Hampton – Excerpt
27 June 1813, Hampton, Virginia
Dolley sat beside the driver of the presidential carriage, surveying the devastation before her: the town of Hampton, ancient and beautiful, was aflame and, apparently, deserted.
Jemmy had been stricken with a near-fatal bout of malaria the first week of June, and Dolley spent two exhaustive weeks tending to him. He was now recuperating at their home in Montpelier, under the tender care of Mother Madison. Dolley had been nearly as haggard as Jemmy, so Mother Madison, a sweet old lady with a temperament similar to Dolley’s, suggested a shopping trip to Richmond. After several splendid days of shopping she traveled east to Yorktown, the site of the battle that ended the War for Independence, the place where her father had made her most treasured family heirloom, his silver-handled knife. After days of gaiety, the people of Yorktown recommended she visit the village of Hampton, twenty miles to the east, a gorgeous village, founded three years after Jamestown.
Lieutenant Daniel Malone, commander of her six-Dragoon escort, had seen the smoke from afar and had been reluctant to approach, fearing the presence of British. Dolley knew the British were in the Chesapeake Bay area far to the north, and ordered the Lieutenant to proceed with all haste so that they might render aid. Not every town could afford a pump engine for fighting fires, and in a stiff breeze, one house fire could set alight an entire town.
The carriage now sat in the road on the edge of town. Crackling fire devoured a small house to the left, the thick smoke a billowing gray curtain that blocked the view down the road. The amount of smoke and flame they’d observed for the last five miles indicated dozens of buildings were afire.
“What do you think, Daniel?” she asked.
Malone shook his head. “No shooting, no people. Don’t know what to think.”
Through the smoke came the distant screams of a girl, full of pain and terror, and Dolley was off the carriage, and into the smoke, coughing and running toward the sound, ignoring the calls from Sukey and Malone. Beyond the smoke the town seemed deserted and still, oblong bundles littered the street. She jogged to the left through more smoke, toward the woman’s voice.
“Stick ‘er good. Make ‘er pay!”
She followed the harsh voice through another thick gray cloud and emerged into a hazy side street. Four green-clad soldiers held a nude young girl to the ground, a fifth man, green trousers about his ankles, was raping her while a sixth man, dressed in the red of a British officer, watched and laughed.
It was his voice she’d heard, and a moment later he looked toward her and leered. “There’s another, lads! Quick! Before she scampers away!”
One of the green-clad soldiers leaped to his feet, all bloodshot brown eyes and grasping hands, and ran toward her. She drew and cocked her pocket pistol, aimed at the man’s right eye, and felt a strong breeze against her back, blowing the smoke into and then past the soldiers, clearing the air. The soldier looked beyond her, eyes wide with fear, stopped and scrambled away from her, as did the officer and, a second later, the men holding the girl. Dragoons swept around her in a swirl of pounding hooves, sabers drawn, pursuing the fleeing enemy. Only one man remained, stumbling to his feet, pulling his trousers up, then dropping them, raising his hands in surrender then waiving them frantically in stark terror. Sukey ran past Dolley and the blunderbuss cradled in her arms boomed, engulfing the man in smoke, tumbling him to the ground. Sukey stood over the fallen man, inspecting the ghastly pie-pan size wound in the chest as she reloaded her ‘buss.
Dolley un-cocked and holstered her pistol, knelt beside and held the girl, who thrashed and kicked with frantic vigor at first, then held Dolley and sobbed.
“Your weapons are behind you, Mizz Dolley. I’ll look inside for a blanket.”
She rocked the girl, crooning to her in a soothing voice she hoped would bring comfort. The carriage rattled up and stopped and the driver dismounted, musket in hand.
“Took me a while to find you,” he said. “Most of Hampton is either burning or smoldering. Bodies everywhere.”
Sukey returned and wrapped the girl in a blanket and handed Dolley a cup of water.
“What happened?” Dolley asked of the girl.
“British attacked yesterday. Thousands. Drove off the militia.” She sipped at the water. “They were angry, started killing and burning. Mamma told me to hide. I thought they’d gone, but . . . they grabbed me . . . ” the girl buried her head in Dolley’s shoulder and sobbed hysterically. Dolley helped her to her feet and into the shade of a nearby tree.
The Dragoons returned. They’d slain the soldiers and determined that the immediate area was clear of enemy. Malone wished to conduct a quick reconnaissance of Hampton to determine the enemy’s current location, and Dolley instantly approved.
Sukey beckoned to Dolley, and they entered the nearby house untouched by the flames. An elderly man lay just within, beaten, bayoneted and scalped. The unclothed corpse of a middle aged woman lay in the grime of the kitchen floor, body mutilated, throat cut. In the bedroom the body of a man lay on a blood-soaked mattress; from the nightclothes and medicine bottles he’d been murdered in his sickbed. Beside the bed lay his dog, battered and broken, pinned to the wooden floor by a bayonet, whimpering. Sukey put it out of its misery.
Sickened, they explored partially burned houses nearest the carriage and found similar scenes: men murdered and scalped, dwellings looted then set afire.
They called out, and soon women emerged from hiding, numb-faced wretches whose torn clothing revealed bruised and filthy bodies. Dolley moved from woman to woman, passing out food and drink, digging through her trunks for replacement clothing, doing whatever she could to relieve their suffering, knowing it would not be enough to mend lives shattered by British brutality. One of the women, an older lady who endured the ordeal better than the others, began to organize them, sending some to fetch water, others to find food and clothing, still others to help Sukey find survivors and bring them to the carriage. Within the hour there were dozens, huddled together. Their collective horror at first exhausted Dolley, and then began to infuriate her.
She found herself holding a white-haired grandmother, who sobbed as she told of her attacker: “I asked him why he was doing this, and he laughed at me, said it was the price of rebellion against the Crown.” This was not the act of a few evil men, but the barbaric policy of an evil empire. The soldiers had been encouraged to rape and murder and burn, and made no secret of it.
She kissed the woman, stood, and surveyed the group. Some sat staring into space, some talked quietly, a few slept. A dozen women including the young girl being raped when Dolley arrived, stood around the corpse of the enemy soldier as Sukey explained how she’d used her blunderbuss to kill the man.
“You gonna notch the barrel?” asked the girl.
Sukey shook her head. “The Lord of Armies will tell me the total after I die and report in to Heaven.”
Sukey handed the girl the dead man’s musket. “I know where there are five more dead sons of Britain. Who wants to claim their weapons?” Most raised their hands and followed Sukey down the street. Minutes later they returned, each clutching a musket or pistol. Sukey lined them up and began teaching them how to load and shoot their weapons. A few other curious women drifted toward them.
A horseman approached through the haze, his impeccable uniform declaring him a captain within the local militia, his bearing indicating he bought, rather than earned, the position. He ignored Dolley, ignored the group of women, and rode to the carriage driver.
“I am commandeering this carriage for my regiment,” he said. “Tell those women inside to get out.”
The driver looked to Dolley for instructions. Sukey had moved to the side, watching the road behind the captain, coughing to cover the sound of cocking her ‘buss. Dolley checked her weapons and walked toward the man, fighting to keep her rage in check. He sees the women inside the carriage are badly hurt and being tended by their friends. He doesn’t care! All he wants is a pretty carriage to present to his Colonel.
The captain ignored everyone but the driver. “Did you not hear me? I ordered you to—”
“Who are you, sir?” Dolley barked, standing at his stirrup. “What unit?”
He scowled at Dolley. “Captain Grouser of the James City Light Infantry, if it’s any of your business.” He glared at the driver. “Now do as I—”
“Your regiment was responsible for defending Hampton,” she said, projecting her voice so everyone could hear. “Where were you when the British were raping and pillaging?”
“Tactical withdrawal in the face of superior enemy forces.” Grouser glared condescendingly at Dolley. “Leave the fighting to the experts and follow orders like a good little girl. Take this carriage to—”
“You ran away?” Dolley shouted. “You left this town and these people defenseless to save your own worthless hide?”
The women were on their feet, and Dolley could feel their outrage. More than a few called the captain a coward and he purpled in anger. She cut the girth strap holding his saddle to his horse; the saddle slid off, slowly at first, then picking up speed as the captain flailed the air and cried out in surprise just before slamming into the ground. He was climbing to his feet when Dolley’s pistol caught him across the jaw, swung with all of her pent-up fury. He dropped to the dirt and stayed there, unmoving.
“Coward!” She spit in his face, then kicked him, flattening his nose. The women applauded and cheered.
“Not to criticize, Madam Presidentress, but wouldn’t that anger be better if directed toward the British?” Lieutenant Malone grinned at her from the back of his horse, flanked by the rest of his Dragoons, all grinning. She hadn’t heard them ride up.
“Sometimes the counseling of officers requires a woman’s touch.” Dolley exhaled heavily. “Where are the British?”
“There are too many of them, Madam.” Lieutenant Malone lowered his telescope.
“That depends,” Dolley said, “on your method of engagement.”
They were two miles southwest of Hampton, on a low, sandy ridge overlooking the British landing site. The sun was to their backs, a finger’s width from setting. Green-coated soldiers, laden with loot, many drunk and laughing, were loading into longboats under the supervision of red-clad officers. Some three hundred others lounged about, awaiting their turn to be ferried to the frigate.
Dolley handed her telescope to Sukey and unlimbered her carbine. A gunsmith had installed an adjustable sight to improve accuracy, and she set it to two hundred yards.
“Madam, what are you doing?” he asked.
“When I shoot that Major, have your men volley-fire into the enemy. Even with smoothbores you should be able to hit some of them.”
“But that frigate!”
“Sun’s glaring off the water into their eyes. Give me three volleys, then we’ll withdraw.”
Dolley aligned her sights on the chest of the fat British Major, aiming at whatever it was that glittered at its center. She breathed slowly and deeply, barely conscious of the Lieutenant’s commands to his Dragoons as she focused on the target, and prayed:
Heavenly Father, life is a sacred gift, bestowed in Thy grace upon undeserving mankind. Three years ago I took human life, and have prayed, daily, that I would never have to do so again. But the eagle must defend her hatchlings from the condor and the mother bear must protect her cubs from the wolf. These lions have feasted upon the helpless of Hampton, and now depart to seek fresh prey. Shield and protect us as we defend the nation Thou hast given to us. I ask these things in the Name of the Lord of Armies, Jesus Christ our Savior. Amen!
Sukey stood beside her, observing through a telescope. The Dragoons stood in a line, muskets raised, awaiting her shot.
“Can she really hit that man at this range?” Malone asked Sukey.
Blessed be the Lord my strength, who has trained my hands for war . . . . Dolley paused in her breathing.
Sukey giggled. “Payne is her middle name.”
. . . and my finger for battle . . . .
Dolley caressed the trigger; smoke obscured the target . . . .
And then all Heaven broke loose.
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