THE FORT: A NOVEL OF THE REVOLUTIONARY WAR
By Bernard Cornwell
Harper, $25.99, 468 pages
Every man has his Waterloo, which is fine if you happen to be Wellington and not the other guy. Paul Revere, Dudley Saltonstall and Solomon Lovell were the other guys, the goats, in the AmericanRevolution’s biggest naval operation and our nation’s worst rout until Pearl Harbor. Founding Fathers? Founding flops. What tricks history plays on innocent posterity.
For starters, we owe the heroic image of the Boston silversmith to Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s hyperbolic “Paul Revere’s Ride,” a poem written nearly a century after a slender fact that it sing-songed into iconography. This mythmaker had an agenda: To stir the souls of New England patriots on the eve of another Armageddon, our Civil War. Lovers of poetry, you were had.
As Bernard Cornwell makes clear, Paul Revere wasn’t the stellar night rider who galloped past “every Middlesex village and farm” warning of Redcoats. In fact, he wasn’t the only one spreading the word on April 18, 1775, though he was the only one of three messengers to bungle his way into the arms of Brits and be held for questioning.
Four years later, he connived his way to a lieutenant-colonelcy in the Massachusetts Militia. Thus, Revere as artillery commander joined a force of 1,000 troops led by Brig. Gen. Lovell to board Commodore Saltonstall’s fleet - 40 ships from the Continental Navy and Massachusetts Navy, plus privateers and transports - to mount the Penobscot Expedition.
The name has a certain ring, like Market-Garden and Just Cause. Its purpose was to dislodge British soldiers building a fort at modern-day Castine, Maine, intended to be only the second royal outpost between Canada and New York. But Penobscot became the worst American military disaster you never heard of in grammar school and hardly had a chance to read about until now.
Whether suffering amnesia or denial, we forget some things because they are too painful, horrific or embarrassing. At the other end of some mental spectrum, whether through hagiography or delusion, we raise heroes onto pedestals. So be it: Penobscot fits either diagnosis and proves some points we would do well to remember. We didn’t always win, and when we don’t, the fault lies not in our stars but in ourselves. At Penobscot, we bungled while our foes fought bravely and well.
What caused the failure? Arrogance, incompetence, indecision, internecine rivalry. Col. Revere, a patsy and a shirker who insisted on sleeping aboard ship and getting hot breakfasts, was accused of insubordination and cowardice. Lovell, the farmer in charge of the troops, refused to storm the fort until Saltonstall’s fleet attacked the British ships bottlenecking the harbor. Saltonstall, commanding 19 armed ships, refused to engage the three anchored sloops until Lovell silenced the fort’s artillery. Playing Alphonse and Gaston, the patriots squandered 16 days and held 20 councils of war before Royal Navy reinforcements arrived from New York to rout us. Only one American vessel escaped; most of the survivors walked home.
A “Historical Note” makes clear this work is based on Mr. Cornwell’s abundant research. His picture of the period is persuasive, and the story is larded like a steamed pudding with bits of information and engaging terms: sheer-legs (a tripod hoist to lift heavy gear), cascabel (a cannon’s knob), scarifier (a surgeon’s device for blood-letting). If some passages seem as didactic as field manuals on gunnery and ordnance, others indulge a bloodlust with graphic images of guts and gore.
Mr. Cornwell describes nuts and bolts: How to load a flintlock musket and aim a cannon; the visible shock wave of a broadside, the mechanics of shot striking timbers. As usual, he describes wounds from blunt weapons and the look of how men die. Call him a pedagogue of antique warfare and portraitist of erstwhile cultures.
I count myself a fan of Mr. Cornwell, a master of ripsnortin’ historical fiction of extraordinary size and scope. Aside from his Richard Sharpe series, 21 novels about a rags-to-regiment swashbuckler in the Napoleonic Wars, there are four other series and six stand-alone novels. Superbly researched, they typically offer a grand tapestry of a period, a war or just a battle (witness the mighty Agincourt) while revealing the warp and weft of people’s lives therein.
So I take him at his word that here he “tried, within the constraints of fiction, to describe what happened” at a place once called Majabigwaduce. While “The Fort” seems overlong -he tried to tell too much - Mr. Cornwell achieves a splendid feat of persuasion: Possessing overwhelming force, the upstart American commanders are so incompetent, fatuous and craven that halfway through I found myself rooting for the undermanned underdogs, the Redcoats. No wonder they won the Battle of Britain.
In sum, with this tale of ineptitude topping off an oeuvre of 45 historical novels, Bernard Cornwell (like his compatriots on the Penobscot) lost the battle, but he has won the war.
Philip Kopper, publisher of Posterity Press Inc., writes widely about American history, culture and natural science.