As hoped, the British fleet sailed past Valcour Island without spotting the Americans. Once the bulk of the force was well south—downwind—of the island, several American vessels came out of the bay and lured the British northward. As planned, the lead enemy vessel was funneled into the narrowing waterway, and her commander barely had seen the wall of American vessels ahead when it suddenly disappeared behind a cloud of white smoke. A great rumble rolled across the water as geysers erupted from close aboard the British ship. The American trap had been sprung.
As the battle wore on, these Americans—who just a short while before had been merchants, farmers, fishermen, teachers, and all manner of things but soldiers or sailors—served their guns well, and for a time, it seemed that they might actually prevail. But despite their clever tactics, they were no match for the superior British force. By the end of the next day, the American "fleet" had been defeated.
But what may have seemed a decisive British victory was not. Facing a cold winter, the British decided to retreat back to Canada until spring. That bought the Americans valuable time that ultimately led to the American victory in the Battle of Saratoga the following summer, which prevented the British from severing the colonies as planned, dealt a terrible blow to their morale, and brought the French into the war as an American ally.