Bernard Cornwell – Redcoat

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After spending most of the year reading Bernard Cornwell’s Last Kingdom series it was interesting to read one of his early standalone novels. Redcoat is set in the year 1777 in war-torn Philadelphia populated by clergy, merchants and farmers with divided loyalties. Some a loyalists supporting the English regime policed by the occupying Redcoats that they nickname ‘lobsters’, and some are staunch patriots who want to see America free from the yoke of a far off government.

Redcoat was first published in 1987 and Cornwell wrote it before his hugely popular multi-volume TV-adapted Sharpe series began. While Sharpe was action-packed, Redcoat concentrates less on the battles and more on the intrigue and treachery among the various figures on both sides of the war in the city. The unarmed patriots within the city are seen as a minor inconvenience by General Howe who commands the English garrison and indeed he humours them at the many parties he holds; he would like to see a peace treaty signed with George Washington. The patriots in the mean time find ways to communicate with the rebels fighting on the fringes of the city and let them know what they can learn of planned troop movements and attacks.   

The titular Redcoat is the good-hearted Private Sam Gilpin, seduced into war by his brother’s tales of gold and the flashy uniform, and when his brother his killed his life as a simple soldier is thrown into disarray. He is recruited by Captain Kit Vane, an aide to Howe, and is thankful as his brother’s killer the brutal Sergeant Scammell wants to flog him to death. Sam is good with horses and it’s a skill that serves him well looking after the mounts of the upper echelons of the army.

On the other side of loyalties is the idealistic patriot Jonathon from a merchant family who wants to help the rebels. So much so, much to his loyalist uncle’s disgust, he runs off to join their army leaving behind his love Caroline. He is injured in the same battle that sees Sam’s brother killed and it is Sam who initially saves Jonathon from bleeding to death. Jonathan’s sister, Martha Crowl, befriends fellow patriot Caroline and when Sam inadvertently lets slip some sensitive information about a forthcoming English attack on rebel-held forts they conspire to get a letter to the rebel army.

As Captain Kit Vane gets increasingly frustrated by Martha Crowl’s disinterest in his amorous advances and General Howe’s ponderous attitude toward the task of killing rebels his attitude turns ruthless to the extent where he recruits Scammell to do his dirty work. Vane is hell bent on uncovering and punishing the rebels in the city and mixes this aim with that of simple vengeance on Martha Crowl who has publicly humiliated him.     

To complicate things, Sam falls in love with Caroline and indeed despite being promised to Jonathan, now a prisoner of war, Caroline fancies Sam as for one thing he has farming background closer to hers. Sam inevitably has to choose between the English army, indeed the thought of returning back to the English countryside, and his love for and desire to protect Caroline and so make a new life in America despite her probably being married to Jonathan.

Many of the themes and character types that appear in the Sharpe series are on show in Redcoat. There is an impressive attention to historic detail, not only of battle but of everyday life. The protagonist is an enlisted man plucked from the ranks by good fortune to become an officer. The antagonist is a brutally violent sergeant who hates the hero. And there is a cast of supporting characters with various mixed loyalties and hidden agendas.

So it’s familiar stuff, but I was actually hugely impressed by the way Cornwell chose to make the war take a back seat and only provide a frame for the soap opera to play out in. Unlike Sharpe, Sam only really sees one major piece of action in the book, and a lot of time is spent on the war room discussions between officers, the familial struggles of the civilians and Jonathan’s journey through the harsh realities of a war he perhaps thought of in too poetical terms. Getting your leg sawn off by an army surgeon tends to make you assess your motives.

While Redcoat stands as one of Cornwell’s more obscure books, and indeed is often not even listed in the bibliographies that appear in his more popular books, I thought it was great and I’m tempted to attach it to my 2020 Retrospective – my four favourite books as a fifth book in the list.  

Photo by Matt Briney on Unsplash

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