Battle at Valcour Island: Benedict Arnold As Hero

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The hectic weeks of preparation were over, and the ultimate test of strength was soon to begin. Like men engaged in the final sparring for a jackpot in poker, each contestant was forced to reveal something of his hand. The British had seen much of the American fleet from the cliffs at Windmill Point. On September 16, the Americans got their first hint of the size of the British force. A French traveller from Canada reported that a fleet of more than 350 bateaux and two big schooners was assembling at St. Johns. Next day an American scout, Lieutenant B. Whitcomb, brought in two prisoners captured from the British 29th Regiment. Under interrogation these men gave the Americans their first intelligence of the 180-ton Inflexible, described as a “ship on the stocks capable of carrying twenty guns, nine and twelve pounders.”

For the first time Arnold and his fellow commanders realized that they did not hold a position of clear superiority. Instead of thinking in terms of attack, they must now plan a defensive strategy. On hearing the bitter news, General Arnold began to withdraw up the lake in easy stages, dispatching two boats “to sound round the Island Valcour.” Reports proved favorable, and on September 30 Arnold moved his force into the bay between the shore of the lake and the two-mile-long island.

 

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.