- The Fort: A Novel of the Revolutionary War
- Harper, 480 pp.
A Fort Too Far
The historical impact of America’s Revolutionary War has suffered terribly from the Lake Wobegon effect, where all the women are strong, all the men are good looking and all the children are above average. In the case of the Revolution, all the Patriots are brilliant, dedicated masters of political philosophy and guerrilla warfare. The British, by contrast, are an undifferentiated mass of snooty guys in red uniforms whose role in our mythology is to burn stuff, lose the Battle of Bunker Hill and huffily surrender seven years later.
This sentimentalization basically waterboards the events of the Revolution to obtain a confession of sorts — a narrative that fits our political and cultural demands of the moment. That narrative need not have even a passing resemblance to what actually happened. We’re not the only people who do this. The British still treasure the memory of Henry V’s destruction of a large slice of France’s nobility at Agincourt in 1415, ripping that victory out of the context of a military campaign that had been poorly planned and poorly executed, one which was pointless in geopolitical terms. Henry turned and fought at Agincourt because he was trapped by a much larger foe who stood between the English army and its supply bases around the mouth of the Seine.
Bernard Cornwell, who has written a masterful novel about Agincourt, tackles the American Revolution and its realities in his new work, The Fort. You won’t find any shellacked heroes here. His patriots range from the committed few to the mercenary many and include a host of men who have been shanghaied (“Impressed” was the term of the day) into serving their country involuntarily. His British are decent, honorable chaps who deplore the steps they are forced to take to get their colonial brethren back in line. Everyone else struggles to avoid the attention of either side. Attention, you see, costs you foodstuff and livestock if you’re fortunate. If you’re unfortunate, you have a musket or a trenching spade shoved into your unwilling hands.
The action takes place during the summer of 1779. The war is at a low boil. General Washington spends his energies trying to keep his army together. The British are about to roll the tactical dice on an offensive in the southern colonies. The government of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, bereft of money, has noticed a small British expedition to the mouth of the Penobscot River, where the English army has plopped down two thin regiments of Scots soldiers on the island of Majabigwaduce (the site is now the town of Castine, Maine) and built a fort on a hill overlooking the main channel of the river. Fort George’s guns and those of the three sloops-of-war anchored in the bay below the fort can cut off shipping into and out of a fairly large region of what is now central Maine.
The Massachusetts legislature takes due note of the British presence in “eastern Massachusetts,” then takes leave of its collective senses and decides this is a perfect opportunity to repair the commonwealth’s financial health. They simply have to send a fleet and small army to Majabigwaduce, capture the three British warships and capture the rough, incomplete fort and its occupants. They don’t appear to notice that the British are wasting time and resources choking off a region which is sparsely populated by whites and Native Americans, is not on the way to any particular strategic objective and isn’t much of a military threat to Revolutionary Massachusetts.
It is the opportunity for loot in the form of those three British warships and whatever booty may lie within their hulls that drives the Penobscot Expedition. The commonwealth simply needs to send its own soldiers and sailors to the Penobscot. It has the navy, a collection of roughly 40 ships owned by the commonwealth itself, free-market maritime entrepreneurs (who make their living capturing and looting British vessels) and a frigate owned by the Continental Navy. The expedition makes a brief stop on its way north to round up its army, a sorry collection of untrained militia, most of whom have been forced at gunpoint into the ranks.
What happens next is seen mainly through the eyes of Brigadier General Peleg Wadsworth, a young schoolmaster with a wife and small children who has actual combat experience as a former aide de camp to General Washington. As an aside, Wadsworth, like almost all the main characters in the book, really existed and Cornwell has gone to great lengths to tell the real story of the Penobscot Expedition.
Since you’ve very likely never read about the expedition in any history book on the Revolution, I think you can guess the outcome of Massachusetts’s experiment in making war for profit. The Penobscot expedition bankrupts the colony, which then spends two decades trying to recoup its expenses ($300 million by 2010 standards) from the new federal government. Hundreds of militia men stagger home through several hundred miles of virgin forest, arriving, if at all, starving, ill, destitute and dressed in rags.
Cornwell keeps the action moving fast, a pace as crisp as autumn leaves in New England. We meet good, dedicated men such as Wadsworth, British General Francis McLean and Lt. John Moore, who would go on to fame and a death on the battlefield during Britain’s Peninsular War against Napoleon. We meet weak, indecisive men such as General Solomon Lovell and Commodore Dudley Saltonstall, the commanding officers, respectively, of the Massachusetts militia and navy. Their indecisiveness and moral cowardice enrage and demoralize Wadsworth and every other competent officer on the Patriot side. We meet the Lindsay Lohan of the American Revolution, Paul Revere, whose willful disobedience of orders, cowardice, dissipation, incompetence and eternal meddling cost the Americans any chance they might have had to successfully conclude the expedition. Revere does have a grandson, however, who writes a poem at the beginning of the American Civil War admonishing generations of American school children to “Listen, my children, and you shall hear/Of the midnight ride of Paul Revere.”
The book is worth reading for military enthusiasts, particularly in its descriptions of all the horrifying aspects of naval warfare of the era and its attention to the details of artillery use both ashore and afloat. The combat scenes are well-described and gruesome. And the non-military obtuseness of the Patriot expedition’s top leaders is painfully hilarious:
Lovell wanted to inspire them. He knew spirits were dangerously low, he heard daily reports of men deserting the lines or else hiding in the woods to evade their duties and so he stood before McCobb’s men and told them they were Americans, that their children and children’s children would want to hear of their prowess, that they should return home with laurels on their brows. Some men nodded as he spoke, but most listened with expressionless faces as Lovell moved to his carefully prepared climax. ‘Let after ages say,’ he declare with an orator’s flourish, ‘that there they did stand like men inspired, there did they fight, and fighting some few fell, the rest victorious, firm, inflexible!’
Lovell is no Henry V, whose actual final words to his men as the armies clashed at Agincourt were: “Let’s go, fellows.” The king was lucky that he had a good rewrite man in William Shakespeare.
There are obvious parallels in Cornwell’s tale with contemporary events in modern America. We owe it to ourselves and our posterity to re-examine the actual events of the Revolution and redeem the lives of those Americans who suffered and died in miserable, out-of-the-way places like the Penobscot. Let’s skip the varnish on the statue in the town square and instead listen to the truths of the lives and deaths of the men whom that statue memorializes. Bernard Cornwell, British by birth, has served up a delicious dish of gray truth. That, friends, is love for our great nation.
Sam Stowe is a writer and poet who lives in Raleigh, North Carolina. He may or may not have served as an American Patriot soldier in a past life. Probably not.