The American Revolution began a year earlier in 1775, when the 2nd Continental Congress looked north to the Province of Quebec. Congress viewed the region as a potential jump-off point for British forces to attack and divide the colonies, though it was lightly defended at the time.
The Continental army’s expedition to Quebec ended in disaster on December 31, as General Benedict Arnold was severely injured with a bullet wound to the leg, Major General Richard Montgomery was killed, and Colonel Daniel Morgan captured along with 400 fellow patriots. Quebec was massively reinforced in the Spring of 1776, with the arrival of 10,000 British and Hessian soldiers. By June, the remnants of the Continental army had been driven south to Fort Ticonderoga and Fort Crown Point.
The Congress was right about the British intent to split the colonies. General Guy Carleton, provincial governor of Quebec, set about doing so almost immediately.
Retreating colonials had taken with them or destroyed every boat they could find, along the way. The British set about disassembling warships from the St. Lawrence, moving them overland to Fort Saint-Jean, on the uppermost navigable waters leading to Lake Champlain, on the New York/Vermont line. They spent the summer and early fall literally building a fleet of warships along the upper reaches of the lake, while 120 miles to their south, colonials were doing the same.
The Americans had a small fleet of shallow draft “bateaux” used for lake transport, but they needed something larger and heavier to sustain naval combat. A shipbuilding program of their own was needed, which Major General Horatio Gates set in motion in Skenesborough, New York, in what is now Whitehall. Hermanus Schuyler oversaw the effort, while military engineer Jeduthan Baldwin was in charge of outfitting. Gates eventually asked General Benedict Arnold, an experienced ship’s captain I civil life, to spearhead the effort. Arnold was ambivalent about the assignment, writing “I am intirely uninform’d as to Marine Affairs”.
200 carpenters and shipwrights were recruited to the wilderness of upstate New York. So inhospitable was their duty that they had to be paid more than anyone else in the Navy, with the sole exception of Commodore Esek Hopkins. Meanwhile, foraging parties scoured the countryside looking for guns, knowing that there was going to be a fight on Lake Champlain.
It’s not well known that the American Revolution was fought in the midst of a smallpox pandemic. General George Washington was an early proponent of vaccination, an untold benefit to the American war effort, but a fever broke out among shipbuilders which nearly brought their work to a halt.
It was a hastily built and in some cases incomplete fleet that slipped into the water in the summer and autumn of 1776, 15 ships determined to stop the British fleet heading south.
As the two sides closed in the early days of October, General Arnold knew he was at a disadvantage. The element of surprise was going to be critical. Arnold chose a small strait to the west of Valcour Island, hidden from the main part of the lake. There he drew his small fleet into a crescent formation, and waited.
Carleton’s fleet, commanded by Captain Thomas Pringle and including fifty unarmed support vessels, entered the northern end of Lake Champlain on October 9.
Sailing south two days later under favorable winds, some British vessels had already passed the American position before realizing anyone was there. Some British warships were able to turn and give battle, but some of the largest ones were unable to turn into the wind.
The Americans were able to do some damage, but larger ships and the more experienced seamanship of the English, made it an uneven fight. About a third of the British fleet was engaged that day, but the battle went badly for the Americans.
On the moonless and foggy night of the 11th, the battered remnants of the American fleet slipped through a gap in the lines, and limped down the lake on muffled oars. British commanders were surprised to find them gone the next morning, and gave chase. One vessel after another was overtaken and destroyed on the 12th, or else too damaged to go on, and abandoned. The last of the American vessels, the smallest ones, were finally run aground in a small bay on the Vermont side, now called Arnold’s Bay.
200 were able to escape to shore, the last of whom was Benedict Arnold himself, who personally torched his own flagship, the Congress, before leaving it behind, flag still flying.
The American fleet never had a chance and everyone knew it, yet the losing effort had inflicted enough damage at a point late enough in the year, that Carlton’s fleet had little choice but to return north for the winter.
One day, Benedict Arnold would enter history as a traitor to his country. For now, he and the hundreds of patriots who had literally built a fleet in wilds of upstate New York, had bought their country another year in which to continue the fight.
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