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Swain Corliss, Hero of Malcolm's Mills (Now Oakland, Ontario), November 6, 1814
History into fiction, Gordon Lish, Margaret Atwood
“Swain Corliss, Hero of Malcolm's Mills (Now Oakland, Ontario), November 6, 1814” is the whole title of a short story I wrote based on family stories and local Norfolk County history. Oakland is five miles north of the farm where I grew up, along what’s called the Old Highway 24, a road that followed a native trail along the height of land from Lake Erie to a ford across the Grand River (now Brantford). At Oakland, a stream called by the settlers Malcolm’s Creek meanders at the bottom of a narrow steep-sided valley where the Malcolm family built grist and saw mills. The southern approach is so steep that swooping down it in my parents’ car when I was a kid felt like riding a rollercoaster.
This was the scene of the last land battle between Americans and Canadians in what became Ontario during the War of 1812. After their defeats at the Battle of Lake Erie and Moraviantown in late 1813, the British could no longer supply their troops in southern Ontario and withdrew to more defensible positions on Lake Ontario. This left Norfolk County wide open to American troops coming by the lake (they burnt Port Dover) and by land. General McArthur, with a small army of American regulars, Kentucky militia, and indigenous warriors, crossed the border at Detroit, came east along the Thames, and then struck out for Brantford, before turning south to lay waste to Norfolk. At that time, the county was a great source of timber, wheat, and cattle for the British and Canadian troops. The Norfolk Militia, with a handful of British advisers (sort of Green Beret types from the 41st Regiment of Foot), opted to make a stand at the top of the southern approach to the Oakland valley. My McCall ancestors were there, maybe Glovers, too. I am less sure about the latter.
If you’ve been reading Out & Back, you’ll remember Sgt. Collins of the 41st Foot from my story “A Flame, A Burst of Light” discussed in an earlier post. Collins was the hero of that story. He plays a less important role in this one, dying rather stupidly in a lost cause. He was a real person. I sometimes wish I knew where he was buried. Swain Corliss also was real, born in the nearby village of Boston with its pioneer cemetery (where Mary Hunsacker, the heroine of my novel The Life and Times of Captain N. is buried, real name Mary Sitts and then Mary Johnson). Corliss was unlucky enough to be wounded several times in the fight, though he survived, and turned tragedy and glory into comedy by emigrating to the U.S. This fact, not revealed in the story, adds extra irony to that already ironized title.
One of the nice things about these early settlers is that they sometimes had a sense of humour about themselves. Outnumbered and outgunned by McArthur’s men, they quickly decided not to defend home and loved ones on that day and ran away. The non-engagement became known locally as the Battle of the Footrace. (I have often looked out my bedroom window and imagined them streaming back along the Old Highway 24 in front of our house; though, of course, the house had not yet been built in 1814.)
This story “Swain Corliss, Hero of Malcolm's Mills (Now Oakland, Ontario), November 6, 1814,” with the most comically awkward and galumphy title I have ever invented, was first published by the great American writer-editor Gordon Lish in his magazine The Quarterly. Lish was always a surprise to work with. He edited that magazine by himself and yet turned manuscripts around in a week or so. I was shocked to get an acceptance and an edited manuscript in what seemed like return mail. I still have the edited pages. I’ll drop a couple in here, so you can see. Some of my readers will know Lish by repute, the famous Captain Fiction, editor at Esquire Magazine and Knopf. He championed and edited Raymond Carver, Barry Hannah, Amy Hempel, Victoria Redel, Greg Mulcahy, and many other well known and lesser known but inspired writers. He later published my novel The Life and Times of Captain N. at Knopf. This story was the occasion of our first encounter.
The story then appeared in my collection A Guide to Animal Behaviour. But then Margaret Atwood and Robert Weaver selected it for The New Oxford Book of Canadian Short Stories. It’s always nice when a story gets a second life (or a third life, or a…). Atwood had also picked a story of mine for The Best American Short Stories in 1989, a story called “Why I Decide to Kill Myself and Other Jokes.” I am not sure. Maybe she had a thing for my long, galumphy titles.
Later still, both these War of 1812 stories were picked up for John B. Lee’s anthology An Unfinished War.
The reader cannot tell by looking, but when I wrote this story I was fishing around for an approach, a style, an elan that I could carry over into my novel The Life and Times of Captain N., also a period piece, also full of battle scenes. But in the process of having Lish go over the story, I learned several valuable writing lessons. Believe me, I pondered and drew a lesson from every mark he made on the page.
Here are few pages of the story.
Swain Corliss, Hero of Malcolm's Mills (Now Oakland, Ontario), November 6, 1814
In the morning, the men rubbed their eyes and saw Kentucky cavalry and Indians mounted on stolen farm horses cresting the hill on the opposite side of the valley. The Kentuckians looked weary and calm, their hollow eyes slitted with analysis. We were another problem to be solved; they had been solving problems all the way from Fort Detroit, mostly by killing, maiming and burning, which were the usual methods.
The Indians were Cherokee and Kickapoo, with some Muncies thrown in. They had eagle-feather rosettes and long hair down the sides of their heads and paint on their faces, which looked feminine in that light. Some wore scalps hanging at their belts.
They came over the hill in a column, silent as the steam rising from their mounts, and stopped to chew plug tobacco or smoke clay pipes while they analyzed us. More Kentuckians coming on extended the line on either side of the track into the woods, dismounted and started cook fires or fell asleep under their horses’ bellies, with reins tied at the wrists.
General McArthur rode in with his staff, all dressed in blue, with brass buttons and dirty white facings. He spurred his mare to the front, where she shied and pranced and nearly fell on the steep downward incline. He gave a sign, and the Indians dismounted and walked down the road to push our pickets in. The Indians had an air of attending their eighty-seventh-or-so battle. They trudged down the dirt road bolt upright, with their muskets cradled, as though bored with the whole thing, as though they possessed some precise delineation of the zone of danger that bespoke a vast familiarity with death and dying.
The men who could count counted.
Somebody said, “Oh, sweet Baby Jesus, if there’s a one, there must be a thousand.”
I should say that we had about four hundred — the 1st and 2nd Norfolk Militia, some Oxfords and Lincolns, six instructors from the 41st Foot and some local farmers who had come up the day before for the society.
Colonel Bostwick (the men called him Smiling Jack) stood higher up on the ridge behind our line, watching the enemy across the valley with a spyglass, his red coat flapping at his thighs. He stood alone mostly. He had been shot in the leg at Frenchman’s Creek and in the face at Nanticoke when he walked into the Dunham place and stumbled on Sutherland and Onstone’s gang by accident. The wound on his face made him look as though he were smiling all the time, which was repellent and unnerved his troops in a fight.
Injun George, an old Chippeway who kept house in a hut above Troyer’s Flats, was first up from the creek. He said he had seen a black snake in the water, which was bad luck. He said the Kickapoo had disappeared when he shot at them, which meant that they had learned the disappearing trick and had strong medicine. He himself had been trying to disappear for years with little success. Later, he shot a crow off the mill roof, which he said was probably one of the Kickapoos.
A troop of Kentuckians came down the hill with ammunition pouches and Pennsylvania long rifles and started taking pot shots at McCall’s company hiding behind a barricade of elm logs strung across the road. We could not reply much for lack of powder, so the Kentuckians stood out in the open on the stream bank, smoking their white clay pipes and firing up at us. Others merely watched, or pissed down the hill, or washed their shirts and hung them out to dry, as though fighting and killing were just another domestic chore, like slopping pigs or putting up preserves.
Somebody said, “They are just like us except that we are not in Kentucky lifting scalps and stealing horses and trying to take over the place.”
The balls sounded like pure-D evil thunking into the logs.
Someone else tried to raise a yell for King George, which fell flat, many men allowing as it was a mystery why King George had drawn his regulars across to the other side of the Grand River and burned the ferry scow so that they could not be here when the fighting started.
Thunk, thunk went the balls. A melancholy rain began to fall, running in muddy rivulets down the dirt track. Smoke from the Republican cook fires drifted down into the valley and hung over the mill race.
Colonel Bostwick caused some consternation coming down to be with his men, marching up and down just behind the line with that strange double grin on his face (his cheek tattooed with powder burns embedded in the skin) and an old officer’s spontoon across his shoulders, exhorting us in a hoarse, excited mutter.
“Behold, ye infidels, ye armies of Gog and Magog, agents and familiars of Azazel. Smite, smite! O Lord, bless the children who go into battle in thy name. Remember, boys, the Hebrew kings did not scruple to saw their enemies with saws and harrow them with harrows of iron!”
Sergeant Major Collins of the 41st tried to make him lie down behind the snake fence, but the colonel shook him off, saying, “The men must see me.” The sergeant took a spent ball in the forehead and went down. The ball bounced off, but he was dead nonetheless, a black knot sprouting between his brows like a third eye.
A sharpshooter with a good Pennsylvania Dutch long rifle can hit a man at three hundred yards, which is twice as far as any weapon we had could throw, let alone be accurate. So far we had killed only one crow, which might or might not have been an enemy Indian.
Edwin Barton said, “I dreamt of Tamson Mabee all night. I threw her down in the hay last August, but she kept her hand over her hair pie and wouldn’t let me. She ain’t hardly fourteen. I’ll bet I’m going to hell today.”
[. . .]
This was war and whisky talking.
We lay in the rain, dreaming of wives and lovers, seeking amnesty in the hot purity of lust — yes, some furtively masturbating in the rain with cold hands. Across the valley, the Kentuckians seemed like creatures of the autumn and of rain, their amphibian eyes slitty with analysis. Our officers, Salmon and Ryerson, said we held good ground, whatever that meant, that the American army at Niagara was already moving back across the river, that we had to stop McArthur from burning the mills of Norfolk so we could go on feeding King George’s regulars.
Trapped in that valley, waiting for the demon cavalry to come whooping and shrieking across the swollen creek, we seemed to have entered some strange universe of curved space and strings of light. Rain fell in strings. Some of us were already dead, heroes of other wars and battles. We had been fighting since August 1812, when we went down the lake with Brock to the relief of Amherstburg. At times like these, we could foresee the mass extinction of the whole species, the world turned to a desert of glass.
Everything seemed familiar and inevitable. We had marched up from Culver’s Tavern the day before. We had heard firing in the direction of Brant’s Ford at dusk, and awakened to see Kentucky cavalry and Indians emerging from the forest road and smoke rising from barn fires behind them. Evidently, given their history, Kentuckians are born to arson and mayhem. Now they sniped with passionate precision (thunk, thunk went the balls), keeping us under cover while they moved troops down the steep bank.
Shielding our priming pans with our hats, we cursed the rain and passed the time calculating angles of assault. The mill pond, too deep except to swim, protected our left wing. That meant Salmon’s boys would get hit first, thank goodness. Mrs. Malcolm and her Negro servant were busy moving trunks and armoires out of the house in case of fire. No one paid them any mind.
All at once, we heard shouts and war cries deep in the woods downstream. Colonel Bostwick sent a scout, who returned a moment later to say McArthur’s Indians had out-flanked us, crawling across a deadfall ford.
We stared at the clouds and saw fatherless youngsters weeping at the well, lonely widows sleeping with their hands tucked between their legs, and shadows moving with horrible wounds, arms or legs missing, brains dripping out their ears.
Someone said, “I can’t stand this no more,” stood up and was shot in the spine, turning. He farted and lay on his face with his legs quivering. His legs shook like a snake with its back broken. The Kentuckians were throwing an amazing amount of hot lead our way.
The colonel smiled and shouted additional remarks against Azazel, then ordered McCall to stand at the elm-tree barricade while the rest retired. This was good news for us. We could get by without the mills of Norfolk; it was our bodies, our limbs, lungs, nerves and intestines we depended on for today and tomorrow.
McCall had Jo Kitchen, a noted pugilist, three of the Austin brothers, Edwin Barton and some others. We left them our powder and shot, which was ample for a few men. At the top of the valley, Swain Corliss turned back, cursing some of us who had begun to run. “Save your horses first, boys and, if you can, your women!” He was drunk. Many of us did not stop till we reached home, which is why they sometimes call this the Battle of the Foot Race.
Swain Corliss hailed from a family of violent Baptists with farms on the Boston Creek about three miles from Malcolm’s. His brother Ashur had been wounded thirteen times in the war and had stood his ground at Lundy’s Lane, which Swain had missed on account of ague. Swain did not much like his brother getting ahead of him like that.
He had a Brown Bess musket and a long-barreled dragoon pistol his father had bought broken from an officer. He turned at the top of the hill and started down into the racket of lead and Indian shouts. Musket balls swarmed round McCall’s company like bees, some stinging. Swain took up a position against a tree, guarding the flank, and started flinging lead back. Edwin Barton, shot through the thighs, loaded for him. Men kept getting up to leave, and Captain McCall would whack them over the shoulders with the flat of his sword.
There is more, but perhaps readers, if they want the rest, should buy the book.
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Named for the Mohawk war chief and politician Joseph Brant.
Named for the oak forests roundabout.