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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
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.
As we have seen, it was the Second Battle of Saratoga, in which Lieutenant General John Burgoyne surrendered on October 17, 1777, with over five thousand redcoats and Hessians, that convinced France that American independence was a sufficiently sturdy plant to merit her support. And few serious historians now question that the intervention of France, with her mighty fleet, her purse, and her prestige, tipped the scales in favor of the beleaguered colonists.