the East River, which stood between him and the commander in chief.
"You don't want to go over there," said the soldier guarding the landing, turning and spitting into the East River in the general direction of Long Island. "Goddamned army's on the run. Goddamned Cornwallis marched right around the left flank, sent the bastards running. I'm just thanking the Good Lord that I ain't over there, and you should too."
But in point of fact Biddlecomb did want to go over there. He had come all of that way to see General Washington and he would not be stopped just short of accomplishing that.
Of course, when he had left Philadelphia, it had not occurred to him that he would find the general in the midst of such a crisis. After all, the British and the Americans had done nothing but stare at one another across New York Harbor for almost two months now. Only during his trip had he begun to hear disquieting rumors about British activity and the possibility of actual fighting. But he had not been dissuaded then and he would not be now.
A few hours short of nightfall, he managed to find a boat to take him across the fast-moving river.
And now, at long last, General Washington was in sight. Or General Washington's tent, at least.
He trudged on across the great expanse of mud that had once been a grassy field, pausing to let a column of men march past. They shuffled and muttered curses and their shoes made squishing sounds in the mud, but they possessed the closest thing to military order he had seen since reaching Long Island.
He could see the flare of a lantern being lit in the big tent, and then another, and soon the canvas glowed from within, an image of warmth and dryness. He looked at it longingly.
The column of men moved past and Biddlecomb continued on. He very much wanted to get in that tent and get some relief from the incessant rain, rain that he had endured with only brief respites for two solid days.
He entered the cluster of tents and crossed, it seemed, some invisible divide. On the battlefield it was all confusion and disorganization, with wounded and frightened men rushing in panic. But in the cluster of tents a calm if urgent efficiency seemed to prevail. Messengers hurried in and out, and majors issued orders to captains, who issued orders to lieutenants, who moved frenetically through the headquarters. But there was no sense of panic, no sense of pending disaster. There was only the need to see things done, and quickly.
Biddlecomb paused outside the big tent, unsure whether he should enter. He took a breath and pushed the flap aside and stepped in, out of the driving rain and into the lantern light and the musty air within.
The tent was crammed with small tables, ringing the edges of the space, and at each sat a clerk scratching out copies of orders. Another dozen men at least milled around, talking in low tones, water running off their long cloaks and mixing with the mud with which the floor of the tent was evenly coated. And sitting at a big desk in the middle of the tent, enunciating orders to a lieutenant who stood before him, sat Maj. Edward Fitzgerald.
Biddlecomb pushed through the crowd of men and stood to one side of the desk, waiting for Fitzgerald to finish with the young officer. It had been almost a year since he had last seen the major, an aide-de-camp to General Washington. Fitzgerald had been instrumental in dispatching Biddlecomb to Bermuda to capture a British store of gunpowder in what had turned out to be nothing more than a plot to capture him.
The major had won no small degree of glory in driving off a British regiment that was attempting to take back the British merchantman that Biddlecomb had captured and brought into Boston Harbor, and though the major would not say as much, Biddlecomb also believed that the major had personally killed the traitor who had engineered the trap.
Fitzgerald was intelligent and charming, the loftiness of the Southern aristocracy coupled with a handsome face and athletic bearing. But despite those irritating qualities, they had become friends during Biddlecomb's time in Cambridge.
"Yes, I am in no doubt that Fort Putnam is well manned," Fitzgerald was saying to the lieutenant, "but you go and tell General Putnam that General Washington wants him to personally make certain there are troops clear to Wallabout Bay. That left flank must be anchored down thus or Cornwallis shall steal a march on us again. Now go."
The lieutenant swept off his hat in salute, then spun on his heel and was gone. Fitzgerald turned to Biddlecomb with an expression of a man ready to deal with yet another annoyance. Then he frowned and his eyebrows came together. "Isaac Biddlecomb? Capt. Isaac Biddlecomb, could it be? What in all hell...?"
He stood and extended his hand and Biddlecomb shook it with pleasure. "What in all the world are you doing here, sir?" Fitzgerald asked, smiling, quite in contrast to his expression of a moment before. "Of all the people I would have thought would have enough sense to keep clear of this debacle!"
"I'm...actually, I must have a word with General Washington."
"The general is out on the lines at the moment, left me here to deal with this nonsense."
"I understand things have not gone well these past days?"
Fitzgerald smiled. "You could say that. General Sullivan failed to hold the Jamaica Pass. Hell, he failed to even try to hold it. Cornwallis marched right around our left flank, and before we knew it, his whole damned army was in our rear. It was a rout. They drove us clear back to the Heights with the damned East River at our backs. We lost a great deal of men, good men."
"Sir? Sir?" A drenched, muddy soldier stepped up to Fitzgerald's desk and saluted. His cheek was smeared with blood that was diluted to a thin red wash by the rain. "Corporal Mulligan, sir, 13th Pennsylvania. Lieutenant says for me to report to you that we had a skirmish with some pickets protecting the sappers, sir. The saps is three hundred yards long now, extending northeast, and they're still digging."
"Thank you, Corporal," Fitzgerald said, and the soldier saluted again and left.
"Oh, yes," said Biddlecomb with a flush of guilt, "what does all that mean?"
"General Howe is digging regular approaches to get at us. By that I mean saps...trenches...and breastworks, getting his troops closer."
"But it appeared to me as if the Continental Army was in full retreat. Are the British not in close pursuit?"
"What? Oh, do you mean the men out there? No, they are just stragglers, wounded men or men separated from their companies or skulkers. The main part of the army is still well entrenched. Please, Captain, have a seat." Fitzgerald gestured toward a chair in front of his desk. Biddlecomb sat and Fitzgerald did too.
"And Cornwallis is digging approaches?" Biddlecomb asked. "I should think he would prefer a headlong assault, with his greater numbers."
"Apparently he had a bellyful of frontal attacks at Bunker's Hill and we can thank the Lord for that. Had he pressed his attack of the other day, he would have overrun us. He still could, especially in this rain, as we have precious few bayonets amongst us. Fortunately he does not seem inclined to try. But tell me, how has it been with you? I heard some of the captains were court-martialed for that affair with the Glasgow? I would wish you were not one of them."
"I was not," said Biddlecomb. The affair to which Fitzgerald alluded was a night battle, one that pitted the entire American fleet, two ships, three brigs, and a sloop, against the British frigate Glasgow. And despite the overwhelming odds the Glasgow had managed to inflict considerable damage and then escape.
"Apparently my chasing the Glasgow nearly into Newport, as stupid and ill-considered as it was, was thought valiant enough to put me above suspicion. It was Whipple that was court-martialed, at his own request, to quash the bloody stupid talk of cowardice that had started. If ever there was a man who was not a coward, it is Abraham Whipple. He was acquitted of course. Hazard of the Providence was cashiered, as well he should have been. Hopkins was just censured by Congress a few weeks ago."
Fitzgerald nodded. "So the fleet is still in Providence?"
"For the most part. The first on Alfred, a Scotsman by the name of Jones, has command of Providence now in Hazard's stead and he has been cruising, as has Andrew Doria and Cabot. I have mostly been tied up with business in Philadelphia."
"Not so tied up, I should hope, that you have been unable to see Virginia? Virginia Stanton?"
Biddlecomb smiled at that. Virginia was the daughter of his mentor, William Stanton. He had been courting her, to the extent that his time ashore and his courage would allow, for almost two years. Fitzgerald had met her, during the Bermuda affair, and Biddlecomb was not insensible to the effect that she had had on him. She had that effect on most men.
"Yes, I have seen her," said Biddlecomb, "though I fear you mistake her name. She is no longer Virginia Stanton. She now goes by the name Virginia Biddlecomb."
At that, Fitzgerald's fine-tailored composure fell apart, to Biddlecomb's delight. The major sat forward and his mouth hung open. "I...I...," he stammered while Biddlecomb leaned back and folded his arms, savoring the moment.
And then he was back in Philadelphia, a hot, humid July day. And then he was back in her bed, their bed, her lithe body moving under him, and despite the heavy, soaked clothing he felt a warmth inside, the beginnings of arousal.
"Well, man, congratulations!" Fitzgerald said at last, his usual cool demeanor returning. "You are married? Why, you lucky dog! I am with child to hear the particulars, though I fear this is not the time or place."
"Indeed." Biddlecomb shook his head, like shaking off comforting sleep. He was again aware of the pelting of rain on the roof of General Washington's tent as he stared at the flame in the lantern, flickering and dancing in the many and conflicting drafts. "Forgive my distraction, I beg. I find the memory more pleasing by far than the present circumstance."
"Of course you do. I do too, and I wasn't even there. But pray, what is it you wish with the general?"
"Oh." Biddlecomb hesitated. It seemed such a silly thing, given the predicament in which the United States Army found itself. But he had come all that way.
"The fact is this. You recall Ezra Rumstick, my first officer during the Bermuda affair? Well, the Marine Committee has failed to recognize Rumstick's seniority based on the commission that the general issued him last summer. I have been to every person I can think of, and none feel willing or able to help in this measure. I thought perhaps that if the general could write a letter to the committee..."
At this, Major Fitzgerald burst out laughing. Not a smile or a chuckle of mirth but a full-bellied laugh that made everyone in the tent look over at him. Biddlecomb shifted uncomfortably, wanted to tell Fitzgerald, "Pray, sir, shut your bloody gob."
"Captain, forgive me," Fitzgerald began when his laughter had subsided enough for him to speak. "Your request is entirely proper, but I must say, as fortunate as you are in matters of the heart, you have the damnedest luck when it comes to military affairs. And once again you show the most exquisite timing."
"Well, sir, allow me to point out that there was not even a hint of the present battle when I left Philadelphia five days ago."
"I understand, Captain. However, I fear that the general will not have the time tonight to write your letter, and by this time tomorrow I fear you will no longer require it."
"And why not?"
"Because," Fitzgerald said, now sounding resigned rather than amused, "once Howe completes his approaches, I believe you shall witness the entire destruction of the Army of the United States."
Copyright © 1999 by James L. Nelson