For All Nails #239: They Tell Me He Was Lonely

By David Mix Barrington

"By 1788 Bland believed himself master of Virginia from the ocean to the Blue Ridge. But from his mountain redoubt, Marion maintained a network of irregulars, watching and waiting for the opportunity to strike against their hated overlord. The outbreak of war against France and Spain in August of 1795, it seemed, might at last provide that opportunity."
-- Ralph Ocon, from The People We Left Behind: The Remnant in the C.N.A. (Mexico City, 1959), p. 76. FN1

Outer Banks, North Carolina, S.C., CNA
28 October 1795

Henry Richard Gooch spotted the boat first, fighting the Atlantic surf nearly at the horizon. Better get that sail down soon, he thought, we might not be the only ones here. Not that we shouldn't be, he thought, even in wartime. The Tory Carolina militia wasn't good for much, and Bland's Virginia thugs, who were, didn't normally range down here past the border. Still, you couldn't be too careful.

Gooch pulled out a rusty spyglass, good enough to count the shadows on the boat in the moonlight. Six rowers, pulling hard, and two passengers. He judged their likely landfall and motioned his own six men down off the dunes. Tracks, he thought, then felt relief as he watched the wind begin to fill their marks. Once the tide came in, there would be little evidence of this meeting, which was just as it should be.

Two of the sailors leapt out of the boat and began to pull it up. The passengers -- officers, Gooch saw, in what must be French uniforms -- stepped out into the ankle-deep water. A long musket shot away, he reckoned. But no matter, they had no firearms visible and seemed to be the friends they were expecting.

The taller of the two officers called out. "Would none of you be speaking French then? Or Italian? Faith, I'll be talking for all of us, then. Lieutenant Terence O'Reilly, at your service."

The two groups had now almost met. The sailors seemed anxious to push off again and were muttering to each other in what he supposed was French. "I'm Hank Gooch. Honored to make your acquaintance."

"And yours, sir. Permit me to introduce my superior, Captain--"

The other officer spoke quickly in French, cutting him off. O'Reilly listened, then began again.

"Himself says his name is not important at this juncture. But though we might neither of us be true-born Frenchmen, so to speak, we are both officers in His Christian Majesty's service. And we are well met, sir, if you are indeed here to take us to your Mister Fox."

"Mister Fox?"

"The leader of your band of irregulars?"

"Oh, you mean General Marion. The Swamp Fox." FN2

"Indeed. If you can undertake to take us to this general and return us here in eight days, I can dismiss these worthies and we may be on our way."

The Great Dismal Swamp
Virginia, S.C., CNA
31 October 1795

Francis Marion liked the French captain, though of course he could understand scarcely a word the man said. Still, his voice was precise, and his words as translated by O'Reilly were clear and sensible. Marion could easily imagine these men at home on the battlefields of Europe, particularly in the formal uniforms they both wore. Exploring officers, that made them, not spies. It might make a difference were they taken by the Royal Navy, he supposed, but Bland's boys would still have strung them up on the nearest tree, along with the irregulars.

The captain seemed to respect Marion and his men, as well. The word O'Reilly translated as "irregulars" was not irreguliers or even partisans but "maquisards". Apparently, on the captain's home island the nobles were constantly menaced by peasant bands operating out of the maquis, or rocky scrub land. And his boys qualified as "peasants", he thought, scraping out a living from the rough ground of the Appalachians, barely out of reach of the Duke of Newmarket and his Legion FN3. The landed versus the landless, like it had been in Europe for centuries. Though maybe Gooch, with his few hundred acres and his ten or twenty slaves, would be counted as some sort of a "squire", like Marion himself back in the old days. But why, he wondered, was the captain sympathetic to the peasants. As far as he understood, you needed some claim to noble birth to become a French officer. Though they must have stretched that in O'Reilly's case, surely? Was it enough to be a "descendent of Irish kings"?

The captain had asked probing questions about Marion's potential force. Now he was ready to sum up his proposal, again speaking through O'Reilly:

"General, with your assistance we can place three thousand regular French troops in Norfolk. There are two necessary conditions for this. French naval forces must secure the waters. Your men must suppress the harbor ports and gain control of the harbor. I am satisfied that your plan for the latter is feasible."

It felt strange to have this professional call him a "general", thought Marion, for all that he held a commission from the Continental Congress. Of course that Congress had surrendered in 1778, and disavowed the incorrigibles who'd followed him into the mountains instead of Walking to Jefferson. And the Commonwealth of Virginia had made its peace with the Crown as well not long after, to its everlasting shame -- Theodorick Bland was in theory the direct successor of the late Patrick Henry, the man he had betrayed.

The captain was speaking again. O'Reilly seemed to pause to phrase this translation especially carefully.

"General, I ask your pardon for a frank observation. My estimate is that without French regulars in Norfolk, you would be unable to hold the city against the subsequent counterattack."

"I quite agree, Captain. Bland has two forces of a thousand men each, with fifty cannon. We would be stretched too thin on the perimeter. If we take the governor's palace we could hold it for some time against a siege, but the outcome would not be in doubt."

"I appreciate your honesty. In this case, we must consider carefully whether your men should commit themselves before the naval situation has been resolved."

"Don't you want the fight to have started onshore as a diversion from the naval attack?"

"Normally, I would agree. But in this instance the two battles are not--" O'Reilly searched for the right word. "--not congruent, not measurable, they are independent. If the Navy fails, then no effort by your land forces can bring victory. Thus I suggest it may be more prudent for your men to wait, at least until a French ship is within range of the harbor forts' guns."

A commander who felt some reluctance to sacrifice his ally's troops. Where had this man been in 1777, when the French had abandoned the United States after Saratoga?

"Captain, on behalf of my main force I agree. But I myself am an old man, sir. I doubt that I will see another chance for a rising against the oppressors of Virginia, and against one everlasting damned traitor in particular."

"One particular traitor?"

"Theodorick Bland. His incompetence betrayed Washington at Brandywine. Then he surrendered his command a month later, an act of faithlessness that made him Governor of Virginia. FN4 Captain, I'm going to call for volunteers to strike at his palace as your naval fight is going on. At worst, we'll pull some defenders away from the harbor forts. If we get in, and I think we can, we'll be available to be the center of the general rising."

"But if that general rising does not occur, as we agree it should not without French support?"

"I've been running and hiding from Bland and Tarleton most of my life, Captain. I have one more stand left in me, and I'm not going to miss the chance."

Aboard His Christian Majesty's transport Marguerite
Off Cape Henry, Virginia, S.C., CNA
12 April 1796

Lieutenant Terence O'Reilly watched as the officer of the watch wrote down the signals called by the midshipman. No need for a naval code book to tell what was going on. The fleet was in general retreat -- the attack on Norfolk a failure.

All had been going well, it had seemed. The allies had scattered the first force to meet them with ease, destroying the lead vessel FN5. But there had been a second force of British and colonial ships.

"Fools!" said the army captain, staring over the railing, hand thrust inside his coat. "O'Reilly, you can assess the situation as well as I. Military engagements are governed by mathematical laws, as simple as those that govern the flight of a cannonball or the forces on these sails. When forces are evenly balanced at a point of equilibrium, there is the time and the place to apply the correct pressure for victory. All else is secondary to these pivotal moments. The wise strategist marshals his force in reserve, waiting to apply it when it will be decisive."

"This is such a moment, and it is a pivotal engagement lost by France for the want of ten ships, ships that are now somewhere in home waters or in the West Indies having no effect on the war. You understand this, O'Reilly, I understand it, but those who command our forces do not. And now France has lost the war."

"The entire war, you're thinking?"

"Of course, O'Reilly, the entire war. Have you not been listening? The correlation of forces in the Germanies is against us. The Austrians cannot form a single army to strike at Prussia, not with the constant threat from the Russians on their border. And while not one of our generals is a man capable of understanding the principle of a strategic reserve, such a man is Herr von Blucher." FN6

A confused whinnying broke out below decks. It seemed that the ship's small contingent of cavalry mounts was being secured for the upcoming sea voyage. The captain continued.

"This was the only hope, O'Reilly. A sustained revolt against the British in America. A distraction from Europe for England's armies, fleets, and gold. Perhaps, just perhaps, a sustainable entity among the colonists with which we could ally.

"The days of French military power are gone forever, my friend. They were over a long time ago."

The captain thrust his hand further inside his coat, perhaps troubled again by his weak stomach. Both officers stared westward at the distant American shore. Somewhere over there, O'Reilly thought, the Swamp Fox was making his last stand, once again without the French help that would have given him the chance of victory.

"Ten of the Patriot attackers finally reached Bland's inner sanctum, where the Governor was killed in the skirmish. Legend says that Marion himself was among those ten, though this cannot be confirmed and his body was never found inside or outside the palace. Order was restored in Norfolk the next day when militia reinforcements arrived in the city. Lieutenant Governor Peter Shelley assumed control, and maintained it for the duration of the war."
-- Ocon, The Remnant, p. 89

Forward to FAN #243B (12 November 1975): Napoleon's Nail (Part 2).

Return to For All Nails.