In 1812, with questionable justification and inadequate preparation, the newly united States of America declare war on Great Britain, the most powerful nation on earth. In Backlash, five young Americans wage a war that drastically changes their life—and the history of the world.
Award-winning author Mike Klaassen began writing fiction when his sons were teenagers. His first two books were young-adult action-adventure novels influenced by his experience as a Kansas farm boy and as a Scoutmaster. A visit to the site of the Battle for New Orleans led Mike to write Backlash: A War of 1812 Novel, featuring five young Americans in the fight of their life. Ongoing research encouraged Mike to write books about the craft of writing fiction. The use of folktales as examples in his nonfiction books inspired him to begin Klaassen's Classic Folktales, a collection of ancient stories retold as novellas.
I suspect that all of us who have never faced mortal danger, such as in a combat situation, wonder how we would react. With honor and courage? Or not? This is just one of the challenges Silas Shackleton faces in "Backlash."
NOVEMBER 1811, ATLANTIC OCEAN
Seventeen-year-old Silas Shackleton clutched a rough wooden rail as the merchant ship Utica rose with the crest of a wave. The blue-gray horizon stretched wide for a moment before the bow dipped and the vessel plunged over the backside of the swell. As the ship surged again, the deck seemed to slide and roll.
Dozens of experienced seamen moved about, apparently oblivious to the pitch and yaw of the deck. Only a day out of New York City on his first voyage, Silas wasn’t accustomed to the constant motion of the vessel. At first he had been relieved to secure a position on a crew. Now he wondered if he would survive the day. The ship and the sea seemed to spin slowly around him.
He longed for solid ground, but staying ashore would have meant almost certain death. Not that the prospects of an untimely death were new to him—he had grown up in the streets of New York City as an abandoned son of a prostitute.
Over the last year, he had worked along the docks and had come to admire the disciplined and organized crews of the naval vessels he helped load. For months he had tried to secure a job on a ship, but few such positions were available for an inexperienced hand.
Just days before, he and his buddies had been sitting around a fire in an alley feasting on roasted pigeons. Several members of a local gang jumped the boys and tried to steal the meat. A knife fight resulted in the death of a gang leader’s brother. With bloodthirsty gang members after him, Silas had signed on the Utica just hours before she set sail. He feared he wouldn’t have lasted another night in New York City, but running left him feeling like a coward. The streets of New York were his home, and he already yearned to return.
A stiff breeze cooled his face, and the sea air felt fresh and clean, but then mixed with odors from the chicken coop and hog pen on deck. A salty taste seeped into his mouth, and his insides twisted tight. He leaned over the wooden rail, and the contents of his stomach spewed out. Vomit blew back in his face, splattering his clothes and the bulwark.
“Damn it, lad,” said a mature crewman named Bosworth, “if you’re going to puke your guts out, go to the head.” He grabbed Silas by the collar and shoved him to the front of the ship.
At the bow, Bosworth bent Silas over the bulwark, then grabbed his legs and heaved him over. Silas screamed as he imagined plunging into the frothy deep. Instead, he landed in a net of coarse rope slung under the bowsprit. Several crew members laughed.
Silas grabbed the netting and struggled upright as another swell raced toward him. The bowsprit shot skyward, shoving Silas hard against the ropes. For a moment the ship seemed to stop midair, then the bow plunged again. Out surged more of the contents of Silas’s stomach. The breeze swept his puke forward and away. He spat to clear the sour taste from his mouth. Over and over again, the ship rose and fell in the swells. Silas cursed his weakness in front of the crew as he vomited until there was nothing left to heave.
Feeling a little better, he clutched the cargo net and began to climb back into the ship. He stopped and blinked when he realized he was gazing upward at pale buttocks resting on a crude bench set over the bulwark. A stream of urine caught in the breeze and sprayed forward from the bow.
Silas had always assumed a ship’s toilet would be located at the rear, but now he understood. It had been set at the bow so the breeze blowing from aft of the ship and filling the sails would carry excrement away and not foul the deck and hull.
The man seated at the head let his wiping material fly with the breeze, then stood and pulled up his trousers. Silas was shocked to see that it was the ship’s captain, a short, frail man with a long, drawn-out nose.
Captain Schroop stared at Silas for a moment. “Come along now, young man. It’s time for you to learn your duties.”
A junior officer not much older than Silas approached the captain. “Sir, the frigate is signaling us to heave to.”
“Damn.” The captain turned toward the British warship that had been sighted several hours before off the northern horizon and had steadily closed on them. Heavy with cargo bound for Lisbon, the Utica had no chance of outrunning the frigate.
Silas climbed over the bulwark, and Bosworth handed him a bucket. The older seaman shaded his eyes against the sun and studied the frigate. “Arrogant bastards.”
Captain Schroop scowled from the raised platform at the rear of the ship, the quarterdeck. Silas had little doubt what peeved the ship’s commander. Great Britain had signed the Treaty of Paris in 1783, recognizing its former colonies as a nation and establishing its boundaries as the Atlantic, the Great Lakes, and everything east of the Mississippi River except New Orleans and Florida. But in recent years the British had become irritated that the Americans traded freely with Britain’s enemies, especially with France under Napoleon Bonaparte. Royal Navy vessels routinely stopped American merchant ships on the open sea. Instead of merely reviewing the vessel’s bills of lading, the time-honored means of inspection, the British physically searched the ships, often damaging the cargo.
As the war in Europe dragged on, Silas recalled, the Royal Navy ran short of able-bodied seamen. Not restricting themselves to forcing their own citizens into the king’s service, the navy began to impress American seamen into duty aboard His Majesty’s ships. These blatant affronts to the sovereignty of the new nation had nearly resulted in a declaration of war against Britain.
“Steady, men,” said the captain. “She probably just wants us to carry dispatches to Europe.”
But as His Majesty’s Ship Guerriere pulled alongside, her gun ports opened, and out rolled a menacing row of cannon.
Bosworth groaned. Several seamen swore.
The warship lowered a rowboat, and in climbed half a dozen redcoat marines and a British naval officer dressed in dark blue. Within minutes they pulled alongside the Utica. A horse-faced naval lieutenant asked permission to come aboard.
“’Permission to come aboard?’” Captain Schroop nearly spat the words out. “With a broadside aimed my direction, you ask permission?” After a moment, the captain said, “Very well, then. If you must…”
Once on board, the blue-uniformed lieutenant faced Captain Schroop. “Your bills of lading, sir, if you please.”
The American captain grumbled something but led the naval officer belowdecks to inspect the documents. After a few minutes the two returned topside. The British officer turned to one of the marines. “Corporal, you have your orders.” The marines headed belowdecks to inspect the cargo.
“This is outrageous,” screamed Captain Schroop. “You will pay for any damages!”
The naval officer stood quietly as the marines searched the ship from top to bottom. After half an hour, the marines returned to their officer’s side.
“Captain,” said the lieutenant, “would you assemble your crew?”
The captain’s face turned dark. “To what purpose, may I ask?”
“I have orders to apprehend deserters.”
“This is an unforgivable breach of our rights to travel the seas unmolested!” But with a glance at the frigate, its cannon bristling from gun ports, he said, “Very well, but I personally guarantee that every crewman aboard is an American citizen. There shall be no forced conscription this day.”
Shortly, the naval officer strode down the line of American seamen. He stopped and studied Bosworth. “I recognize this man as a seaman from His Majesty’s navy.”
Bosworth tried to run but was seized by the redcoats.
“Lieutenant!” screamed the captain. “I must protest. This man is a naturalized American citizen, and he has the papers to prove it.”
The naval officer scoffed. “Papers are cheap. Besides, once an English citizen, always an English citizen.”
“You may be sure I will protest this to the highest possible authority.”
The young lieutenant smirked. “As you wish, sir.”
A seaman who had been standing next to Bosworth rushed one of the marines and attempted to drag him away from Bosworth. Several seamen broke ranks and joined in.
Silas flinched at the thunderous boom of a cannon on the Guerriere. Something whizzed overhead with a sizzling hiss, then splashed into the sea a hundred yards beyond the Utica.
With a flurry of swinging clubs, the marines drove the American sailors back into line. The British officer strode past Silas, then stopped and turned. “Where are you from, lad?”
For a moment Silas couldn’t speak. Then he blurted out, “New York, sir.”
“Haw!” said the lieutenant. “That’s an English accent if I ever heard one.” He nodded to the stout, muscular marines.
Silas bolted for an open hatch, but two of the marines grabbed him.
He planted his feet squarely on the deck and pulled back as the marines tried to drag him toward the bulwark. When a marine’s grip tightened about Silas’s arm, he wrenched it back and shoved the redcoat away. Silas turned to scramble back into the line of American seamen, but before he could make any progress, a redcoat grabbed him by the shoulder and spun him around. Another marine stepped forward. A wooden club arced overhead. Silas’s mind blazed with light, then everything turned dark.
The next morning red-coated marines hauled Silas and Bosworth, arms and feet shackled, up the steps of a wooden ladder to the deck of the Guerriere. Silas scanned the sea to the horizon in every direction. The Utica was nowhere in sight.
A grizzled old seaman faced them. He wore a boatswain’s flat-topped straw hat and a crooked smile. “Welcome to His Majesty’s navy, lads. The captain has asked me to apprise you of your options for employment.” He studied Silas and Bosworth for a moment before continuing. “You may serve your time aboard as pressed men, or if you prefer, you may volunteer and receive the pay and benefits accorded regular seamen. Pressed men, as you no doubt understand, draw harsher duty and treatment. You may indicate your decision to volunteer as a seaman by making one step forward.”
Silas was confused. He and Bosworth had been taken by force from an American vessel. Now they were being offered a chance to volunteer? He tried to think of a choice curse by which to reply. But Bosworth stepped forward.
“Are you crazy?” Silas asked.
“Silence!” yelled the boatswain as he stepped in front of Silas. “Your mate here is showing wisdom. Life in His Majesty’s navy can be harsh, but it’s much better to serve as a seaman than a pressed man. Use your head, laddy.”
Silas was appalled. There was no way he would volunteer to serve in the British navy. Bosworth was an idiot.
The old boatswain studied Silas silently, then turned to Bosworth. “You have one minute to talk some sense into your young friend.”
As the boatswain strode away, Bosworth leaned toward Silas. “There’s no use fighting them, boyo. They have us for as long as they want us. We might as well make the best of a bad situation.”
Silas glared at Bosworth. “I’ll not volunteer. And hell will freeze over before they’ll get a lick of work out of me.”
“Listen, you little turd.” Bosworth clutched Silas by the shoulder. “The captain of a Royal vessel doesn’t give a rat’s arse about your scruples, your politics—or your life. What he does care about is maintaining discipline. In a battle of wills, you lose.”
The boatswain returned. “What’s it going to be, lad?”