It was a strange naval engagement, this fleet action on an inland lake, strange in many ways.1 One of the opposing fleets was constructed mainly by house carpenters—a jerry-built fleet manned by plowboys and herdsmen. And, this miserable fleet and its crew of country yokels was captained by a brigadier general, who, a few years later would turn arch-traitor and renounce his allegiance to a cause for which he had fought both courageously and well. In spite of all these paradoxical factors, however, the battle was joined in the best American naval tradition. Although a small engagement of seemingly little importance, it provided the colonists with time and thus exerted a profound effect on the outcome of the Battle of Saratoga, the first great American victory of the Revolution, considered by many to be the decisive battle of the war.
In 1776, the plight of the American Revolution appeared doomed to the ignominious designation of a suppressed insurrection. The invasion of Canada had collapsed with the assault on Quebec, 31 December 1775, when General Richard Montgomery was slain and the other colonial commander, Benedict Arnold, was severely wounded. General George Washington was about to commit the greatest tactical blunder of his career by entrenching his army in the confines of Brooklyn. On Staten Island, Major General Sir William Howe marshalled his British and Hessian regiments preparatory to penning up Washington on the westernmost point of Long Island. In Canada, Sir Guy Carleton, Governor General of Canada and the British commander, had determined on a thrust southward down Lake Champlain, designed to capture Albany and split rebellious New England apart from New York and the remaining Colonies. Then rebellion would die between the Hammer and the Anvil. Carleton, after seeing Arnold’s broken, miserable army, which had fled to lie Aux Noix, spurred construction of a fleet at St. Johns on the Richelieu River.
Arnold recognized the northern threat even as he watched the disintegration of his army by pestilence. Furiously written dispatches were sent south to General Philip Schuyler at Albany urging the construction of warships to repel the pending waterborne invasion. Lake Champlain, Arnold argued, was the key to the entire northern situation. The British must come by water since between Canada and Albany lay dense wilderness, impenetrable save for the narrow strip of Lake Champlain.
General Schuyler’s role in the American Revolution is minimized by present-day historians, but nonetheless his reaction to Arnold’s dispatch was admirable. He mobilized the meager industry of Skenesborough into action, and by July 1776, four galleys and eight keelless gondolas (or gundelows) had been constructed. These vessels were specifically designed for operation on the lake where prevailing winds were steady along its narrow length.
General Arnold buried his three hundred dead at lie Aux Noix and hastened south. In late July, he arrived at Skenesborough to assume command. He inspected his fleet with a seaman’s practiced eye, for before the Revolution he had owned and captained vessels trading in the West Indies. Fully assembled, the fleet consisted of a large schooner, the Royal Savage, captured from the British; four 10-gun galleys: the Washington, Congress, Trumbull, and Lee; eight 3-gun gondolas: the New York, New Haven, Boston, Providence, Philadelphia, Connecticut, Jersey, and Spitfire; the armed sloop Enterprise; and the small schooner Revenge. Seventy guns, in all, comprised the fleet’s ordnance, but they represented a multitude of calibers. For instance, the galley Congress had for her armament two 18-pounders, two twelves, and six sixes. The problem of such diversified armament was worsened by the complement expected to man the vessels. A few sailors there were, but most of the crews were composed of undisciplined recruits drawn from militia regiments. Arnold’s troubles began at once. There was little gunpowder to spare for practice. One Captain Jacobus Wynkoop disputed the fleet’s command with Arnold. This worthy announced his appointment as Commodore of Lake Champlain though he provided no authority to prove his claim. He angered General Arnold when his vessel, the Royal Savage, plunged a shot after the Congress which was moving out under the General’s order. In a towering rage, Arnold had Wynkoop arrested and removed from the schooner.
On 24 August, Arnold ordered his fleet to sail. He had heard rumors that the British forces were in motion down the lake.
Three days later at the battle of Long Island, Lord Howe heavily defeated General Washington, beginning three desperate months for the American cause.
Arnold’s fleet moved up into the northern reaches of the lake. He intended to take station at lie Aux TStes; however, that place was in the hands of the enemy. He then tried Windmill Point, but here he found his position insecure. Back down the Lake, he stopped briefly at lie La Motte, before deciding on Valcour Island as the best place to meet the enemy. Valcour Island lies approximately in the middle of the Lake’s 110-mile length. The heavily wooded island is situated close to the New York shore, with the main lake channel running to the east. It has a fine harbor at its southern extremity, and it was here that Arnold lined up his vessels in a crescent, their mastheads screened by the forested island. In this formation, his flanks were secure; he could either fall upon the British rear or employ his full fleet broadside if they turned back towards him.
At eight in the morning of 11 October, the picket vessel that Arnold had left in the main channel returned, firing an alarm gun as she approached. Two hours later the British fleet hove in view. As the British swept by Arnold’s position, the Americans were able to gauge their opponent’s overwhelming strength. Their 300-ton, full-rigged ship Inflexible mounted 22 guns; a radeau or floating battery surpassed this with 26 24-pounders. Besides these two, the British had assembled two schooners, two gondolas, four longboats, and 44 smaller craft manned by seven hundred picked seamen. This fleet possessed a total armament of 93 guns.
The British fleet, suddenly aware of their quarry, came about and beat back to windward. Arnold, on board the galley Congress, seeing the enemy’s difficulty of clawing back against a perverse breeze, signaled the schooner Royal Savage and three galleys on the end of the line to up anchor, and gain a raking position on the close-packed British vessels. Incompetently handled, the Royal Savage grounded. The British seized upon this accident to empty every broadside gun into the schooner. Literally shot to pieces and afire, the Royal Savage was abandoned.
By noon both fleets were fully engaged. The Americans stood to their guns despite the frightful hammering of their opponents’ heavier ordnance. On board the Congress, Arnold was everywhere, training, elevating, firing each gun in his broadside, pausing only to fire his pistols while his inept gunners reloaded, all the while shouting encouragement to his crews. To add to the Americans’ misery, several hundred Indians allied to the British cause had landed on Valcour and were maintaining a considerable volume of musket fire. Hour after hour through the long afternoon the unequal fight continued without abatement. The lighter American vessels were hard hit. The galley Washington had lost her mainmast. Every officer of the gondola New York was dead or wounded. The Spitfire's three guns were dismounted. The Congress had taken two shots in her mainmast, her rigging was in shreds; she had received seven shots between wind and water, and was hulled 12 times. The British, however, had suffered an equally severe mauling. The schooner Carleton and a number of the gunboats were riddled by the galling American fire. Unfortunately for the Americans, British strength still lay with the ship Inflexible and the massive radeau, Thunderer, both of which were comparatively undamaged.
At five in the afternoon, the British concluded that the following day would see the extinction of the American fleet. They drew out of range, anchoring in a confining semicircle about their now beleaguered foe. As they left, the gondola Philadelphia settled on the lake bottom. Arnold, welcoming the respite, summoned all his officers aboard the Congress for a Council of War. A few urged surrender. Arnold glowered them down; however, the majority agreed that the American fleet could not survive another day. Arnold resolved their doubts. There would be no surrender; they would make their escape during the night. They had not long to wait, for in October, darkness fell early on the mountain-rimined lake. When convinced that their foe slumbered, the balance of the battered fleet slipped around the shoreside end of the British line.* Off Schuyler’s Island ten miles to the southward, they anchored to effect repairs. Two of the gondolas were so battered it was decided they should be scuttled. Afternoon of the second day came, and they resumed their flight, but the wind turned against them. Their progress thus slowed, they anchored for the night, only to awaken the next morning in a dense fog. The sun in time burned this off, and disclosed the British Fleet under full canvas bearing down on them. The Congress, the Washington, and four gondolas slowed by their injuries fell astern. The British closed in, with the Inflexible leading. The crippled Washington, last in the American line, was overtaken and, receiving several broadsides from her heavily-gunned pursuers, she struck her flag. The British surrounded Arnold’s galley, hurling broadside after broadside at close range. Passing close to the weather side of the Congress, seven British vessels blanketed her and proceeded to pound her to pieces. But they had not reckoned with Arnold’s tenacity.
For two hours, the Congress had been returning a hot answering fire, despite her punishing ordeal. Even though his ship was disintegrating underfoot, Arnold now spurred his men beyond their natural endurance. Playing British overconfidence against them, the American general suddenly broke through the encirclement. Picking up the four crippled gondolas, he swung the Congress, now burning fiercely, onto the lake shore. Seeing all his men ashore, he stood awhile on his quarter deck glaring defiance at British vessels; their broadsides still slamming. Assuring himself that the Congress and the other four blazing gondola hulks were secure from capture, Arnold leaped ashore. Mustering the remnants of his crews, he set out overland for Crown Point some ten miles distant. Later, avoiding a large party of hostile Iroquois, he finally led his exhausted men to safety at Fort Ticonderoga.
The British dallied long enough to occupy the hastily abandoned Crown Point fort, but the first bite of winter was in the air, their ships were riddled, and their crews depleted by casualties. A number of their vessels were so shot torn they would never again see service. The British, therefore, retreated northward before the lake iced over, their victory hollow and barren, for it was plain that the invasion must wait until the following year.
The courageous Arnold, though rash and reckless, had bought precious time—time for raising the regiments that in 1777 would meet and crush General Burgoyne’s invading armies at Saratoga, that would blunt St. Leger’s diversionary force at Oriskany. When one contemplates the conduct of Benedict Arnold at Valcour Island, the forlorn hope at Quebec, the wild charge that carried the day at Saratoga, one regrets that he was not struck down in battle before the genesis of his treason. He was impetuous, reckless, but he inspired the men who served under him to incredible conduct. His high courage has never been questioned. Treason has no advocate, however, and Arnold’s triumphs must always bear his blemish.
* Editor’s note: Historians differ on Arnold’s route of escape from the British fleet, but there is some evidence to confirm the fact that he may have passed, not through the British line, but around the northern end of Valcour Island and then straight down the main channel in a southerly direction.
Common sense would also point to this route, as only a few British vessels were sent to guard the waters on the northern side of Valcour while the bulk of the British fleet was firmly stationed a few rods south of Valcour, thence westerly to shoals on the mainland and constituted an impenetrable line.
W. C. Watson’s account, written in 1874, adds the following, “The intense darkness of the night was deepened by a storm of sleet and rain.” If true, this storm, plus the fact that whatever current exists flows northward, would have aided Arnold in the crucial period at the beginning of his escape.
1. See L. J. Bolander, “Arnold’s Retreat From Valcour Island,” U. S. Naval Institute Proceedings, December 1929, pp. 1060–1062.
See also R. G. Skerrett, “Wreck of the Royal Savage Recovered,” U. S. Naval Institute Proceedings, November 1935, pp. 1646–1652.
See also E. G. Farmer, “Skenesborough: Continental Navy Shipyard,” U. S. Naval Institute Proceedings, October 1964, pp. 160–162.