Cornwell takes aim at American Revolution
On Aug. 14, 1779, a New England fleet, including a 32-gun frigate and the entire Massachusetts Navy, and 14 transports, was destroyed — sunk, scuttled, blown up, or captured — by a British squadron in Penobscot Bay. It was a disaster matched only at Pearl Harbor some 162 years later.
And it brought to an inglorious end an expedition that had set out from Boston just 26 days earlier in an attempt to defeat a British force of Scottish infantry that had built a fort at present-day Castine (then known as Bagaduce, or Majabigwaduce), in what was then the eastern province of Massachusetts.
In “The Fort,’’ Bernard Cornwell, author of some 45 scrupulously researched and well-received fictional accounts of battles Arthurian and Napoleonic, takes a little-known event — but in a place that many readers know — and gives it the same on-the-ground treatment, backed up by a detailed historical note.
As always in Cornwell’s military epics, there are nice human touches. Here, among others, it is Peleg Wadsworth, a Kingston schoolmaster and general in the Massachusetts Militia, drilling an easily distracted squad of pupils.
“Is the war won?’’ his admiring wife asks. “I do believe,’’ he replies, “that the children have killed every last redcoat in America.’’
Shrouding all the military action is the fog. The British found Castine a “fog-haunted’’ harbor. And as the American commanders prepared an assault, they found “the fog [moving] in bands, thick sometimes, then thinning,’’ sometimes lifting “to reveal a sullen gray water being dimpled by rain.’’
Arriving off Majabigwaduce (the name Cornwell uses) on July 25, the expedition’s commanders ordered an immediate attack on the three British sloops blocking the harbor entrance and a landing below the fort.
Both were beaten back, and over the next two weeks the commanders, Commodore Dudley Saltonstall (of that family’s Connecticut branch) and General Solomon Lovell (a Weymouth farmer), squabbled as to whether the Navy should first attack the blockading ships or the militia should assault the fort.
A British relief force was at sea, and a combined assault was finally ordered for Aug. 13. But the dawn attack was delayed — by the fog — and just as it got underway, an ominous sail was spotted offshore. It signaled the approach of the British squadron. After a vain attempt to give battle, the Americans fled toward Penobscot River.
In the debacle that followed, the entire American fleet was lost, and the expedition’s survivors made their way back to Boston.
What will startle local readers is Cornwell’s revisionist depiction of the iconic Paul Revere, the expedition’s artillery commander, as petulant, insubordinate, and downright incompetent.
During the flight up the Penobscot River, as Cornwell relates the incident, Revere refused an order from Wadsworth to rescue the crew of a schooner under attack by a British ship.
“I was under your command so long as there was a siege,’’ Revere replied, “but the siege is over and with it your authority has ended.’’
Cornwell leaves the story at this point, with Saltonstall’s flagship blowing up in the river. The British would remain at Castine until the war’s end.
Saltonstall was court-martialed and since he was an officer in the Continental Navy, Massachusetts sued the new American government over the loss of its navy.
Revere was also court-martialed, and after several delays was finally acquitted in 1782. And, as a writer at the Paul Revere House in Boston’s North End put it, he “went back to private life as a respected entrepreneur,’’ giving up a military career for silversmithing.
Michael Kenney, a Cambridge-based freelance writer, can be reached at email@example.com.