While the major fighting of the war moves to the south in the summer of 1779, a British force of fewer than a thousand Scottish infantry, backed by three sloops-of-war, sails to the desolate and fog-bound coast of New England. Establishing a garrison and naval base at Penobscot Bay, in the eastern province of Massachusetts that would become Maine, the Scots—the only British troops between Canada and New York—harry rebel privateers and give shelter to American loyalists.
In response, Massachusetts sends a fleet of more than forty vessels and some one thousand infantrymen to “captivate, kill or destroy” the foreign invaders. Second in command is Peleg Wadsworth, a veteran of the battles at Lexington and Long Island, once aide to General Washington, and a man who sees clearly what must be done to expel the invaders.
But ineptitude and irresolution lead to a mortifying defeat—and have stunning repercussions for two men on opposite sides: an untested eighteen-year-old Scottish lieutenant named John Moore, who will begin an illustrious military career; and a Boston silversmith and patriot named Paul Revere, who will face court-martial for disobedience and cowardice.
Grounded firmly in history, inimitably told in Cornwell's thrilling narrative style, The Fort is the extraordinary novel of this fascinating clash between a superpower and a nation in the making. A Q&A with Author 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...
Q: Of all the battles waged during the Revolution why did you choose to write about the Penobscot expedition? What lessons does this battle offer us today?
Cornwell: Choosing the Penobscot Expedition does seem perverse . . . after all, the fighting at Castine has been called 'the forgotten battle', and many people would probably prefer to leave it that way. But there was the lure of the very young John Moore whose later career would be so eminent, and there was another man in Penobscot Bay who, if anything, would become even more famous. That was Lieutenant-Colonel Paul Revere, the commander of the Massachusetts Artillery Regiment. I knew very little about Revere when I began to read about the expedition. I knew the famous poem, of course, but beyond that he was simply a shining hero of the revolution, so I was astonished to discover that the only time Revere ever fought the British was at Penobscot, and his record there was shameful. This was simply too intriguing to ignore, and as the relationship of myth to reality has always fascinated me, I set out to tell the story. Does it have lessons for today? I don't write to teach such lessons . . . maybe you can conclude that war is best left to professionals who know what they're doing.
Q: Given the obstacles the Americans faced—the colonists were not unified in the desire to break with the crown, the lack of a dedicated, well-trained, and disciplined standing military, perpetual lack of funding, among others—are you surprised that we actually succeeded in winning independence?
Cornwell: And again there's a gap between myth and reality. It suits America to draw a picture of amateur patriots defeating the well drilled redcoats, but that picture is nonsense. As a result of the Seven Years War there was a firm tradition of militia training in the Thirteen Colonies, and most of the revolution's leaders had served in that war. Then, early on, the rebels took steps to make a well-drilled and well-trained army. And, of course, they had France and Spain as allies. The largest army at Yorktown was the French army, the smallest was the British. So no, I'm not surprised. The British government played into the rebel's hands with their stupidity, and the rebels had the inestimable advantage of being able to surrender vast amounts of territory and survive, while the British never had the forces to control that large territory. In 1779, when the novel is set, New England is virtually independent already--there are no British forces in Massachusetts which has its own judiciary, legislature, and administration.
Q: While you have written several stand-alone thrillers, most of your fiction centers on war. What draws you to write military fiction? What is the most fascinating aspect of battle for you?
Cornwell: Warfare offer something unique; a loosening of the moral laws that govern our lives. Men and women are released to do things we abhor in peaceful times, and what interests me is how they react. Some react very badly, others attempt to hold onto their humanity through the horror. In The Fort there are no monsters, no horrors, but men struggling to understand what is happening to them. The hero, Peleg Wadsworth, second in command of the American army, emerges as a real hero! A man of moral substance and great strength. That intrigues me, that he can survive the loosening of moral bonds and emerge more resolute.
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In a slight departure from his usual sword and musket epics, Cornwell (Agincourt) delivers a straightforward fictionalized account of a disastrous 1779 American military campaign in today's Maine (then Massachusetts) that's heavy on historical figures and tense battle scenes. After the British establish a fort on the Penobscot River, the Massachusetts patriots mount an expedition to oust the redcoats. Unfortunately, the campaign is poorly planned and ineptly executed, pitting an ill-trained and undisciplined force against experienced British soldiers and the Royal Navy. The commander of the American land force is Gen. Solomon Lovell, a useless and dithering Boston politician, and the American navy is led by Cmdr. Dudley Saltonstall, an obstinate officer who refuses to risk his ships. Then there's Paul Revere, artillery commander and shameful yellow belly. In fact, the only American officer with any spirit for a fight is a former schoolteacher, Gen. Peleg Wadsworth. This is a rousing yarn of clashing personalities, crashing cannons, and lively musket and bayonet work, along with spies, cowardice, and moments of incredible bravery. Cornwell presents a fascinating, accurate, and exciting history lesson enlivened with a generous blast of gun smoke and grapeshot.
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