Having never read any of Bernard Cornwell's many previous efforts I was unsure of what to expect. Historical fiction can be one of those tricky areas where an author can easily change events to match up with a particular agenda. Conversations can be invented, events can be changed, and historical people can be described in ways that paint them in either a good or bad light depending on the author's personal opinion. So as much as I enjoy most books in this genre I still take them with a grain of salt.
Having said that, Cornwell's "The Fort" is an absolutely fabulous read, one I could not put down. It tells of an occupation by British troops during the Revolutionary War and the attempt of the Massachusetts Militia, strengthen by ships of the Continental Navy as well as Privateers, to "Captivate, kill, or destroy" the British forces. What should have been a relatively short and easy, if not somewhat bloody, campaign against the uncompleted Fort George turned into an almost month long siege as the American Forces failed to even launch a credible attack on the fort. The long stagnant siege allowed the Royal Navy to arrive and destroy what was the largest American Fleet ever assembled during the war.
Although history lays the entire blame of the military disaster on Commodore Dudley Saltonstall for his failure to lead his fleet into the harbor to destroy three British warships and therefore help coordinate a joint land/sea attack on the fort, Cornwell successfully argues that the blame lies more on the land forces commanded by General Solomon Lovell. Made up mostly of untrained citizens pressed into service the militia won the initial engagement and were primed to swarm the still uncompleted fort when Lovell decided to instead lay siege in the hopes Saltonstall would bring his warships in to bombard the British positions. What transpires is a test of wills where Saltonstall refuses to bring his ships into the harbor until the fort is neutralized while Lovell refuses to attack the fort without naval support. The long delay allows the British to fortify their positions and successfully wait for reinforcements to arrive.
One of the surprising revelations Cornwell provides is the antics and almost dereliction of duty by one Colonel Paul Revere. In his only real taste of battle with the British Revere is painted to be an arrogant, self-absorbed, surly, and mostly ineffectual artillery officer. His conduct during the attempted escape of the American Fleet from the Royal Navy is truly at odds with what most people have come to believe of him.
Again, this is just a wonderfully written book. The characters are well developed, the historical detail is extremely accurate, and the story written in a very vivid manner. Although I had never read one of Cornwell's previous books you can bet that omission will be corrected very soon. I highly recommend this book to anyone into events of the Revolutionary War.
on September 14, 2010
Here are the good points about this book:
1. It's an interesting, true story about the Revolutionary War that is not well known but full of episode, color and historical significance: the Penobscot Bay campaign.
2. It's smoothly written with a measured flow and pace that draws you in, brings the narrative subtly alive and makes the events of military and naval action convincing, easy to follow and very engaging.
3. It's expert in its analysis and reliable in sticking to historical fact while providing a richness of fictional texture.
4. It's acute in its judgments of the real-life protagonists, making, for instance, the irresponsible and self-absorbed Revere come alive - alas - and bringing out with little need for embellishment or verbal flourish the decency and honor of many of the soldiers and sailors. The commanders with their vanities, ambitions and abilities and in too many instances their woeful inabilities are three-dimensional and very real, to the degree that the reader easily identifies with them or wants to move into the story and give them a big slap across the head.
The Fort has all the strengths of Bernard Cornwell's many other historical novels - The Sharpe Napoleonic War series, and the more recent ones centered around King Alfred, and the narrative of the Agincourt campaign. It seems to me to be better written than most of these; Cromwell can at times be a little lumbering and his characters somewhat patterned with their responses, emotions and motives repetitive. These are minor blemishes. I didn't see any of them in The Fort. It really is a pleasure to read.
Listen my children and you will hear
Of the unknown failure of Paul Revere
It twas the Summer of 1779.
Not a man left is still alive
Who recalls that infamous day and year
When the British came to Penobscot Bay
And a Massachusetts force came to drive them away
"Attack first by land",
"No, Attack first by sea"
While for the British, the commander McLean
Held Fort George though it was incomplete
While Lovell dithers, making Wadsworth seethe
And Saltonstall ships wait to engage the fleet
Col. Revere carries airs that you wouldn't believe
More interested in status than the British you see
Bernard Cornwell tells the tale
Weaving the story of land and sail
As once did he a fine story brew
Of Richard Sharpe and his Rifleman true
with Pelg Wadworth as the hero in lieu.
The tale is well written and the battles ring true
With fine characterzation and story too
Fans of his writing will no doubt cheer
Of the latest novel he presents to us here
The quality of his past is maintained
as a glimpse of a young Sir John Moore is made
long before his final fate
Is decided some decades and an ocean away
So if of Cornwell you are a big fan
Purchase the latest work of the man
Though fans of Revere might groan and wail
that he reminded the world of an embarrassing tale
"The Fort" is another fine example of Bernard Cornwell's historical fiction, with the added benefit of addressing a little-known event in American Revolutionary War history. As with most of Cornwell's books the major historical events are factual, while many of the details and personal interactions are fictionalized. In this case, however, most of the main characters are also real historical figures, though of course the personalities and dialogue must be fleshed out to build on the bare facts provided in historical records. The most surprising aspect of the story is the portrayal of Patriot folk hero Paul Revere as an arrogant, insubordinate, and possibly even incompetent militia artillery officer who was ultimately court-martialed for his actions during the expedition. While this seems shocking to Americans familiar with him only for his heroic "midnight ride," Cornwell provides a historical analysis at the end of the book which provides pretty convincing evidence for his negative characterization of Revere.
The book covers the unsucessful Penobscot Expedition undertaken by American forces in the summer of 1779 in an attempt to dislodge British forces occupying Bagaduce Peninsula in Penobscot Bay (in what is now Maine). This event is not well known to most Americans-the expedition was an unmitigated disaster, and our forefathers likely preferred to forget it as quickly as possible. Americans tend to be raised on a rather fanciful mythology of the American Revolutionary War, in which bumbling Redcoats stand in the open to be shot at by crafty Patriot Woodsmen. This story illustrates the more common reality where Patriot militia were often amateurs facing well-led, disciplined British troops, while the Royal Navy provided overwhelming force in support of coastal campaigns. This is an excellent military action story which provides fascinating insight into some obscure events and people of the Revolutionalry War era, along with some startling revelations about a widely recognized (but apparently little understood) hero of American folklore.
Bernard Cornwell is widely known as "Britain's storyteller." The Sharpe novels, the Grail Quest trilogy, "Stonehenge," the Warlord Chronicles, and the Saxon Tales are all steeped in the legends and lore of Britain and western Europe. True, with the Starbuck novels and "Redcoat" Cornwell has written a bit about America, but in general his prolific pen has focused on matters on the east side of the pond.
With "The Fort," his latest novel, Cornwell balances the score a bit. "The Fort" focuses on the ill-fated Penobscot expedition where an overwhelming Continental force - combining naval, infantry, and artillery forces on a grand scale - completely failed in its objective to oust a small British force from its spot at the mouth of the Penobscot River in what is now Maine. This is a painful novel for Americans to read, as in addition to the military defeat our forces suffered, Cornwell also uncovers a long-forgotten tale - the story of the cowardice of Paul Revere.
Yes - that Paul Revere - the guy in the poem. It turns out that in reality, the only time Paul Revere faced the British in arms he was a complete skunk. As an officer leading the American artillery, Revere neither knew his business nor led his forces with anything approaching dispatch, initiative, bravery, or duty. Instead, in a well-documented event, Revere actually fled on a barge to preserve his personal baggage rather than save American sailors from capture by a British ship. When you add this to his utter incompetence as an artillery officer who was more concerned with a hot breakfast than hot cannon, you get one damning indictment of an American hero.
All in all, this expedition was marred by bad luck and appalling leadership. Cornwell spreads the blame around - the infantry commander Lovell and the naval commander Saltonstall also disgrace themselves on numerous occasions. Choose your poison, and the Continental leaders and soldiers from it: indecision, pride, sloth, a failure to read terrain or the enemy, and an embarrassing unwillingness to fight. Combine those failings with poor communication and you've got an incompetent army.
Cornwell illustrates these failings as only he can - excellent characterizations of real historical figures combined with bloody action scenes. "The Fort" may not be Cornwell's greatest book, but there's too much competition for that title anyway. This is a thrilling, exasperating book about a tale that should be well-known, and not just by military historians. Check it out.
on October 20, 2010
I was very excited to read "The Fort" as I was a big fan of Cornwell's "Redcoat". While I did enjoy the book towards the middle, I must admit that I found the first hundred pages or so to be very dry. I am used to Cornwell's style of providing background first before getting into any action, but this seemed a bit excessive to me. Once I got through the beginning I did enjoy most of the book. I had never heard of this event at all, and to realize that it did happen, on what a large-scale it occurred, and how close it was to where I live now I was amazed I had never read about it in school. There are many interesting characters, though Cornwell doesn't get too in-depth with them, and the book presents an interesting perspective on the rebel and loyalist views of the war. However I must admit that I found the ending to be very anti-climactic. Nothing seems resolved with the characters themselves and Cornwell ends the book as if there is going to be a sequel, but I don't think there will be. I'm not sure if this has just become a force of habit from writing the Sharpe series. In the end I would definitely recommend one of Cornwell's other books, either "Redcoat", "Agincourt", or any of the Sharpe series books over this. It wasn't bad, but it just wasn't as good as his other work.
On a personal note I must admit I as taken aback by the revelations about the popular American folk hero in this book. As a resident of New England it did somewhat shock me, but I don't doubt Cornwell's honesty. However, with this book I almost felt Cornwell was on a mission to prove that "the Americans in the Revolution weren't as good as you thought". I felt this on both a reflection of their fighting ability and their personal character. Now "Redcoat" addresses these points as well, but I honestly thought it was much more prominent in this book. I'll be the first to admit that it was a miracle that the Americans won the Revolutionary war, with poor military performance most of the time, and they definitely weren't saints, not really any better than the British when we take into account how loyalists were treated. However at the end of the book I was left wondering, "So what was the message Cornwell was trying to get across?" In finishing the book I almost felt that Cornwell had written this book just to point out an instance of the Americans failing militarily and morally, and that struck me as unusual for Cornwell.
The more observant amongst you may notice I am British, but I suspect you probably know as little about the events of Majabigwaduce in1779 as I did.
So, to put this into perspective, In Britain we had a brilliant cunning plan - we shipped out convicts to Australia and our religious nutcases over to the newly discovered America. In retrospect we are well aware that we should have left these two groups at home and shipped ourselves out to the paradise of Australia and the land of plenty that was America. But I digress, let's roll forward to the point where America tired of British rule, British Kings and, more importantly, British taxes. Obviously an unreasonable attitude but the War of Independence was your way of kicking us out and this novel, based on fact, is set during that war.
Some spoilers here, but I'm not sure if they count in a factual novel...
A force of Scottish infantry with limited support from the Royal Navy was ordered to hold a key peninsula in Maine while the Americans were equally determined to take it back.
British author Cornwell tries very hard to be objective and portray both sides in this conflict with balance. He obviously discovered an piece of American history that was not well known and decided to base a novel on it, partly because of the historical interest, but also because some key historical figures were involved, John Moore (later to become one of Britain's finest soldiers and leaders) and Paul Revere (made famous by Longfellow's famous poem which gives him far more credit then he was actually due).
There is no doubt that this is an interesting book, but here Cornwell has taken an event and placed his story in it, he normally takes characters like Sharpe with distinct personality and then places them in historical events. It doesn't work like the Sharpe stories for this very reason as his main characters here were real and that does not allow him much to play with.
The Scots were inexperienced troops but had experienced and inspirational leadership and were regular soldiers who did this for a living. There was joint strategy and effective communication with the Royal Navy but the position was still very weak. Enter the Americans with more troops and a superior naval force, but with conflicting leadership and poor communications. From Cornwell's telling the American troops varied from experienced and brave marines to conscripts and volunteers who really wanted to be farming, not fighting. With naval and land commanders not agreeing on any strategy they delayed for so long that the Royal Navy turned up to re-enforce the garrison and the Americans decided to retreat. This was not from cowardice but, given that they no longer had the upper hand, was probably the best thing to do given the situation and that they had delayed for so long. Having said that, they had the chance to regroup where the river narrowed but once again poor leadership meant that they didn't do so, and as a result the fleet was destroyed by their own hands or by the British in the biggest American naval disaster prior to Pearl Harbor.
Of most interest was probably Paul Revere who comes over very poorly here, lazy arrogant and self serving - we Brits have hardly ever heard of him, but it may be hard for you Americans to see a historical icon painted in a different light.
So this is an interesting book, but not a real page turner, it lacks tension because you know the outcome before you turn the first page. Cornwell has shed light on a small but important bit of history but fails to make it into an enthralling read.
on December 15, 2010
Let me start by saying that Bernard Cornwell is one of my absolute favorite authors. I have read almost everything he has written except the Sharpe series and eagerly anticipate each new book's arrival. I normally keep them for my collection, however, I could not wait to get rid of this book. And shockingly although I read over half of it, I did not bother to finish it. His characters are usually one of his strong points and in this book, NONE of them interested me in the least (except possibly Paul Revere and even he did not prove interesting enough to compel me to finish the book). I know many staunch fans and fellow readers will react badly to this review, but I am as shocked as they are I assure you. I teach literature and composition at the college level and this book bored me nearly to tears. Sorry, B.C. but perhaps you've raised the bar too high. I expect better of you and I will still look forward to your next book as long as it is not a sequel to this one...
Bernard Cornwell's latest novel of the American Revolutionary War, entitled "The Fort" chronicles the greatest American naval defeat prior to Pearl Harbor. The campaign mounted by the Commonwealth of Massachusets, and assisted by the Continental Navy took place in 1779 to evict, capture, or destroy a British force on the Penobscot River, in what is now the state of Maine. A force comprised of Massachusets Militia commanded by General Solomon Lovell, very ably assisted by second-in-command Brigadier General Peleg Wadsworth, took a force of approximately 800 militiamen ( some were forcibly conscripted), and an artillery component less-than-ably-led by Lieutenant Colonel Paul Revere, north to Majabigwaduce to do battle with and destroy a small British force of Scottish Highlanders. The Highlanders were very ably led by Scottish Brigadier-General Francis Maclean, who was determined to hold the bay against the "Rebels" who were using the sheltered inlet as a refuge for privateers operating against His Majesty's shipping along the East coast of North America. To hold and defend the bay, Maclean decided to construct a small fort, oddly enough named "Fort George."
The American rebel land force was supported by Commodore Saltonstall who commanded the warships of the Continental Navy and a force of privateers. An elite group of Continental Marines were the backbone of the entire operation, but in the course of the struggles were grossly misused.
Oddly enough, this book by Cornwell simply didn't have the usual "sizzle" of his numerous other military adventures. It is based, however on quite a few historical documents limiting the artistic license of the author to facts. It is exceedingly well-crafted and artfully written, but for some reason the book seemed to drag and it took an effort to read more than 10-20 pages at a sitting. There were too many descriptions of councils-of-war with General Lovell bickering with Commodore Saltonstall, and even though there were some exciting moments, they were too few.
All turned out well for the British, who managed to completely destroy the naval force sent against the fort--nearly 40 American vessels were captured, sunk, or burned to prevent capture--resulting in Commodore Saltonstall's dismissal from the Navy and being designated the official scapegoat for the failure of the entire operation.
The final chapter, or historical note, thoroughly deals with the fates of the principal players: Lieutenant Colonel Paul Revere was court martialled for cowardice and failure to obey orders; Commodore Saltonstall dismissed, as mentioned above. I suppose that some of the material is hard to take as an American reading our history in a less than favorable manner. It's amazing that we won our independence from Britain--in spite of the disasters we experienced!
I really would have liked to give this historical novel more stars that just 3, but the pace seemed awfully slow, and the events were dragged out too much to carry the tale along in a sprightly manner. Recommended, but not Bernard Cornwell's finest work!
on February 20, 2015
Great Book. Just goes to show you what happens when lions are lead by a sheep - the Americans - and sheep are lead by a lion - the British. It is a real wonder how our nation remains strong when our citizens elect leaders that can talk big but have no backbone. A great example is that recent Air Force General who uses the F-22 Raptor which is a pure fighter designed to take on the best enemy planes and uses it to fight ISIS with while the A-10 Warthog sits in storage. The "F" in F-22 stands for Fighter while the "A" in A-10 stands for ground attack if that so-called "General" doesn't know what "F" and "A" stand for. Just like in "The Fort", the American Admiral did not know how to use his vastly superior fleet to defeat three puny British ships and win the battle. Someone should of shot him in the dark when he showed his "yellow" color.