Battle At Valcour Island: Benedict Arnold As Hero

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“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 grapesliot. 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.

As dusk approached and the British contemplated the shattered American fleet, victory seemed already within their grasp. One British general, who left the scene of battle on the night of October 11, wrote with great confidence the next day: “Our whole fleet is formed in line above the enemy, and consequently they must have surrendered this morning.”

But this was reckoning without the seamanship and the guile of Benedict Arnold. The American commander called a council of war aboard the Congress , at which he and his captains decided to steal through the British fleet in the darkness and set sail for the temporary sanctuary of the American fortress at Crown Point, forty miles up the lake.

At seven o’clock, long before the British crews had finally settled for the night, Colonel Wigglesworth, in command of the Trumbull , weighed anchor and breezed quietly down to the enemy line. The crew was enjoined to observe the strictest silence. All oarlocks were heavily muffled, and thick animal grease was used to prevent the squeal of a rope passing through a block or a sheave. Aided by a low mist on the surface of the lake, the Trumbull was able to creep through a narrow neck of water between the shore and the western end of the British blockade.