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The Fort: A Novel of the Revolutionary War

November 19th, 2010

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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.


Book Review

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Fiction Books 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.
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  1. Kingsley
    November 21st, 2010 at 01:45 | #1

    Rating

    Mr. Cornwell writes the most amazing realistic battle scenes found in English literature. He puts you THERE, in the heat of the action. He thrills , chills, and presents historical happenings as current events. I have read everything he has written and once again he does not let the reader down. History as it should be presented: accurate, with humour, with action, unbiased, and totally readable.

    (However the Kindle version was poorly proof-read with occational poor punctuation, and the odd strangely spelled words. Ignore these small errors, and enjoy this great read!)

  2. Carol Roberts
    November 21st, 2010 at 07:49 | #2

    Rating

    Reading this book, I had the feeling that I really wasn’t enjoying it. I finally decided it wasn’t the writing, which was excellent, or the way the tale was told, which was also excellent. It was the subject matter. Who can enjoy reading about the worst naval disaster before Pearl Harbor? It wasn’t even a sneak attack; it was, to my mind, amateur soldiers and sailors against well-trained professionals.

    The State of Massachusetts, on learning that the British were fortifying a harbor in what is now Maine, decided that they would send their forces against the invaders rather than calling on the Continental Army and Navy. The militia was headed by a popular farmer and legislator known for his cool head. The militia consisted of regulars and men taken from farms and street corners and bars and pressed into service. The navy was commanded by a cautious commodore and had added privateers to its small group of ships.

    The American general started with dreams of the victory parade in Boston following the ouster of the British. I knew we were in trouble when he first experienced battle and the ugliness of blood and gore and decided to have his staff vote on whether to attack or not. The Commodore was equally reluctant to put his ships in harm’s way. And the patriot, Paul Revere, in charge of artillery, preferred sleeping on his ship and having a hot breakfast to staying in the field and directing his guns. As it happened, he was not a very good artilleryman.

    All these factors, plus the fact that the British were well organized and determined, made the outcome very likely, though the reader does hope for something better until the very end. Perhaps the final breath-taking event was the Massachusetts State’s method of paying for the expedition. I will leave that for a small bit of suspense for the reader.

    As I said at the beginning, I did not really enjoy the book, but I thought it worthwhile and helpful to appreciating our country and how hard it was to gain our independence. I’m glad I read it.

  3. J. Johnson
    November 23rd, 2010 at 15:38 | #3

    Rating

    I was unsure what to expect as I began The Fort. I have read all of Cornwell’s Sharpe series, which I found to be thoroughly enjoyable and fascinating. So I entered reading with a certain amount of trepidation. I found The Fort to be well put together, solid storytelling. However it lacked the one central character (like Richard Sharpe) that I could grow to know and care about. The result is that I felt somewhat detatched from the story.

    That being said, the historical basis of the story is an ill-fated Massachusetts expedition to expel the British from Penobscot Bay. The force was poorly conceived-a massive naval force to face three small British ships, mixed with a poorly trained militia, face a British garrison of approximately equal numbers of soldiers, and a partially built fort. The army was cursed with poor leadership, from both its commander and especially its artillery commander, Paul Revere, who the book pretty conclusively shows was a coward and fraud.

    The storytelling is solid, factually strong, with typical novelist embellishment I recommend the book highly. It’s a good telling of a little known story of the American Revolution.

  4. Peter G. Keen
    November 25th, 2010 at 19:59 | #4

    Rating

    Here are the good points about this book:

    1. It’s an interesting, true story about the Revolutionary War that is not well known but full of episode, color and historical significance: the Penobscot Bay campaign.

    2. It’s smoothly written with a measured flow and pace that draws you in, brings the narrative subtly alive and makes the events of military and naval action convincing, easy to follow and very engaging.

    3. It’s expert in its analysis and reliable in sticking to historical fact while providing a richness of fictional texture.

    4. It’s acute in its judgments of the real-life protagonists, making, for instance, the irresponsible and self-absorbed Revere come alive – alas – and bringing out with little need for embellishment or verbal flourish the decency and honor of many of the soldiers and sailors. The commanders with their vanities, ambitions and abilities and in too many instances their woeful inabilities are three-dimensional and very real, to the degree that the reader easily identifies with them or wants to move into the story and give them a big slap across the head.

    The Fort has all the strengths of Bernard Cornwell’s many other historical novels – The Sharpe Napoleonic War series, and the more recent ones centered around King Alfred, and the narrative of the Agincourt campaign. It seems to me to be better written than most of these; Cromwell can at times be a little lumbering and his characters somewhat patterned with their responses, emotions and motives repetitive. These are minor blemishes. I didn’t see any of them in The Fort. It really is a pleasure to read.

  5. Scott Schiefelbein
    November 26th, 2010 at 02:44 | #5

    Rating

    Bernard Cornwell is widely known as “Britain’s storyteller.” The Sharpe novels, the Grail Quest trilogy, “Stonehenge,” the Warlord Chronicles, and the Saxon Tales are all steeped in the legends and lore of Britain and western Europe. True, with the Starbuck novels and “Redcoat” Cornwell has written a bit about America, but in general his prolific pen has focused on matters on the east side of the pond.

    With “The Fort,” his latest novel, Cornwell balances the score a bit. “The Fort” focuses on the ill-fated Penobscot expedition where an overwhelming Continental force – combining naval, infantry, and artillery forces on a grand scale – completely failed in its objective to oust a small British force from its spot at the mouth of the Penobscot River in what is now Maine. This is a painful novel for Americans to read, as in addition to the military defeat our forces suffered, Cornwell also uncovers a long-forgotten tale – the story of the cowardice of Paul Revere.

    Yes – that Paul Revere – the guy in the poem. It turns out that in reality, the only time Paul Revere faced the British in arms he was a complete skunk. As an officer leading the American artillery, Revere neither knew his business nor led his forces with anything approaching dispatch, initiative, bravery, or duty. Instead, in a well-documented event, Revere actually fled on a barge to preserve his personal baggage rather than save American sailors from capture by a British ship. When you add this to his utter incompetence as an artillery officer who was more concerned with a hot breakfast than hot cannon, you get one damning indictment of an American hero.

    All in all, this expedition was marred by bad luck and appalling leadership. Cornwell spreads the blame around – the infantry commander Lovell and the naval commander Saltonstall also disgrace themselves on numerous occasions. Choose your poison, and the Continental leaders and soldiers from it: indecision, pride, sloth, a failure to read terrain or the enemy, and an embarrassing unwillingness to fight. Combine those failings with poor communication and you’ve got an incompetent army.

    Cornwell illustrates these failings as only he can – excellent characterizations of real historical figures combined with bloody action scenes. “The Fort” may not be Cornwell’s greatest book, but there’s too much competition for that title anyway. This is a thrilling, exasperating book about a tale that should be well-known, and not just by military historians. Check it out.

  6. Peter Ingemi
    November 27th, 2010 at 03:30 | #6

    Rating

    Listen my children and you will hear

    Of the unknown failure of Paul Revere

    It twas the Summer of 1779.

    Not a man left is still alive

    Who recalls that infamous day and year

    When the British came to Penobscot Bay

    And a Massachusetts force came to drive them away

    “Attack first by land”,

    “No, Attack first by sea”

    While for the British, the commander McLean

    Held Fort George though it was incomplete

    While Lovell dithers, making Wadsworth seethe

    And Saltonstall ships wait to engage the fleet

    Col. Revere carries airs that you wouldn’t believe

    More interested in status than the British you see

    Bernard Cornwell tells the tale

    Weaving the story of land and sail

    As once did he a fine story brew

    Of Richard Sharpe and his Rifleman true

    with Pelg Wadworth as the hero in lieu.

    The tale is well written and the battles ring true

    With fine characterzation and story too

    Fans of his writing will no doubt cheer

    Of the latest novel he presents to us here

    The quality of his past is maintained

    as a glimpse of a young Sir John Moore is made

    long before his final fate

    Is decided some decades and an ocean away

    So if of Cornwell you are a big fan

    Purchase the latest work of the man

    Though fans of Revere might groan and wail

    that he reminded the world of an embarrassing tale

  7. John R. Lindermuth
    November 27th, 2010 at 04:30 | #7

    Rating

    Though best known for his Sharpe series set in the Napoleonic period, Cornwell has extended his range to other historic eras, including Redcoat, an earlier novel about the Revolutionary War, and a series about the Civil War.

    This novel depicts a little known campaign of the Revolutionary War and the frustrating reasons for its failure and the worst naval disaster for the U.S. until Pearl Harbor.

    The action takes place in 1779 when the tide of battle had largely moved south and a small British force attempted to establish a foothold in what was then Massachusetts but is now Maine. In response, Massachusetts sent a fleet of 40 vessels and a thousand troops to halt the invasion.

    Cornwell dispels the myth all Americans were dedicated to separating from Britain and shows the warts on both sides. There are genuine heroes in this tale as well as cowards, scoundrels and villains. Among the real heroes of the campaign were Peleg Wadsworth, second in command of the American army, who tried against enormous odds to accomplish the mission’s goal, and the young John Moore, who later in life forged the army that defeated Napoleon. There are others equally deserving of the title.

    Failure of the campaign rests largely with the indecisiveness of General Solomon Lovell, commander of the Massachusetts forces, and Commodore Dudley Saltonstall of the U.S. Navy. Another major contributor was Paul Revere who, despite the legendary status created by a descendant, actually faced courts-martial for disobedience and cowardice.

    Firmly rooted in history and told in Cornwell’s gripping narrative style, The Fort is a must read for fans of historic and/or military history.

  8. P. Eisenman
    November 28th, 2010 at 19:14 | #8

    Rating

    THE FORT is one of those great historical fiction works that actually incorporates historical, factual events and characters into a great fictional novel. Fast reading and entertaining. THE FORT is everything I like in both history and fiction!

    The number of truly fictional characters is limited to the periphery, which leaves a minefield of “real” people for author Bernard Cornwell to incorporate into the story. Thankfully, that task is accomplished admirably!

    Prior to the story, author Cornwell takes the time to explain which characters are fictional and he devised a simple method for the reader to keep things straight while reading. Afterwards, the author provides historical notes explaining the events, scenes and character interactions with which he took literary license. Cornwell also provides follow-up to the story and relates historical findings related to the events portrayed. While not a bibliography, there’s enough original source material cited if you want to do your own research and verification.

    Paul Revere gets a rather unforgiving treatment, which kind of caused me some discomfort, but Cornwell adequetely explains the origanal sourcing of why his Revere character does and says the things he does. Having recently read a Revere bio, I must say that Cornwell is much less forgiving and flattering than the other “scholarly” book was. But Cornwell limited himself to contemporary, original source reports of Revere’s conduct, so all I can say is that I am now intrigued to read more about Revere. While Revere’s contemporaries knew him and had first hand knowledge of events, they also had their own biases one way or the other. Some current scholars may be able to dispassionatly report the facts, but often times their own modern, political bias is introduced. The result being that the reader needs to do a bit of research and thinking and come up with their own conclusions!

    THE FORT is well-written and entertaining. The dialogue is realistic. A few minor instances of mild (for today!) profanities including a couple of G..D……s, so beware. Otherwise, if it were a movie, I’d give it a PG rating. A few bits of gruesome battle wounds, but nothing really graphic. Handy close-up map provided for “orientation” of the reader, along with a tiny inset of the east coast. I could have used a “mid-scale” map depicting the not-so-obvious relation of the fort, coast, river and bay. I was confused for a bit as the “bay” is 26 miles upriver and the fort faces WEST and the attack went EAST, which of course is backwards from what you’d expect. Not Cornwell’s fault, just a quirk of geography that would have been better explained by a middle sized map of the fort in relation to the coast of Maine (Eastern Massachusetts at the time).

    I give FIVE STARS to THE FORT. Entertaining, seemingly well-researched, “real” characters accurately portrayed and treated with respect. Nothing imparted unto them that couldn’t be backed by original source material. This is what historical fiction should be. Kind of like the older Kenneth Roberts fiction, but less ponderous. You learn history while having fun doing it with THE FORT. Best of all, it makes you want to delve deeper into the actual history!

  9. a
    November 29th, 2010 at 03:46 | #9

    Rating

    The last novel I read on the Revolutionary War was an unabashedly patriotic tale about the American spirit. This is not that kind of book. It’s the kind of historically accurate, take-no-prisoners narrative that, had it been written decades ago and made into a movie, John Wayne would have refused a starring role. While a rebel is indeed the protagonist, the American portrait that Cornwell so brilliantly paints is that of a terribly unorganized, arrogant, and almost cowardly power structure making mistake after mistake at a significant moment of the American Revolution that leads to a sound British victory. Oh yeah, and surprise, Paul Revere was an incompetent horse’s behind.

    Told in vivid detail with a little humor and poignancy, “The Fort” is the kind of historical novel that makes the past come alive. Books such as this one should be mandatory reading in school. That said, those who only want to revel in patriotic tales of American victory best stay away. This is a novel for everyone with an open mind, particularly those who recognize that leadership, or a lack thereof, can be crucial in a land-and-sea battle. Recommended.

  10. Bob Smith
    December 2nd, 2010 at 12:36 | #10

    Rating

    I was very excited to read “The Fort” as I was a big fan of Cornwell’s “Redcoat”. While I did enjoy the book towards the middle, I must admit that I found the first hundred pages or so to be very dry. I am used to Cornwell’s style of providing background first before getting into any action, but this seemed a bit excessive to me. Once I got through the beginning I did enjoy most of the book. I had never heard of this event at all, and to realize that it did happen, on what a large-scale it occurred, and how close it was to where I live now I was amazed I had never read about it in school. There are many interesting characters, though Cornwell doesn’t get too in-depth with them, and the book presents an interesting perspective on the rebel and loyalist views of the war. However I must admit that I found the ending to be very anti-climactic. Nothing seems resolved with the characters themselves and Cornwell ends the book as if there is going to be a sequel, but I don’t think there will be. I’m not sure if this has just become a force of habit from writing the Sharpe series. In the end I would definitely recommend one of Cornwell’s other books, either “Redcoat”, “Agincourt”, or any of the Sharpe series books over this. It wasn’t bad, but it just wasn’t as good as his other work.

    On a personal note I must admit I as taken aback by the revelations about the popular American folk hero in this book. As a resident of New England it did somewhat shock me, but I don’t doubt Cornwell’s honesty. However, with this book I almost felt Cornwell was on a mission to prove that “the Americans in the Revolution weren’t as good as you thought”. I felt this on both a reflection of their fighting ability and their personal character. Now “Redcoat” addresses these points as well, but I honestly thought it was much more prominent in this book. I’ll be the first to admit that it was a miracle that the Americans won the Revolutionary war, with poor military performance most of the time, and they definitely weren’t saints, not really any better than the British when we take into account how loyalists were treated. However at the end of the book I was left wondering, “So what was the message Cornwell was trying to get across?” In finishing the book I almost felt that Cornwell had written this book just to point out an instance of the Americans failing militarily and morally, and that struck me as unusual for Cornwell.

  11. Daniel Weitz
    December 2nd, 2010 at 14:06 | #11

    Rating

    This is the novel in which you learn why the Rifles wear green with black cross belts.

    It is also unusual for a Cornwell novel in that it has no real villains (being inept and “out of your league” does not make you a villain). It is not as “dark” as much of Cornwell’s recent books and almost all of the characters are attractive. The descriptions of battles are outstanding. It is a great read.

    It is also obvious that the second attempt to capture the fort together with the further adventures of Peleg would make a nice sequal, as would also the British re-oocupation in the War of 1812.

  12. Archie Mercer
    December 3rd, 2010 at 01:30 | #12

    Rating

    Having never read any of Bernard Cornwell’s many previous efforts I was unsure of what to expect. Historical fiction can be one of those tricky areas where an author can easily change events to match up with a particular agenda. Conversations can be invented, events can be changed, and historical people can be described in ways that paint them in either a good or bad light depending on the author’s personal opinion. So as much as I enjoy most books in this genre I still take them with a grain of salt.

    Having said that, Cornwell’s “The Fort” is an absolutely fabulous read, one I could not put down. It tells of an occupation by British troops during the Revolutionary War and the attempt of the Massachusetts Militia, strengthen by ships of the Continental Navy as well as Privateers, to “Captivate, kill, or destroy” the British forces. What should have been a relatively short and easy, if not somewhat bloody, campaign against the uncompleted Fort George turned into an almost month long siege as the American Forces failed to even launch a credible attack on the fort. The long stagnant siege allowed the Royal Navy to arrive and destroy what was the largest American Fleet ever assembled during the war.

    Although history lays the entire blame of the military disaster on Commodore Dudley Saltonstall for his failure to lead his fleet into the harbor to destroy three British warships and therefore help coordinate a joint land/sea attack on the fort, Cornwell successfully argues that the blame lies more on the land forces commanded by General Solomon Lovell. Made up mostly of untrained citizens pressed into service the militia won the initial engagement and were primed to swarm the still uncompleted fort when Lovell decided to instead lay siege in the hopes Saltonstall would bring his warships in to bombard the British positions. What transpires is a test of wills where Saltonstall refuses to bring his ships into the harbor until the fort is neutralized while Lovell refuses to attack the fort without naval support. The long delay allows the British to fortify their positions and successfully wait for reinforcements to arrive.

    One of the surprising revelations Cornwell provides is the antics and almost dereliction of duty by one Colonel Paul Revere. In his only real taste of battle with the British Revere is painted to be an arrogant, self-absorbed, surly, and mostly ineffectual artillery officer. His conduct during the attempted escape of the American Fleet from the Royal Navy is truly at odds with what most people have come to believe of him.

    Again, this is just a wonderfully written book. The characters are well developed, the historical detail is extremely accurate, and the story written in a very vivid manner. Although I had never read one of Cornwell’s previous books you can bet that omission will be corrected very soon. I highly recommend this book to anyone into events of the Revolutionary War.

  13. Larry G. Kaufmann
    December 3rd, 2010 at 02:54 | #13

    Rating

    As a novel, The Fort falls short. There is no main protagonist to identify with, nor good guys and enemies, and the story flops around without a clear direction. I have read almost all of Cornwell’s books, and this one is the first that disappointed me. That said, the history behind the book is fascinating. The last few pages on the true history and what became of the key figures almost made up for the novel’s tedium. Cornwell should have done without the novel part, and just written a history of this forgotten action of the Revolutionary War.

  14. L. Jonsson
    December 3rd, 2010 at 04:19 | #14

    Rating

    “The Fort” is another fine example of Bernard Cornwell’s historical fiction, with the added benefit of addressing a little-known event in American Revolutionary War history. As with most of Cornwell’s books the major historical events are factual, while many of the details and personal interactions are fictionalized. In this case, however, most of the main characters are also real historical figures, though of course the personalities and dialogue must be fleshed out to build on the bare facts provided in historical records. The most surprising aspect of the story is the portrayal of Patriot folk hero Paul Revere as an arrogant, insubordinate, and possibly even incompetent militia artillery officer who was ultimately court-martialed for his actions during the expedition. While this seems shocking to Americans familiar with him only for his heroic “midnight ride,” Cornwell provides a historical analysis at the end of the book which provides pretty convincing evidence for his negative characterization of Revere.

    The book covers the unsucessful Penobscot Expedition undertaken by American forces in the summer of 1779 in an attempt to dislodge British forces occupying Bagaduce Peninsula in Penobscot Bay (in what is now Maine). This event is not well known to most Americans-the expedition was an unmitigated disaster, and our forefathers likely preferred to forget it as quickly as possible. Americans tend to be raised on a rather fanciful mythology of the American Revolutionary War, in which bumbling Redcoats stand in the open to be shot at by crafty Patriot Woodsmen. This story illustrates the more common reality where Patriot militia were often amateurs facing well-led, disciplined British troops, while the Royal Navy provided overwhelming force in support of coastal campaigns. This is an excellent military action story which provides fascinating insight into some obscure events and people of the Revolutionalry War era, along with some startling revelations about a widely recognized (but apparently little understood) hero of American folklore.

  15. Robert G. Leroe
    December 3rd, 2010 at 18:34 | #15

    Rating

    I live next to Revere, Massachusetts, just outside of Boston, where the legend of Paul Revere is alive and well. People take tours of his house in the North End, visit his capture site in Concord, go to the Old North Church where a one-man show often plays (I’ve seen it), and to his grave next to the Park Street Church. I was totally unaware of the “rest of the story” and of the battle we lost just north of here. For this reason alone, The Fort is worth reading.

    However, Revere is not the main character, and indeed there is no central figure, much unlike Cornwell’s very popular Sharpe novels (I’ve read several), and not as fun. The action shifts from British to Colonist often, depicting the two sides with great detail. I got the impression Cornwell favors the Brits here a bit, but overall his account appears fairly objective.

    The historic notes at the end (a tradition in Cornwell’s novels) are very helpful. Cornwell cleverly makes it clear which individuals are historic and which are invented for the purpose of the story.

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