- 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
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.”