Battle at Valcour Island: Benedict Arnold As Hero

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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.

Miraculously, the alarm was not given. Soon the rest of the American flotilla, moving in line, slid past in the wake of the Trumbull. Every ship was completely blacked out, save for a shaded lantern in the stern to point the way for the ship behind.

Dawn found the complacent British officers rubbing their eyes and staring through their spyglasses in unbelief at the empty anchorage near Valcour. Meanwhile, the Americans had used the long night to sail and row their battered ships seven miles up the lake to a rocky pinnacle known as Schuyler’s Island. Here they treated their wounds, redistributed their powder and ammunition, and attempted to repair the worst damage that had been done to their vessels. The gondolas New-York and Providence were so badly damaged that they had to be sunk.

But the respite was short-lived. By afternoon of October 12 the British were sighted, beating up the lake in pursuit. The two fleets drifted and rowed through an eerie night of contrary and shifting winds. In the darkness, hunter and hunted alike had only the vaguest notion of the other’s whereabouts. Each thickening patch of mist, or deeper darkness upon the water, might materialize into an enemy ship, its decks bristling with the cold steel of a boarding party. Fear of a surprise onslaught may have delayed the British advance. At any rate, the dawn of October 13 found Arnold’s fleet off Willsborough Point, a short way ahead of the English but still some twenty-eight miles from Crown Point and safety.

Shortly after daybreak a fluky breeze from the north wafted the British ships up-lake, without moving the American fleet at all. Though they had neither eaten nor slept for nearly two days, Arnold’s men tried to maintain their distance by muscle-power alone. From the quarter-deck of the Congress the weary brigadier, still bright of eye despite his powder-blackened features, urged his crews to ever greater efforts. The ranks of men behind the big sweeps gamely responded, but they were close to exhaustion.

At about 11 A.M. the Congress opened fire with her stern chasers on the pursuing Maria, but failed to delay her advance. The major part of the British force finally caught up with the American fleet at Split Rock (near what is now Whallonsburg, New York) and engaged the retreating colonists in a running battle. As the British cannon shot crashed across the crowded decks, the predicament of the Americans, who had now been working their oars for some sixteen hours without rest, was agonizing.

To help the smaller craft escape, the two galleys Washington and Congress fought continually in the American rear. After an immense pounding, the Washington, her decks running with blood, finally struck her flag. With her surrender, Benedict Arnold’s flagship Congress was left alone to fight off the massing British fleet. Now the Inflexible, firing a mighty broadside of nine 12-pounders, lay under the flagship’s quarter. Two schooners also assailed her with a hail of ball and grapeshot which, Arnold reported, “we returned briskly.”