The Fort: A Novel of the Revolutionary War
© 2010 Bernard Cornwell
It’s the summer of 1799, and Britain’s attempts to restore their wayward colonies to the Crown are not going well. Following the battle of Saratoga, the French and Spanish have declared common cause with the rebels. Though the course of the war has moved to the southern colonies, Britain has seen fit to establish a small outpost at the mouth of the Penobscot River (in what is today Maine) in order to establish a safe harbor for fighting privateers and provide sanctuary for political refugees, particularly Loyalists fleeing persecution. In response, the Massachusetts and Continental governments have sent a fleet to drive the invaders away. They find the outpost, Fort George, still in the early stages of construction — and scarcely defended, for its commander lacks the men to take even the high bluffs on the river. The Fort begins with the arrival of the British in what they call ‘New Ireland’ and carries through the last weeks of July until the defeated party flees downriver, utterly ruined.
The Fort is a remarkable departure from Cornwell’s usual approach. Instead of focusing on one central character and have him live through the events of history, Cornwell instead draws on an ensemble cast of historical characters, both American and British (specifically, Scottish soldiers and Royal Marines). His main characters are a generally sympathetic lot, with the exception of the emotionally turbulent Lieutenant Colonel Paul Revere. The Americans tended toward the grumpy, though, and I far more enjoyed the company of General Francis McLean, commanding the fort, and his young ward John Moore — the future Lieutenant-General Sir John Moore. They were consistently in high spirits despite the presumed certainty of their defeat, and both possessed a wicked sense of humor that left me looking forward to their viewpoint sections. Cornwell also ties the chapters together with excerpts from historical letters, memos, and other literature concerning the battle — including a legal document indicting one of the book’s characters for disobedience and cowardice, and letters from the ever-pleasant General McLean. Unlike Redcoat, The Fort contains plenty of combat, both on land and on the river. I didn’t realize that there were rivers big enough for frigates to move through — rivers are fascinating areas for battle.
This is a fascinating, generally untold story of the American Revolution: definitely above average if not Cornwell’s best.
- Jeff Shaara’s Rise to Rebellion and The Glorious Cause, his novels of the war. (And speaking of which, his Pacific War novel is due in May….!)
- Cornwell’s own Redcoat, which focuses more on character drama than combat, but which enthralled me.