An Overview of the ‘Young America’ series
When did America start? Long before the colonists revolted against the mother country, Great Britain, I think. But it didn’t take on those characteristics that we recognize as foundational until that revolution started and thirteen colonies had to find a way to work together to form – if not a perfect union, at least a more perfect one.
A milestone at the beginning of that process was their most significant victory in the ‘hot’ war with Great Britain: the Battle of Yorktown. The ‘Young America’ series begins with the events leading up to, including, and immediately following that battle, as seen through the eyes of three participants: a young American from Baltimore, a young Frenchman from Brest, and a young Englishman from Liverpool – the drummer in red – the icon that encompasses all that happened during that fateful year, 1781.
A Drummer in Red, the first of the ‘Young America’ series, tells this story. The second book in the series, The Blood of Patriots and Tyrants, follows our three young men and the young country from 1782 until the inauguration of George Washington as the first president of the United States, on April 30, 1789, and the news of the French Revolution reaching our shores in November of that year.
The third book, on which I am currently working (Fire as Their Element), follows our young men in three directions as they participate in the growth and development of the power, prestige, and physical extent of our country. In it we see such disparate elements as the Barbary Wars, the signing of treaties with Spain, England, and France, the extension of the western frontier to the Mississippi River, and the duel between Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr.
As the lives of countries go, those twenty-three years do not represent great longevity. And considering how old the country is now, I suppose we could still reasonably call it young for quite a few more years after 1806. But the pieces were in place. Soon America would fight another war – called by some the last battle of the Revolutionary War. But we’ll be ending here for now.
I hope you’ll enjoy these books and learn from them. I’ve certainly learned a lot as I’ve been researching them. And the most prominent lesson I’ve learned is that very little has changed since those delirious days of revolution, of nation-building, and of inventing ways to keep the republic.
Here are a couple of excerpts to give you a feel for Fire as Their Element.
From Chapter 1: Maiden Voyage
Nothing much changed for a couple of days and nights. But on the third day, the gale freshened still more and Captain James called for a conference in his cabin.
Lewis was surprised to see all four of the so-called ‘idlers’ there, as well as himself and JJ.
“Because each of you will play a role in what I intend to do,” he said, “I’ve invited you here to explain it.”
He looked around the room. “This is not a discussion. I’m not looking for your opinions,” he said. “But I am looking for your complete cooperation and the fullest effort you can muster.”
He glanced at the charts on his desk, barely visible in the small light provided by the two storm lanterns, one of which swung overhead.
“Hurricanes are not supposed to happen in March,” he said. “But the falling barometer and the southwest direction the compass tells me we are being taken, lead me to believe that this is, in fact, a hurricane.”
He pointed at his chart. “Calculating from our known position three mornings ago when the British gave up their chase, and estimating our velocity from the log line, I can tell you it is unsupportable for us to continue on our current trajectory.” He looked at each of them again.
“The storm is pulling us in toward its center. We must get out.” He turned from them for a moment and looked out the windows of his cabin, then back.
“You are young and inexperienced. Only a few in the crew, like Williams, have seen it all and know what to do. The maneuver we are about to make would be difficult for even the most experienced crew. Therefore, I will rely on all of you to do what I ask, and we must rely on the skill and willingness of the crew to do what they are asked. They will not be told ahead of time what we are doing but will just follow orders. Make certain you give them clear and specific orders.”
“Now, for the idlers, here are my orders.”
He looked over at the ship’s master carpenter, a man named Bloom. “Chips, secure lumber of various sorts on deck. We’ll also need blocks and sheaves and material for seizing.”
He looked at Greaves, the bo’sun. “Bring up lines and sheets from the bilge and stow them in the sleeping quarters. Have everything in readiness.”
Next, he turned toward Gilly. “Doctor, make whatever flummery or lobscouse you can, as hot as you can, and get it to the crew for dinner. Also, get out the large barrel of rum so the Steward” — he looked over at Crispin — “can bring grog up to the watch on deck, or to all hands if necessary, at about mid-watch. We may be days at this and I don’t want them to freeze.” He looked back at Gilly. “Dinner will be at six bells, afternoon watch.”
Lewis had just struck two bells, forenoon watch. He pulled his chronometer from his pocket. It was nine-fifteen. Gilly had less than six hours to make something from nothing for nearly four-dozen men, and he had to keep it hot with only the galley’s small fire.
“Right,” said the Captain, gazing at Lewis’s chronometer. “Get out of here, Doctor, and get busy.”
Gilly scurried out as well as the heaving deck allowed, and shut the door behind him.
“Chips and Greaves, you’d better get to business as well.”
The two nodded and headed out.
The Captain looked back at JJ and Lewis. The storm lantern swung over him, alternately lighting his face and placing it in shadow. But even the shadow could not conceal its lines of anxiety.
“There will be no dog watches until further notice. Only one watch at a time is to be on deck unless I call all hands. We want the manpower we need, but we don’t want people swept overboard.”
He looked to Lewis. “Lifelines larboard and starboard, no free halliards.”
“We’ll be luffing nearly 75 degrees to be close-hauled on a starboard tack,” said the Captain, studying the faces of Lewis and JJ alternately. “With gallants, jibs, and stays. Can you handle that?”
“Yes, Sir,” they said in unison.
“Once we can steer our course it shouldn’t be too bad. It’s the maneuver itself that’s tricky. You gentlemen talk over how you’d like to do it and bring me your plan by two bells in the afternoon watch.”
He nodded dismissively as he removed his glasses and rubbed his forehead. “In the meantime, I have to decide how to get back on course to France once we’re out of this.”
He looked at the map before him and then up. “You’re still here?”
Lewis and JJ made haste to depart.
Excerpt from Chapter 4: Paris to Liverpool
With four horses, the Count’s berlinette was a good deal faster than any carriage Gilly or Crispin had ridden in before. Which was a good thing as it helped them mostly stay ahead of dust and flies. Even so, there were times they needed to shut the window flaps against midges and biting horseflies. This occurred particularly after they crossed the Seine on Pont de Tancarville and began skirting the Verier swamp, only about ten miles out of Le Havre. But the dim light and regular clomp-clomping of the horses set the three of them to sleep, so by the time they reached Tocqueville to change horses, they were refreshed and more eager to hear what Fersen was telling them about everywhere they went.
He was remarkably knowledgeable concerning the names of villages through which they passed, crops being farmed along the way, recent and historical events in those parts, and even local politicians and their revolutionary or royalist tendencies.
“You see, there,” he said, pointing to the charred stumps of a building next to the Seine. “That was a mill where they tried to charge exorbitant prices for flour. The peasants, and, to be truthful, the rabble, didn’t like it. You would think they might have chased the miller away and put the mill ‘under new management,’ as it were. But no. They had to burn it. And now they have to walk three extra miles to La Bouille to get their flour.”
“We were told there was a famine,” said Crispin. “That there was no flour.”
“Ah,” said Fersen. “It wasn’t so much that flour was not available, as that no one could pay the price wanted for it.”
“Why was that?”
“Pas d’espéces? Pas d’argent?”
“No notes, no coins, no money at all.”
Fersen, sitting across from Gilly gave him a strange look. “You don’t know?”
“I can guess,” said Crispin. “The treasury was empty; a great deal of it having gone to pay for the American Revolution.”
“Exactly!” responded Fersen. “Very good. How did you know?”
“I worked for newspapers in Philadelphia, New York, and Boston after the war. One learns things.”
“So your revolution led, inadvertantly, to the one here.”
When they arrived in La Bouille, Fersen told them they’d be staying the night. “It’s about a third of the way to Paris, but tomorrow we’ll make better time and have fewer vermin. We leave before dawn. Much of the way is through the Forêt de la Londe. We change horses at Caudebec. More forest. We cross the River Eure at Louviers, change horses at Gaillon, and hopefully make Vernon before dark.”
“That sounds like a very long day,” said Crispin.
“Our longest,” said Fersen. But then we make Paris by mid-day on the 13th, in time for the fête on the 14th.”
“Ah, oui,” said Gilly. “Nous célébrons la prise de la Bastille!” (We celebrate the capture of the bastille.)
Crispin frowned and turned to Gilly. “Why are you speaking only French, now?”
“And why you speak only Eenglish in America?” said Gilly, raising his voice.
“I speak English,” said Crispin.
“Et alors! Je parle Francais!” (So then! I speak French!)
“Gentlemen,” said Fersen. “What’s this all about?”
They both immediately began speaking in their own language, trying to make their case.
“Please! S’il vous plaît!” said Fersen, over the two of them. “Un à la fois! One at a time.”
Gilly and Crispin looked at one another and settled back into their seats. “D’accord,” said Gilly. “You first.”
For much of the rest of the evening and into the next day, Crispin in English and Gilly in mixed English and French, told the story of their meeting, of Lewis and Gilly’s escape from Chesapeake Bay, the adventure of the plums, getting back across the York River, the surrender at Yorktown…
“Where I was the drummer who beat for parley,” said Crispin.
“And wee never knew until beaucoup plus tard, (much later)” said Gilly.
They told him about Robert Morris and their interaction with Gouverneur Morris. Then Gilly told about his time in the boarding house in New York City and Crispin of his travels and travails in New England, his flight to Halifax and then back to New York via Ireland. By the time they reached Vernon, the next day, they understood one another much better.
“I try to speak more Eenglish with you,” said Gilly.
“And I’ll try to learn more French,” said Crispin.
“But perhaps you should hold on to your English,” said Fersen, grinning. “I have friends at a newspaper that longs for news from England. Would you like to have me speak to them about an employment for you?”
“Hee also do merveileux portrait et gravure,” said Gilly.
“All the better,” said Fersen.
“I would like that,” said Crispin. “We can’t live for long on the small amount of cash we have with us.”
“Probably for many fewer days than you think,” said Fersen. “Wait until you see the prices in Paris!”
But day two did not prove to be the longest day of their travels. On day three, the trip from Vernon to Paris took far longer than expected because the road was overrun with men, women, children, dogs, pigs, chickens, a few horsemen, and a small number of carriages, mostly smaller, but some like their own. Peasants ambled, beggars sauntered, children cavorted, thieves slithered, and soldiers – the fédérés, bearing banners of a few of the eighty-three départements into which the Assembly had recently divided France – marched. Above the prodigious uproar of the crowd the occasional flute or drum could be heard. Bottles were handed round as the mass moved forward.
“This is quite a party,” said Crispin when, for a moment, they got to a place on the road relatively free of traffic. “Is France always like this?”
“No. Only when it’s one year since the storming of the Bastille, tomorrow,” said the Count. “They come for the Fête de la Fédération!”
* * *
Finally, just before dark, they crossed the Seine at the edge of the Boulogne Forest, on the northwest, and neared Paris.
The Count knocked on the roof of the carriage to get the coachman to stop.
“Out,” he said, opening the door and by-passing the step to jump directly to the ground. Crispin and Gilly followed. He pointed ahead.
Squalor pervaded their immediate vicinity, but the slight elevation on this side of the river presented a panorama of the reddening sunlight reflecting off palaces, government buildings, church spires, and the blackened hulk of an immense stone building just beyond the mansions of Île St. Louis, straight ahead of them.
“The Bastille,” he said. “What’s left of it.”
“Incroyable!” said Gilly, squinting into the distance. (Incredible!)
More immediately obvious, however, was the profile of a burro pulling a two-wheeled wagon on top of a mountain of freshly dug dirt the height of the tallest tower of the École Militaire, just beyond it. It was followed by more burros and more wagons, depositing their loads of dirt and disappearing from sight as they turned and trotted off the top of the pile.
“Mais, what ees that?”
“Ah, oui,” said the Count. “The amphithéâtre du peuple.” (amphitheater of the people.)
“The what?” asked Crispin.
The Count looked over at Crispin and smiled. “At least, that’s what I call it. The Convention planned a great fête to celebrate our new status as a republic. It is to occur right there in front of the military school, on what they’re thinking of re-naming, the Champ de la Réunion. They decided to make an amphitheater for 70,000 people. Only they started too late and realized the twelve-thousand or so men they hired to move the dirt couldn’t do it on time. So they made a public announcement, et voilá! The people came. Come. I will show you a wonder.”
The Count spoke to the driver and they re-entered the coach. In a short while, they left the main road, turning right on a side road that led up a hill. When they got to the top, the stage pulled up and they got out again.
Directly below them, the river slid along like a flat orange snake, carrying reflections of the fiery torches that came to life as the sun set to their right. Once they could see it more clearly, the enormous mound across the river took on a more rational shape; something like a horseshoe with the rounded end toward them.
“It’s like an ant hill a tree has fallen on,” said Crispin.
Gilly laughed. “Et thee ants, they run furieuxment partout!” He looked over at Crispin. “Sorry, I don’t know thee Eenglish.”
“They run furiously, everywhere,” said the Count. “That is a good description. But wait until you see the crowds tomorrow!”
The Count took them to his mansion on Boulevard Cerutti where they were met at the entrance by a bevy of servants. Before going in, the Count said, “The day after tomorrow we will go to Monsieur Morris’s rooms on Rue de Richelieu,” he pointed east on his street, “just over there. The Bourse is nearby – and that one has everything you need.” He handed his gloves to a valet and his hat to another. “I will be engaged tomorrow, but you will have no trouble finding your way to the ceremony. Be sure to arrive early if you want to see anything.”