The Fort (Extract)

Salter did not hear the last word because a six pounder ball, fired from Dyce’s Head, smacked into his deck and gouged long splinters from the planks before vanishing off the portside. By a miracle no-one was hurt. Two more ships were now following theDiligent into the smoke, their guns spitting fire and iron at the king’s sloops. The noise was constant, a ceaseless ear-pounding percussion. Lieutenant Little was still shouting, but the Hazard had drawn away and Salter could not hear him over the sky-filling noise. A ball screamed overhead and Salter, looking up, was surprised to see a second hole in his mizzen sail. Another round shot cracked into the hull, shaking the big ship, and he listened for a scream and was relieved when none sounded. The shifting smoke that hid the three British sloops was being constantly lit by gunflashes so that the grey cloud would glow for an instant, fade then glow again. Glow after glow, relentless, flickering along the line of smoke, sometimes melding to a brighter red as two or three or four flames showed at once, and Salter recognised the skill that lay behind the frequency of those flashes. The gunners were fast. Mowat, he thought grimly, had trained his men well. “Maybe the bastards will run out of ammunition,” he said to no one in particular, and then, as his ship turned east beneath Dyce’s Head he looked up to see red coats among the trees on the high bluff. A puff of smoke showed there, and Salter assumed a musket had been fired at his ship, but where the ball went he had no idea. Two more gouts of smoke showed among the trees, and then the Hampden was in open water, running down towards the anchored transports and Salter wore ship to take the Hampdenround again.

The Hazard‘s carpenter, his trousers soaked to the waist, appeared from the after hatch. “We took a shot just under the waterline,” he reported to Lieutenant Little.

“How bad?”

“Nasty enough. Broke a pair of strakes. Reckon you’ll need both pumps.”

“Plug it,” Little said.

“It killed a rat too,” the carpenter said, evidently amused.

“Plug it!” Little shouted at the man, “because we’re going round again. Double-shot the guns!” He called the last command down the deck, then turned an angry face on the helmsman. “I want to get closer next time!”

“There are rocks off the entrance,” the helmsman warned.

“Closer, I said!”

“Aye aye, sir, closer it is, sir,” the helmsman said. He knew better than to argue, just as he knew better than to steer the ship any closer to Cross Island than he already had. He shifted a wad of tobacco in his mouth and span the wheel to take the brig back southwards. A British round shot whipped just forrard of the Hazard’s jib-boom, skipped off a small wave, and finally splashed and sank a couple of hundred paces short of the anchored Warren.

Lieutenant John Moore watched from the height of Dyce’s Head. The battle seemed very slow to him. The wind was brisk, yet the ships seemed to crawl across the smoke-shrouded water. The guns jetted smoke in huge billows through which the big ships moved with a stately grace. The noise was fearsome. At any one moment thirty or forty guns were being served and their reports elided into a rolling concussion louder and more prolonged than any thunder. The flames made the smoke momentarily lurid and for a moment Moore was besieged by the thought that hell itself would appear thus, yet for all the sound and fury there seemed to be little damage on either side. Mowat’s three ships were immovable, their broadsides undiminished by the enemy fire, while the American ships sailed serenely through the splashes of the British bombardment. Some balls struck their targets, Moore distinctly heard the crash of splintering timber, yet he saw no evidence of damage and the scrubbed decks of the enemy ships appeared unstained by blood.

One enemy ship, larger than the rest, sailed close beneath Dyce’s Head and Moore allowed his men to shoot their muskets down onto the enemy, though he knew the range was extreme and their hopes of hitting anything other than water were slim to nothing. He distinctly saw a man on the ship’s after deck turn and gaze up at the bluff and Moore had the absurd instinct to wave at him. He checked himself. A sudden gust of stronger wind momentarily cleared the smoke from about the three Royal Navy sloops and Moore could see no injury to their hulls, while their masts still stood and their flags yet flew. A gun fired from the Albany and, just before the smoke obscured the ship again, Moore saw the water ahead of the gunport flatten and flee outwards in a fan pattern.

Nine enemy ships were attacking Mowat’s line yet, to Moore’s surprise, none tried to break that line. Instead they were circling and taking turns to hammer their broadsides at the sloops. Just behind Mowat’s sloops, and anchored in a similar line, were the three big transport ships that had helped carry McLean’s men to Majabigwaduce. Their crews leaned on their gunwales and watched the cannon smoke. Some enemy round shot, passing between the sloops, crashed into the transports whose job was to wait and see if any American ship succeeded in breaking through Mowat’s line, then attempt to entangle that ship, but no enemy appeared willing to sail straight through the harbour mouth.

Lieutenant George Little wanted to sail into the harbour, but his orders were to stay west of the entrance and so he circled the Hazard, her sails banging like cannon fire as he wore ship, then ran the small brig straight towards Cross Island. A cannon ball, fired from the island’s battery, screamed down the deck, just missing the helmsman. “Waste of damned powder,” Little growled, “keep her steady.”

“Rock ledges ahead, sir.”

“Damn the ledges, damn you and damn the British. Get closer!”

The helmsman span the wheel anyway, trying to take the Hazard north so her broadside could spit iron and defiance at the British sloops, but Little seized the wheel and turned it back. “Get closer, I said!”