For All Nails #311: The Burning City
By Johnny Pez
Burgoyne, Pennsylvania, N.C., CNA
15 July 1814
Thick smoke rose from across the river as Allegheny City burned.
Abigail Burgoyne, Dowager Duchess of Albany, stood upon the ramparts of Fort Pitt and watched the dark plumes rise up in the still summer air. She caught fugitive glimpses of men running through the streets of the burning town, a few of them settlers, most of them either members of the Burgoyne militia or of Chief Tecumsah’s army. The river carried the sounds of battle with horrible clarity: screams, gunshots, the war-whoops of the Indians.
Abigail heard footsteps on the wooden rampart, and turned to see her daughter-in-law approach. The Duchess of Albany had a worried look on her face, as well she might. Her husband – Abigail’s son – was the commander of the Burgoyne Militia. Somewhere in that terrible inferno over there, he was either dead, or still fighting.
“Have you seen Johnny, my lady?” Lady Emma asked.
Abigail shook her head. “Not since he crossed over this morning.”
The river ferry was docked at the last unburned part of Allegheny City, and Abigail could see people from the town stumbling onboard, some with possessions, most without. The ferry was just starting to become crowded, and the crew were preparing to cast off, when a party of Indians burst into view. There were more sounds of screams from the refugees, and more war cries from the newly-arrived Indians. A few of them fired at the ferry, but most raised their spears and war-axes into the air before charging down to the docks.
A sudden flurry of shots! The charging Indians came to a stumbling halt as several of their number fell to the ground. A second group of men came running from the burning part of the town, but this group was led by a man in the green uniform of a militia officer. Even from a thousand feet away, Abigail could recognize him instantly.
“Johnny!” her daughter-in-law screamed, and it was so. Abigail watched as more of the militia fired at the Indians, then charged them. The Indians fled back into the cover of the burning buildings.
The militia slowly moved back toward the ferry, keeping watch for more Indians, until the crew finally cast off and began rowing across the river.
By ones and twos, sometimes by groups of four or five, more settlers ran down to the docks, where Colonel John Burgoyne, Duke of Albany, kept his men standing guard. By the time the ferry had docked on the south bank of the Allegheny and begun discharging its passengers, over two dozen were waiting on the north bank for its return.
Would it return? Abigail intended to make sure it did. Lifting her skirts, she ran as fast as her constricting clothing and aging bones would let her, down from the rampart, across to the fort’s main gate, then down to the ferry terminal on Sixth Avenue. She made her way past the swearing, weeping refugees who stumbled ashore until she found the ferry’s captain.
That man, a Mr. Robinson, was giving orders to his crew when he saw Abigail stride up. “Lady Albany,” he said, “a pleasure, as always, but as you can see, I am a trifle preoccupied at the moment.”
“That’s quite all right, Mr. Robinson,” Abigail answered. “I don’t wish to disturb you. I only wished to inquire how soon you would be returning across the river.”
A look of alarm crossed Robinson’s face. “My Lady, I admire your courage, but I cannot allow you to cross the river.”
“I have no intention of doing so,” Abigail replied. “I simply wish to assure myself that /you/ will be returning, since I see that there are still a number of people in Allegheny City who require your assistance.”
Robinson gave Abigail a long look before sighing and saying, “As soon as the last of my current passengers have debarked. And yourself, of course, my lady.”
“Thank you, Mr. Robinson.” Abigail left the ferry and joined the fugitives crowding the dock until she saw Robinson’s men cast off and begin rowing back across the river. Then she turned and made her way back up to Fort Pitt.
The sun was low in the sky when the ferry made its final voyage across the Allegheny, with sixty exhausted fugitives, and the surviving members of the Burgoyne Militia. Abigail and Lady Emma were waiting at the ferry terminal, and Abigail could not blame her daughter-in-law for throwing herself into Johnny’s arms as he stepped off the ferry. Other members of the militia found themselves receiving equally fervent welcomes from their loved ones.
Abigail saw a woman looking frantically at the faces of the returning militia. She recognized her as Eliza Wilkins.
Mrs. Wilkins ran up to Johnny and said, “Colonel Burgoyne, have you seen Jack?”
Johnny’s face fell, as he said, “I’m sorry, ma’am. Lieutenant Wilkins didn’t make it.”
In an instant, Abigail was back in New-York, watching as a man in a Continental Army uniform told her, “I’m sorry, ma’am. Private Conrad didn’t make it.” Then she was at the ferry terminal, her arms around Eliza Wilkins as the woman shook.
“Where is that fool Harrison?” Abigail demanded.
“To the best of my knowledge,” her son replied, “he remains in Fort Radisson.”
Night had fallen over Burgoyne. The northern side of the capital was lit by the flames of Allegheny City, but in Albany House, facing the Monongahela, all was darkness. Abigail glared at her son across the sitting room table.
“Permit me to re-phrase the question, then,” she said acidly. “Why isn’t that fool Harrison here protecting us?”
“Presumably,” said Johnny, “he has more pressing business elsewhere.”
“The capital city of the Confederation is under siege by an army of Indians,” Abigail said. “There /is/ no more pressing business.”
“Mother, I’ve spoken with Sir DeWitt, and he assures me that messengers have been dispatched to Fort Radisson and Philadelphia with news of our situation. And we still have the militia to protect us. Fortunately, the Indians seem to have no boats of their own, so we should be safe here in the capital.”
“Safe until they build boats,” Abigail answered. “I wouldn’t put it past them. That chief of theirs is the very devil. Where is he getting guns for his men?”
Johnny frowned. “From the same place my men get theirs, from the arsenal in Springfield. Somebody at the arsenal is making surplus guns and selling them to the Indians.”
Abigail was stunned. “Are you certain?”
“As certain as I can be,” said Johnny grimly. “We captured several from the Indians during the fight. The Indians have always been able to get a few old guns here and there, made during the Trans-Oceanic War, or even the Rebellion.
“But this is different. They’ve got their hands on new ones, thousands of them, fresh from Massachusetts. That’s how they beat us at Twin Forks and Bloody Creek, I’m sure of it. Somebody at the arsenal thought to make himself a profit, and the people of Allegheny City have paid the price for his avarice.
Johnny was silent for a moment, then said, “When this business with the Indians is finished, I mean to see to it that those responsible are found out, and made to suffer the consequences of their actions.”
Abigail thought of Eliza Wilkins weeping in her arms.