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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
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.