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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
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.
“A tremendous cannonade was opened on both sides,” reported Baron von Riedesel, the ranking Hessian officer. The Carleton and the entire American fleet fought it out at point-blank range. Despite the cool efficiency of the British gunners, the American concentration of fire gradually began to pay off. Gaping holes appeared in the hull planking of the Carleton, and her decks were repeatedly swept from end to end in a lethal cross fire of grapeshot. Heavily damaged at and below the waterline, the sluggish Carleton sank ever lower into the water. Then a shot sliced through her stern cable, causing her to drift end-on to the American line. With that the exultant American gunners poured shot after shot into the sinking vessel, which could return no fire.
Indeed, so badly damaged was the Carleton that she could not retire, even when ordered to do so by the British naval commander, Captain Thomas Pringle, and it seemed for a time as if she might strike her colors to the Americans. Then, with more than two feet of water in her hold, and the dead and wounded littering her decks, a courageous midshipman named Edward Pellew clambered on to her bowsprit and held the jib to the wind.∗ With the additional help of some rowboats, the Carleton’s bow slowly swung round and she limped to safety.
∗ Midshipman Pellew, then aged nineteen, was destined to become Lord Exmonth, one of England’s most illustrious admirals.
As the Carleton drifted away, her place in the gathering enemy line was immediately filled by fresh British vessels that had by now tacked their way up the mile-wide channel. After many long minutes of furious cannonading, the superior firepower and training of the British gunners began to show their effect. Though the colonists had destroyed one British gunboat in a mighty roar of flame, their own line of gondolas and galleys was swiftly disintegrating. As an added threat, the British had landed several hundred war-whooping Indians on both Valcour Island and the mainland. Firing their muskets from the rocky pinnacles of Valcour, these savages tried to disrupt the American gun crews at work on the decks below. The elaborate fascines, however, rendered this flank attack largely ineffective.
Late in the afternoon the Inflexible finally worked her way into a position where she could bring her guns to bear on the American line. While Arnold’s gun crews fired hardly a shot, she poured five crippling broadsides into their battered line and then withdrew to a distance of about seven hundred yards. The valor and the worsening plight of the Americans as the battle raged on are perhaps most vividly described in Arnold’s own dispatches, written to General Gates and General Schuyler the next day.
… The Congress and Washington have suffered greatly; the latter lost her first lieutenant killed, captain and master wounded. The New-York lost all her officers, except her captain. The Philadelphia was hulled in so many places that she sunk in about one hour after the engagement was over. The whole killed and wounded amounts to about sixty. … The enemy had, to appearance, upwards of one thousand in batteaus prepared for boarding. We suffered much for want of seamen and gunners. I was obliged myself to point most of the guns on board the Congress, which I believe did good execution. The Congress received seven shots between wind and water [i.e., on the waterline]; was hulled a dozen times; had her mainmast wounded in two places and her yard in one. The Washington was hulled a number of times, her mainmast shot through, and must have a new one. Both vessels are very leaky and want repairing.