The Fort (Extract)

“Are the mens’ muskets loaded, Sergeant?” Moore asked McClure.

“Aye, sir.”

“Leave the muskets uncocked,” Moore ordered. He did not want a shot wasted by a careless man accidentally pulling the trigger.

“Ensign Campbell, John Campbell!” Captain Campbell shouted, “run back to the fort and tell the Brigadier the rascals are coming!”

The kilted ensign left and Moore watched the approaching boats, noting that they were having a hard time in the rising wind. The bay’s waves were short and sharp, smacking hard against the big rowboats to smother their oarsmen and passengers with spray.

McLean had best sent reinforcements,” Campbell said nervously.

“We can see those fellows off,” Moore responded, surprised at how confident he felt. There were some eighty redcoats on the bluff and the enemy, he guessed, numbered at least two hundred men, but those two hundred had to clamber up the bluff and the first fifty or sixty feet were so steep that no man could climb and use a musket at the same time. After that the slope flattened somewhat, but it was still precipitous and the redcoats, positioned at the summit, could fire down at men struggling up the hill. A last flurry of cannon fire sounded from the south, the thunder echoing briefly, and Moore, without asking for orders from Campbell, leaped a few paces down the upper slope to a place where he could see the attackers more clearly.

“We’ll wait for the brigadier’s reinforcements,” Campbell called reprovingly.

“Of course, sir,” Moore said, hiding his disdain for the tall highlander. Campbell had sent the ensign back to the fort, but that was a journey of almost three quarters of a mile, much of it through tangling undergrowth, and McLean’s reinforcements had to make the same journey back and by the time they arrived the Yankees would long have landed. If the Americans were to be stopped then Campbell’s men must do the job, but Moore sensed the tall highlander’s nervousness. “Bring the men down here, Sergeant,” he called to McClure and, ignoring Archibald Campbell’s plaintive enquiry as to what he thought he was doing, led McClure and the other Hamiltons north along the bluff’s shoulder. They were at the place where the easier upper slope ended, just above the steepest part of the hill, and Moore was taking his men so that they would be directly above the beach to which the Americans rowed. He was feeling a sudden excitement. He had dreamed of battle for so long and now it was imminent, though it was nothing like his dreams. In those dreams he was on a wide open field and the enemy was in dense ranks beneath their flags, and cavalry was on the flanks, and bands were playing and Moore had often imagined surviving the enemy volleys until he ordered his own men to fire back, but instead he was scrambling through bushes and watching a flotilla of large longboats pull hard for the shore.

Those boats were close now, not more than a hundred paces from the narrow beach where the short, wind-driven waves broke white. Then a gun sounded. Moore saw a cloud of smoke appear amidships on one of the transport ships and realised it had been a small cannon aboard that ship. The round shot crashed noisily through the bluff’s trees, startling birds into the evening sky, and Moore thought the single shot must presage a bombardment, but no more guns fired. Instead two flags broke from the ship’s yardarm and the longboats suddenly rested their oars. The boats wallowed in the turbulent water, then began to turn around. They were going back.

“God damn them,” Moore said. He watched the boats turn clumsily and realised the Americans had abandoned their plans. “Give them a volley,” he ordered McClure. The range was long, but Moore’s frustration seethed in him. “Fire!” he snapped at the Sergeant.

The Hamiltons cocked their muskets, aimed, and let loose a ragged volley. The musket sound stuttered in the trees. Moore was standing to one side and was certain he saw a man in the nearest rowboat thrown violently forward. “Hold your fire!” Campbell shouted angrily from the summit.

“We hit a man,” Moore told McClure.

“We did?” the Sergeant sounded disbelieving.

“One less rebel, Sergeant,” Moore said, “God damn their disloyal souls.”

The wind carried the musket smoke away and the sun, which had momentarily been obscured by a ribbon of cloud above the bay’s western shore, suddenly flared bright and dazzling. There was a silence, except for the rush of wind and the fret of breaking waves.

A cheer sounded as the sun set. Brigadier McLean had led his officers down to the shore and along the beach to a place just beyond the Half Moon Battery and there, within easy earshot of the three Royal Navy sloops, he saluted them. To McLean, watching from the low unfinished ramparts of Fort George, it had appeared that the Americans had tried to enter the harbour, but had been repulsed by Mowat’s guns, and so McLean wanted to thank the navy. His officers faced the ships, raised their hats and McLean led them in three heartfelt cheers.

Because the Union flag still flew above Fort George.