- Historic Sites
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
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 twentyeight 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 powderblackened 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 i2-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.”
After some two hours of cannonading, the Congress found herself surrounded by seven British warships, all vying to administer the coup de grâce . Arnold’s first lieutenant was dead, nearly half his men were wounded or killed, and the movement of the Congress herself was severely hampered by the wreckage of sails and shattered spars trailing overside. To prevent the vessel from falling into enemy hands, he ordered the Congress to fight her way clear of the encircling British squadron. Then he made a final thrust for a beach on the eastern shore of the lake. Here the Americans carefully carried their small arms ashore and set the Congress and four small boats ablaze. (This spot, located five miles due west of what is now Vergennes, Vermont, is still called Arnold Bay.) Then, gathering up their wounded, the party of some two hundred survivors set out to march the remaining nine miles to Crown Point.
As is frequently the case in battle, it was difficult to say at the time who was the victor at Valcour, and who the vanquished. In those final, grim days of October, 1776, it seemed an obvious triumph for the British. The generally self-effacing Guy Carleton saw fit to write to his superior in London:My Lord: The Rebel fleet upon Lake Champlain has been entirely defeated in two actions, the first on the nth instant between the Island of Valcourt [sic] and the Main, and the second on the igth, within a few leagues of Crown Point.
We have taken Mr. Waterbury,∗ the second in command, one of their Brigadier Generals, with two of their vessels, and ten others having been burnt and destroyed. …
∗ The British studiously refused to recognize rebel commissions.
The Rebels, upon the news reaching them of the defeat of their naval forces, set fire to all buildings and houses in and near Crown Point, and retired to Ticonderoga. …