October 11, 1776 Valcour Island

One day, Benedict Arnold would enter history as a traitor to his country. For now, he had bought his young nation, another year in which to fight.

In the early days of the American Revolution, the 2nd Continental Congress looked north, to the Province of Quebec. The region was lightly defended at the time, and Congress was alarmed at its potential as a British base from which to attack and divide the colonies.

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 his left leg.  Major General Richard Montgomery was killed and Colonel Daniel Morgan was captured, along with about 400 fellow patriots.

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Profile of the schooner “Liberty”

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.

Congress was right about the British intent to split the colonies.  General Sir Guy Carleton, provincial governor of Quebec, set about doing so almost immediately.

Retreating colonials took with them or destroyed almost every boat along the way, capturing and arming four vessels in 1775:  the Liberty, Enterprise, Royal Savage, and Revenge.  Determined to take back the crucial waterway, the British set about disassembling warships along the St. Lawrence, moving them overland to Fort Saint-Jean on the uppermost navigable waters leading to Lake Champlain, the 125-mile long lake dividing upstate New York from Vermont.

There they spent the summer and early fall of 1776, literally building a fleet of warships along the upper reaches of the lake.  120 miles to their south, colonials were doing the same.

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Sawmill at Fort Anne

The Americans had a small fleet of shallow draft bateaux used for lake transport, but needed something larger and heavier to sustain naval combat.

In 1759, British Army Captain Philip Skene founded a settlement on the New York side of Lake Champlain, built around saw mills, grist mills, and an iron foundry.

Today, the former village of Skenesborough is known as “Whitehall”, considered by many to be the birthplace of the United States Navy.  In 1776, Major General Horatio Gates put the American ship building operation into motion on the banks of Skenesborough Harbor.

Hermanus Schuyler oversaw the effort, while military engineer Jeduthan Baldwin was in charge of outfitting. Gates asked General Benedict Arnold, an experienced ship’s captain, to spearhead the effort, explaining “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 this duty that workmen were 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 is not widely 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.  Nevertheless, a fever broke out among the shipbuilders of Skenesborough, that almost brought their work to a halt.

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Lake Champlain:  Garden island (right), Valcour Island (left)

It was a hastily built and in some cases incomplete fleet that slipped into the water in the summer and autumn of 1776.  In just over two months, the American shipbuilding effort produced eight 54′ gondolas (gunboats), and four 72′  galleys.  Upon completion, each hull was rowed to Fort Ticonderoga, where it was fitted with masts, rigging, guns, and supplies. By October 1776, the American fleet numbered 16 vessels, 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, where he was 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, entered the northern end of Lake Champlain on October 9.

Valcour 2Sailing south on the 11th under favorable winds, some of the British ships had already passed the American position behind Valcour island, before realizing they were there. Some of the British warships were able to turn and give battle, but the largest ones were unable to turn into the wind.

Fighting continued for several hours until dark, and both sides did some damage.  On the American side, Royal Savage ran aground and burned. The gondola Philadelphia was sunk. On the British side, one gunboat blew up. The two sides lost about 60 men, each.  In the end, the larger ships and the more experienced seamanship of the English, made it an uneven fight.

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Only a third of the British fleet was engaged that day, but the battle went badly for the Patriot side. That night, the battered remnants of the American fleet slipped through a gap in the lines, limping 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, was abandoned.  The cutter Lee was run aground by its crew, who then escaped through the woods.  Four of sixteen American vessels escaped north to Ticonderoga, only to be captured or destroyed by British forces, the following year.

Valcour 1On the third day, the last four gunboats and Benedict Arnold’s flagship Congress were run aground in Ferris Bay on the Vermont side, following a 2½-hour running gun battle.  Today, the small harbor is called Arnold’s Bay.

200 escaped to shore, the last of whom was Benedict Arnold himself, personally torching his own flagship before leaving it for the last time, flag still flying.

The British would retain control of Lake Champlain, through the end of the war.

The American fleet never had a chance and everyone knew it.  Yet it had been able to inflict enough damage at a point late enough in the year, that Carlton’s fleet was left with no choice but to return north for the winter. One day, Benedict Arnold would enter history as a traitor to his country.  For now, the General had bought his young nation, another year in which to fight.

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A 1905 postcard displays the remains of Benedict Arnold’s flagship, the “Congress”.
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October 7, 1777 A Hero with No Name

Burgoyne had no choice but to capitulate, surrendering his entire force on the 17th of October, a devastating defeat for the British cause which finally brought France in on the side of the Americans.  The American Army had gone toe to toe with the most powerful military on the planet, and it was still standing.

Three hours from the upstate New York village of Sleepy Hollow, in the woods of Schuylerville, there stands the statue of a leg.  A boot, actually, a man’s riding boot, along with an epaulet and a cannon barrel pointing down, denoting the death of a General.  It seems the loneliest place on earth out there in the woods, with nothing but a footpath worn into the forest floor to lead you there.

It was October 7, 1777, the last day of the Battle of Saratoga.  General Horatio Gates was in overall command of American forces, a position which greatly exceeded his capabilities.  Gates was cautious to the point of timidity, generally believing his men to be better off behind prepared fortifications, than taking the offensive.

Benedict Arnold
General Benedict Arnold

Gates’ subordinate, General Benedict Arnold, could not have been more different.  Arnold was imaginative and daring, a risk taker possessed of physical courage bordering on recklessness.  The pair had been personal friends at one time.  By this time the two were often at odds.

British General John “Gentleman Johnny” Burgoyne led a joint land and water invasion of 7,000 British and Hessian troops south along the New York side of Lake Champlain, down the Hudson River valley.

It had started out well for him with the bloodless capture of Fort Ticonderoga, but Burgoyne ran into a buzz saw outside of Bennington, Vermont, losing almost 1,000 men to General John Stark’s New Hampshire rebels and a militia unit headed by Ethan Allen, calling itself the “Green Mountain Boys”.

Burgoyne intended to continue south to Albany, linking up with forces under Sir William Howe and cutting the colonies in half.  The 10,000 or so Colonial troops situated on the high ground near Saratoga, New York, were all that stood in his way.

Burgoyne's Route to SaratogaAmerican forces selected a site called Bemis Heights, about 10 miles south of Saratoga, spending a week constructing defensive works with the help of Polish engineer Thaddeus Kosciusko.  It was a formidable position:  mutually supporting cannon on overlapping ridges, with interlocking fields of fire.  Burgoyne knew he had no choice but to stop and give battle at the American position, or be chopped to pieces trying to bypass it.

The Battle of Freeman’s Farm, the first of two battles for Saratoga, occurred on September 19.  Technically a Patriot defeat in that the British held the ground at the end of the day, it was a costly victory.  English casualties were almost two to one.  Worse, the British column was out at the end of a long and tenuous supply line, while fresh men and supplies continued to move into the American position.

Freeman’s Farm could have been a lot worse for the Patriot cause, but for Benedict Arnold’s anticipating British moves, and taking steps to block them in advance.

The personal animosity between Gates and Arnold boiled over in the days that followed.  Gates’ report to Congress made no mention of Arnold’s contributions at Freeman’s Farm, though field commanders and the men involved with the day’s fighting unanimously crediting Arnold for the day’s successes.  A shouting match between Gates and Arnold resulted in the latter being relieved of command, and replaced by General Benjamin Lincoln.

Saratoga ReenactmentThe second and decisive battle for Saratoga, the Battle of Bemis Heights, occurred on October 7, 1777.

Lieutenant Colonel Heinrich Christoph Breymann’s Hessian grenadier regiment formed the right anchor of Burgoyne’s line, manning a wooden fortification some 250′ wide by 7′ high.  It was a strategically important position, with nothing between itself and the regiment’s main camp to the rear.

Even though relieved of command, Benedict Arnold was on the field, directing the battle on the American right.  As the Hessian position began to collapse, General Arnold left his troops facing Balcarre’s Redoubt on the right, riding between the fire of both armies and joining the final attack on the rear of the German post.  Arnold was shot in the left leg during the final moments of the action, shattering the same leg that had barely healed after the same injury at the Battle of Quebec City, almost two years earlier.

It would have been better in the chest, he said, than to have received such a wound in that leg.

Burgoyne had no choice but to capitulate, surrendering his entire force on the 17th of October.  It was a devastating defeat for the British cause, which finally brought France in on the American side.  A colonial Army had gone toe to toe with the most powerful military on the planet, and was still standing.

A British officer described the battle:  “The courage and obstinacy with which the Americans fought were the astonishment of everyone, and we now became fully convinced that they are not that contemptible enemy we had hitherto imagined them, incapable of standing a regular engagement, and that they would only fight behind strong and powerful works.”

Three years later, Benedict Arnold betrayed the American fortifications at West Point to John André.  The name of one of our top Revolution-era warriors, a General whom one of his own soldiers later described as “the very genius of war,” became that of Traitor.

One of Arnold’s contemporaries commented that, if the Patriots ever caught him they would hang him, and then they would bury his leg with full military honors.

Saratoga Arnold Monument

So it is that there is a statue of a leg in the forest south of Saratoga, dedicated to a Hero of the Revolution who has no name.  On the back of the monument are inscribed these words:

“In memory of

the most brilliant soldier of the

Continental Army

who was desperately wounded

on this spot the sally port of

BURGOYNES GREAT WESTERN REDOUBT

7th October, 1777

winning for his countrymen

the decisive battle of the

American Revolution

and for himself the rank of

Major General.”

Saratoga ObeliskToday, the Saratoga battlefield and the site of Burgoyne’s surrender are preserved as the Saratoga National Historical Park.  On the grounds of the park stands an obelisk, containing four niches.

Three of them hold statues of American heroes of the Battle.  There is one for General Horatio Gates, one for General Philip John Schuyler and another for Colonel Daniel Morgan.

The fourth niche, where Benedict Arnold’s statue would have gone, remains empty, to this day.

September 29, 1780 John André

In an age before radio or television, John André was an interesting guy to be around. He was a gifted story teller with a great sense of humor. He could draw, paint and cut silhouettes. He was an excellent writer, he could sing, and he could write verse.   John André was a spy.

In an age before radio or television, John André was an interesting guy to be around. He was a gifted story teller with a great sense of humor. He could draw, paint and cut silhouettes. He was an excellent writer, he could sing, and he could write verse.  André was a British Major at the time of the American Revolution, taking part in his army’s occupations of Philadelphia and New York.

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Adjutant General John André

John André was a spy.

Major André was a favorite of Colonial-era Loyalist society. For a time, André dated Peggy Shippen, the daughter of a prominent Philadelphia loyalist. She married an important Patriot General in 1779, a relationship which provided the connection between the British spy and a man who could have gone into history as one of the top tier of our founding fathers.

Had he not turned his coat.  Peggy Shippen’s husband was Benedict Arnold.

Arnold was Commandant of West Point at the time, the future location of one of our great military academies. At the time, West Point was a strategic fortification on high ground, overlooking the Hudson River. The British capture of West Point would have split the colonies in half.

John André struck a bargain with Benedict Arnold that would turn a Hero of the Revolution into a name synonymous with “Traitor”.  General Arnold would receive £20,000, over a million dollars today, in exchange for which he would give up West Point.

Benedict Arnold
General Benedict Arnold

André sailed up the Hudson River in the Sloop of War HMS Vulture on September 20, 1780. Dressed in civilian clothes, Major André was returning to his own lines on the 23rd, six papers written in Arnold’s hand hidden in his sock. André was stopped by three Patriot Militiamen; John Paulding, David Williams and Isaac Van Wart. One of them was wearing a Hessian overcoat, and André thought they were Tories. “Gentlemen”, he said, “I hope you belong to our party”. “What party”, came the reply, and André said “The lower (British) party”. “We do”, they said, to which André replied that he was a British officer and must not be detained. That was as far as he went.

The discovery of those papers brought Benedict Arnold’s treachery to light. Arnold immediately fled on hearing of André’s arrest, even as George Washington was headed to his place for a meeting over breakfast.

John André was tried and sentenced to death as a spy, and jailed on September 29. He asked if he could write a letter to General Washington.  In it he asked not that his life be spared, but that he be executed by firing squad, considered to be a more “gentlemanly” death than hanging.

Peggy-Shippen
Peggy Shippen

General Washington thought that Arnold’s crimes were far more egregious than those of André, and he was impressed with the man’s bravery.  Washington wrote to General Sir Henry Clinton, asking for an exchange of prisoners.

Having received no reply by October 2, Washington wrote in his General Order of the day, “That Major André General to the British Army ought to be considered as a spy from the Enemy and that agreeable to the law and usage of nations it is their opinion he ought to suffer death. The Commander in Chief directs the execution of the above sentence in the usual way this afternoon at five o’clock precisely.”

John André was executed by hanging in Tappan, New York, on October 2, 1780. He was 31.
Andre Postcard

John André had lived in Benjamin Franklin’s house during his nine month stay in Philadelphia, while the British army occupied the city. As they were packing to leave, a Swiss-born citizen named Pierre Du Simitiere came to say goodbye. He was shocked to find a Gentleman such as André looting the Franklin residence. The man had always been known for extravagant courtesy, and this was completely out of character. He was packing books, musical instruments, scientific apparatus, and an oil portrait of Franklin, offering no explanation or response to Du Simitiere’s protests.

Long afterward, in the early 20th century, the descendants of Major-General Lord Charles Grey returned the painting to the United States, indicating that André had probably looted Franklin’s home under orders from the General himself. A Gentleman always, it would explain the man’s inability to defend his own actions. Today, the oil portrait of Benjamin Franklin hangs in the White House.

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Benjamin Franklin, Oil on canvas, by David Martin, 49″ x 40″