By Matthew Seelinger, Chief Historian
On July 7, 1776, Major General Philip Schuyler, commander of the Northern Department, convened a council of war at Crown Point, New York, to assess the military situation following the American retreat from Canada. In attendance were Major General Horatio Gates, newly appointed commander of the nonexistent American army in Canada, Major General John Sullivan, and a recently promoted brigadier general, Benedict Arnold. The situation looked grim. The council decided to abandon the tenuous position at Crown Point and withdraw American forces to a more defensible position at Fort Ticonderoga. This decision, however, left only a modest flotilla of small wooden ships on Lake Champlain, under the command of Commodore Jacobus Wynkoop of New York, as the last line of defense between the approaching British and Ticonderoga. Therefore, it was decided to augment the fleet by constructing more vessels in an attempt to thwart the expected British invasion. The small American fleet constructed on Lake Champlain would eventually meet the British in the Battle of Valcour Island, a battle that, in all likelihood, saved the American cause.
Benedict Arnold, who had proven his military skills during the American expedition into Canada, was given the assignment of overseeing construction of the American fleet being built at Skenesborough, New York. Although serving in the Continental Army, Arnold had significant experience in ships and shipbuilding. Before the war, he had made his living shipping goods to the Caribbean from New England and had amassed considerable wealth as a result. Arnold’s arrival at Skenesborough gave the American shipbuilding effort the leadership and experience it needed to make it an effective fighting force. Under the leadership of Wynkoop, the strength of the American fleet had actually deteriorated. As a result, Arnold assumed overall command of the fleet on August 7, 1776.
Arnold was hampered by serious problems from the outset. He had shortages of almost every type imaginable: iron for nails, food, guns, experienced ship builders, and most important, men with seafaring experience to man the ships. General Washington, defending New York City, could not spare any seamen to Arnold. To make matters worse, Arnold was also facing a court martial for being accused of looting Montreal during the retreat from Canada. The charges were eventually dropped, but precious time had been wasted in the process. Eventually, experienced shipbuilders from New England, New York, New Jersey, and Philadelphia trickled in to Skenesborough, and construction of the fleet began in earnest. There was still a shortage of men to serve as crews for his ships. Lacking volunteers, Arnold was forced to draft early 300 men, primarily from two New Hampshire regiments. Yet, despite the critical manpower shortage, Arnold refused to request marines to accompany his flotilla. During his expedition into Canada, a number of marines accompanied the American forces, and Arnold, for some undetermined reason, found them to be “the refuse of every regiment.” By October 1776, the American fleet was comprised of sixteen ships. These included the schooners Royal Savage, equipped with four six-pound guns and eight four-pounders; the Revenge and Liberty with four four-pounders and four two-pounders each; and the sloop Enterprise, armed with twelve four-pounders. The Liberty was eventually stripped of its armament and transformed into a hospital and courier ship for the fleet. In addition to these ships, the American fleet consisted of four row galleys (the Lee, Trumbull, Washington, and Arnold’s flagship Congress), each armed with one eighteen-pounder, one twelve-pounder, two nine-pounders and six six-pounders. The smallest boats in Arnold’s fleet were eight gondolas. Small, low in the water to provide a minimal target, and easy to maneuver in the confined waters of Lake Champlain, the gondolas were powered by sail and long oars known as sweeps. For their size, they were relatively heavily armed with one twelve-pound gun in the bow, a pair of nine-pounders amidships, and a number of swivel guns firing grapeshot to rake the enemy’s masts and rigging and to discourage boarding. The gondolas in Arnold’s flotilla were the Philadelphia, Boston, New Haven, Providence, New York, Connecticut, Spitfire, and Jersey. In spite of time constraints and a host of other problems, Arnold had managed to assemble a significant force of boats to meet the challenge at hand.
The British forces in Canada, under the command of General Sir Guy Carleton, immediately recognized the importance of controlling Lake Champlain in order to carry out the planned British two-pronged invasion that called for forces advancing south from Canada to link-up with General William Howe’s forces in the Hudson Valley. If this could be achieved, New York and New England would be effectively severed from one another and the rebellion all but finished. Lake Champlain was vital to the British forces moving south, as upstate New York had few roads or trails, and troops had to be transported southward by boat. However, the British received word that the Americans on Lake Champlain were constructing a fleet to challenge British movements. As a result, the British invasion was delayed until a fleet of their own could be assembled and British naval control firmly established on the lake.
Unlike the Americans, the British faced few shortages or other problems in building their fleet. They had ample numbers of guns, supplies and experienced men for their ships. Twelve prefabricated gunboats arrived from England and were reassembled at St. Jean on the Richelieu River, which flowed into Lake Champlain. Three ships, the schooners Maria and Carelton, and the gondola Loyal Convert, were stripped down and dragged overland from the St. Lawrence River to St. Jean, while a fourth, the 180-ton Inflexible, by far the largest ship in either fleet and armed with eighteen twelve-pounders, was knocked down and reassembled at St. Jean. In addition to these ships, the British constructed a large radeau, a heavily armed, flat-bottomed sailing scow generally used for bombarding shore installations. Named the Thunderer, she was armed with six twenty-four-pounders, six twelve-pounders, and two howitzers, making her the most heavily armed ship on the lake and easily outgunning anything in the American fleet. All told, the British fleet, under the naval command of Lt. Thomas Pringle, consisted of one ship, two schooners, one gondola, one radeau, twenty gunboats, each armed with a brass field piece and two howitzers, four long boats equipped with carriage guns, and twenty-four unarmed long boats carrying provisions and other equipment. In addition to outnumbering the Americans in sheer numbers of ships, the British fleet also possessed an overwhelming superiority in guns. Arnold’s fleet could throw about 600 pounds of shot compared to the British flotilla’s 1,100 pounds. As a result, the British felt quite confident as they sortied out of St. Jean on October 4.
Arnold clearly understood the scope of British naval superiority. Through a network of spies, deserters, and prisoners, he had gained a fairly clear picture of British intentions and general time frame of when they would set sail. Knowing he could not attack, he decided to let the British attack him. Arnold deployed his fleet in the narrow, rocky channel between Valcour Island and the western shore of Lake Champlain. The narrowness of the channel would force the British to attack singly and would not allow them to bring as many guns to bear as on the open water. The only disadvantage was that if anything should go wrong, the Americans would not have an easy means of escape. Once in position, all that Arnold and his men could do was wait.
Sailing southward down Lake Champlain on the morning of October 11, 1776, the British skirted the eastern shore of Valcour Island, unaware that the American fleet lay on the other side. Shortly before 11:00 a.m., British lookouts spotted the Royal Savage, and turned to attack. The strong northerly wind, however, made it difficult for the British to turn toward the Americans. As a result, Inflexible remained out of action for most of the battle.
The battle began inauspiciously for the Americans. Royal Savage immediately ran aground and was abandoned after being bombarded mercilessly. She was later captured and burned by the British. Yet, while outgunned, the Americans exacted a heavy price of the enemy. The British schooner Carleton took a savage beating, with most of her crew killed or wounded. She was nearly abandoned until towed to safety. A British gunboat was destroyed when a shot touched off its powder magazine, and two others were also sunk.
Eventually, however, British guns began to find the range and pounded Arnold’s fleet. Congress and Jersey suffered heavy damage, and Philadelphia was holed by several shots, at least one of which pierced her below the waterline and left her a sinking wreck. To make matters worse, Inflexible arrived by the late afternoon, and in the waning daylight hours, bombarded the Americans with its heavy guns. As darkness fell, the British withdrew into a line south of the Americans, confident that victory would be theirs with the destruction of the American fleet at daylight. Arnold, however, had other plans. Gathering his officers together, he decided to make a run south through the British fleet. Aided by a thick fog that had settled over the lake during the evening hours and Pringle’s failure to post adequate sentries, Arnold arranged his ships in single file, with Trumbull at the head of the column, and ordered his men to wrap their oars in cloth to muffle the sound. Guided by small hooded lanterns at the stern of each ship, Arnold’s surviving ships rowed quietly past the British, at times passing close enough to hear voices from the enemy vessels. Once clear, Arnold’s men rowed furiously to widen the distance.
As dawn broke on the morning of October 12, the British were shocked to discover that Arnold and the American fleet had escaped. After a desperate search around Valcour Island, Pringle turned his fleet south in pursuit of the rebel flotilla, but a strong wind from the south prevented them from gaining any ground on the Americans. That same wind, however, also prevented Arnold from increasing the gap between his ships and the enemy. At Schuyler Island, Arnold allowed his exhausted men to rest. Three gondolas, Providence, New York, and Jersey, were found to be too heavily damaged to be of further use. After they were stripped of their guns and any other useful equipment, they were scuttled.
On October 13, the wind changed direction, blowing from the north. Arnold’s luck had run out. The British fleet quickly caught up with the Americans near Split Rock. In a possible attempt to buy time and allow the smaller vessels time to escape, Arnold ordered Congress and Washington to hold their positions against the British onslaught. Washington was quickly overwhelmed and struck her colors. Arnold’s flagship, Congress, took a fearful pounding, and the rest of the fleet received more damage. Arnold had but one option. He ordered his remaining ships into Buttonmould Bay, a shallow and rocky body of water where the British deep-draft ships could not follow, and ran them aground. He then ordered his men to strip the ships of anything of value, and the vessels were set ablaze with their rattlesnake “Don’t Tread on Me” banners still flying high. Arnold and the surviving men of the fleet marched to Crown Point, where they burned the remaining buildings and stores. They then marched to Fort Ticonderoga, carrying the wounded in slings made from the tattered sails of the American fleet.
Carleton arrived at the remains of Crown Point on October 20. Snow was already falling as the upstate New York winter quickly approached. Carleton was shaken by the unexpectedly fierce resistance offered by the Americans under Arnold. With the weather conditions quickly deteriorating, Carleton had no other choice but to retreat back into Canada to his winter quarters, effectively ending the British threat from the north until at least the spring of 1777. The Battle of Valcour Island is significant for several important reasons. Benedict Arnold, a skilled soldier whose reputation would forever be sullied by his later actions, constructed the first American naval fleet. While Valcour Island resulted in a tactical victory for the British, in the long run, the battle proved to be a strategic victory for the American quest for independence. For the cost of 80 men dead, 120 captured, and the destruction of his fleet, Arnold had accomplished the objective of disrupting the British invasion from Canada. By causing the British to postpone their plans until the spring, Arnold had bought the rebels time to gather strength and resources that would be utilized at the Battle of Saratoga, the turning point in the War of Independence. The significance of what Arnold accomplished at Valcour Island cannot be denied. One hundred years later, the great naval theorist Alfred Thayer Mahan observed that “the little American navy was wiped out, but never had any force, big or small, lived to better purpose.”
For more information on the Battle of Valcour Island and Benedict Arnold, read:
William M. Fowler, Jr., Rebels Under Sail: The American Navy during the Revolution
Willard Sterne Randall, Benedict Arnold: Patriot and Traitor
E.B. Potter, The Naval Academy Illustrated History of the United States Navy
Stephen Howarth, To Shining Sea
Claire Brandt, The Man In the Mirror
Robert Leckie, George Washington’s War
Philip K. Lundeberg, The Gunboat Philadelphia and the Defense of Lake Champlain in 1776