Battle at Valcour Island: Benedict Arnold As Hero


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 11th instant between the Island of Valcourt [sic] and the Main, and the second on the 13th, 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 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. …

∗ The British studiously refused to recognize rebel commissions.

So sure, indeed, was King George III that Valcour was a British victory that he immediately created Captain Douglas a baronet and Carleton a Knight of the Bath. And, for a while, even the Americans shared the British assessment of the battle. They had lost nearly all their ships, and their casualties—eighty men killed or wounded—were twice the enemy’s.

By the grim logic of war, the British juggernaut, having destroyed the remaining ships of the American fleet, was now free to play havoc with the entire northern frontier of the colonies and attack the crumbling armies of George Washington directly in the rear. But their lordships in London had overlooked one vital factor: the bone-chilling winters of upstate New York and Vermont. Had they been familiar with this phenomenon, they would have taken far greater notice of the ultimate paragraph in Carleton’s dispatch of October 14 to Lord Germaine: “The season is so far advanced that I cannot yet pretend to inform your lordship whether anything further can be done this year.”

The full significance of these words came home to the British when they confronted the Americans across the massive fortifications of Fort Ticonderoga, which blocked a further advance, via Lake George and the Hudson River, to the heart of the colonies. The rebels dug themselves in at Ticonderoga for a winter siege; to fight them the British would have had to extend their lines of supply down one hundred vulnerable miles of frozen lake ice. The British soon grasped the disadvantage of their position, and after a few brief skirmishes, retired to their base at St. Johns to await warmer weather.

Had they attacked the Americans on Lake Champlain earlier, however, there is little doubt that they would have successfully dislodged the garrison at Ticonderoga and maintained a critical bridgehead pressure upon the American rear until the following spring. As that clear-headed Hessian, Baron von Riedesel, noted, “If we could have begun our expedition four weeks earlier I am satisfied that everything would have been ended this year.”

The fact that they did not was undoubtedly due to the delay caused by the threat of Arnold’s fleet on Lake Champlain. To be sure, the British could have sailed with their four hundred transports in early September. But the mighty Inflexible and some of their other major ships would not have been complete, and they could not have been sure of clear supremacy over the Americans. In view of this, it is difficult to challenge Admiral Mahan when he says:

That the Americans were strong enough to impose the capitulation of Saratoga was due to the invaluable year of delay secured to them by their little navy on Lake Champlain, created by the indomitable energy, and handled with the indomitable courage of the traitor, Benedict Arnold.