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Juliet Waldron

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Christmas Encounter
By Juliet Waldron
Tuesday, August 05, 2008

Rated "G" by the Author.

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My version of the wonderful Revolutionary Era film, "The Crossing," starring one of my heroes, Alexander Hamilton.

Alexander Hamilton was shivering, shivers so bone-shaking they threatened to knock him off his aching feet, but he kept trudging along. It was just before dawn on a Christmas morning. A howling wind blasted the marching column of men with sleet.
He could barely lift his arms, for ice had frozen over his coat like a suit of glassy armor. His companions in what remained of the New York Artillery Company tramped along before and behind. Men and officers alike were exhausted, but somehow they kept moving, pushing their aged cannon along the rutted track.

The entire patriot army had just performed a maneuver of dubious sanity: crossing the ice-filled Delaware. They had just marched through the night to attack the enemy, who were snug in warm beds in small river town of Trenton.

Alexander stumbled, steadied himself against the nearest cannon. He'd come to be fond of these relics. Until General Washington’s campaign, most of these ancient pieces had not been discharged since the French and Indian War.

Each shot fired put the lives of the soldiers at risk. In New York, at the very beginning, two of his men had been killed when one venerable weapon had burst. Alexander was familiar with the idiosyncrasies of those that remained.

After those first runaway battles around New York City, he'd emerged with a black powder face and ears that rang for days, but otherwise none the worse for wear. His men, who had been dubious about having a slender, bookish collegian for a captain, had begun to take him seriously. Not only had he faced death alongside them, but "the boy" hit what he aimed at.

So long since summer, the bloody and nearly fatal farce that had been the Battle of White Plains, where militia companies, one after the other, had run without firing a shot! For a moment, Alexander let his mind wander back to that day. His still handsomely outfitted provincial artillery had been pale with fear, but had kept good discipline and held their posts -- the last to be overrun -- among the woods and sunny meadows of Manhattan.

Henry Knox, last year a Boston bookseller, recreated as Artillery Commander of Washington's army, had come running with the news that the American retreat had been cut off. Despite their apparently hopeless position, a command was given to turn all cannon northward to protect the infantry. They had resolved to defend to the last their post at Bayard's Hill.

Then, with redcoats closing around them, and Alexander ready to die, one of General Putnam's aides, Colonel Aaron Burr, had come dashing up, his horse in a lather. The image of this gallant youth had stuck in his mind, perhaps because he was as small and elegantly made as Hamilton himself, like a dark-haired, dark-eyed twin. Colonel Burr had shouted there was one road still open -- and that he'd lead them to it across country.

Following Burr, who had spent years hunting through these woods, they'd escaped the closing jaws. The company had rout-marched, dragging their cannon and baggage nine miles through brush and onto the road to Harlem Heights. Once with the main force of the army, the discipline of his men continued to hold, and they'd followed his order to dig emplacements and throw up earthworks before setting watch.

That night Hamilton had imagined he was totally exhausted, physically and emotionally stretched almost to the breaking of his own formidable will. He’d been warm, then.

This morning he was somewhere in the Jerseys, in the middle of a war he'd once imagined he'd wanted. So far, it had been a war without glory or advancement. In fact, as time went on, it seemed increasingly likely that they would all be hanged. Under the command of General Washington, the army had lost and retreated, lost and retreated, again and again.

In between defeats and running, the Continentals had sickened and starved. Out of the well-drilled and brightly uniformed hundred that had left New York City with Captain Hamilton, only thirty-six were left. Although he'd tried to be a good captain, using every strategy he could think of to get the pay and supplies to which the men were entitled from the scarce stock available, there had been desertion. Some had died fighting; more had died of camp fever. Worse, a lot of fellows had, when their time was up, simply gone back to their farms.

Summer soldiers, the pamphleteer Tom Paine called them. Alexander could not blame the men who'd left, feeling deep in his heart that they were guilty of nothing more reprehensible than pragmatism. Along with his men, the young captain endured the pangs of hunger. His body had been stripped of all excess -- nothing left these days but a frame of bone held together by sparse, hard muscle.

The raggedy thirty-six were thoroughly disheartened. So was Alexander. His college money, that shipload of sugar which had been charitably dedicated to his education, he'd spent in supplying his company. The future he'd hoped to seize in this rich and rebellious colony had never seemed further away.

The Continental army had been pushed by General Howe straight across New Jersey, and had, up until a few hours ago, been hiding behind the narrow barrier of the Delaware River. They'd managed to commandeer or destroy all the large boats on the east side before they'd crossed into Pennsylvania. It was one small thing that had gone right.

"Thompson," Alexander asked the sergeant who was wading through the crusted snow beside him, "have you got any idea how much farther?"

"No, Captain," came back the provincial's half-expected reply. "Never been in New Jersey 'til the run we just took across it."

"I hope we get there soon," Alexander muttered inside his frozen, sodden muffler. He was giddy with misery, suffering a terrible catarrh. His head and chest ached; his hands and feet and face stung and burned. He tried to rouse his strength up by focusing upon the upcoming battle.

One again we'll fight the British. Fight them -- by God -- after all this running!

Nevertheless, the pumping thrill of anticipation he'd felt as they'd joined the enemy in summer was nearly impossible to muster, a dead horse incapable of being flogged to life. It was as if his mind was as frozen as his feet.

They would fight -- eventually. They would be killed, or not be killed -- eventually. In the meantime, they were on an endless march in an icy hell, putting one aching, numb foot in front of the other.

"If it goes on sleeting, I won't be able to lift my arms."

There was a grunt from the stalwart sergeant. The company, as he scanned what he could see by muffled lantern light, looked like a troop of snowmen. The cannon were glazed and dripping, metal covered with heavy icing.

How often he thought about food. But what had there been for the last few weeks? Gritty flat cornmeal cake -- or mush -- the kind of slop they fed slaves.

It seemed a very long time since Thomas had caught the goose. At the time, Alexander had been too hungry to scruple about exactly where it had come from. After all, the Jerseys were full of burned out farms and straying livestock.

He'd heard the men joking. "Killed a Hissian, did ya?"
"Yes, with my bare hands, by Christ!"
"Always knew you for a bold warrior, Davy!"

When Alexander had asked what they were talking about, they'd explained with those canny peasant faces that a "Hissian" was not a fierce and dreaded Hessian. Toothless Davy held up the big limp body of the goose by the neck, his theft one of those bravado-deriding, run-away-as-fast-as-you-can American soldier jokes.

A few months ago Alex would have taken them to task, even though the owner of the goose was doubtless long gone. That night, he'd helped them pluck it.

With a scavenged pot and some tired turnips and potatoes discovered in the root cellar of a ruined house, they had eaten. Not much, but a greasy mouthful of something savory.

His stomach growled, begging in response to memory. Sternly, Alex tried to put the goose from his mind.

Shuffling along on pins and needles feet, he thanked heaven that he'd had the cannon stuffed with straw. When they got to wherever it was His Excellency George Washington was leading them, the weapons might be of some use.

Finally, in the paltry light of a dripping winter dawn, they saw a small whitewashed town, smoke rising from the chimneys. Someone must have seen them coming, for in the street below there were a few men staggering about, trying to get organized. A guttural shout of alarm rose through the frigid air.

"Der Feind! Der Feind! Heraus! Heraus!"

As the Americans began to ready their cannon, a smart barrage of musketry fire sent balls whistling past his ears. At last, Alexander's blood rushed. The battle had begun, and he must sight and adjust, shout commands, while his men rushed around, serving the cannon, all while surrounded by flying balls and ever greater clouds of blinding black powder. Hamilton sent a prayer to his severe Presbyterian God to keep the cannon intact.

Peering through smoke and snow, he tried to gauge where his first shots had gone. Fire was returned, and though he noted the balls, their flight, even so close, did not shake his concentration. Another roar, and this time Alexander was rewarded by the sight of tall metal helmets going over, a falling row of tin soldiers.

Under covering musketry fire of their own troops, they hauled the cannon forward, he and his men moving with the front line of infantry to take a stand on the upper part of what appeared to be the main street. The reloading frenzy repeated, while volley after volley went screaming past. Something almost knocked Alexander's tricorn from his head, even though he'd tied it against the wind with a scarf. There was neither pain nor a gush of blood into his eyes, so he forgot it.

Eight horses emerged from a side street, pulling a pair of cannon. Hessians stumbled around, frantic to set up. Hamilton was hoarse from shouting, tugging at his cannon, urging his men on. At this range, whichever side fired first would be the soldiers left standing. Slipping and sliding in the ice covered snow, he adjusted the range.

Cannon spoke at the same instant, and soldiers fell face down into the snow. Balls roared past. Flying metal and frozen dirt stabbed and pelted.

"Got 'em, Captain!" his men shouted, scrambling back to their feet, rushing like wild men to once more serve the cannon. In the street below, enemy artillery was surrounded by milling soldiers, not a one of them in a complete uniform. Their snow was splashed red.

"Grape now!" Hamilton shouted. Heedless of the shriek of balls from what remained of the ragged line below, the grape was stuffed and sent on its way.

After that smoke cleared, he saw Hessian infantry running, retreating into a side street, cannon abandoned. The American infantry charged, whooping like Indians. Captain Hamilton's cannon were swabbed and dragged forward again, but another order to fire was not forthcoming.

Pushing the nearest weapon, catching welcome heat from the bore, Alexander shook in every limb. His ears rang painfully; his head felt as if it might explode. Still, it seemed that he'd not only survived the night in the ice and wind, but the battle for the little town of Trenton. He went on giving orders in a voice cracking with illness and strain, trying to keep his men together, to make out if anyone was wounded -- and, if so, how badly.

"Hey! Yer one lucky fella, Captain," his sergeant cried. When Hamilton gave him a blank look, he added, "Check yer hat."

Not wanting to expose his head to the wind, Hamilton tugged the brim forward and rolled up his eyes. Against the gray sky he saw there was a half-moon shape bitten in the felt, the place where a ball had passed. For a moment, he fingered the rough edge, realizing it had missed his skull by inches.

Six months ago this would have occasioned a nervous overflow of talk and graveyard humor. This morning it was just another event. There was far greater matter in being cold, sick, exhausted and stomach-twisting hungry.

Meanwhile, the American infantry broke line, running into the white clapboard town waving their guns and whooping. The artillery continued to march as a unit, towing, pushing and pulling the gun carriage. As they struggled along, faces blackened and streaked, an imposing figure mounted on a huge steel gray moved alongside.

As Alexander gazed into the snow-dappled sky, the tall officer called, "What company is this?"

Hamilton stepped outside his column and attempted, although his ice-covered coat now seemed to weigh at least 400 pounds, to make a smart salute.

"New York Artillery, sir. Captain Alexander Hamilton, at your service, and proud to have the honor, Your Excellency."

The face beneath the tricorn was pockmarked and severe, as if carved from pitted marble. "And I am proud to have such brave and resolute soldiers. Your men are in good order, Captain." There was a trace of a smile as George Washington surveyed the ill-clad, sooty-faced company, now standing irregularly at attention in the snow.

The glorious moment with the commander-in-chief was over. Washington tapped the sides of his horse and was immediately swept up by a mounted contingent of green-sashed aides de camp. Captain Hamilton fell into the straggling tail of his own company.

A couple of his men had been hurt, but not seriously. Their comrades were helping them hobble along.

"What'd His Excellency say?" Sergeant Thomas asked. Hamilton suddenly wondered if he looked like Thomas: a powder-blackened face with two bright blue eyes.

"General Washington says we did a good job, and that we should be proud!" Hamilton called this out as loudly as he could, hoping these loyal sufferers would hear and take heart. Then, in a softer voice, spoken just for Thomas' ears, he said, "But I confess I'm too damned cold and too damned hungry to feel a sensation as subtle as pride." He didn't mention sick, although now that the engagement was over, he felt dizzy and lightheaded.

"Amen to that, sir," murmured Thomas. They continued forward, wading through a leg-lacerating drift.

Continental infantry was herding captured Hessians into a group in the middle of the square. From somewhere close, came a renewed chorus of happy cheers. Although his ears rang and roared, Alexander thought he recognized the particular joy of soldiers who have discovered a cache of rum.

The front end of his line, about fifteen men, broke and stumbled toward a cask that was even now rolling out into the street with the assistance of the Continental infantry, directly into their path.

Alexander quickened his pace. They'd been so obedient, so brave, had won in the middle of this frozen hell -- but -- by God!

What if the soldiers got drunk and the British sent a flying cavalry over from Princeton? Though aching in every limb, he straightened and hurried forward, to see if he could maintain good military order.

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