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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
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.