Battle of Valcour Island

Detail of Isle de Valcour. Courtesy of the Library of Congress.

Lakes to Locks Passage recently published Waterways of War: The Turning Point of the American Revolution, A Traveler’s Guide to Revolutionary War Forts, Battlefields, and Historic Sites along New York’s Lakes to Locks Passage Scenic Byway. The following description of the Battle of Valcour is an excerpt from the book:

“Friday morning, October 11, 1776 — the winds had turned around. For the past three days, kicking up relentlessly from the south, they had kept the British ships bottled up in the north end of Lake Champlain. Finally, this morning, a steady breeze freshening from the north freed Guy Carleton’s forces to move out onto the lake, propelling them south toward their intended target — Fort Ticonderoga. Benedict Arnold’s rebel fleet, such as it was, lay several miles south hidden behind Valcour Island in the channel between the island and the western shore of Lake Champlain.

Watercolor depicting the American line of battle before the 1776 Battle of Valcour Island. Courtesy of National Archives of Canada

Outmanned and outgunned, Arnold knew he lacked the firepower to confront the British on open waters. The potential combined weight of the munitions that could be thrown by the British guns was close to 1200 pounds of metal; that of the Americans only half that at 600 pounds. In all their ships, the Americans could list only three 18-pound cannons and twelve 12-pound cannons. The two largest British vessels alone could claim six 24-pounders and twenty-four 12-pounders. Faced with that kind of arms superiority on vessels manned by 700 veteran British sailors against his largely inexperienced crews, and determined to exploit whatever advantages he could find or create, Arnold hoped to draw the enemy into waters and conditions of his choosing. As the British vessels passed the southern tip of Valcour Island, Arnold sent out the schooner Royal Savage and three row galleys as bait. Captain Thomas Pringle, commodore of the British fleet, bit.

Battle of Valcour Island by Ernie Haas. Courtesy of the Lake Champlain Maritime Museum.

Wheeling upwind in pursuit of the Americans, the British vessels chased the American vessels back into the narrow waters separating Valcour Island from the shoreline, at which point Arnold’s resourcefulness became evident. Although the Royal Savage ran aground, to be overrun and later torched, the row galleys returned to take their places in the American line of battle. Lacking sufficient room to tack effectively into the wind, the largest and most powerful of the British ships, including the 180-ton warship Inflexible and the radeau Thunderer, effectively a large, flat-bottomed floating battery carrying the heaviest of the British weapons, found themselves stranded outside the arena, unable to bring their guns to bear, reduced to sniping ineffectively from afar. Within the battle zone, however, the artillery exchange was intense.

For several hours, British gunboats, arrayed in a crescent, each with a single heavy bow gun, pounded the American ships with a continuous bombardment. The Americans fought back gamely. A direct hit on one gunboat’s powder magazine ignited a tremendous explosion. When the schooner Carleton, the only one of the larger British ships to join battle, and a much more inviting target than the bow-on gunboats, finally worked into range early-afternoon, it became the focus of the American gunners. With the Carleton’s commanding officer and second-in-command both badly wounded, with half the crew dead and wounded, Naval cannons on truck carriages with the hold filling with water and with sails in a shamble, a 19-year-old midshipman, Edward Pellew, clambered out onto the bowsprit in the face of scathing enemy fire to manhandle the disabled jib into position to enable the ship to turn and escape with the help of towlines from neighboring vessels. (Pellew would go on to become one of Britain’s most celebrated naval heroes during the Napoleonic Wars.)

Philadelphia Sinking Assisted by the Row Galley Washington Painting by Ernie Haas. Courtesy of the Lake Champlain Maritime Musuem.

With the sun lowering in the west and both sides exhausted, the British pulled back, planning on resuming the assault on the morning of the 12th. In addition to the Royal Savage, Arnold’s former flagship, the American losses included the gondola Philadelphia, casualties totaling about 60, remaining ships battered and badly mauled, and severely depleted stores of ammunition. American prospects looked bleak.

It was a grim gathering that met aboard the Congress that evening. In light of their dire prospects for the next day, flight seemed the only reasonable option. After considering his limited choices, Arnold decided to take advantage of dense fog and a gap in the British line along the lake shore. After darkness had fallen, the American vessels, with oars muffled, slipped past the slumbering British fleet in single file, one after another, each led by the dim light of the veiled stern lantern of the preceding craft.

Daybreak of the 12th found the Americans several miles south of Valcour Island. Waking to the unwelcome discovery of the improbable escape of the American ships, Carleton ordered the British squadron into the chase. Capricious winds hampered hunter and hunted. By the morning of the 13th, crippled, fatigued, and with some taking on water, a number of Arnold’s ships found it impossible to keep up and fell off the pace, one-by-one falling prey to their British pursuers. As the day progressed, Congress and four other ships fought a delaying action, eventually retreating to Ferris Bay where Arnold set them ablaze, escaping on foot with 200 men to arrive at Crown Point on the 14th. There he was met by those of his fleet who had managed to escape, convinced Colonel Thomas Hartley, commander of the fort, that his exposed position was untenable, burned the fort’s structures, and pulled back to Ticonderoga to await what was expected to be a British assault, an attack that did not materialize. At the end of a lengthy supply line, with winter in the offing, with some 13,000 American soldiers at Ticonderoga, and having experienced the obstinate defiance exemplified in the leadership of Benedict Arnold, Carleton withdrew his forces into winter quarters in Canada.

The British victory at the Battle of Valcour Island is beyond dispute. The effective destruction of the American fleet ceded control of the lake to the British navy, laying the groundwork for the Burgoyne campaign of 1777. Given Thomas Pringle’s overwhelming material advantage, however, the victory was not the tactical success it should have been, nor was it even a strategic victory in the larger sense. Tactically, two critical errors by Pringle enabled Benedict Arnold to mount a spirited defense. By failing to determine Arnold’s position before sailing up the lake, he allowed Arnold to dictate the physical parameters of the fighting, thereby neutralizing the biggest guns in the British arsenal and allowing Arnold’s forces to survive the initial onslaught. Moreover, his failure to seal off the exit at the southern end of Valcour Island provided Arnold with an escape route he was only too willing to exploit. Both of those errors prevented Pringle, later to be rewarded with promotion to admiral, from bottling up Arnold’s ships in the narrow confines of the channel at Valcour Island.

Of even greater significance strategically, perhaps, was the ultimate gift of time granted the American revolutionary forces by the tenacity of Benedict Arnold’s defense throughout the 1776 naval campaign on Lake Champlain. By compelling Carleton to engage in a naval construction race over the course of the summer and by impeding his otherwise unchallenged expedition up the lake in the fall, Arnold delayed Carleton’s assault on Fort Ticonderoga until the following summer, granting the fledgling American forces a year in which to prepare for what would be a definitive victory over General Burgoyne at Saratoga.”

Benedict Arnold

 

Benedict Arnold. Copy of engraving by H.B. Hall after John Trumbull, published 1879. Courtesy of the National Archives and Records Administration.

“No personality from the American Revolution is more controversial than Benedict Arnold. Born in Connecticut in 1741, Arnold was a successful merchant ship captain when the war broke out in 1775. Dedicated to the cause of independence from Great Britain, Arnold’s exploits until his treason are legendary — the capture of Ticonderoga and the incredible wilderness march to Quebec in 1775; the naval campaign on Lake Champlain in 1776; the Battle of Ridgefield in Connecticut, the relief of Fort Schuyler, and his critical leadership during the battles at Saratoga in 1777.

Intelligent, brave, and a natural and inspiring military leader, Arnold was also temperamental and quick to take offense over real or imagined slights. He was several times passed over for promotion while political adversaries charged him with corruption and malfeasance—despite the fact that he used his own funds to support the war effort. His second wound at Saratoga temporarily ended his combat career and he was later given command of the important military post at West Point. Bitter and frustrated, and perhaps encouraged by his Tory-leaning wife Peggy Shippen, Arnold secretly planned to betray the fort to the British. When the plan was discovered, Arnold narrowly escaped to British-held New York City.

Arnold was made a brigadier general in the British Army and led British forces in Virginia and Connecticut. After the war he moved to London, dying there in 1801.

By changing sides in the midst of what is often considered a civil war with conflicted loyalties as much as a war for independence, Arnold’s great successes in the service of his country are almost completely overshadowed by his treasonable actions in 1780.”

 

Battle of Valcour

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