Battle at Valcour Island: Benedict Arnold As Hero

PrintPrintEmailEmailSeen 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.”