Book Review: The Fort by Bernard Cornwell


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.

My Thoughts

My introduction to the writing of Bernard Cornwell was through his very successful  Sharpe series of  novels and so I expected The Fort to be a good read.

Set during the American Revolutionary Wars, The Fort is based on the true story of the 1779 Penobscot Expedition. This expedition was organised to oust the British Army from Fort George, on the Majabigwaduce Peninsula, Penobscott Bay, in present day Maine, and to prevent the establishment of a British colony there.

The expedition was under the command of Commodore Dudley Saltonstall, Adjutant General Peleg Wadsworth, Brigadier General Solomon Lovell and Lieutenant Colonel Paul Revere.  Bernard Cornwell’s research revealed that Saltonstall and Lovell, the naval and land force commanders respectively, continually disagreed; Revere was a law unto himself and Wadsworth, the only one of the four to emerge from this disaster with his reputation intact.

The British were greatly out numbered, but the reluctance of Commodore Saltonstall to commit his ships to taking the harbour, gave the British time to strengthen the defences of the fort and send for aid. Time and again, an opportunity for the Americans to launch a successful land attack was thwarted by disagreement. Eventually British reinforcements arrived forcing a retreat up the Penobscott River.

Peleg Wadsworth was certainly the hero of the expedition and of this novel. The opening chapter, with its heart-warming images of Peleg Wadsworth practising army drills with the help of his children, endeared the man to me. Throughout the novel he is the calming influence on those around him and unlike the other commanders does not engage in petty rivalries.  Wadsworth took charge of organising the retreat up the Penobscott River, ensuring that as many men as possible got away in the ensuing chaos.

Paul Revere did not fare well in this narration and I was surprised that he was not quite the hero I imagined him to be.  Bernard Cornwell himself pointed out that most of us are familiar with the Paul Revere from the poem written by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, a descendent of Peleg Wadsworth. In The Fort he is depicted as  incompetent and a coward.

General Francis McLean was in command of the British and one of his subalterns was none other than John Moore, later to become Sir John Moore, hero of the Peninsular Wars, who lost his life at the Battle of Corunna, Spain, in 1809

The ending is ironic in that Saltonstall’s obsession with keeping his ships safe resulted in most of the American fleet  being destroyed: the ships were either captured by the Royal Navy or burned by the Americans themselves as they retreated up the Penobscott River.

The Fort is another fine historical novel by Bernard Cornwell. Readers interested in this era will certainly enjoy it and those after a good adventure story will also find satisfaction here.

Searching for a Good Read?

If you’re searching for something to read, visit the Historical Writers’ Association web site

They have a timeline which allows you to browse books by period from the Ancient World through to the 20th century. If you click on the Members tab a list of authors is revealed with links to their biographies and websites.

I pleasantly whiled away a Saturday afternoon here and as a result added more books to my reading wish list.

The Strange Fate of Kitty Easton by Elizabeth Speller
Book Review

I was disappointed with this novel. The first part was slow and I kept asking myself when will the mystery of Kitty Easton’s disappearance begin. I persevered to the end, but did not find this novel as engaging as Speller’s previous one <i>The Return of Captain John Emmett</i>.

I was certainly looking forward to meeting Laurence Bartram again, but I didn’t warm to the other characters and by the end of the novel I had lost interest in what had befallen Kitty Easton.

Book Review: Keane's Company by Iain Gale

This novel is the first in a new series featuring Captain James Keane, Exploring Officer. It is set in Spain and Portugal during the Peninsular Wars.

Expecting to be cashiered for disobeying Wellington’s orders and fighting a duel in which a fellow officer is killed, Lieutenant Keane finds himself raised to the rank of Captain and commanded to put together a band of men with the necessary skills for intelligence gathering. Keane recruits his men from amongst the regiments and from military gaols, and endeavours to form this disparate group into an elite company.

Keane is a liar, womanizer and card cheat, but a good soldier, and lucky. Under his leadership his company is able to infiltrate Spanish and Portuguese guerrilla groups, play an important role in the battle for Oporto and recover French silver with ease.

Not only does Keane have to defend himself against the enemy, but also the enmity of Captain John Blackwood, the best friend of the officer he killed and  brother of Kitty Blackwood, the woman he has set his heart on.

Good descriptions of the battle scenes and enough action to keep the reader’s interest even if Keane’s ability to win the day is too good to be true. Captain Keane’s adventures continue in KEANE’S CHALLENGE.