- Historic Sites
Battle At Valcour Island: Benedict Arnold As Hero
Unless the makeshift Yankee admiral with his tiny homemade fleet could hold Lake Champlain, the formidable invasion from Canada might overwhelm the rebel army
October 1966 | Volume 17, Issue 6
When British and Hessian reinforcements arrived in (lie 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 elfectively armed vessels to their name. These were the sloop Enterprises (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 chaîne in the lace 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 Skonesborough (now Whitehall, New York) on the southernmost tongue of the lake.
The design and construe lion of the Lake Champlain lleet 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 ol Yalcour, 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 handpullecl sweeps, eight to a side, and two square sails set on a single mast some sixty leet high. A crude brick-backed cooking—hearth stood on the port side of the ship’s waist, while a ten-loot-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-loot-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 quarter-deck. 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-twofoot 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.