The Fort (Extract)

THE FORT is about the Penobscot Expedition of 1779. A small British garrison had been established in what is now Maine (and was then part of Massachusetts), and the rebel government in Boston was determined to expel that garrison. Seven hundred British redcoats were in an unfinished fort, Fort George, and the harbour beneath the fort was protected by three sloops-of-war. Against this the State of Massachusetts sent an army of around 900 men and a fleet of 42 ships, half of which were warships. In this early scene a handful of rebel ships feel out the British harbour defences. The Lieutenant John Moore who watches the fight is the famous Sir John Moore, of Corunna fame. This was his first experience of battle, when he was 18 years old.

The Tyrannicide, flying the pine-tree flag of the Massachusetts Navy, was the first warship to engage the enemy. She came from the west, sliding before the freshening wind towards the harbour’s narrow entrance. To the men watching from the shore it seemed she was determined to force that entrance by sailing into the small gap between HMS Nautilus and the battery on Cross Island, but then she swung to port so that she sailed northwards and parallel with the British sloops. Her forward starboard gun opened the battle. The Tyrannicide was armed with six-pounders, seven in each broadside, and her first gun shrouded the brig in thick smoke. The ball struck the sea a hundred yards short of the Nautilus, bounced off a small wave, bounced a second time and then sank just as the whole British line disappeared behind its own smoke as Captain Mowat’s ships took up the challenge. The Hampden, the big ship from New Hampshire, was next into action, her nine pounders firing into the British smoke. All that Captain Salter of theHampden could see of the three enemy sloops were their topmasts above the cloud. “Batter them, boys!” he called cheerfully to his gunners.

The wind was brisk enough to shift the smoke quickly. Titus Salter watched as the Northreappeared from the smoke cloud, then another stab of bright flame flashed from one of the British sloop’s gunports and he heard the crash as her round shot struck theTyrannicide ahead, then his view was again obscured by the grey acrid smoke of his own guns. “Reload!” a man bellowed. The Hampden sailed out of her smoke and Captain Salter cupped his hands and shouted. “Hold your fire! Hold it!” A British round shot screamed close overhead, smacking a hole through the Hampden‘s mizzen sail. “Hold your damned fire!” Salter bellowed angrily.

A brig had suddenly appeared on the Hampden‘s starboard quarter. She was a much smaller vessel, armed with fourteen six-pounders, and her skipper, instead of following the New Hampshire ship, was now overtaking her and so putting herself between theHampden‘s guns and the British sloops. “Damned fool,” Salter growled. “Wait till she’s clear!” he called to his gunners.

The brig, flying the pine-tree ensign of the Massachusetts Navy, was the Hazard, and her captain was vomiting from a stomach upset so her first lieutenant, George Little, was commanding her. He was oblivious to the Hampden, concerned only with taking his ship as close to the enemy as he could and then pounding the sloops with his seven-gun broadside. He wished the Commodore had ordered a proper assault, an attack straight into the harbour mouth, but if he was ordered to restrict himself to a bombardment then he wanted his guns to do real damage. “Kill the bastards!” he shouted at his gunners. Little was in his early twenties, a fisherman turned naval officer, a man of passion, a patriot, and he ordered his sheets released so that the power went from his sails and theHazard slowed in the water to give her gunners a more stable platform. “Fire, you bastards!” He gazed at the smoke cloud shrouding the British ship Nautilus and saw it infused with a red glow as a gun fired. The ball struck the Hazard low by the waterline, shuddering the hull. The ship shook again as her own guns fired, the noise seeming to fill the universe. “Where the devil is the Warren?” Little growled.

“He’s holding her back, sir,” the helmsman answered.

“For what?”

The helmsman shrugged. The gunners on the nearest six-pounder were swabbing out the barrel, propelling a jet of steam through the touch-hole that reminded Little of a whale spouting. “Cover that touch-hole!” he screamed at them. The rush of air caused by a thrust swab could easily ignite powder residue and explode the rammer back into the gunner’s guts. “Use your thumb-stall, man,” he growled at the gunner, “and block the touch-hole when you swab!” He watched approvingly as the charge, wadding and shot were thrust efficiently down the cleared gun, then as the train-tackle ropes were hauled and the cannon run out. The wheels rumbled on the deck, the crew stepped aside, the gunner touched his linstock to the powder filled quill and the gun belched its anger and smoke. Little was certain he heard the satisfying crunch of a shot striking home on the enemy. “That’s the way, boys!” he shouted, “that’s the only message the bastards understand! Kill them!” He could not keep still. He was shifting his weight from foot to foot, fidgeting, as if all his energy was frustrated by his inability to get closer to the hated enemy.

Captain Salter had now edged the Hampden ahead of the Hazard again. Earlier in the afternoon the Commodore had toured the anchored fleet in the fast schooner Rover to shout his instructions to the captains who would engage the British. Aim for their anchor rodes, he had ordered, and Salter was doing his best to obey. His guns were loaded with bar and chain-shot, both designed to slash rigging and, though he doubted his gunners’ accuracy in the smoke shrouded afternoon, Salter understood what Saltonstall wanted. The three British sloops were held fore and aft by anchors to which spring-lines were attached, and by tightening or loosening the springs they could adjust their hulls to the wind or current and so keep their wall-like alignment across the harbour mouth. If a spring or an anchor line could be severed then one of the enemy ships would swing like an opening gate, leaving a massive hole into which a rebel ship could sail to rake the sloops.

The chain-shot was two halves of a cannon ball joined by a thick length of chain. When the shot flew it made a sudden, brief sighing noise, like a scythe. The linked half balls whirled as they flew, but they vanished into the smoke fog and Salter, staring hard at the mastheads, could see no sign that the scything chains were severing any lines. Instead the British gunners were returning the fire fast, keeping the smoke constant about their three hulls, and more fire, heavier fire, was thumping into the Hampdenfrom the battery on Cross Island. The high bluff of the peninsula was also wreathed in yellow-grey smoke as the smaller battery on Dyce’s Head joined in the fight.

The tide was flooding, drawing the ships closer to the harbour mouth, and Salter ordered his sheets tightened so that the Hampden could sail away from any danger of going aground. The Continental brig Diligent, with its puny three pounders, sailed into the smoke cloud left by the Hampden and her small broadside spat towards the enemy. TheHazard, realising the same danger of grounding, had gathered way and now crossed close behind Salter’s stern. “Where the devil is the Warren?” Lieutenant Little shouted across at Salter.

“Anchored still!” Salter called back.

“She’s got eighteen pounders! Why the devil isn’t she battering the . . . ?”