Sunday, July 21, 2019

Episode 106: Arms Race at Lake Champlain

Today, I’m going to step away from New York City to take a look at events on Lake Champlain.  At the same time the Howe Brothers in New York were using their massive military force to push Washington out of New York, Generals Guy Carleton and John Burgoyne were trying to push southward from Canada.  We last looked at Canada in Episode 95 when Carleton’s troops pushed the last of the Continental Army out of Canada and into Lake Champlain in upstate New York.  The remains of the Patriot’s Northern Army fell back to Fort Ticonderoga. 

Carleton and Burgoyne

For the British in Canada, everything seemed to be going well during the spring.  Burgoyne had a late arrival in May 1776.  By the end of June, the British had pushed the Americans out of Canada entirely.  Burgoyne had used the 8000 or so British and German forces he had brought with him from Britain.  With the combined local militia and Indians he had a force of 11,000-12,000 men.

Following the victory in Canada, Carleton and Burgoyne’s disagreement became more apparent.  Clearly, according to rank and Lord Germain’s express orders, Carleton retained command.  Burgoyne would obey orders but as most top subordinates did at the time, made clear to anyone who would listen that Carlton was holding him back.  He could lead the forces to victory if only Carlton did not hold his reins so tightly.

General "Gentleman Johnny"
Burgoyne (from Wikimedia)
Burgoyne had left Boston in the fall of 1775 to return home and convince the King and ministry that he knew how to win the war.  He drafted a memo for the ministry entitled: Thoughts for Conducting the War from the Side of Canada.  He planned to lead his military force up the St. Lawrence River to break the siege of Quebec and free Gen. Carleton.  From there, his men would move down lake Champlain to retake Fort Ticonderoga. Next, they would move down the Hudson River, eventually linking up with Howe’s Army moving up the river from New York City.  He even made a bet with a friend in London that he would be back, victorious, by Christmas 1777.

There was nothing particularly new about this plan.  The Ministry had been planning to use the Hudson River to cut off New England since the war began.  Burgoyne’s memo added far more details on exactly what troops should be used and why.  That was essentially what the ministry adopted as its plan, but with one alteration.  General Carleton, not Burgoyne, would command the army after it reached Quebec.

Gen. Carleton could not easily move his British fleet on the St. Lawrence River to Lake Champlain.  He would have to disassemble his ships, carry them up the rapids, and then reassemble them at St. Jean before he could sail into the Lake, or in the alternative, build new ships at St. Jean and carry over the armaments needed.  Either option would take months.

Burgoyne thought they should continue to press their advantage.  The British had clear military superiority and had the Continentals on the run.  With the cooperation of the local Indians, the British could move overland to Fort Ticonderoga and bypass Arnold’s fleet on the lake.  He also suggested moving further upriver to Lake Ontario and marching on the Americans from the west through New York.

Carleton, however, thought that these plans were too risky.  He preferred the safer option of building a fleet to recapture the lake, then sailing down to Fort Ticonderoga and taking the Fort.  It was undoubtedly a safer option, but it meant the British could not begin moving again until fall.  That gave the rebels time to build up their defenses on the lake and at the fort.  Even if the British could take the fort in the fall, that almost certainly meant pausing again for the winter and not starting down the Hudson until the spring of 1777 at the earliest.

General Sir Guy Carleton
(from Wikimedia)
Carleton also used General Howe’s approach by trying to reconcile with the rebels after recapturing Canada.  He released most of his prisoners, including Daniel Morgan, the future general.  He issued pardons liberally to Canadians and made every effort to make sure the locals would put all the recent unpleasantness behind them.

Burgoyne quickly grew frustrated at waiting.  In addition to a host of other reasons for wanting to see his work through to a quick ending, he had left his sick wife in London.  He had hoped he could get back to care for her.  Sadly, as he sat in Canada all summer waiting for things to happen, he learned that his wife had died in June.

Another good reason not to wait was smallpox.  The disease had ravaged both armies during the war, and had been particularly destructive in Canada.  I know I’ve talked about the ravages of disease before, but it’s hard to understate its importance.  More than 90% of the military deaths during the revolution came from disease.  Smallpox, Typhus, Typhoid fever, malaria, and dysentery killed thousands in Canada alone.  Having soldiers sitting around all summer would likely kill more of them than sending them into battle.  Unlike the Continentals who could always find more and more local men to replace the fallen, the British had to spend far more time and expense to import fresh troops from across the ocean.

Burgoyne occupied his time by keeping up a correspondence with Secretary of State, Lord Germain, in London.  Germain already had a bad opinion of Carleton.  He readily listened and supported Burgoyne’s frustration over Carleton’s lack of action.  When the King proposed awarding Carleton the Order of the Bath, Germain tried, unsuccessfully, to prevent it.  Although Carleton had other friends in high places which protected him, Germain would look for any  reason to recall Carleton and promote Burgoyne.  During that summer, Lord Germain issued orders to give Burgoyne an independent command of an army in New York while he left Carleton to remain in command in Canada.  But those orders, mostly due to logistical problems, did not reach Canada until 1777.  So for the remainder of the year, Carleton ran the show and Burgoyne sat around impatiently, waiting for something to change.

Horatio Gates

On the patriot side, fear of a British attack loomed over everything.  Congress decided to change the leadership in hopes of finding someone who could whip the American Army into shape and hold off any invasion into New York.  Once the British had pushed the patriots out of Canada following the battle of Three Rivers, Congress shipped General Sullivan back to New York in time to be captured at the Battle of Brooklyn.  General Wooster returned to Connecticut and would resign his commission a few months later.  In their place, Congress sent General Horatio Gates.  Although Gates was one of the original generals Congress appointed back in the summer of 1775, I have not had much to say about him so far, as he hadn’t done much.

Gates was British born in 1727 to commoner parents.  Despite his low birth, he somehow obtained a lieutenant’s commission as a young man and served in what is today Germany during the War of Austrian Succession.  He must have served well, as he received a wartime promotion to captain, despite the fact that there was no way he had the money to pay for such a commission.

Gen. Horatio Gates
(from Wikimedia)
After the war, Gates sold his commission in the regular army and moved to New York.  The sale of his commission gave him enough money to establish a new life for himself.  When General Braddock came to America in 1755, Gates joined the expedition to Fort Pitt, along with all the other kids who would grow up to be famous: Thomas Gage, Charles Lee, Adam Stephen, Daniel Morgan, Daniel Boone, and George Washington.  Gates was wounded at the Battle of the Monongahela but recovered and returned to service.  He continued to serve as a regular officer in the Seven Years war, fighting in North America and in the West Indies.  At the end of the war, Gates had risen to the rank of Major.  In 1769, he sold his Major’s Commission and purchased a small plantation in Virginia.  There, he renewed his friendship with George Washington.

In 1775, when Congress appointed Washington as Commander in Chief, he requested that Gates also be named a General in the new Continental Army.  Gates became the Army’s first Adjutant General.  While Gates did well at his job, it was mostly paperwork, not the sort of thing that gets you much glory.  As an experienced officer, Gates pushed for an independent command.

In May 1776, after Washington had moved from Boston to New York, Congress promoted Gates to major general, and in June assigned him the independent command of the Northern Army.  Unfortunately for Gates, his independent command was not quite as independent as he had hoped.  General Schuyler, his senior, remained in overall command of the region.  In the past, Congress had bypassed Schuyler by leaving him in command of forces in upstate New York, but left other generals, first Montgomery, then Wooster, then Thomas, then Sullivan, in charge of the forces engaged in actual combat in Canada.

Lake Champlain Region (from Wikimedia)
To get his promotion, Gates had gone to Philadelphia to lobby for the independent command.  In doing so, he heavily criticized Schuyler’s performance as the commander.  Congress promoted Gates to major general and gave him command of the Continental Army in Canada.

The problem was that by the time Gates arrived in upstate New York, the Patriot forces in Canada had already retreated back into New York.  There, they came under the authority of General Schuyler.  As a result, Gates effectively became Schuyler’s second in command.  Gates, was of course upset that his independent command now became subordinate to Schuyler’s command.  He immediately began a letter writing campaign to his friends in Congress to undercut Schuyler’s reputation, and with the apparent intent of having Schuyler relieved so that he could take command.

The two men began bickering with one another, and dividing politicians as well as the army into team Schuyler and team Gates.  New England politicians tended to favor Gates, based on his military experience with the regular army.  New Yorkers tended to favor Schuyler, who had the senior rank and experience in the region.

Protecting Lake Champlain

Amazingly, General Benedict Arnold, who typically got along with no one, seemed to have pretty good working relationships with both men.  Unfortunately, his failure to pick a side would cause him problems down the road.  But for now, on this one issue at least, Arnold was often the voice of diplomacy and reason.

Although he was an army general, Arnold had made himself the naval commander of Lake Champlain.  He commanded a few large ships, the Enterprise, and Liberty which he had captured right after the fall of Ticonderoga.  He also had the Royal Savage which General Montgomery had captured with the fall of St. Jean.  His troops were still building the Revenge near Ticonderoga.  He had four large row galley ships: the Washington, Congress, Trumbull, and Gates, as well as a smaller one, the Lee.  Then he had eight smaller Gondolas.  All the ships had mounted cannon and would certainly harass and threaten any British ships that moved onto the lake.

Court Martial of Moses Hazen

With a lull in the fighting during the summer, the northern army took some time to take care of some delayed business.  In late July, it held courts martial for Colonel Bedel and Major Butterfield for their behavior at the Battle of the Cedars back in May.  Both men were found guilty and cashiered.

That same month the court martial of Moses Hazen threatened to disrupt the entire army.  You may recall that Hazen was a local Canadian.  He had tried to play both sides after the patriots had invaded Canada.  But after the British arrested him and he escaped, he decided to stick with the patriots.  He received a commission as colonel and raised a patriot regiment from among his fellow Canadians.

For some time, General Arnold seemed to have a good opinion of Hazen.  That changed after the Battle of the Cedars, where Arnold thought Hazen not aggressive enough, possibly even a coward.  Worse, Hazen disobeyed Arnold’s orders to destroy the property of some who had cooperated with the British and Indian attack at the Cedars.  Hazen believed that such destruction might have created more enemies for the army than they could handle.

General Benedict Arnold
(from Wikimedia)
But the issue that led to the court martial was Hazen’s refusal to accept property that Arnold had sent to his care after the retreat from Montreal.  Arnold had promised the Montreal merchants, on his personal honor, that they would receive payment for their property, which the army needed.  Arnold had an officer carry the property to Hazen, who refused to accept it.  The officer ended up leaving all the supplies by the side of the river, where soldiers looted and took what they wanted.

Arnold was livid at this insubordination.  Congress had left Arnold on the hook for stuff like this before.  He would feel honor bound to repay the merchants, but would not get reimbursement from Congress if he could not account for the property.  It was also another example of Arnold’s subordinate officers simply ignoring his orders.

Arnold attempted to empanel a court martial against Hazen in early July.  Hazen protested to General Gates who ordered Arnold not to proceed.  Arnold had apparently selected all of the officers on the court martial himself, and had selected junior officers, even though Colonel Hazen had a right to be judged by field officers (major or higher).  Gates told Arnold to cut it out, but allowed a proper court martial to be empaneled a few days later to hear charges against Hazen for neglect of duty.

The problem with the new court martial, headed by Colonel Enoch Poor, was that just about every officer on the court absolutely hated Arnold and was friends with Hazen.  The Court refused even to hear testimony from the officer whom Arnold had ordered to drop off the property to Hazen and who was pretty much the only witness who could testify to Hazen’s refusal to obey Arnold’s orders to take possession of the property.  They claimed the witness was an interested party, which, so what? Lots of witnesses have some interest in the case in favor of one side or the other.  But the court martial did not even say what that interest was.  The court also refused to give Arnold adequate time to track down other witnesses to the events in question.

Instead, the court unanimously found in favor of Hazen and acquitted him.  This caused Arnold to lodge a protest with the court, suggesting that the court had erred in its decision not to hear critical testimony and in its finding.  He demanded that the entire proceedings be sent to the Continental Congress for a final decision.

The court could have walked away with its acquittal of Hazen and let Arnold have his temper tantrum.  But, remember, the officers on the court hated Arnold and figured they could use the power of the court against him by demanding he apologize for insulting the integrity of the court martial.  Of course, Arnold refused to apologize for what he saw as simply calling them out on their bias and improper procedures.  Not only did he refuse to apologize, he made clear he would be happy to face any of them in a duel if they would like the satisfaction.

This led to a flurry of letters and petitions to General Gates, the court insisting that Arnold face contempt charges, and from Arnold demanding the kangaroo court be dissolved and have his charges against Hazen sent to Congress.  Gates must have shaken his head in disbelief when he received all these papers.  The British Army was on the brink of attacking down Lake Champlain and destroying what remained of the Continental force.  Meanwhile, his top field officer is whining about a biased court martial and the court wants him to lock up his top general for insulting their honor.

Gates tried to dispose of the matter as best he could.  He approved the court’s acquittal of Hazen, and also made clear he was not going to let them pursue charges against Arnold.  They had already wasted several weeks on this issue when they should be preparing to defend against an attack.  We are not locking up our best field officer because someone thinks he insulted their honor. Gates sent records of all of this to Congress, but for now guys, let’s focus on the enemy and not each other.

Wynkoop Dispute

With the court martial arguments behind him in August, Arnold could resume command of his fleet on Lake Champlain.  Except, he couldn’t.  Arnold faced another challenge.  While he was in Canada, Schuyler had appointed Jacobus Wynkoop commander of the fleet on Lake Champlain.  When Arnold started giving orders, Winkoop sent him a note saying he was still in command of the fleet, and why was Arnold issuing orders to move his ships around. Arnold, sent a rather snippy note back to Wynkoop letting him know that Schuyler had returned Arnold to command of the fleet. Wynkoop ignored that and continued to assume command.  He countermanded Arnold’s orders and issued more of his own.

American fleet on Lake Champlain (from Wikimedia)
Arnold sent a note to Gates about the problem and vented his frustrations about no one respecting the chain of command.  Gates used the issue as an opportunity to bash Schuyler, by ordering Schuyler’s appointed commander Wynkoop to be arrested and imprisoned for his refusal to cede command to Arnold.  Once Arnold sent off Wynkoop in chains, he softened his view and did not seek to go through with a court martial.  Instead, he recommended that Wynkoop be allowed to leave the theater and plead his case to Congress.  I suspect this softening was to prevent the pissing contest between Schuyler and Gates from blowing up everything.  In any event, Arnold now had undisputed command of his fleet.

Arnold would have nearly another two months before Carleton was ready to unleash his fleet on Lake Champlain.  So we will get to that fight a few weeks from now.

Next Week: We return to New York where Gen. Howe is finally ready to end his pause, and begin his assault on Manhattan Island.

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Next Episode 107: Kip's Bay and Harlem Heights

Previous  Episode 105: Staten Island Peace Conference

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Further Reading


Burgoyne, John Thoughts for Conducting the War from the side of Canada;view=fulltext

Guy Carleton biography:

John Burgoyne biography:

Horatio Gates biography:

Petition of Jacobus Wynkoop:

Seelinger, Matthew Buying Time: The Battle of Valcour Island, July 16, 2014:

Free eBooks
(from unless noted)

Carrington, Henry B. Battles of the American Revolution, 1775-1781, A.S. Barnes & Co, 1876.

Codman, John Arnold’s Expedition To Quebec,  New York, MacMillan Co., 1901..

Force, Peter American Archives, Series 5, Vol 3, M. St. Claire Clarks, 1837.

Hill, George Benedict Arnold: A Biography, Boston: E.O. Libby & Co. 1858.

Kingsford, William The History of Canada, Vol. 6,  Toronto: Roswell & Hutchinson, 1887.

Smith, Justin Our Struggle for the Fourteenth Colony: Canada, and the American Revolution, Vol. 2, New York: G.P. Putnam's Sons, 1907.

Books Worth Buying
(links to unless otherwise noted)*

Brown, Gerald Saxon, The American Secretary: The Colonial Policy of Lord George Germain, 1775-1778, Univ. of Michigan Press, 1963.

Fleming, Thomas 1776: Year of Illusions, W.W. Norton & Co., 1975.

Hatch, Robert Thrust for Canada, Houghton-Mifflin, 1979.

Martin, James Benedict Arnold: Revolutionary Hero, NYU Press, 1997.

O'Shaughnessy, Andrew J. The Men Who Lost America: British Leadership, the American Revolution, and the Fate of the Empire, Yale Univ. Press, 2013.

Randall, Willard Benedict Arnold: Patriot and Traitor, William Morrow & Co. 1990.

* As an Amazon Associate I earn from qualifying purchases.

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