Wednesday, October 05, 2011

The Fort - Book Review

The Fort By Bernard Cornwell
‘Captivate, kill or destroy the whole force of the enemy’ was the order given to the American soldiers.

Summer 1779.
Seven hundred and fifty British soldiers and three small ships of the Royal Navy. Their orders: to build a fort above a harbour to create a base from which to control the New England seaboard.
Forty-one American ships and over nine hundred men. Their orders: to expel the British.
The battle that followed was a classic example of how the best-laid plans can be disrupted by personality and politics, and of how warfare can bring out both the best and worst in men. It is a timeless tale of men at war, written by a master storyteller.

This is a meticulously researched and highly entertaining novelised account of a largely forgotten campaign from the American War of Independence which is usually known today as "The Penobscot Expedition". If you don't already know the outcome of the campaign, I would advise against looking it up until after you have finished the book: it was a very close-run thing which could easily have gone either way, and the tension of now knowing how it ends does enhance the book's first reading.

"The Fort" is based so closely on real historical events that it is better described as a novelised history rather than historical fiction. Not only does Cornwall take very few liberties with the real course of events, he includes an 18-page historical note which explains the ones he did take, as well as a "heroic myths" essay which compares the legends which have grown up about the two most famous participants in the campaign and the historical reality as he sees it.

In 1779, the British sent a small force of regular but not particularly experienced troops with orders to build a fort at the location which is now called Castine but was then known as Majabigwaduce. Their short term aim was to deny the excellent harbour at that spot to the rebels and enable it to be used as a base from which the Royal Navy could limit the depredations of rebel privateers: the long-term aim, had the British won the war, would have been to establish a new loyalist colony called New Ireland.

Within a few weeks of the arrival of the British, the Americans sent a force to expel them which had rather more soldiers, significantly more and heavier artillery, and a much larger naval force. And they arrived while the fort was only half completed, with walls which were still low enough that a man could jump over them. The British had only one significant advantage: their army commander, Brigadier-General Francis McLean, and the senior captain of the three RN ships supporting him, Captain Mowett, worked together as a team. The American army and navy commanders did not.

The future Lieutenant-General Sir John Moore, one of the most brilliant and humane generals ever to serve in the British army or any other, saw action for the first time as an eighteen-year-old lieutenant in this campaign and is one of the major characters in the book. So is Colonel Paul Revere, who was in command of the rebel artillery. Like almost everyone else who has ever studied him, Cornwall presents John Moore in a favourable light. Nobody could possibly have been as good as Moore's legend suggests, but most of those who have examined the matter concluded that he was pretty close to it.

On the other side of this coin, both in terms of allegiance and feelings, Cornwall is not a fan of Paul Revere, who does not come well out of this story. At the conclusion of the historical note at the end of this book, Cornwall point out perhaps the most extreme irony of the Penobscot expedition: Paul Revere was accused of disobeying an order from the second-in-command of the American forces, General Wadsworth, who threatened to have him arrested. Yet ironically Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, who eighty years later was to write the poem which immortalised Revere, was the grandson of the same General Wadsworth! (At the start of this book, there is a scene in Wadsworth's home town in which his wife holds their one-year-old daughter Zilpha in her arms. Longfellow was Zilpha's son.)

To summarise, this is a well written and enjoyable book, laced with some of Bernard Cornwell's own opinions but giving both sides of the story on both British and American sides. Not all fans of the "Richard Sharpe" books will enjoy this, as the events of the campaign were not quite as dramatic or heroic as stories such as Sharpe's Eagle, but personally I found "The Fort" even more fun to read that the Sharpe books and can recommend it. For me it’s a solid four and a half stars and has tempted me to pick up more Cornwall for my ever increasing collection!

Available from:
The Fort By Bernard Cornwell

Softback • ISBN 9780007331741

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