Most of the summer of 1776 focused on New York City. That was where Britain sent the bulk of its troops and that’s where most of the fighting took place. As I discussed a few episodes back, Britain also sent a large contingent to Canada to secure that area. When General Johnny Burgoyne arrived with 8000 regulars in the spring, General Guy Carlton did not even wait for the entire force to arrive before he brought his forces out of Quebec and chased the Americans out of Canada entirely.
But at the Quebec border, the offensive came to a halt. The British could not easily transport their navy from the St. Lawrence River onto Lake Champlain. General Benedict Arnold had built up a fleet of Continental ships on the lake. Carleton did not want to challenge Arnold’s fleet until he could do so with overwhelming force.
|Battle of Valcour Island (from Wikimedia)|
But if the two top British generals in Canada did not get along, that was nothing compared to the infighting on the American side. General Philip Schuyler still commanded the northern army in New York. Congress had sent General Horatio Gates to command the army in Canada. But now that the Americans in Canada had retreated back to New York, both generals spent most of the summer fighting over who was really in charge. Schuyler was the senior officer, but Gates had received an independent command.
The junior officers also continued their own infighting. General Arnold had spent most of the war making enemies of just about all the other officers he met. Over the summer, he had gotten into the tussle over the court martial of Colonel Moses Hazen, which resulted in the court seeking permission to arrest Arnold for his expression of contempt for the court.
Gates refused to allow any such arrest because, the British were going to attack any day and Arnold was their best battlefield commander. Next, Arnold had to fight to take back his command of the fleet after Schuyler had given command to Colonel Jacobus Wynkoop. That fight led to Gates again backing Arnold and arresting Wynkoop. So by the end of the summer of 1776, Arnold was once again in command of the fleet on Lake Champlain and ready to face the enemy.
The British Fleet
British General Carleton came from the same school of leadership as General William Howe in New York: take your time, don’t do anything risky, wait until you are in a position to overwhelm the enemy so there can be only one outcome. While Howe used the late summer and fall of 1776 to nudge Washington’s army slowly out of New York, Carleton got an even later start. His fleet did not leave St. Jean until October 4. But when it did, Carleton was well prepared to defeat any Continental resistance on the lake.
|The Thunderer (from JAR)|
Carlton had other ships ready for a full scale naval battle on Lake Champlain. The Inflexible had sixteen 12 pounders and two 9 pounders. The Carleton had twelve 6 pounders and the Maria, named after Carleton’s wife had fourteen 6 pounders. They also built a gondola called the Loyal Convert with six 9 pounders and a single 24 pounder. In addition, the fleet included several smaller row ships with a single cannon mounted on the bow. At least ten of these smaller ships had been built in Britain and sent across the Atlantic as kits to be reassembled on the lake.
In addition to the twenty-five warships armed with cannon, the fleet included troop transports as well as several hundred Indian canoes. Most of the regulars remained behind, waiting until the fleet cleared the lake. But the fleet did take about one thousand regulars, as well as hundreds of Canadian militia and Indians prepared to do battle with any land forces they met along the shores.
The American Fleet
To counter the British fleet, the Continentals had assembled and built their own fleet. The largest ships were the Royal Savage and the Enterprise, which Arnold had captured on the lake a year earlier. They also had built the Revenge, the Liberty, and the Lee. Most of these were armed with six or four pounder cannon, although the Lee had one 12 pounder. Size really mattered with these cannons since the goal was to rip large holes in the enemy ships to sink them. Larger cannon made bigger holes. They could also usually be fired from a greater distance.
The Americans put most of their heaviest guns on four large row gallies, the Trumbull, the Washington, the Congress, and the Gates, all of which had one or two 18 pounders, as well as a few 12 pounders and some smaller cannon. In battle, these could be rowed into position easier than a sailing vessel, hopefully getting in some successful shots before the enemy could get into position to return fire. The disadvantage of these gallies is that they required a lot of men to row them and were much slower in open water, meaning the enemy would have an easier time overtaking them. The Continental navy rounded out its fleet with eight smaller gunboats: the Philadelphia, the New York, the New Jersey, the Connecticut, the Providence, the New Haven, the Spitfire, and the Boston. Like the gallies, each had to be rowed. Each had at least one 9 or 12 pounder as well as a few smaller cannon.
With the superior force, better trained crews, and far more resources, Carleton felt confident he could move down Lake Champlain, encounter the American fleet at any point of their choosing, defeat them and continue on down to Fort Ticonderoga at the southern tip of the lake. He expected Arnold to confront his fleet at Cumberland point, one of the narrowest places on the lake, where the smaller Continental fleet would be at less of a disadvantage.
|Map showing battle location (from Wikimedia)|
Arnold thought those were stupid orders, but did not bother to fight about it. Instead, he just ignored orders and implemented his own plan. He knew that Carlton was too cautious to move until the winds were in his favor, and that Carlton would not leave an enemy fleet in his rear while proceeding down to Fort Ticonderoga. Arnold wanted to lure Carlton into a fight at a point where the Americans would have the greatest advantage.
Valcour Island was a small island just off the west coast of Lake Champlain, just below Cumberland point. The point of entry from the northern part of the island into the narrow water between the island and the western shore was too full of rocks and debris for most of the large British ships to enter. Therefore, they would need to sail around the east to the southern part of the island and then tack north into Valcour Bay. Since Carlton would have waited to set sail until he had a steady northerly wind to carry him down the lake, the wind would be against him as he sailed back up into Valcour Bay to meet Arnold’s fleet.
Arnold chained his ships together in an arc inside the bay. That way, all his ships could concentrate fire on the British ships entering the bay, which they would have to do one or two at a time and against the wind. That would give Arnold’s fleet time to demolish each ship as it entered without having to face the entire British fleet at once.
The plan actually seemed to work reasonably well. As expected, Carlton waited for good weather and a favorable northerly wind before proceeding south on October 10. That night, the British fleet lay at anchor just a few miles north of Valcour Island.
There is some dispute as to what actually happened. Carlton, of course, issued a formal report after the battle. But a year later, several of his subordinate officers wrote An Open Letter to Captain Pringle published in London that greatly contradicted many of the facts as Carlton presented them, and also accused Carlton of cowardice. The three officers who filed this report were upset that Carlton had assumed command of the fleet, rather than allowing Burgoyne that honor. They were also upset that Carlton had appointed Captain Thomas Pringle as fleet commander over the three of them who had seniority. Therefore their anti-Carlton bias might have been as strong as Carleton’s bias to paint a picture that put himself in the best possible light.
|American ships at Valcour Island (from Wikimedia)|
The truth is likely that there was some report of the enemy in the area two days earlier. But Carlton, after not finding the enemy where he expected, simply assumed they were in full retreat down the lake as fast as they could go. There is no evidence that Carlton received intelligence specifically showing the enemy’s exact position behind Valcour Island. So Carleton let every ship sail at full speed in down the lake.
The Inflexible and Thunderer were far down the lake past the Island when Arnold began to fear that the fleet might just sail past him entirely. This might have been a good thing since then Arnold could have come down on the British fleet from the rear, taking out the troop transports before the warships could turn around and defend them. But Arnold wanted the fleet to attack him in Valcour Bay. By late morning, as the fleet was moving south, Arnold ordered the Royal Savage and three of the row gallies to move south toward an intercept with the British fleet.
|Guy Carleton (from Wikimedia)|
A British boarding party was able to capture the Royal Savage and began using the cannon on the stranded ship to fire on the American fleet. But the Americans soon focused their fire and forced the British to abandon the sinking ship. Instead, they burned it down to its water line later that evening. Although Arnold had not been aboard the ship that day, he did have his personal property and papers aboard ship, the loss of which would come to haunt him later.
The Royal Savage went down quickly in early fighting, giving hope to the British that this would be an easy fight. The first British gunboats sailed into Valcour Bay along with the Carleton, and that is the ship Carleton, not to be confused with the Maria, where General Carleton was aboard. As the ship Carleton entered Arnold’s trap, all the American ships concentrated their fire. The Carleton’s commander, a young Lieutenant named James Dacres took a hit in the head and was knocked unconscious. At first the crew thought he had been killed, and were about to throw his body overboard, as was customary at the time. Fortunately for Dacres, an alert midshipman named Edward Pellew, realized Dacres was still alive and prevented him from being thrown overboard. Years later, both Dacres and Pellew would become British admirals fighting in the Napoleonic wars. Pellew is known better by his later title, Admiral Lord Exmouth.
|The Royal Savage (from JAR)|
Overall, Arnold’s plan was working well. The British fleet could not attack him en masse. His American gunners, despite little experience, effectively hit the few ships that made it into the bay. The British Thunderer and Loyal Convert were too far downwind to make it back in time for battle at all that day. The large square rigged Inflexible was not able to get into the Bay where it could effectively fire on the Americans.
With the Carlton out of commission, that left only the Maria and the smaller British gunships. The Maria was not the largest ship in the fleet, but it was one of the fastest, and had the fleet commander Captain Pringle and General Carlton aboard. As the Maria approached the bay, an American cannonball passed over the deck nearly taking off Carlton’s head. Reportedly, Carlton simply turned to a colleague, Dr. Knox, standing next to him and also almost killed by the same ball, and asked him “Well doctor, how do you like a sea battle?” But that shot was enough for Captain Pringle to order the ship to pull back and drop anchor, where the commanders could observe the fight from a safe distance. This later resulted in charges of cowardice against Pringle.
Carlton ordered his Indians to land on Valcour Island and along the New York coast as well. From there, the Indians fired on the American ships with muskets. The fire was mostly distracting for a few ships closest to shore. Arnold had prepared for such an eventuality by building wooden breastworks on the ships to shield the men from musket fire.
|Battle at Valcour Island (from British Battles)|
By late in the day, the Inflexible finally got itself within range of the American ships. With its superior firepower, it did some damage, but also took considerable fire from the Americans. Before long, dusk ended the fighting, after about seven hours of battle. Many of the American ships were running out of ammunition, as were many of the smaller British gunships.
Overall Arnold’s plan worked well. He had forced the British to attack him with only a few ships at a time, and against the wind. But Carlton’s advantage in numbers of ships, men, guns, and ammunition made it virtually impossible that the Americans would destroy or capture the British fleet entirely.
When the second day began, Arnold would no longer have the element of surprise. He remained trapped in Valcour Bay. Escape to the north was impossible given the rocks and impediments. Even if the American fleet could get through to the north, it would still be trapped between the British fleet and the British rear where 7000 British regulars were there to meet them. Carlton’s fleet blocked a southern escape. Hundreds of Indians patrolled the forests on both Valcour Island and the mainland, preventing Arnold from simply scuttling his ships and attempting an escape overland.
To the British, and probably to most American officers, it looked like Arnold’s choices the following morning were surrender, burn the ships and surrender, or fight it out as the British fleet crushed the Americans. Any of these results would be reasonable. Arnold’s fleet has served its purpose. It had delayed the British attack on Fort Ticonderoga for nearly the entire 1776 fighting season. If the British captured the fleet, it would mean a few hundred prisoners, about the same as when the British captured Montgomery and Arnold’s attack force at Quebec nine months earlier. It was an acceptable sacrifice for keeping 12,000 British and allies from taking the Hudson Valley and linking up with British forces in New York City that year.
Despite his position though, Arnold was not ready to surrender yet. That night, at a council of war, he revealed his plan to escape from the British fleet.
Next Week, Arnold attempts to escape from the British fleet.
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Next Episode 111: Retreat from Lake Champlain
Previous Episode 109: Great fire of NY & Hanging Nathan Hale
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Ray, Stephen, The Battle of Lake Champlain: http://www.let.rug.nl/usa/essays/before-1800/the-battle-of-lake-champlain
Barbieri, Michael "The Battle of Valcour Island" Journal of the American Revolution, Jan. 2, 2014: https://allthingsliberty.com/2014/01/battle-valcour-island
Barbieri, Michael "The Fate of the Royal Savage" Journal of the American Revolution, May 2, 2014:
Gadue, Michael "The Thunderer, British Floating Gun Battery on Lake Champlain" Journal of the American Revolution, April 4, 2019: https://allthingsliberty.com/2019/04/the-thunderer-british-floating-gun-battery-on-lake-champlain
Gadue, Michael "The Liberty, First American Warship Among Many Firsts" Journal of the American Revolution, June 10, 2019: https://allthingsliberty.com/2019/06/the-liberty-first-american-warship-among-many-firsts
Valcour Bay Research Project: http://www.historiclakes.org/vbrp/vbr1.htm
Pippenger, C.E. "Recently Discovered Letters Shed New Light on the Battle of Valcour Island" Journal of the American Revolution, Oct. 11, 2016: https://allthingsliberty.com/2016/10/recently-discovered-letters-shed-new-light- battle-valcour-island
Seelinger, Matthew Buying Time: The Battle of Valcour Island, 2014: https://armyhistory.org/buying-time-the-battle-of-valcour-island
Hubbard, Timothy W. "Battle at Valcour Island: Benedict Arnold As Hero" American Heritage Magazine, Vol. 17, Issue 6, Oct. 1966: http://www.americanheritage.com/content/battle-valcour-island-benedict-arnold-hero
C-Span: author James Arnold discusses his book, Benedict Arnold’s Navy (2006): https://www.c-span.org/video/?193388-1/benedict-arnolds-navy
Benedict Arnold's Legacy: Tales from Lake Champlain, Center for Research on Vermont (2016): https://archive.org/details/Benedict_Arnold_s_Legacy_-_Tales_from_Lake_Champlain
(from archive.org unless noted)
Carrington, Henry B. Battles of the American Revolution, 1775-1781, A.S. Barnes & Co, 1876.
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.
Palmer, Peter Battle of Valcour on Lake Champlain, October 11th, 1776, Lake Shore Press, 1876.
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 Amazon.com unless otherwise noted)*
Atkinson, Richard The British Are Coming: The War for America, Lexington to Princeton, 1775-1777, Henry Holt & Co. 2019.
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.
Randall, Willard Benedict Arnold: Patriot and Traitor, William Morrow & Co. 1990.
Darley, Stephen, The Battle of Valcour Island: The Participants and Vessels of Benedict Arnold's 1776 Defense of Lake Champlain, CreateSpace Independent Publishing, 2013 (book recommendation of the week)
Wheeler, Richard Voices of 1776: The Story of the American Revolution in the Words of Those Who Were There, Plume Publishing, 1997.
* This site is a registered Amazon Associate. Please help support this site by purchasing any of these books, or any other Amazon product, via the links on this site. If you start by clicking on a book link above and then browse to buy something completely different on Amazon, American Revolution Podcast will get credit for your purchase.