Book Review: The Fort by Bernard Cornwell
I’ve read a lot of Bernard Cornwell’s books over the last few years. I love learning about history by reading fictionalized accounts. I don’t usually worry about the accuracy of how Cornwell portrays certain historical figures. If I really wanted to know about King George or General Wellington, I would read a biography. Cornwell’s strength is in the details of battle and the strategies and tactics used during each era. He puts his own characters in the field of battle, and the real historical figures are somewhat off stage but still relevant to the story. You learn history through the observations of junior officers.
The Fort is a different kind of book. It’s set during the American Revolution, at the battle of Majabigwaduce on the Penobscot River in Massachusetts in the summer of 1779. The British have returned from Nova Scotia after being pushed out of Boston, and they are determined to restore order to the colonies by making a landing in this remote harbor, often referred to as Majaduce. They land and begin construction of what would become Fort George, led by Brigadier-General Francis McLean. It isn’t long before the American Navy, along with the Massachusetts Minutemen arrive to try to repel the invaders.
What follows is Cornwell’s very thoroughly researched account of the movements of ships, men and artillery through weeks of battle. Unlike other of Cornwell’s books, the characters are (for the most part) all actual historical figures, including Sir John Moore
(of the Charge of the Light Brigade fame) who went on to form the famed British Light Divisions, and Paul Revere (he of Longfellow’s poem). There are fictitious characters in the book – many of the enlisted men in both the British and American Army were made to order for the novel. But the the focus in this book is the strategic decisions (and indecisions) made by the senior officers on both sides that led to the worst defeat in the history of the US Navy (at least to that point).
The book starts off a little slow because Cornwell has to introduce so many characters and their motives. Around page 140, the story really takes off as the battles begin, and the impact of the characters composition really comes to life.
I’ve never studied a lot of American Revolution history. I grew up in Canada, so we spent a lot more time discussing the defeat of the Americans in the war of 1812 than that misguided little insurrection thirty some years before. I had never heard of this battle, nor knew anything about Paul Revere other than he had ridden to warn the Americans the British were coming. I never knew he was one of a dozen or more riders that night, and the only one who didn’t finish his ride. (Did Sarah Palin know that?). According to Cornwell, Revere was, to put it frankly, a bit of a prick and a coward, and his actions at the Battle of Majaduce were near treasonous. That part of the story was fascinating.
What I found funny, or perhaps poignant, was that throughout the book, my allegiance was split between both the British and the Americans. It says something about Cornwell’s ability to tell a story that you could be sympathetic to both sides. Perhaps it was only because I grew up in Canada that I could cheer for the British. Maybe it’s because all the other books of Cornwell’s that I have read have been from the British perspective, so I know how those soldiers fought and have already seen them die by the hundreds. Or maybe it was because most of the American leadership was pretty much incompetent in this battle and didn’t deserve to win.
One of my favorite parts of any Cornwell book is to read the Historical Notes at the end to learn what was true and what he had made up. This book was no exception. The notes are fascinating and make me want to journey to that part of the country to see the place for myself. Unlike some of the battles in the Sharpe’s Rifles series which take place in India, this is a trip I may actually be able to do someday. I envy Cornwell’s ability to research these episodes of history and to spin a yarn about these real events that draws the reader in and makes them want to learn more. Cornwell is one of history’s best teachers, and everyone should sit up straight and take very good notes. There will be a test later.