Unless the makeshift Yankee admiral with his tiny homemade fleet could hold Lake Champlain, the formidable invasion from Canada might overwhelm the rebel army
Seen in the perspective of history, the Battle of Valcour Island, fought on Lake Champlain between improvised navies of Britain and America in October. 1776, looms out of all proportion to the size of the forces engaged, the number of ships sunk, or the losses suffered in wounded and killed.
Not only was this savage three-day battle the first fleet action ever fought by Americans; it was also a great strategic triumph for the colonists’ brilliant and resourceful commander, Brigadier General Benedict Arnold, ultimately destined to betray the cause for which he fought so valiantly. More remarkable still, even though Valcour was an American defeat, it proved to be one of the truly decisive battles of the American Revolution.
“When Benedict Arnold on Lake Champlain, by vigorous use of small means, obtained a year’s delay for the colonists,” states the distinguished U.S. naval historian Admiral Alfred T. Mahan, “he compassed the surrender of Burgoyne in 1777.” That surrender, Mahan asserts, convinced France that she should place her mighty financial and military resources firmly behind the cause of the Americans, so ensuring their ultimate victory.
Such complex strategy, however, must have seemed remote to the American sailors who shivered beside their guns as the dawn of October 11, 1776, broke across the chill waters of Lake Champlain. For more than a week their ill-assorted fleet of fifteen gunboats, schooners, and row galleys had lain at anchor in the lee of Valcour Island, close by what is now Plattsburgh, New York, on the western shore of the 120-mile-long lake. On this morning, one of the coldest winds of the year was blowing out of the frostbound Canadian wilderness to the north. Often gusting to gale force, it stripped the last autumn leaves from elms and silver birches and churned the normally placid surface of the lake into a menacing tracery of white caps.
At dawn a small American patrol, stationed at the end of Valcour Island, began to peer through telescopes into the eye-watering wind. Just before 8 A.M. they glimpsed the first British sail, scudding over the waves toward them. They could hardly credit their eyes as, a few minutes later, the full strength of the enemy’s fleet emerged from behind the high promontory of Cumberland Head, some five miles to the north. Tossing and plummeting on the waves, behind a screen of heavily gunned British warships, sailed an armada of Indian canoes and some four hundred bateaux loaded with troops. In all, the British invasion force, commanded by the Canadian governor, Sir Guy Carleton, boasted some 7,000 regular troops, 400 war-painted Indian levies, and 670 trained Royal Navy sailors and gunners. The regulars included a force of artillerymen from Hesse-Hanau and several crack British regiments.
There was little to prevent this water-borne juggernaut from delivering a fatal thrust into the heart of the United Colonies. Indeed, the force commanded by General Arnold consisted of some seven hundred militiamen, manning a makeshift flotilla with but half the enemy’s firepower. As soon as the British detected the position of this contemptible little navy anchored at Valcour, they sailed briskly to the attack.
As the opposing fleets closed for battle, and the somber granite hills of Valcour Island echoed with the mounting thunder of cannon, the commanders on both sides realized how much hung in the balance. Indeed, at no time in history have the American republic’s chances of survival seemed bleaker than in the fall of 1776. In June, July, and August a huge British fleet, bringing more than 32,000 battle-trained troops, had sailed into New York Harbor. It was, a modern historian says, “the greatest expeditionary force Great Britain had ever sent out from its shores.” A second British army had massed on the Canadian border and prepared to move southward up Lake Champlain. (Since the waters of Lake Champlain flow northward into the Richelieu River and thence to the St. Lawrence and the sea, a move southward is a move up the lake.) The underlying strategy of this twin thrust was that the two armies should join somewhere near Albany, thus severing communication between the northern and southern colonies.
In a desperate counter to the British strategy, the Continental Congress placed George Washington in personal command of the sagging American line in the south. There was little debate as to who should batter down the British attack from the north.
“General Arnold (who is perfectly skilled in maritime affairs) has most nobly undertaken to command our fleet upon the Lake,” wrote General Horatio Gates on July 29 to John Hancock, president of the Congress. “I am convinced he will add to that brilliant reputation he has so deservedly acquired.”
Such unqualified praise sounds a curious note in the light of Benedict Arnold’s eventual treason. Yet even at this stage of the war, the thirty-five-year-old brigadier had proved himself one of the ablest and most effective young commanders in the Continental forces. He had shared command of the expedition that captured Fort Ticondcroga in May of 1775. In the autumn of the same year, making a desperate attempt to eliminate all further attack from the north, he led one thousand men up the Kennebec River in a heroic attempt to take Quebec. In a surprise attack the day before New Year’s, he had spurred his vagabond army to within a few yards of the inner citadel before the startled British defenders could rally and drive them out. Quebec held firm, and the badly mauled American forces had no choice but to fall back for a prolonged siege.
When British and Hessian reinforcements arrived in the spring, Arnold’s regiments—weakened by smallpox and dysentery—began an arduous fighting retreat, first to Montreal and then to Sorel and up the Richelieu River, past the roaring Chambly Rapids, to St. Johns, and then southward to Crown Point on Lake Champlain.
Arnold knew that once the British smashed their way through to the lake, they could transport their forces southward in one tenth the time required by an overland trek and deliver a lightning blow to the rear of Washington’s army. For this reason, Arnold, on June 13, wrote to General Schuyler suggesting that “a number of gondolas [should be] built as soon as possible to guard the Lake.” George Washington promptly approved the plan, and Benedict Arnold found himself launched upon the unprecedented task of designing, building, equipping, and manning a fleet of war vessels capable of opposing the Royal Navy.
Before Arnold began his crash shipbuilding program, the Americans had only three effectively armed vessels to their name. These were the sloop Enterprise (armed with twelve 4-pound guns), the slow-moving schooner Royal Savage (four 6-pounders and eight 4-pounders), both captured from the British at St. Johns, and the ketch Liberty (four 4-pounders and four 2-pounders) taken from a Tory near Skenesborough. A fourth vessel, broken down into frames, was also brought away from St. Johns. This was to become the forty-four-foot-long cutter Lee.
These cockleshells, while effective against unarmed boats, would not stand a chance in the face of the 18-pounders and 24-pounders the British were already lugging laboriously overland from the St. Lawrence. As the British set up a shipyard at St. Johns on the Richelieu River, the Americans did the same at Skenesborough (now Whitehall, New York) on the southernmost tongue of the lake.
The design and construclion of the Lake Champlain fleet is attributed to Arnold personally. While in Canada he had made a close study of the vessels plying the St. Lawrence. The Philadelphia, sunk at the Battle of Valcour, raised in 1935, and now displayed at the Smithsonian, serves as an example of a typical American gondola: a flat-bottomed, hard-chined open boat some fifty-three feet long and fifteen feet wide. Her chief armament was a single 12-pounder mounted in the bow. Two 9-pounders amidships completed her heavy weaponry. Motive power was provided by handpulled sweeps, eight to a side, and two square sails set on a single mast some sixty feet high. A crude brick-backed cooking-hearth stood on the port side of the ship’s waist, while a ten-foot-long platform for officers and helmsman was built into the ship’s stern.
Four row galleys, the capital ships of the new fleet, are said to have been the special fruit of Arnold’s fertile brain. Though almost as ungainly as the gondolas, these seventy-two-foot-long vessels boasted a proper gundeck and two masts, each rigged with a high-pointed lateen sail in the Spanish style. Powered by seven pairs of sweeps (each worked by two or more men), these galleys had a twenty-foot-long quarterdeck. A six-foot-deep storage space in the hold under the gun deck carried more than a month’s supplies for each galley’s eighty-man crew.
Thrusting their drawing boards aside, the Americans now faced the task of seeking out and assembling hundreds of tons of construction materials. Some lumber had been cut and seasoned, but most of what they would need still stood tall and leafy in the forests around Skenesborough. Soon requests swamped the Continental Army for everything from “four-dozen Dutch Mill-saws … and six dozen files for them” to anchor cables, caulking pitch, sailcloth, oar staves, nails, and “musket-ball, of all sorts, buckshot, lead and cartridge paper.”
Skilled shipwrights were so scarce that the government had to offer the “prodegious wages” of up to five dollars a day, hard currency. By July 23 General Arnold was able to report that three gondolas were already “on the stocks” and two more would be completed within six days. The first of the seventy-two-foot row galleys would be launched within ten days, while a company of twenty-seven carpenters slaved from dawn to dusk in the saw pits cutting timber for a second. Ship chandlers’ stores were as short as ever. But a note of optimism crept into Arnold’s dispatches. “No canvass or cordage is yet arrived, though much wanted,” he wrote. But, he noted, “in two or three weeks I think we shall have a very formidable fleet.”
Two weeks, however, might be too late to stop the British. Despite the ten-mile-long rapids at Chambly, the enemy was already assembling a mighty armada at St. Johns. By a system of sleds the English were hauling scores of small transports overland to their new base. They also harnessed the skills of army engineers and Royal Navy carpenters to cut timber and build twenty gunboats at St. Johns.
More powerful craft were also under construction. The biggest of all was a 180-ton, three-masted warship called Inflexible. Mounting a total armament of eighteen 12-pounders, this ship had the maneuverability, speed, and firepower to dominate the entire lake. Built at a St. Lawrence shipyard according to plans worked out by two brilliant young British officers, Lieutenant William Twiss of the Army and Lieutenant John Schank of the Royal Navy, the Inflexible was designed so that she could be sailed upstream to the foot of the Chambly Rapids, knocked down into some thirty sections that weighed no more than six tons each, and hauled overland. Once the sweating teams of horses and men pulled the parts to St. Johns, it took the carpenters and riggers only twenty-eight days to relaunch the Inflexible.
Schank and Twiss also transported two smaller ships, the schooners Maria (fourteen 6-pounders) and Carleton (twelve 6-pounders) past the Chambly Rapids in sections. The highly mobile firepower of these three vessels was bolstered further by the construction of a huge floating gun platform dubbed the Thunderer. This ship’s two howitzers, six 24-pounders, and six 12-pounders packed nearly as much firepower as Arnold’s entire fleet.
As this eighteenth-century arms race proceeded, the American command dispatched scouts to penetrate the enemy lines at St. Johns and observe the British strength. One patrol reported that the enemy seemed to be building no more than “three schooners and two sloops at St. Johns.” Though other patrols crawled through the fortified British lines in succeeding weeks, and even took prisoners, the enemy somehow managed to keep the full extent of their construction a secret; so much so that American forces had no inkling of the Inflexible’s existence until a few days before the Battle of Valcour.
Despite the optimistic intelligence reports, however, Arnold rigorously maintained the forced rate of construction at Skenesborough. By mid-August, no more than six weeks after his crash program began, the raw skeleton of the new fleet was complete. Ten vessels were already afloat. The crews rigged and armed them as they rowed down the lake to Fort Crown Point. But the fleet was woefully short of powder and shot and, what was more serious, of trained seamen. In Arnold’s dispatches, the request for one hundred good sailors (“no Land-lubbers”) became an increasingly strident refrain. “We have a wretched, motley crew in the fleet,” Arnold complained, giving a hint of the bitterness that may have prompted his subsequent treason.
Upon the fighting abilities of this wretched, motley crew hung the fate of the American colonies. Washington himself had acknowledged that the interest of America was now in the balance. And the orders issued to Arnold by his superior, General Gates, struck an even more ominous tone. “The preventing of the enemy’s invasion of our country,” Gates wrote to Arnold on August 7, “is the ultimate end to which you are now entrusted … Should the enemy come up the Lake, in that case you shall act with such cool determined valour, as will give them reason to repent their temerity.”
Benedict Arnold chose to demonstrate his cool determined valor by sailing his fleet right down the lake to the mouth of the narrow strait at Windmill Point, just twenty miles above the enemy’s base at St. Johns. Here he brazenly flaunted his strength by anchoring in line abreast across the mile-wide channel in full view of the British outposts. This insolent display prompted the British to haul a battery of cannon to the hill overlooking the channel and open fire. In response, Arnold merely dropped back seven miles up the lake to a point close by Isle La Motte, where he anchored at 2 P.M. on September eighth. To ensure against surprise, he detailed four guard boats to patrol to the north and south of the fleet.
The hectic weeks of preparation were over, and the ultimate test of strength was soon to begin. Like men engaged in the final sparring for a jackpot in poker, each contestant was forced to reveal something of his hand. The British had seen much of the American fleet from the cliffs at Windmill Point. On September 16, the Americans got their first hint of the size of the British force. A French traveller from Canada reported that a fleet of more than 350 bateaux and two big schooners was assembling at St. Johns. Next day an American scout, Lieutenant B. Whitcomb, brought in two prisoners captured from the British 29th Regiment. Under interrogation these men gave the Americans their first intelligence of the 180-ton Inflexible, described as a “ship on the stocks capable of carrying twenty guns, nine and twelve pounders.”
For the first time Arnold and his fellow commanders realized that they did not hold a position of clear superiority. Instead of thinking in terms of attack, they must now plan a defensive strategy. On hearing the bitter news, General Arnold began to withdraw up the lake in easy stages, dispatching two boats “to sound round the Island Valcour.” Reports proved favorable, and on September 30 Arnold moved his force into the bay between the shore of the lake and the two-mile-long island.
The Americans at once prepared for an attack from both the lake and the shore. Besides laying down an elaborate network of anchor cables to enable their guns to point steadily out of the bay below Bluff Point, the men also prepared a wall of pine- and cedar-branch fascines to shield the decks of their craft from enemy snipers on Valcour itself.
Locating the fleet in this particular bay was a masterpiece of military tactics, and perhaps one of the cleverest decisions Arnold ever made. Between the pine-covered, rock-strewn island and the western bank of Lake Champlain runs a channel one mile wide and some three miles long. The northern end of this channel is dotted with a number of rocky shoals that forbid entrance to all but the most experienced pilot. In contrast, the southern entrance has clear, deep water that runs in a direct line to the bay across which Arnold had anchored his fleet.
To attack up the lake, Arnold and his captains reasoned, the British needed a northerly wind. Since the shoals forbade entrance to the Valcour channel from the north, the only way they could strike at the American fleet was by entering the southern channel and tacking up into the wind. And since the windward efficiency of the British warships was by no means uniform, the Americans hoped to assault them piecemeal. Arnold noted succinctly that “few vessels can attack us at the same time and those will be exposed to the fire of the whole fleet.”
In the early stages of the battle this strategy was even more successful than the colonists dared hope. As the chill north wind swept the British fleet up the lake on the morning of October 11, the enemy commanders failed to reconnoiter the far side of Valcour. Indeed, had not some minor activity among the Americans caught their eye, the enemy warships might well have plunged on southward, leaving their opponents free to play havoc with their unarmed transports. As it was, the enemy’s two most powerful vessels, the Inflexible and the gun-platform Thunderer learned of the American positions long after they had passed Valcour. Thus the ponderous Thunderer did not get into action at all on the first day of the battle, and the Inflexible could bring her broadside to bear only after she had wasted hours clawing her way back into the wind.
Shortly after the British fleet was sighted, Arnold ordered the schooner Royal Savage and the row galleys Washington, Trumbull, and Congress (which he himself commanded) to slip their moorings and move south to the open lake. His motives for this move are unclear. Perhaps he underestimated the strength of the British. Perhaps he wished to take advantage of their momentary disarray. Or perhaps he wished to lure them into his trap at the end of Valcour channel. Whatever the reason for this decision, he soon countermanded it and, after exchanging a few shots with the British, returned to his anchorage in the bay.
But this maneuver was not carried out without loss. Unlike the row galleys, which could pull straight into the wind, the Royal Savage could not return directly to the anchorage. Under fire from the British, she sagged away to leeward and “by some bad judgement” eventually ran aground on the southern tip of Valcour Island. Her crew managed to escape ashore before the British gunboats closed in at about 11 A.M. and opened fire at point-blank range.
Though this initial sortie lost him the Royal Savage, Arnold’s plans for the piecemeal destruction of the British soon began to pay off handsomely. Substantially ahead of the rest of the fleet, the British schooner Carleton hauled up to within musket shot of the colonists and dropped anchor. The cable had scarcely ceased to roar through the hawsehole before the crews adjusted the sighting chocks on their heavy guns and fired a deafening broadside into the center of the colonists’ line. In the next few minutes the Carleton’s guns, served with the smooth professionalism of the Royal Navy, fired again and again in deadly unison. As volley after volley of shot cut across the crowded decks of the American fleet, overturning gun carriages and shattering spars and bulkheads like matchwood, it seemed as if no part of Arnold’s line could endure. But as the smoke cleared after every broadside, the Americans showed no inclination to surrender. Instead, they worked amidst the hail of flying shot to turn each vessel on its twin anchor cables and bring every American to bear directly at the Carleton. Feverishly serving a ramshackle miscellany of converted field pieces and captured ships’ guns, the sweat-streaked American crews struggled to sink the Carleton before the other British warships could come up.
“A tremendous cannonade was opened on both sides,” reported Baron von Riedesel, the ranking Hessian officer. The Carleton and the entire American fleet fought it out at point-blank range. Despite the cool efficiency of the British gunners, the American concentration of fire gradually began to pay off. Gaping holes appeared in the hull planking of the Carleton, and her decks were repeatedly swept from end to end in a lethal cross fire of grapeshot. Heavily damaged at and below the waterline, the sluggish Carleton sank ever lower into the water. Then a shot sliced through her stern cable, causing her to drift end-on to the American line. With that the exultant American gunners poured shot after shot into the sinking vessel, which could return no fire.
Indeed, so badly damaged was the Carleton that she could not retire, even when ordered to do so by the British naval commander, Captain Thomas Pringle, and it seemed for a time as if she might strike her colors to the Americans. Then, with more than two feet of water in her hold, and the dead and wounded littering her decks, a courageous midshipman named Edward Pellew clambered on to her bowsprit and held the jib to the wind.∗ With the additional help of some rowboats, the Carleton’s bow slowly swung round and she limped to safety.
∗ Midshipman Pellew, then aged nineteen, was destined to become Lord Exmonth, one of England’s most illustrious admirals.
As the Carleton drifted away, her place in the gathering enemy line was immediately filled by fresh British vessels that had by now tacked their way up the mile-wide channel. After many long minutes of furious cannonading, the superior firepower and training of the British gunners began to show their effect. Though the colonists had destroyed one British gunboat in a mighty roar of flame, their own line of gondolas and galleys was swiftly disintegrating. As an added threat, the British had landed several hundred war-whooping Indians on both Valcour Island and the mainland. Firing their muskets from the rocky pinnacles of Valcour, these savages tried to disrupt the American gun crews at work on the decks below. The elaborate fascines, however, rendered this flank attack largely ineffective.
Late in the afternoon the Inflexible finally worked her way into a position where she could bring her guns to bear on the American line. While Arnold’s gun crews fired hardly a shot, she poured five crippling broadsides into their battered line and then withdrew to a distance of about seven hundred yards. The valor and the worsening plight of the Americans as the battle raged on are perhaps most vividly described in Arnold’s own dispatches, written to General Gates and General Schuyler the next day.
… The Congress and Washington have suffered greatly; the latter lost her first lieutenant killed, captain and master wounded. The New-York lost all her officers, except her captain. The Philadelphia was hulled in so many places that she sunk in about one hour after the engagement was over. The whole killed and wounded amounts to about sixty. … The enemy had, to appearance, upwards of one thousand in batteaus prepared for boarding. We suffered much for want of seamen and gunners. I was obliged myself to point most of the guns on board the Congress, which I believe did good execution. The Congress received seven shots between wind and water [i.e., on the waterline]; was hulled a dozen times; had her mainmast wounded in two places and her yard in one. The Washington was hulled a number of times, her mainmast shot through, and must have a new one. Both vessels are very leaky and want repairing.
As dusk approached and the British contemplated the shattered American fleet, victory seemed already within their grasp. One British general, who left the scene of battle on the night of October 11, wrote with great confidence the next day: “Our whole fleet is formed in line above the enemy, and consequently they must have surrendered this morning.”
But this was reckoning without the seamanship and the guile of Benedict Arnold. The American commander called a council of war aboard the Congress, at which he and his captains decided to steal through the British fleet in the darkness and set sail for the temporary sanctuary of the American fortress at Crown Point, forty miles up the lake.
At seven o’clock, long before the British crews had finally settled for the night, Colonel Wigglesworth, in command of the Trumbull, weighed anchor and breezed quietly down to the enemy line. The crew was enjoined to observe the strictest silence. All oarlocks were heavily muffled, and thick animal grease was used to prevent the squeal of a rope passing through a block or a sheave. Aided by a low mist on the surface of the lake, the Trumbull was able to creep through a narrow neck of water between the shore and the western end of the British blockade.
Miraculously, the alarm was not given. Soon the rest of the American flotilla, moving in line, slid past in the wake of the Trumbull. Every ship was completely blacked out, save for a shaded lantern in the stern to point the way for the ship behind.
Dawn found the complacent British officers rubbing their eyes and staring through their spyglasses in unbelief at the empty anchorage near Valcour. Meanwhile, the Americans had used the long night to sail and row their battered ships seven miles up the lake to a rocky pinnacle known as Schuyler’s Island. Here they treated their wounds, redistributed their powder and ammunition, and attempted to repair the worst damage that had been done to their vessels. The gondolas New-York and Providence were so badly damaged that they had to be sunk.
But the respite was short-lived. By afternoon of October 12 the British were sighted, beating up the lake in pursuit. The two fleets drifted and rowed through an eerie night of contrary and shifting winds. In the darkness, hunter and hunted alike had only the vaguest notion of the other’s whereabouts. Each thickening patch of mist, or deeper darkness upon the water, might materialize into an enemy ship, its decks bristling with the cold steel of a boarding party. Fear of a surprise onslaught may have delayed the British advance. At any rate, the dawn of October 13 found Arnold’s fleet off Willsborough Point, a short way ahead of the English but still some twenty-eight miles from Crown Point and safety.
Shortly after daybreak a fluky breeze from the north wafted the British ships up-lake, without moving the American fleet at all. Though they had neither eaten nor slept for nearly two days, Arnold’s men tried to maintain their distance by muscle-power alone. From the quarter-deck of the Congress the weary brigadier, still bright of eye despite his powder-blackened features, urged his crews to ever greater efforts. The ranks of men behind the big sweeps gamely responded, but they were close to exhaustion.
At about 11 A.M. the Congress opened fire with her stern chasers on the pursuing Maria, but failed to delay her advance. The major part of the British force finally caught up with the American fleet at Split Rock (near what is now Whallonsburg, New York) and engaged the retreating colonists in a running battle. As the British cannon shot crashed across the crowded decks, the predicament of the Americans, who had now been working their oars for some sixteen hours without rest, was agonizing.
To help the smaller craft escape, the two galleys Washington and Congress fought continually in the American rear. After an immense pounding, the Washington, her decks running with blood, finally struck her flag. With her surrender, Benedict Arnold’s flagship Congress was left alone to fight off the massing British fleet. Now the Inflexible, firing a mighty broadside of nine 12-pounders, lay under the flagship’s quarter. Two schooners also assailed her with a hail of ball and grapeshot which, Arnold reported, “we returned briskly.”
After some two hours of cannonading, the Congress found herself surrounded by seven British warships, all vying to administer the coup de grâce. Arnold’s first lieutenant was dead, nearly half his men were wounded or killed, and the movement of the Congress herself was severely hampered by the wreckage of sails and shattered spars trailing overside. To prevent the vessel from falling into enemy hands, he ordered the Congress to fight her way clear of the encircling British squadron. Then he made a final thrust for a beach on the eastern shore of the lake. Here the Americans carefully carried their small arms ashore and set the Congress and four small boats ablaze. (This spot, located five miles due west of what is now Vergennes, Vermont, is still called Arnold Bay.) Then, gathering up their wounded, the party of some two hundred survivors set out to march the remaining nine miles to Crown Point.
As is frequently the case in battle, it was difficult to say at the time who was the victor at Valcour, and who the vanquished. In those final, grim days of October, 1776, it seemed an obvious triumph for the British. The generally self-effacing Guy Carleton saw fit to write to his superior in London:
My Lord: The Rebel fleet upon Lake Champlain has been entirely defeated in two actions, the first on the 11th instant between the Island of Valcourt [sic] and the Main, and the second on the 13th, within a few leagues of Crown Point.
We have taken Mr. Waterbury,∗ the second in command, one of their Brigadier Generals, with two of their vessels, and ten others having been burnt and destroyed. …
The Rebels, upon the news reaching them of the defeat of their naval forces, set fire to all buildings and houses in and near Crown Point, and retired to Ticonderoga. …
∗ The British studiously refused to recognize rebel commissions.
So sure, indeed, was King George III that Valcour was a British victory that he immediately created Captain Douglas a baronet and Carleton a Knight of the Bath. And, for a while, even the Americans shared the British assessment of the battle. They had lost nearly all their ships, and their casualties—eighty men killed or wounded—were twice the enemy’s.
By the grim logic of war, the British juggernaut, having destroyed the remaining ships of the American fleet, was now free to play havoc with the entire northern frontier of the colonies and attack the crumbling armies of George Washington directly in the rear. But their lordships in London had overlooked one vital factor: the bone-chilling winters of upstate New York and Vermont. Had they been familiar with this phenomenon, they would have taken far greater notice of the ultimate paragraph in Carleton’s dispatch of October 14 to Lord Germaine: “The season is so far advanced that I cannot yet pretend to inform your lordship whether anything further can be done this year.”
The full significance of these words came home to the British when they confronted the Americans across the massive fortifications of Fort Ticonderoga, which blocked a further advance, via Lake George and the Hudson River, to the heart of the colonies. The rebels dug themselves in at Ticonderoga for a winter siege; to fight them the British would have had to extend their lines of supply down one hundred vulnerable miles of frozen lake ice. The British soon grasped the disadvantage of their position, and after a few brief skirmishes, retired to their base at St. Johns to await warmer weather.
Had they attacked the Americans on Lake Champlain earlier, however, there is little doubt that they would have successfully dislodged the garrison at Ticonderoga and maintained a critical bridgehead pressure upon the American rear until the following spring. As that clear-headed Hessian, Baron von Riedesel, noted, “If we could have begun our expedition four weeks earlier I am satisfied that everything would have been ended this year.”
The fact that they did not was undoubtedly due to the delay caused by the threat of Arnold’s fleet on Lake Champlain. To be sure, the British could have sailed with their four hundred transports in early September. But the mighty Inflexible and some of their other major ships would not have been complete, and they could not have been sure of clear supremacy over the Americans. In view of this, it is difficult to challenge Admiral Mahan when he says:
That the Americans were strong enough to impose the capitulation of Saratoga was due to the invaluable year of delay secured to them by their little navy on Lake Champlain, created by the indomitable energy, and handled with the indomitable courage of the traitor, Benedict Arnold.
As we have seen, it was the Second Battle of Saratoga, in which Lieutenant General John Burgoyne surrendered on October 17, 1777, with over five thousand redcoats and Hessians, that convinced France that American independence was a sufficiently sturdy plant to merit her support. And few serious historians now question that the intervention of France, with her mighty fleet, her purse, and her prestige, tipped the scales in favor of the beleaguered colonists.