Wednesday, 17 November 2010

The Fort

Historical fiction. Bernard Cornwell has written more of it than most. I read and spoke to the author about his new book The Fort, for Big Issue Scotland recently:

Bernard Cornwell loves a battle. If he’s not knee deep in Saxon blood retelling the history of King Alfred the Great he’s swashbuckling his way through the Napoleonic wars with Rifleman Richard Sharpe, pursuing the Holy Grail, or reliving the bloody massacre of Agincourt.

Cornwell, who at 66 is arguably one of the most successful historical authors in the world, injects his stories with thrilleresque pace, turning subject that most of us vaguely recall from dull history lessons at school into page-turning beach reads.

In The Fort, Cornwell makes a rare foray to the American War of Independence. He’s written about the conflict just once before, in an early book, Redcoat and as an Englishman who has lived much of his adult life in the US, where he is now a citizen, you’d think it might be a pet subject. But he admits: “It’s not a particularly popular war either side of the Atlantic. I was drawn to this battle just because it was just so extraordinary.”

You can see his point. The Fort retells the story of the so-called Penebscot Expedition, a land and sea battle which resulted in a modest force of British redcoats, supported by three small warships, seeing off the largest raiding party the Americans had by that time ever put together – including 18 warships and about five thousand men. It was David and Goliath with muskets.

And yet the British won. “The Americans were making entirely the wrong decisions almost every time,” Cornwell explains. “It was their bad luck they were up against two consummate professionals in the British leaders, who made all the right decisions and who worked very well together.”

The Fort is littered with intriguing, real life historical figures. The American commander, General Lovell, who “like a rabbit caught in the headlights” freezes at all the important moments and manages to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory. His reliable number two, Peleg Wadsworth (“He’s the real hero of the book for me,” says Cornwell), knows things are going wrong but lacks the authority to do anything about it. And then there’s Paul Revere, yes that one: the heroic Patriot who warned that the “British were coming” in Henry Longfellow’s poem Paul Revere’s Ride.

Intriguingly, Peleg Wadsworth was Longfellow’s maternal grandfather, but Cornwell doubts the men would agree on their assessment of Revere.

“I’m offended by Revere’s reputation and I think Peleg must be turning in his grave at what his grandson did,” Cornwell says, who adds that he hopes his book goes some way to debunking those myths. “Part of the reason for it was that after the war, the Americans had won and there was a lot swept under the carpet.”

However, because the expedition was funded by the Boston state government rather than George Washington’s continental army, defeat cost the city almost $2 million – the equivalent today of about $300 million – and left them bankrupt. In a fascinating post script to the book, Cornwell argues that a conspiracy was hatched to blame the defeat on a Federal naval commander for his refusal to engage the enemy – allowing the state government to later successfully sue for compensation.

In fact it was Lovell’s indecision that was most culpable – and as for Revere, Cornwell depicts him as both incompetent and cowardly.

“Revere was a local folk hero in Boston just after the war, but he is one of many,” Cornwell says. “There were others who did the famous ride – and finished it, which he didn’t – and others who are genuine heroes. But Revere becomes an industrialist the biggest employer in Boston and one of its wealthiest men. So people think of him as a patriot – with an iffy bit at Penebscot they’d rather not mention.”

On the British side it is a bluff Scotsman, Brigadier General Francis McLean, who wins the day, outwitting the Americans long enough for reinforcements to arrive. There’s also the intriguing presence of a young 18-year-old lieutenant.

“I first came across the Penebscot when I was researching the life of Lt General Sir John Moore – I had a thought that Sharpe might meet him in a novel. He never did but I got distracted by Moore’s history and the fact that he first saw action in this battle at the age of 18.”

Glasgow born Moore was a hero of the Napoleonic wars and his death at the Battle of Corunna is commemorated in a famous poem by Charles Wolfe.

“It was really Moore’s army Wellington inherited,” Cornwell observes. “What we can’t know is whether Moore would have been as great a general as Wellington. There is no doubt that Moore brought great sympathy and intelligence to his job. The men really liked him: he had the common touch which Wellington never had. And when he dies he is an instant hero – long before Wellington was ever heard of."

The Fort by Bernard Cornwell is out now (HarperCollins £18.99)

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