Hello, and thank you for joining this special edition of the American Revolution. I had the opportunity to speak with Jack Kelly, author of the new book Valcour: The 1776 Campaign that Saved the Cause of Liberty.
Kelly’s earlier works include Band of Giants, which is a more general look at the Revolutionary War, as well as another on the history of gunpowder.
His latest work on Valcour, just released in April 2021, looks at the effort to prevent a British invasion of New York from Quebec after the British had pushed the Americans out of Canada and back into New York.
I spoke with Mr. Kelly over a remote call.
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Michael J. Troy (MJT) Jack Kelly, welcome to the American Revolution Podcast.
Jack Kelly (JK) Thank you, Mike. It's great to talk to you.
MJT So we're here today to talk about your new book Valcour, which, of course is about the Battle of Valcour Island, the battle that Benedict Arnold fought with the British - naval battle in 1776.
MJT So what drew you to the topic of Valcour to begin with? I know you've written on a wide variety of things, what stood out about Valcour?
JK A number of years ago, I wrote a book called Band of Giants. And I tried to give a overview of the Revolutionary War and sort of an intro to the war, focusing on different personalities. And I came across the battle of Valcour Island, and sort of I'd heard of it. And I began to think like, why is it so often neglected in so many histories of the Revolutionary War? The more I looked into it, the more puzzling it became that it wasn't covered more, that it wasn't featured more as part of the effort in that year of 1776. And I usually cite David McCullough's book 1776, which was about the war in that year. Of course, David McCullough was a great historian, a great narrative historian. And he never mentioned the Battle of Valcour Island. He never mentioned the northern campaign. He didn't slight it or neglect it, he just didn't mention it. I found that puzzling, and I just thought it was a aspect of the war that needed more attention.
MJT My suspicion has always been that one of the reasons was that it was one of General Benedict Arnold's greatest moments and of course, because of his later, bad acts, shall we say, a lot of his early heroism in the war tends to get erased by historians and others. In this campaign. Benedict Arnold, who is an army officer came to command the naval fleet on Lake Champlain,
JK The situation in 1776, coming into July, was that the northern army had been fighting in Canada since the previous fall, and were badly defeated and had retreated all the way from Quebec City all the way down to where they started, in Fort Ticonderoga. The British were focused on this corridor, that water corridor from Quebec City down the lakes, down the Hudson River. They sent an army to each end of that corridor. The army in New York was about 40,000 men. The army in Canada was almost 10,000 men. And they planned to make that the focus of their strategy and to invade from the north and to essentially eliminate Washington's army down in New York City.
So to stop them, they didn't feel that Ticonderoga, at that time, was strong enough and that the army was prepared to really meet the British if they came down the lakes. And they thought that maybe if they were to fight them on the lake, it would have a chance of stopping the invasion. And so Benedict Arnold, who, as you mentioned, was an army officer. And the whole operation was really run by the army since there was no navy at the time. Arnold had been a sea captain before the war, and he knew about sailing, he knew about boats, and he was familiar with the area. He traded a lot in Canada and had gone down Lake Champlain as part of his business before the war. So he's familiar with the area. So he was a logical person to take over this building of a small fleet and then confronting the British on the lake.
MJT Arnold had famously seized Fort Ticonderoga back in 1775, along with Ethan Allen, and almost immediately after the seizure of the Fort, he jumped on a boat and began seizing several ships along Lake Champlain. He went up to the edge of Canada where there was a British shipbuilding area, and also in Skenesboro, where he seized a ship, I think that made up the bulk of at least the larger ships in this fleet. Correct?
JK Correct, at the beginning of the summer of '76, they had taken a slope from the British, actually in Canada. They had captured what was really just a schooner from a guy named Philip Skene in Skenesboro and put guns on it. So neither of those boats were very formidable. They were better than nothing. And the British really, at that point that had no ships on the lake, mounted with cannon, and so it began, especially an arms race, to see who could build the biggest fleet quickest.
MJT Arnold as commander of the fleet during that year or so did have quite a few internal problems. One, of course, was the beginning of what would become a very large dispute between General Horatio Gates and General Philip Schuyler. As you noted, the Americans had invaded Canada and then they were pushed back out of it. General Gates had been given command of the forces in Canada about the time that they were forced out of Canada. And so he kind of thought he should be able to take command of those Canadian troops that were in New York and Philip Schuyler thought, No, I'm the commander of troops in New York, and there was a good bit of battling between the two men over command. Benedict Arnold was not known for his political skills in the army. How did he handle this dispute and make his way through it?
JK I think we, a lot of times, underplay that divisions within the patriot movement, and particularly regional divisions. The really early avid promoters of the revolution where in New England. People in New York were much cooler towards the idea of breaking with England. Gates was a radical himself and he identified with the New England faction. General Schuyler is not a very well known general actually n the whole scope of the war. But he was one of the first, I think there were four major generals appointed immediately when they formed the Continental Army. And he was one of them. Of course, a lot of it had to do with his influence and wealth, living in Albany and being familiar with the north.
Gates always had an overblown view of his own ability. So when he came in, having been appointed, as you mentioned, the head of army in Canada, that kind of needed clarifying. And once they were out of Canada, then he was back under Schuyler. But he thought, he wanted to interpret it differently.
Arnold was really was caught in the middle between the two of them. His inclination was, he admired Schuyler, more than Gates because Schuyler, Schuyler was very much like Benedict Arnold in the sense that he was a very wealthy businessman, somewhat conservative. And I think that just that the aura of one of the featured families of Albany captivated Benedict Arnold, even though Arnold was a notoriously prickly character, difficult to get along with. He made an effort to straddle the rivalry between Gates and Schuyler. It really came up and sort of came and went for the two years that's both 1776 and 1777, of him trying to juggle this relationship between Gates and Schuyler, somewhat successfully, even in spite of his reputation as not having political tact. He was fairly successful in getting along with both of them, and particularly in 1776, when he was such an essential part of the war effort. They both somewhat deferred to him. Gates particularly, said that I know nothing about nautical l affairs. And so he depended on him, Benedict Arnold to handle that aspect of the campaign.
MJT Many of our listeners are familiar with the Gates-Arnold divisions that had existed by the time of Saratoga, where they most certainly did not get along. But, in this time, Gates, it seemed, actually was rather helpful to, and protective of, General Arnold, especially during the incident involving the court martial of Moses Hazen. In that case, Benedict Arnold sought the court martial of Hazen for the loss of some property during the Quebec campaign. The men who made up the court martial, pretty much absolved Hazen of any wrongdoing. And Arnold was very upset about this and essentially attack the court martial as being somehow illegitimate or biased or whatever. And then the court martial went after Arnold and tried to strip him of command. And at that point, Arnold really had to rely on Gates to bail him out of the mess.
JK Arnold almost literally challenged the entire court martial to a duel. I don't know if he was going to face them all at once. That was a very clear manifestation of Arnold's lack of tact and his tendency to get involved in what we're really relatively petty disputes. He would always be drawn into it as a matter of honor. And it got him into trouble repeatedly. He made enemies from the first day that he started operating as a soldier when, as you mentioned, the takeover of Fort Ticonderoga that led to a lot of animosity for different people there.
He was up in Canada. He started out seeming to be friendly with Hazen, but Hazen, he was a grasping type. He was one of the Americans who had gone up and tried to take advantage of the British presence in Canada. He bought several estates that came with their own peasants, laborers, and, and just largely a grasping the type of person. Arnold came into conflict with him and those animosities went on for the entire part of Arnold's participation of the war, repeatedly kept coming up. He always took the bait and entered into the dispute when it could have just ignored them. But that was not his character.
MJT Arnold, despite all these internal divisions and fighting amongst themselves, was working to build a fleet because as you said, Fort Ticonderoga was not particularly defensible, and they really hoped to keep the British off Lake Champlain entirely if they could. Although Arnold did face one other challenge his command, I believe Schuyler appointed a man named Jacobus Wynkoop, who was commanding the fleet, and Arnold tried to take command of it from him and Jacobus refused?
JK Yeah, that was a little contratemp during the summer. Arnold was an extremely energetic person. He was not only overseeing to a certain extent the construction of the fleet, but he was also leading patrols up the lake, trying to get supplies. just constantly busy. During this time, this Wynkoop, who had been the commander of the fleet in the period before the Canadian Army came back from Canada, and was a friend of Schuyler. Interesting thing that I came across in doing research is Schuyler spoke Dutch at home. Almost everybody in Albany spoke Dutch, and you would rarely hear English. And the same was true in Kingston, where Wynkoop was from. It was totally a Dutch speaking community. And so they had this connection. And it was part of the sort of the network that Schuyler had with these Dutch merchants and people that had various skills. Wynkoop had been a sea captain himself. And so Schuyler appointed him as what Wynkoop called the "Commodore of the Lake."
I think it was just largely a fault of Arnold that he tended to ignore other people's feelings, let's put it that way. And so he ordered boats to go out and look into what they thought was maybe a raid up the lake. Wynkoop fired a cannon across the bow of one of his own ships to stop them. And then Arnold had to be rolled out to Wynkoop's flag ship, and tell him off and threatened to arrest him, and actually, I think did arrest them. But the interesting thing was that later, when this reached Horatio Gates, who really had to make the decision on what to do with Wynkoop, Arnold suggested that he be lenient with him. By that point he had cooled off, and he probably saw that he was wrong. He didn't say he was wrong, but he was more temperate for this action.
MJT So as divided as the Americans were, it seems like the British also had their own divisions. We have General Carlton, Guy Carlton, as the commander in Quebec, and his second is General Johnny Burgoyne, gentlemen Johnny, as he was called. And those two did not get along particularly well, either.
JK Yeah, I think that Burgoyne, in a way, was like Horatio Gates. He had a very high opinion of his own abilities. And he had ideas about how things should be run when he came over there. And he didn't take into consideration the totality of the conditions in Canada. Carlton had been there for years. He had been the governor of Canada. He came up with what was really an effective policy for how the British should rule Canada: Be lenient with the French, who were the preponderance of the population with French Catholics. How do we handle these people and maintain a stable rule of Canada? He had then faced the American invasion the year before, and been pushed all the way back to Quebec City until he that was his only territory that he controlled, was that small fortified city.
Fortunately for him, the arrival of the British fleet in the spring, which Burgoyne was the leader of that army faction, saved him but he tended to be cautious. You know, he knew he wanted to use a lot of Burgoyne's to army to occupy Canada and secure Canada, not to throw the whole army into the invasion. Burgoyne had different ideas about strategy. I think that caution won out, just because Carlton was the man in charge, and he was commander and he had the final say. Many people have criticized Carlton for being overly cautious. And I think it's a very valid criticism.
MJT I think we see that a lot in the British Army, the top commanders tend to be the most cautious. They want to go in when they have almost 100% assurance of winning the battle overwhelmingly. Their lower officers tend to want to be more aggressive risk takers. Johnny Burgoyne is known as kind of a gambler always wanted to take such risks. I think that's part of the way you got ahead in the army. You were always saying, I could do a better job, we just worked a little harder, we'd gain so much more than the commander on top of me wants.
Burgoyne was very good at that. He was also a very good politician. The reason he brought the fleet back to Quebec was because he had gone to London the year before, and basically tried to convince Germain, Secretary of State of American Affairs, George Germain, and others that he could do this job and he could do it better. He was very good, the politician. Of course, Germain and Carlton really hated each other, too. So that whole dynamic really didn't work well.
JK Yeah that was an obscure, had some obscure cause to it. But it was a very, very hot feud between the two of them.
MJT Yeah, the French and Indian War and the Battle of Minden or something. Carlton had criticized his performance there. Well, everybody criticized Germain's performance. He got kicked out of the army for it. So it's kind of a hot topic for him. So yeah, there's a whole lot of politics going on on both sides that we see. It's quite apart from the war and has a lot more to do with egos and who should be in charge and who should be running things.
So during this time, when the Americans are controlling the lake and the British are controlling the area around Quebec and effectively push the Americans out of Canada, Carlton's trying to build up a fleet so that he can take the offensive and go after the lake and eventually get Fort Ticonderoga back.
It was Carlton's caution that you mentioned, that Carlton wanted more, he wanted to make sure that he was had overwhelming advantage. The main manifestation of that was that in September, they dismantled a frigate, that had been under construction up at Quebec City, all the parts down and reconstructed it at St. John's. This was vastly bigger than anything that the Americans had, anything that had ever been seen on Lake Champlain. It had a powerful broadside, 12 pounder canon, three mastered square rig, really an ocean going ship.
And the problem was it took time to do it. And even though they work day and night, they completed the whole thing in a month. That was a month lost. And I think the difference if you look at compare Carlton and Benedict Arnold is the sense of time that Arnold had was always very keen. It's like you want to get the initiative. Waiting until you're totally ready is likely to be a disadvantage. And he saw that. He moved up in the northern part of Lake Champlain in August with incomplete fleet. He had, I think, six gunboats, and a schooner and a couple other small boats, but he wanted to take that initiative and to jump on the enemy, whereas Carlton it was, wait and give me more, give me more until I'm sure. And as it turned out, in the battle itself, that frigate was pretty much useless, and it was just time wasted was far more important than what he gained from it.
MJT Your talking about the Thunderer right?
JK No, this was the Invincible. The Thunderer was, again, the Thunderer was more with the idea - that was like a barge with a lot of heavy guns on it. That was, the idea I think of that was that once I got down to Ticonderoga, they would use that to bombard the fort. They had mortars, large mortars and a lot of 24 pounders.
MJT Yeah, I got the feeling that wasn't very maneuverable that it was really designed for use against Fort Ticonderoga.
JK Yeah, I'm not really a sailor. But I understand that in the age of sail, and when you're talking about sailboats, and keel is very important. You have to have the balance the sail versus the keel. The American gunboats had no keels, they were totally flat bottom. The Thunderer was also essentially flat bottom too. So if the wind is from behind you and sails fine, if you're trying to go sort of angle to the wind, it becomes very difficult to maneuver.
MJT The British did have this massive fleet, but you're right, it took them until the fall essentially to get it onto the lake and ready for use, and they did lose a lot of valuable time there. Once they did though, it really looked like defeat was inevitable for the Americans, not only for the fleet, but for Fort Ticonderoga as well. My understanding was that General Gates instructed Arnold to stay between the British fleet and Fort Ticonderoga and just slowly retreat back as best he could to the fort. Arnold decided those orders were stupid and wanted to do, well, what he wanted to do.
JK Gates's orders were ambivalent. He really didn't know what to tell him. Arnold was the expert. Arnold was up there. Gates knew very little about the terrain and the lake. And so he gave him orders that were, stay and meet the enemy, but don't risk too much, things like that, that you could interpret either way, which was fine with Arnold because he really wanted to make all the decisions himself.
As a strategy, which for somebody who had almost no military training, I think it's quite remarkable that Arnold came up with this idea just on his own, that he would hide the fleet in this protected bay behind Valcour Island, between Valcour Island and the New York shore. And then when the British came down the lake, he would let them go by. He assumed correctly, that they wouldn't sail down without the wind coming from the north, so it would be at their back. He, I think intuited, this was a mysterious aspect of the battle, he intuited that Carlton would assume that he had left because the logical thing for him to do was to do what you just described, start pulling back down the lake, get closer to Ticonderoga, not meet the fleet head on, particularly that far north.
I think Carlton probably did have that idea. He had plenty of long boats, he had canoes. You could have had a lot of scouts out, a cloud of scouts in front of his fleet, looking into these bays looking into the inlets. There were a lot of places to hide and that part of Lake Champlain, many, many islands and coves and inlets and so forth. I think Carlton felt that Arnold's running, I've got to catch up with them, and they were in a big hurry. And so they came down. They went right past Valcour Island, Arnold then sent out some ships to essentially provoke them, and lure them back up, going northward into the bay between Valcour Island and the mainland. That's where the battle is fought.
MJT Right. And it worked out very well, at least for the first day. Because Arnold basically had all his ships chained together in a defensive line. The British could only really enter the area, one ship at a time and against the wind. So Arnold could defeat each ship as it came in. And that's what most of the first day was.
JK Well, yeah, the British had 22 gunboats. Each of them had one cannon. Americans had eight gunboats, and he had three cannons. So they're pretty even in terms of firepower from these gunboats. And on both sides, the boats were maneuverable, didn't matter so much, you just put your sail down and row. So it didn't matter which way the wind was blowing for the gunboats.
Of the British larger ships, they had two schooners, the Thunderer that you mentioned, and the Invincible frigate, they never got into the battle. They essentially were spectators for the battle, except for one schooner was able was just sort of a fluke of when to get up into the bay, and being unsupported, then all the American gunboats focus their fire on that schooner, and that took a very bad meeting. And so otherwise, the British main ships were outside the bay, just watching what was going on. The main battle is between the gunboat on both sides,
MJT The battle went reasonably well for the Americans, given how outmatched they were by the fleet. The next day was going to be a major problem for Arnold though. The Native Americans who were friendly with the British had occupied the land around the Valcour Bay, so they couldn't really just jump off the boats and run away without being captured by Indians.
They were out of gunpowder. One of the consistent problems, especially for the Continentals earlier in the war was they never had enough powder to fight a war. And artillery more than anything takes a lot of gunpowder. They didn't really have enough to fight an entire battle over the course of another day. So Arnold had really to come up with a plan to get out of there.
JK When the battle of first day was over, when it got dark about 5:30. Arnold called a council of war on his flagship. It looked like their option was either to destroy the ships so the British couldn't get hold of them and make a run for it on land, which, as you say, was the British had light infantry on the New York shore. The Indians were on the island side.
He came up with this idea of escaping. During the time that Arnold had been in the northern part of Champlain, he had insisted, he himself and the captains of the gunboats, spent a lot of time learning the lake and taking soundings of different bays and different inlets, and knowing the terrain of the lake. So that paid off that night, because they were able to go along in New York shore. They knew exactly how close to get to the shore, whereas the British were unfamiliar with the area. And they wanted to stay well off the shore in order to avoid running aground. So the Americans were very quietly, single file lines, sneak out, even though the British fleet was between them and Ticonderoga, and they were supposedly on the alert for them.
But I'd have to say that another attribute that Benedict Arnold had was, he had an imagination. General Carlton was a competent soldier, but not very imaginative. So he didn't think there was another option. He thought, either they'll surrender or will blast them to pieces. He didn't think well, there's a third option. So they essentially let their guard down. And when the sun came up and the bay was empty, the British were flabbergasted. Just couldn't believe it. And Carlton went into a rage and then they spotted the American fleet well down the lake and started the next phase of the battle.
MJT The idea of being able to sail past the entire fleet unnoticed was a pretty unexpected thing. And actually, I believe Carlton the next morning initially thought that the American fleet must have escaped to the north. He actually turned his fleet or at least part of the fleet around and started sailing north in pursuit of the Americans before they finally realized that, no, they were way down to the south already had gotten past him. So that begins the end phase of this campaign, which is that now the British really do know where the American fleet is. The American fleet's badly damaged, almost out of ammunition. And General Carlton wants to come in for the kill.
Arnold took a stand with four gunboats, and one of these larger sailing ships, and essentially fought the British for two and a half hours with what he had left of gunpowder and ammunition. Finally ordered the fleet into a small cove called Ferris Bay. They ran their boats around, set them on fire, so the British couldn't get ahold of them, and were able to walk out. So he saved his men that, you know, they didn't have to be taken prisoner. A number were killed, but he saved most of his crews.
One interesting thing about that was that Ferris Bay where they landed those ships was later renamed Arnold Bay. As far as I know, it's the only place in the United States that's named in honor of Benedict Arnold.
MJT Yeah, again, that was Arnold. really knowing the territory well, and knowing where he enter were the British couldn't pursue and able to get out of there.
I really feel bad for Captain Hawley. He commanded the Royal Savage on the first day, which of course sank, and then they gave him command of the Washington, which was first large ship that the British managed to capture on the second day. So he actually managed to lose two ships during the battle. But it really wasn't his fault. I mean, the British targeted the Royal Savage in the first day and there wasn't much you could do about that. And the second the Washington was almost sinking and having problems escaping anyway, that's why it was moving so slowly, and it was being attacked by ships that have far larger range than he did. So poor Captain Hawley's ship gets captured.
Most of the fleet itself is destroyed, but the men get away. As you say, Arnold is able to beach the ships, to get the men off before any British land troops can get down to where they are, and march them quickly back to, first Crown Point and then Ticonderoga.
There was one incident that happened during the landing of the ship that I guess Arnold took some criticism for later, there was one wounded lieutenant aboard a ship, I believe his name was was Lieutenant Goldsmith, who was supposed to be taken off the ship, but in the confusion wasn't. And when the ship blew up, everybody watched his corpse fly into the air and then collapse. And Arnold was criticized for abandoning his officer on the ship. And I think that was a bit unfair. But that was something that came back to bite him later.
JK I looked into that incident. I didn't mention it in my book, because it just - the sources were a little dubious. And there were so many of those stories about Arnold that were cooked up after he went over to the enemy, to make him look bad. Or they would either put an interpretation on the events or just invent them from whole cloth. There were reports of exactly what you said. But it was hard to come to a conclusion whether it had happened or not. So I just left it out. He certainly wasn't the type to - he wasn't callous about his manner at all. And he never was during his career.
MJT No and Arnold said at the time, he had actually ordered that the man be taken off and somebody had disobeyed his orders. So it more than likely wasn't Arnold fault. But you're right, Arnold had a lot of enemies at the time. And so they would say anything horrible about him. And then of course, after Arnold betrayed his country, everybody was looking for anything horrible to say about anything he ever did.
So Arnold and his men finally do make it back to Fort Ticonderoga and they're waiting the final assault and you know, this giant Thunderer is going to come down and blow them all away. And they kind of wait and wait and wait for days, and then a couple of weeks, and then nothing happens.
JK The Americans were mystified. They figured that this was going to be it. A big battle is about to take place. And as you say, they just waited and nothing happened. The British were at Crown Point, which is about 12 miles north of Ticonderoga. Carlton decided that it was too late in the season. How much the effect of the fighting, what effect the fighting had on his mind as to the shock of these seemed like fanatical Americans standing up for the Royal Navy. The loss of time from the battles as people always point out, it's only two or three days that they spent fighting on the lake.
But the cold in Canada was something that Carlton was very familiar with. And he was afraid that if he invested Fort Ticonderoga and laid it under siege, that the lake would freeze behind him. Somebody pointed out to me that this is still in what they call the "Little Ice Age." So the winters that we imagine - Lake Champlain occasionally freezes over but not as often now. Back then it always froze over solid in the winter. And that would have been disastrous for the British.
Again, his caution won out and he decided to go back. Burgoyne was pretty disgusted by it and General Phillips, who was the artillery commander for the British also felt they should at least try to do something around Ticonderoga, and Carlton overruled him and took the fleet and the army and went home.
MJT I think Carlton feared that if he went and put up a fight and the Americans resisted, then he left it would have looked more like a loss than if he didn't try it all.
JK Yeah, and I think that it's important to keep in mind that from the beginning of in the spring, when Carlton controlled one city in Canada - to win back all of Canada, which is a huge area, and then to defeat the Americans and wipe their fleet off the Lake Champlain, he thought that was a great accomplishment. It was like, Oh, I succeeded beyond my hopes. And so why risk pushing it a little farther?
MJT And this was the same thing that General Howe was doing in the south. They didn't want to risk even a small loss. They wanted to prove that the British Army was invincible. And whenever they went into a battle, they won a battle and they won it overwhelmingly and without question, and I think he was hoping to keep up those appearances. So you're right. Carlton reported back to London that he had won a great victory, that he defeated the fleet, and that Lake Champlain was now open, and that for Ticonderoga would be an easy hit in the spring.
But a lot of, as you say, his own officers, including Burgoyne, disagreed with that, thought it was not ambitious enough. And of course, we're going went back to London that winter to lobby again for a command of his own and, of course, famously got it and we get into the Saratoga Campaign at that point. I can't help but think that Carlton was kind of laughing a bit and Quebec saying yes, see when you're a little aggressive, take risks, see what happens?
JK A lot of people mentioned that, and it's obvious, leading from Valcour. Island, to Saratoga Campaign for the next year. I always try to direct attention to the New York Campaign of that year. To me the real significance of Valcour Island had to do with Washington's losses down in New York. That Washington, in December, I think he wrote to his brother and he said, "I think the game is pretty near up." This was it. If they had not prevailed on Lake Champlain, it's very possible that that would have happened. The war would have been over that season, as the British had hoped and planned for.
Once the British went back to Canada, the American Horatio Gates and Arnold took 600 men down to join Washington's army in Pennsylvania. Washington, while he was trying to decide what to do there, and there's no record of what factors he considered, but he knew the threat from the north was now neutralized. He had these 600 additional men, and then he made the decision to cross Delaware and attack the Hessians in Trenton. That, I think, is an important contribution that the northern campaign made. Maybe he would have gone anyway. But, certainly, it reassured him that he wasn't going to have the British taking Albany or coming at him from behind.
MJT I said before on my podcast, and I think you make the argument in your book as well, that the actual fighting between the ships was not what the victory was. The victory was that just building the fleet in the first place and delaying a British attack until winter of that year is what saved the Continental Army. Again, it was all timing. They managed to force the British Army to spend months trying to build this fleet to defeat them overwhelmingly, and that wasted the entire fighting season.
JK Yeah, and as you know, that was true in so many campaigns and battles in the Revolutionary War. Americans had very few big victories, but they had many holding campaigns, delaying campaigns, General Greene's campaign in the south, he didn't have many victories, but he just wore the British out. And this was the beginning of that strategy, really, in 1776. It hadn't really become the strategy for the American army yet. George Washington certainly didn't have the impulse to fight a defensive battle, but he saw that he had no choice.
MJT So Arnold's reputation coming out of this battle, I guess, is mixed. A lot of people saw it as very impressive, but a lot of others were critical of the fact that he essentially fought the British and lost, and lost a huge fleet to the British. Do you think this was more a matter of political spin for people who hated Arnold anyway? Or do you think it was more people just didn't understand the larger strategy of war in this case?
JK I think it was probably a combination of both. Maybe some of the people were sincere that criticized them but George Washington, Horatio Gates, people who understood the war really didn't. And it wasn't just Benedict Arnold. Without Schuyler having the wide business connections he had in order to get the supplies up and build the fleet, and without Horatio Gates rebuilding the army at Ticonderoga. I think all three of those components came together. Strangely enough, because none of those generals are considered to be brilliant generals among the patriots. But at that time, they came together and succeeded. I think that the people in the know really understood that was the case.
MJT Yeah, I think that's true. I mean, obviously later the word Arnold for obvious reasons, lost a lot of respect and Gates of course because of his involvement in the Conway Cabal and later and in the south created a mess. He kind of killed his reputation too. Schuyler I always thought it was, as you said, a brilliant logistics officer. But let's face it, logistics never gets respect from the leadership, right?
JK Yes, exactly. And Schuyler's had the bad fortune now of his daughters have become more famous than he is because they were starring in the musical Hamilton the Schuyler sisters were in. He didn't even get into the play.
MJT Right. But I guess as a strategist, he married his daughters off very strategically well for future fame. Of course, Schuyler wasn't present at Fort Ticonderoga when it finally fell to the British the next year, but he was the overall command of the region. And he ended up getting court martialed, and resigning as a result the following year. So that pretty much ended his military career, although he did go on to serve in the Continental Congress and did a lot of great work there as a politician.
JK And one thing I would mention, Mike, is that another thing that Schuyler accomplished during that summer was that he spent a month out in German Flatts negotiating with the Iroquois. And he was very concerned that the Iroquois maybe combined with loyalists and some British troops, would attack Fort Ticonderoga from the rear. They would be cut off in the north. And so it was a very delicate negotiation, took a lot of time. And he put in the time and effort to do that, while he was doing everything else. He was spending time doing that. So another aspect of his career, he was an Indian commissioner, accomplished that as well,
MJT Right, absolutely. The Iroquois Confederacy generally sided with the British and the fact that he was able to convince at least the Oneida and Tuscarora to join the Continentals and for a great many others to at least remain neutral was a huge accomplishment and really turn the tables there.
MJT What do you think, really is the legacy of what happened at Valcour, the Valcour Campaign?
JK The main thing that it accomplished, and I think most historians would agree, 1776 was the best opportunity they had to win the war outright. The Americans were least prepared. The British had the preponderance of force. The Americans had no allies. You know, the French wouldn't come in for another year. And if they were going to do it, that was really the best chance they had of the entire war. The fact that this campaign on Lake Champlain delayed that, and prevented that from happening that year. People say, well, they came down the next year. But that year, it gave the patriots that breathing room, and events unfolded in a way that favored patriots as time went on. So I think that that delay, and largely it was a delay, not a victory, was the real legacy of Valcour Island Campaign.
MJT Yeah, I think that's right. The British, as you noted, had maybe 50,000 men in America in 1776. Today, we don't think of that as a huge number. I mean, by the Napoleonic Wars, we're talking about armies in the millions. But in America, and in the pre-Napoleonic era, where we mostly had very expensive professional soldiers, mounting that sort of army was not an easy thing to do. The entire size of the British Army, throughout the entire British Empire wasn't even 50,000 people just before the war began. So the British really did mount a huge effort to come in and shock and awe the Americans into immediate submission. They really wanted to end this rebellion very quickly.
And as I said, I guess the Americans were neither shocked, nor awed. They pushed back. They held on as best they could. And they waited for French assistance when they could finally get it. And certainly the Valcour Campaign was a big part of that. This is, I think, an important part of the war. And it's just a really interesting adventure story, to me, at least. I agree with you it has been less covered than it probably deserves. I really appreciate you putting out this book to make it better known to people who are interested in the war.
JK Yeah, I would point out that one of them gunboats from the campaign sat at the bottom of Valcour Bay for 159 years, was raised in the 1930s. The Philadelphia is now in the Smithsonian Institute. You can actually go there and see that gunboat, see the guns fired at the British. It's one of the most poignant artifacts of revolutionary war, the oldest American naval vessel existence.
MJT Yeah, I've seen that. It's really impressive. Alright, well Jack, I thank you for joining us today. Thanks for telling us about Valcour.
JK Well, thank you, Mike. I appreciate the job you're doing with the podcast. You know, I try to attract people to get interested in the war. And I think you've had a similar mission of podcasts. The more people we can draw into this, the better.
MJT Thanks. I think so too. All right, Jack Kelly of Valcour. Thank you for joining us on the American Revolution Podcast.
Jack Kelly's book Valcour: The 1776 Campaign That Saved the Cause of Liberty, St. Martin's Press, released in April 2021.
It is available in hardcover, Kindle, and audio editions.
Visit Jack Kelly's website for more information about the author: https://jackkellybooks.com
Other Books by Jack Kelly:
The Edge of Anarchy: The Railroad Barons, the Gilded Age, and the Greatest Labor Uprising in America, St. Martin's Press, 2019.
Heaven's Ditch: God, Gold, and Murder on the Erie Canal, St. Martin's Press, 2016.
Band of Giants: The Amateur Soldiers Who Won America's Independence, Palgrave Macmillan, 2014
Gunpowder: Alchemy, Bombards, And Pyrotechnics: The History Of The Explosive That Changed The World, Basic Books, 2004.
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