Commandress in Chief – Excerpt
28 August 1814 – 1400 Hours, Alexandria, Virginia
Dolley and Sukey sat within the Great Room of the Wayward Boar tavern, finishing a late lunch and eavesdropping on nearby conversations. The people were scared and spoke in quiet, nervous voices with none of the laughter normally heard in the most raucous tavern in this prosperous port city.
The last British soldier had departed Washington four hours after Dolley bade farewell to General Ross. They arrived at Arlington at dawn on the 26th, and she stayed up just long enough to tell Anne of their adventures then collapsed into bed and slept straight through the day. Yesterday she’d risen late and prowled about the house waiting for Jemmy, and about the time she realized he wasn’t coming, Bobby returned from a visit to Old Jake bearing horrifying news: Fort Warburton, a dozen miles to the south and the Potomac’s only defense against seaborne invasion, had been destroyed. A British fleet was sailing up the river, and the city fathers of Alexandria were proposing surrender.
Sukey had spent much of yesterday with Mrs. Ewell, and now wore her hair in a bun secured by unobviously sharpened chopsticks. When Dolley announced her intention to visit Alexandria, she’d insisted Dolley wear the Dorothea Maddox disguise and spent a gleeful hour applying it, chattering nonstop about news gleaned from Mrs. Ewell. While Dolley had conversed with Ross, a British officer pulled the servants aside and offered them British citizenship and freedom. Sally declined, but the two young women, Esther and Ruth, agreed and accompanied the British army to Benedict, then would travel with them to the West Indies. Sukey had then laughed uproariously, wondering aloud if any of the enemy would survive the voyage since both women were free, protégés of Mrs. Ewell, and had volunteered for the mission. Sukey had also declined, telling the officer (most politely) that while American law permitted the freeing of slaves, British law bound its subjects in servitude to their King for life. This moved Dolley to tears, and she hugged and thanked the girl, smearing much of her painstakingly-applied, tear-soaked makeup across Sukey’s face, earning a squawk of dismay and a lengthy re-application.
“Dyson should be hung for cowardice.” Sukey slashed at her rare steak with a table knife. “Fort Warburton could have held out indefinitely.”
“Captain Dyson was recently appointed and inexperienced. I’m sure he did what he thought best.”
“Bah. Had you been there, what would you have done when he ordered the powder magazine blown before exchanging a single shot with the British?”
Anger flared in Dolley as she visualized the confrontation. Sukey grinned knowingly at her, and Mrs. Ewell’s words echoed in her soul: Just had to kill a few more, didn’t you? Becomes addictive, believe me! Dolley continued, quietly. “I’d have reasoned with him.”
“Your flashing blue eyes say otherwise.” Sukey shook her head and chuckled. “Can’t wait to watch you reason with Mayor Simms.”
The Wayward Boar’s owner, Sergeant Major Merryman, appeared at the far end of the Great Room, surveying customers as he toweled his hands. Tall and wiry, red hair only slightly faded by age, he’d once served with Colonel McKeefe and now coordinated the Ranger surveillance teams along the Potomac. His gaze fixed on Sukey, then wandered about the room. Obviously puzzled, he beckoned to his wife, Jean, whose whispered words evoked a stare followed by a wide-eyed expression of surprise. She exchanged grins with Dolley as he threaded through the tables to join them.
“It’s not safe here for you,” he said in a low voice. “Of course you knew that already.” He addressed Sukey. “Couldn’t you have chained her at home?”
“Nothing left of home but charred stone walls, Sergeant Major,” Sukey replied.
“That’s what has these people scared,” he said. “Afraid the British will burn Alexandria.”
“You blame them?” Dolley asked.
“Yes! They’ve gone soft, value comfort and money more than freedom.” He nodded toward the window and the river beyond it. “Simms and his ‘Committee for Vigilance’ cronies are aboard that British frigate, negotiating the city’s surrender.”
“So we’ve heard,” Dolley said. “I was going to try to talk some sense into him.”
“You be careful, Madam. He and that committee are wealthy men scared of losing their wealth. Not thinking straight. Dangerous, too.”
* * *