Bernard Cornwell’s The Fort: Revolutionary War Expedition

In July 1779, the Penobscot Expedition,

a minor event in Revolutionary War history, took place. That year, the British were drawn to the Penobscot peninsula (Castine) for several reasons: because of its potential as a Loyalist refuge, because of its timber for the King’s navy, and because of its strategic naval position and coastal trade. Around June 1, a small flotilla from Halifax, Nova Scotia, comprising about 750 soldiers was sent to occupy the area and construct Fort George. Captain Henry Mowat commanded the naval vessels, and Brigade General Frances McLean the ground forces. They arrived in Castine in late June.

The occupation of Penobscot,

and its potential as a British naval base, was of great concern to the Massachusetts General Assembly in Boston, which governed Maine at the time. To combat this threat, the American fleet of 19 warships and 24 transports carrying over 1,000 ill-prepared militiamen was hastily assembled and sent to Penobscot Bay. Commodore Dudley Saltonstall led the naval forces, Brig. Gen. Solomon Lovell led the land forces, and Lt. Col. Paul Revere led the ordnance train. On July 25, the fleet reached the head of Penobscot Bay

Sir George Collier led seven heavily armed British ships

on August 13, 1779, into Penobscot Bay to confront Saltonstall’s fleet. Lovell, who had abandoned all his positions and was retreating up the Penobscot River, was astonished to see Collier’s ships approach. On August 14, Saltonstall, who had the guns of his ships aimed at the British, suddenly turned around and fled up the river, destroying his entire fleet of ships and transports and burning them. In a panic, the crews and troops, with most of their leaders, fled to the shore and into the forest, where they made their way back to Boston. Due to incompetence and indecision, this mortifying defeat has intriguing consequences for two opposing characters: an untested young Scottish lieutenant named John Moore, during the early portion of a distinguished military career, at the outset… and a Boston silversmith and patriot named Paul Revere, who will face court-martial for disloyalty and cowardice.

The Penobscot expedition is often considered the worst American naval disaster until Pearl Harbor.  

This is one of Bernard Cornwell’s most successful books

sticking close to historical events and characters — making them the focus of the story. In most historical novels, the author is not so much relating tales as retelling them, with famous characters like Napoleon or Stonewall Jackson, with the action taking place on familiar terrain such as Gettysburg or Waterloo or Pearl Harbor.  In this case, most readers will have no idea how the story would turn out

Cornwell fills in the historical record by casting relative unknowns and filling in blanks, creating more complex historical portraits than usual. Both sides of the conflict, redcoats and patriots, feature men who are flawed, frightened, and in a few cases, heroic. Paul Revere, who we think of from “Listen, children, and you will hear …” is strikingly different from the man we know from history.

The steady deterioration of the colonial forces

and the incompetence of their commanders (particularly Revere) produce a feeling of doom and impending catastrophe making it difficult to put this book down. Lives are lost, opportunities pile up, and it is awful, but you can’t look away. Cornwell ratchets up the tension and the feel of place and time by beginning each chapter with historical documents written during and after the expedition. A subtext of the novel is a meditation on the senselessness and pointlessness of warfare.

As an aside, the character of Lieutenant Moore links this novel to Cornwell’s wonderful Sharpe books

Sir John Moore had a significant impact on the British Army’s military training reforms and his unique contribution to the Light Infantry in particular. The Light Infantry, a new, elite type of soldier whose uniform, equipment and tactics were radically overhauled to make them capable of moving quickly and silently. His experience fighting the American rangers influenced his concept of the light infantry, including the use of green uniforms.  Sharpe’s light infantry career in Portugal, Spain and France was a direct result of Moore’s innovations

From an interview with Bernard Cornwell:

Q: While you’ve written numerous historical novels, including a series set during the American Civil War, this is only your second book set during the American Revolution. What spurred your interest in this period at this time? Will you return to this period again?

Cornwell: The original spark was reading a life of Lieutenant-General Sir John Moore, who was the man who, more than any other, forged the magnificent army that defeated Napoleon. If he had not died beating Marshal Soult at Corunna in 1809 then Moore might well have been the hero of Waterloo instead of Wellington, but what intrigued me was to discover that, as a very young man, he had experienced his first taste of battle at Penobscot Bay in 1779. I had never heard of the Penobscot Expedition, so I read more, and discovered this amazing story! The Penobscot Expedition was an attempt by the militia and navy of Massachusetts to evict a small British garrison from Fort George in what is now Castine, in Maine. Massachusetts assembled the largest rebel fleet of the revolution . . . and lost it all. It’s a story of incompetence and lost opportunities, which leads to the worst naval disaster in American history prior to Pearl Harbor. Will I ever write about the revolution again? I don’t know…

Excerpts from “the Fort” – the British fleet approaches:

He was sixty-two years old, quite short, and had a shrewd, weathered face. It was a kindly face with small, bright blue eyes. He had been a soldier for over forty years and in that time had endured a score of hard-fought battles that had left him with a near-useless right arm, a slight limp, and a tolerant view of sinful mankind. His name was francis mcLean and he was a Brigadier-general, a Scotsman, commanding officer of His Majesty’s 82nd Regiment of Foot, Governor of Halifax, and now, at least according to the dictates of the King of England, the ruler of everything he surveyed from the Blonde’s quar­terdeck. He had been aboard the frigate for thirteen days, the time it had taken to sail from Halifax in Nova Scotia, and he felt a twinge of worry that the length of the voyage might prove unlucky. He wondered if it might have been better to have made it in fourteen days and surreptitiously touched the wood of the rail. A burnt wreck lay on the east­ern shore. it had once been a substantial ship capable of crossing an ocean, but now it was a rib cage of charred wood half inundated by the flooding tide that carried the Blonde upriver.

————————–

They waited. The gun had been fired, the customary signal requesting a pilot, but the smoke prevented anyone aboard from seeing whether the settlement of Majabigwaduce would respond. The five transport ships, four sloops, and frigate drifted upriver on the tide. The loudest noise was the groan, wheeze, and splashing from the pump aboard one of the sloops, HMS North. The water spurted and gushed rhythmi­cally from an elm spigot set into her hull as sailors pumped her bilge. “She should have been broken up for firewood,” Captain Barkley said sourly

Leave a comment