1. The Continuing Retreat
"A Continental Christmas"
1. The Continuing Retreat
December 8, 1776, McConkey's Ferry, Eastern Bank of the Delaware River, New Jersey
"My apologies, General Mercer, I couldn't hear that." General Washington said, circling his horse around the physician-turned-general, who stood patiently as the horse almost pranced around him. The army's advance - some would call it a retreat - had been interrupted by the massive river now before them. Mercer stood upon the riverbank, hat in hand, looking over a river which bore a few patches of thin, clear ice in the eddies along the shore.
"Sir, the army is exhausted. We are commanded by bookshopkeepers, fishermen, lawyers, farmers, and doctors. Aside from yourself, none of us are military men by trade, and these men, begging their pardon, do not have a proper soldier's training. They are simply well experienced militia."
"And you have all performed better than any military men could have expected." General Washington allowed as the horse came to a stop and he began to dismount, nodding to General Alexander as he approached on horseback.
Mercer continued, "True, sir, but in the last five months, this army has been depleted to less than an eighth of its former size, and it has run in terror before the... enemy... across an entire colony. I am myself more a doctor than a general, and I say this army is overworked and underfed, and needs a few good days of hearty meals and bed rest."
"What are you proposing as a treatment, Doctor-General Mercer?" Washington narrowed his eyes.
"That we should set up camp here, and rest the men. We have five hundred reported sick already."
General Alexander, who preferred to be called Lord Stirling, according to his dubious inheritance of a Scottish title, dismounted and looked Mercer square in the face. "That would be suicide. That redcoated army behind us is well fed, as you suggest, and although they are not well rested, they can easily crush us against this river. As they would have done in Brooklyn if it had not been for the storm and the fog."
"And the fishermen." Washington agreed, passing the reins to his assistant, Lieutenant Hamilton. "Hamilton, find me Colonel Glover, of the Marblehead regiment." Pausing, he glanced around, noting that the common soldiers were staying well away from the three conferring Generals, while spreading out to find dry spots to rest under the trees along the riverbank. "General Stirling is correct. We cannot rest here, not for a week, not for an hour. The enemy is almost upon our heels. This army must cross the river, or we will be destroyed."
Hamilton rushed off, the General's stallion following behind, and the three Generals continued their discussion. Mercer insisted, "Your excellency, I defer to your military experience, but I repeat that this army needs to rest."
"I agree," Washington said, looking down to meet Mercer's eyes. "Our men still wear what remains of their summer clothes. Many have worn through their shoes. We are short on supplies, and some of the men do not even have proper blankets. But as General Stirling stated, this is not the place."
"You have stated their condition quite well, sir. We cannot expect these men to proceed much further." Mercer insisted. "This army is upon the edge of death."
"We shall not need to, I think. We shall camp... there." He gestured broadly, across the wide river.
Just then, Hamilton galloped back up on Washington's large white horse, Glover looking very out of place on Hamilton's smaller brown steed. "He insisted, General."
"No matter," Washington waved Hamilton off, as Glover dismounted. "Colonel Glover, we are in need of your men and their special skills, I think. We must cross this river." The commanding general of the Continental Army was staring across the width of the Delaware River, a few stray pieces of ice floating down its course as he spoke.
"How, sire?" Colonel Glover replied. "Do we swim the river? How do we put an army of two thousand across such a river? Where are the boats?"
"I've come this way before." General Alexander, or perhaps Lord General Stirling, replied. Of course, he had; before the war, he had been chief surveyor of the royal colony of New Jersey, a fact he had mentioned several times over the last few weeks. The knowledge he possessed had doubtlessly saved the army a dozen times while retreating across his own colony. "Upriver, a few miles, is an iron mine and foundry. They float the ore downriver to Philadelphia in large, flat bottomed boats, which should be ideal for our purposes."
Colonel Glover tilted his head. "If it floats, my Marbleheaders can get it across this river."
General Washington stepped forward, and said, "Then, Colonel, get those boats. General Alexander, send parties up and down river. I want every boat, every raft, on this river for twenty miles on either side of us. If their owners won't rent them, take them. Destroy them if you must. The rest, we need. We must cross this river, and leave the... the army behind us no chance to do so." He still could not bring himself to refer to their pursuers as the King's army. "Either we cross the river, or it's over, so get those boats."
Glover turned to Stirling. "Where is this mine?"
The Marblehead regiment and a contingent of Connecticut troops Glover had recruited stood outside the foundry - their guns still raised in marching position, but obviously a threat to the outnumbered civilian staff. Glover himself stepped forward to speak to the owner and operator. "You are the proprietor of these iron works, sire?"
"Who are you?" the man demanded, obviously feeling that his position was self-evident.
Colonel Glover replied, "By order and necessity of the Continental Army, we have commandeered your fleet of boats for the temporary use of the Continental Army's efforts in this area."
"What?" The man said, incredulous but not raising his voice. "By God, sir, is this your 'revoloution', is this your 'liberty and equality'... to destroy a man's business? To rob him of his property?"
"I follow my orders, sire."
Colonel Glover folded his hands, resisting the urge to try to slap some sense into the man. "General Washington."
"Then God damn him for the bandit that he is! How am I gonna make a livin'? Who's gonna pay me?"
"The Continental Congress. And our eternal thanks for your generous assistance in this matter." Glover turned to walk away, apparently deciding the conversation was over.
The proprietor called out after him, "You and your damned Continental Congress. I'll see you hanged, every last one of you!" He started randomly pointing at the troops, as they marched off toward the iron works' docks. "You will all suffer the consequences! You don't stand a chance! Give up now!"
In the dark of sunset, a strange flotilla had been assembled at McConkey's Ferry, and every able hand who knew how to pull an oar was pressed into service. In the growing darkness and confusion, a few civilians who had been travelling with the army were carried across as well. One, a young lady well known to the Marblehead men, was even given an oar to pull.
As the last boat nosed out into the river with General Washington himself seated in it, the Commander in Chief of the Continental Army looked at the young girl seated opposite him, not yet eighteen. Her face showed remarkably little strain as she began pulling him across the river, her worn blue silk tricorner shadowing her eyes in the dim traces of starlight. "Where are you from, young one?"
"Marblehead, Massachusetts," she replied, a few beads of sweat on her brow in the cold, dark night. Her eyes caught something over his shoulder, and he twisted around to see Colonel Glover himself at the tiller. "Just lending Uncle John and our army a hand, General," she added, with no strain of the work showing in her voice either.
"We've met before. Your uncle is Colonel Glover." Washington said. It wasn't a question.
"Yes, sir. I visited the camp outside Boston. I was a volunteer courier for the army there, at least on paper as we seemed never to be needed much, and there was that ghost in your kitchens."
General Washington nodded, recalling the incident. "Your name is Liberty, I recall."
Libby blushed, just slightly, at such an important personage troubling themselves with remembering her. "I'm pleased to be remembered, General Washington."
"It is not hard to recall what we are all here fighting for." Washington joked, a smile evident around the corners of his eyes, though it did not extend to his jaw.