Sunday, August 25, 2019

Episode 111: Retreat from Lake Champlain

Last week, we left General Benedict Arnold’s fleet bottled up in Valcour Bay.  The Americans had done great damage despite being no match for the British in numbers of ships, guns, or men.  They had fought the fleet to a draw that day.  But the Americans could not count on that luck to continue.  While General Carlton had used up the entire summer building his fleet, he did so in order to make it virtually impossible for any American fleet to defeat him.  Despite British shortcomings that day, their preparations in building such an overwhelming fleet met that he would inevitably win the battle and control the lake.

After dark on October 11, 1776, British General Guy Carlton, aboard the flagship Maria sent his first reports of the battle back to Quebec, to be forwarded to London.  Carlton ignored his own apparent missteps: not knowing where the enemy was despite intelligence warning they were in the area, not distributing any plan of attack to his captains, spreading out his fleet along the lake so that they were not prepared for battle when they encountered the enemy, and allowing his flagship to stay out of the battle.  Instead, he simply reported that he had bottled up the enemy in Valcour Bay, making an escape impossible.  Despite the fact that the day went according to Arnold’s plans and not Carlton’s, the British commander was confident that the next day would be the end of the American fleet.

The British had lost on ship, the Carleton, but only about 40 of 2500 men in the fleet killed or wounded.  He had sufficient reserves to re-arm his smaller gunboats and would have his entire fleet in place the following morning to resume the attack. Carlton planned either to accept the surrender of Arnold’s fleet, or destroy it in the morning,

This was not an unreasonable expectation. The Continentals had lost the Royal Savage, lighting up the night as it burned down to its water line.  All of their other ships had taken damage.  Overall the Americans had lost about 60 of the 500 men killed or wounded aboard all the ships.

Many had lost their officers to Indian sharpshooters or lucky cannonballs.  Most were taking on water, some at alarming rates.  The sailing vessels had their sails and rigging damaged, thus impeding speed in any escape attempt.  As usual, the Continentals were also low on ammunition.  During the battle that day, they had used up about 75% of their ammunition.  They could not keep up the same rate of fire for another day.  Meanwhile, the British had moved up their larger ships that had sat out the fighting on the first day. On the second day, they were prepared to direct even more firepower with larger guns on the small American fleet.

The Plan

Despite all this, Arnold was in a good mood.  He praised the work of his officers and men that day and congratulated them on holding back the superior British fleet. His praise included Captain David Hawley, of the Royal Savage, who had made his way from his sunken ship back to the fleet.  Arnold gave Hawley the command of the Washington, whose captain was too wounded to command the following day.

The Liberty (from JAR)
The Americans had inflicted a great deal of damage on the British despite having a crew about one-fifth the size of the enemy, half the number of ships, fewer and smaller cannons, and sailors with almost no combat experience, many without much experience at sea.

Yet even with their good work that day, they remained trapped in Valcour Bay.  The British fleet blocked passage to the south, rocks and debris blocked escape to the north, and hundreds of Indians along the shore prevented any escape overland.  While Carleton anticipated his final victory over the American fleet, Arnold revealed his escape plan to his officers.

General Carleton had organized his fleet at the mouth of the Bay, the only realistic escape route for the Americans.  When Arnold met with his officers on the night of October 11, 1776, he needed a plan to get his men, and hopefully his ships, past the British fleet to sail back to Fort Ticonderoga where the main force of Continentals prepared to meet the British..

The Slip

General Arnold was nothing if not daring.  He informed his officers that they would sail their ships right through the British fleet that night.  Arnold ordered the captain of each ship to tie a lantern made out of tin, so that it only emitted a small sliver of light, which would shine on a line of chalk drawn onto the stern of each boat. The lit chalk line could only be seen for about 50 feet by someone directly behind the boat. This would serve as a guide for each boat to follow the one in front of it, as they passed through the enemy fleet.

It certainly was a risky scheme, but amazingly, it worked.  That evening, after dark, the American ships moved slowly through the enemy lines.  The sailing vessels had only one small sail up, so that they would drift slowly through the fleet.  The row gallies would use muffled oars so that the enemy could not hear them.

By some accounts, they passed so close to the British flag ship Maria that sailors reported hearing the officers laughing in their cabin as they discussed plans for the following day.  The weather apparently cooperated by providing a fog that made it difficult to see much of anything in the dark.  If any British were aware of another ship drifting nearby, they must have assumed it was one of their own fleet. There is no evidence that any British watchman challenged any of the American ships.  Later, other officers critical of Carlton, blamed Arnold’s escape on Carleton's orders to pull back several ships away from the mouth of the bay, giving the Americans the space they needed to pass through.

The Chase

At dawn on October 12, the British were amazed to find the American fleet had vanished.  Carleton first assumed that the Americans had escaped to the north, going through the difficult waters at the northern tip of Valcour Island.  He immediately ordered his fleet to move north to intercept the Americans before they could attack any targets in the British rear.  Carleton was so stunned and moved so quickly, that he forgot to give any orders to the soldiers he had put ashore that night in the expectation of boarding the American fleet in the morning.

Although the Americans were only a few miles to the south, a morning fog prevented British lookouts from discovering their position.  It took Carleton until about noon that day to realize he was moving in the wrong direction.  By mid-day, the fog had lifted. British lookouts spotted sails miles to the south on the lake and moving further south.  By the time Carleton got his fleet turned around, he only made it back as far as Valcour Island by nightfall.  He ended up spending a second night in almost the same spot as the previous night.

Lake Champlain region (from Wikimedia)
Arnold, however, was not in the clear yet.  While Carleton was sailing north in search of Arnold’s fleet, the Americans had to spend most of October 12, repairing their ships to the point where they could remain afloat and on the move.  Arnold scuttled three of his mostly badly damaged gondolas, the Providence, New York, and New Jersey.  He sent his fastest ship, the Liberty down the lake as fast as it could go.  It would deliver dispatches to Crown Point and Ticonderoga that the British fleet was on its way and could not be stopped.  He also begged for any reinforcements that the forts could send.  The Liberty also carried the wounded away from the battle.

Late on the day of October 12, after spending the previous day in battle, the previous night escaping through the British fleet, that day repairing ships, Arnold planned for yet another sleepless night sailing his fleet further south on another dangerous nighttime naval movement to escape the British.  This time, nature was not on his side.  Unfavorable winds, tired rowers, and damaged ships still taking on water allowed the fleet to sail only 12 miles that night.  The following morning, the weather cleared and the British had the American fleet still in view.

Arnold’s men were still sailing against a southerly wind, meaning they made little progress.  Meanwhile, the British caught a northerly wind and were sailing speedily toward the American fleet.  Arnold knew it would only be a matter of hours before the British caught up with his fleet.  He ordered his five fastest ships to speed ahead and attempt to make their escape.  Arnold would stay behind aboard the Congress which would remain with the badly damaged Washington and four smaller gunboats to engage the enemy and slow their progress.

End of the Line

When the British got within five miles of his fleet, the American fleet finally picked up the northern wind that had been giving the advantage to the British all morning.  But even with a favorable wind, their tattered sails prevented them from moving as fast as the British.  Eventually, the British Inflexible caught up with the Washington, which had been taking on water and moving much slower than the other ships.

After receiving only a few shots, the Captain Hawley struck his colors and surrendered.  Only 16 men  from the crew escaped in small boat while the rest of the crew of 122 surrendered.  Hawley had always been at a disadvantage with his heavily damaged ship.  On top of that, the Inflexible’s guns had a much longer range and could fire on the Washington without getting in range of the Washington’s guns.  Even so, Captain Hawley, who had commanded the Royal Savage two days earlier, had the distinction of surrendering two ships without firing a shot.

With the Washington out of the fight, the British could focus all their attention on Arnold’s Congress and the four smaller gunships. While making repairs on the 12th, Arnold had prepared for this possibility.  He had mounted his largest cannons on the rear of each ship so that they could fire on the enemy as it gained on them.

Arnold also reached his location of choice for battle, a narrow area known as Split Rock, that provided the greatest difficulty to the British to maneuver their ships.  Arnold’s diminished fleet continued its running firefight with the British for nearly five hours.  Arnold personally aimed cannon out of the windows of his cabin in the stern of the Congress.  His small fleet continued to use its rear cannons effectively to smash at the British ships.  The British, of course, returned fire and inflicted more casualties and damage on the Americans.

By late afternoon, the seven large British warships had surrounded what remained of the American fleet and continued to blast away at them more effectively with broadsides.  Twenty seven of Arnold’s remaining seventy officers and crew were killed or seriously wounded.  Not only were Arnold’s remaining ships badly damaged, they were almost entirely out of ammunition.

Arnold's Fleet at Buttonmould Bay (from HistoryNet)
But General Arnold was not a surrender kind of guy.  He still had one more card to play.  Arnold had carefully mapped out Lake Champlain during the year that he controlled it.  He knew that nearby Buttonmould Bay was deep enough for his small ships, but too shallow for the larger British warships to follow.  Arnold steered his fleet into Buttonmould Bay and grounded his ships along the shore, grounding his ship the Congress last.  He ordered the ships not to strike their colors but to set them on fire with the flags still flying.  He would not surrender his ships, but he surely would deny them to the enemy.

Arnold ordered his marines to take positions along the shore and fire at British longboats attempting to board his grounded ships.  Then, another event happened that would haunt Arnold’s reputation.  Arnold had ordered the wounded removed from the ships and for the crew to blow up the ships in order to deny them to the enemy.  In the confusion a Lieutenant Goldsmith, suffering from a serious leg wound, got left aboard one of the ships.  Just before the ship exploded, he called out for help.  No one, however, was willing to risk their life to reboard the ship.  As it exploded both Americans and British watched Goldsmith’s body get blown into the air and fall to earth dead.

Both British officers and some of Arnold’s enemies within the Continental Army, circulated the story that Arnold had ordered the ships blown up with the wounded still aboard.  Of course, Arnold had ordered no such thing.  When he found out what had happened, he threatened to run through the crewman who had been tasked with helping Goldsmith off the ship.  The only thing that may have stopped Arnold from going through with his threat was a British artillery assault on his position, which forced everyone to scatter.

Aided by locals and taking a little known trail, Arnold and his men spent a third sleepless night carrying their wounded in slings made out of the remnants of ship sails twenty miles back to Crown Point.  They successfully avoided the Indian patrols looking for them and arrived at Crown Point early on October 14th, only hours ahead of the first British landing parties.

Arnold still could not rest.  He ordered all buildings burned along with any supplies they could not carry, in order to deny Crown Point to the enemy.  From there, his men continued on foot to Fort Ticonderoga.  While some of Carleton's forces arrived that same day, Carlton himself apparently spent several days on the lake, not arriving at Crown Point until October 20, nearly a week after Arnold had come and gone.  British troops occupied the ruins, sleeping in tents as an early snow covered them.

Carlton Withdraws

For the next two weeks, Arnold and the Continentals prepared for the British assault on Fort Ticonderoga.  The small force waited for the attack to come, and waited, and then waited some more.  Finally, after sending reconnaissance to Crown Point, Arnold discovered the British had left.

Carlton had remained at Crown Point until November 1, trying to decide on his next steps.  Although he had destroyed Arnold’s fleet, and still had his own fleet in relatively good shape, the winter weather convinced him it was the wrong time to attack Fort Ticonderoga.  The fort’s defenses would almost certainly require a lengthy siege.  If the fleet remained in open water when it froze, the British would be trapped there.  Even though they controlled the lake, supplying a siege force from their main base in Canada over the winter, across a frozen lake, would be extremely difficult.  Having cleared the American fleet from Lake Champlain, Carlton could easily sail back in the spring and begin his siege then.  So the 1776 fighting season ended with the Americans having lost control of Lake Champlain, but still in control of Fort Ticonderoga.


Many historians have credited Arnold’s loss at Valcour Bay as a success.  He prevented the British from moving down the Hudson River that year as planned, connecting up with the main force in New York, and cutting off New England from the rest of the colonies.  It is true that the British failed in that goal, but the fighting at Valcour Bay really did not contribute much to the British failure.  Had Arnold scuttled his fleet at the first sign of British movement, it probably would have only allowed them to arrive at Ticonderoga a few days sooner.

Benedict Arnold
Rather than the fight itself, it was Arnold’s efforts in building his fleet on Lake Champlain in the first place that made the difference. The mere existence of his fleet forced Carlton to spend all summer building an even bigger fleet.  That was the delay that prevented Carlton from making any further progress that year.

Most of Carlton’s officers seemed to support his decision to return to Canada for the winter.  Leaving his army exposed in New York surrounding Fort Ticonderoga would have left many dead from exposure if nothing else.  But the retreat back to Canada did not go over well in London.  Lord Germain was deeply disappointed in Carlton’s lack of progress, and would eventually push aside Carlton for command of the following year’s offensive.  It did not help that over the winter, General Burgoyne returned to London and told everyone who would listen that Carleton was far too cautious and timid.  If he had simply let Burgoyne attack when he wanted, this whole campaign would have been long over.

Similarly, Arnold received mixed reviews for his efforts.  Most top officers admired Arnold’s ability to take the fight against a superior force and for his ability to keep the British in Canada from moving down into New York that year.  Similarly, Arnold’s popularity among the people seemed secure as one of the few fighting generals who fought gallantly.

But many in the Continental Congress were less impressed.  The politicians were hearing stories from all the junior officers who hated Arnold and who said everything they could to detract from his efforts.  While Arnold had spent the summer and fall building his fleet and fighting the British, men like Colonel James Easton and Major John Brown spent months in Philadelphia doing everything they could to disparage Arnold.  The fact that Arnold had lost at Quebec, then lost Canada, and now lost Lake Champlain, did not exactly make for a winning general, despite the good excuse of being outmanned and outgunned at every step.

In late November, after it became clear that Carlton really was gone for the winter and that his withdrawal was not some sort of ruse, Arnold decided to return home to Connecticut for the first time in a year and a half.  Before doing so, he returned to Albany to meet with Generals Schuyler and Gates.  There, the generals convinced Arnold that he should probably go to Philadelphia and attempt to clear up all the stories about him being told to members of Congress.  But unable to stay away from battle, Arnold ultimately accompanied Gates with some of the forces from Fort Ticonderoga.  He eventually met up with General Washington in New Jersey.

Fort Ticonderoga remained under the command of Generals Gates and Schuyler.  Both generals, however, remained in Albany.  Direct command at the fort itself fell to lesser officers simply holding it as winter quarters.

Next Week: We return to southern New York where General Howe slowly but surely pushes Gen. Washington’s army out of New York.

- - -

Next Episode 112: Battle of White Plains

Previous Episode 110: The Battle of Valcour Island

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Further Reading


Ray, Stephen, The Battle of Lake Champlain:

Barbieri, Michael "The Battle of Valcour Island" Journal of the American Revolution, Jan. 2, 2014:

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:

Gadue, Michael "The Liberty, First American Warship Among Many Firsts" Journal of the American Revolution, June 10, 2019:

Valcour Bay Research Project:

Pippenger, C.E. "Recently Discovered Letters Shed New Light on the Battle of Valcour Island"  Journal of the American Revolution, Oct. 11, 2016: battle-valcour-island

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

Hubbard, Timothy W. "Battle at Valcour Island: Benedict Arnold As Hero" American Heritage Magazine, Vol. 17, Issue 6, Oct. 1966:


C-Span: author James Arnold discusses his book, Benedict Arnold’s Navy (2006):

Benedict Arnold's Legacy: Tales from Lake Champlain, Center for Research on Vermont (2016):

Free eBooks
(from unless noted)

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

Digby, William The British Invasion from the North: The Campaigns of Generals Carleton and Burgoyne from Canada, Joel Munsell’s Sons, 1887.

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 unless otherwise noted)*

Atkinson, Richard The British Are Coming: The War for America, Lexington to Princeton, 1775-1777, Henry Holt & Co. 2019.

Darley, Stephen, The Battle of Valcour Island: The Participants and Vessels of Benedict Arnold's 1776 Defense of Lake Champlain, CreateSpace Independent Publishing, 2013.

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.

Philbrick, Nathaniel Valiant Ambition: George Washington, Benedict Arnold, and the Fate of the American Revolution, Viking, 2016 (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.

* As an Amazon Associate I earn from qualifying purchases.

1 comment:

  1. If I can make a suggestion, it would be way more accessible if you had a dedicated page for your recommended books and bibliography instead of noting them piecemeal.