In the summer of 1779, as the major fighting of the Revolutionary War moves to the South, a British force consisting of fewer than a thousand Scottish infantry and backed by three sloops-of-war sails to the fogbound coast of New England.
Bernard Cornwell writes about war and battle, which means that he also writes about stupidity. Writing about the stupid things officers in charge do when soldiers are in the field is as respectable as Tennyson (someone had blunder’d) and at least as old as Homer (Achilles sulking in his tent), probably older. There is something about military command that brings out the worst in some commanders; whether they are blind, stubborn, pig-headed, cowardly, useless, or just plain dumb, they can lead soldiers into the worst kind of trouble. “I am sick and tired of disaster and the fools that bring disaster upon us,” wrote one New York private about a particularly idiotic Civil War general.
The Revolutionary War battle that Cornwell writes about in THE FORT is an obscure one, whose most famous participants (as Cornwell notes) are better known for their appearance in heroic poetry related to other conflicts. The action takes place in Maine, near an obscure settlement with a tongue-twisting Indian name, a short ways up the Penobscot River. The British are building a fort there, which will serve as a base for the Royal Navy to harass rebel shipping in and out of Boston. The Americans respond by sending an expedition to kill or capture the veteran British regiments, and that’s where the trouble starts.
Because it’s difficult moving overland through the rocky and thickly forested terrain of the Maine coast, the troops have to be sent by water. And since the threat posed by these particular British regiments is mainly to Boston’s commerce, and not to the Continental Army itself, the troops that are available are green Massachusetts militiamen. This requires a great deal of coordination between the Continental Navy ships that are carrying and supporting the militia and the citizen-soldiers who make it up. That did not happen, and Cornwell glories in comparing the petty and small-minded rivalry between the army and navy — as well as between the militia’s army and artillery — with the stiff-upper-lip professionalism of the British.
In your typical Bernard Cornwell novel, what happens when you get a situation like this is that the hero — tough-minded, highly skilled, incapable of suffering fools — takes charge and slices through the enemy lines like a rolling ball of butcher knives. This is not a typical Cornwell novel. The biggest hero on the American side is Paul Revere, later to get eternal fame in Longfellow’s poem, and Cornwell paints him as shallow, vain and ineffectual. His counterpart in fame on the British side is Lieutenant John Moore, who will later become a General whose death in Spain fighting Napoleon will be recorded by the poet Charles Wolfe (and by Cornwell in his Richard Sharpe series). Moore is more in the cut of Cornwell’s heroes, but here he is just a young lieutenant getting his first taste of battle.
It is the nature of this particular battle, unfortunately, that it is attended with unimportant political issues, petty rivalries, and unproductive councils of war. What action there is tends to be short and sharp, illuminated by Cornwell’s thorough knowledge of the era’s weapons and tactics, and enlivened by blood and gore sufficient enough for any armchair warrior.
THE FORT will please Cornwell’s loyal readers, as well as fans of Revolutionary-era historical fiction. But there are drawbacks, prominent among them Cornwell’s insistence on giving minor fictional characters names that start with the letter F — a tactic that is more annoying than helpful. The non-military characters, particularly the American Loyalist refugees, aren’t drawn with a great degree of subtlety. And the battle itself is so obscure that one wonders why Cornwell was drawn to the subject matter. But given his prolific and honorable career, no one can fault him for writing about a forgotten piece of history that interests him deeply. THE FORT is an outstanding effort by a master of the genre.