On The Trail Of Benedict Arnold

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The Chaudière, which leads 100 miles to Quebec City, was so rapid from all the rain that it swamped most of Arnold’s boats, nearly drowning Daniel Morgan at the falls in St. Martin. Still, it was a picnic compared with what they had faced in Maine, and soon the army was in Quebec proper, waiting for Montgomery’s forces to join them from Montreal. An assault was planned for the first snowy night, which turned out to be December 31, 1775. Arnold, leading his men through the narrow streets of the Old Town below the cliffs of the fortress, was wounded in the leg, while Montgomery died leading the other fork of the pincers. With Dan Morgan captured, the leaderless men had no choice save surrender or retreat.

The street where Arnold was wounded, Rue Sault-au-Matelot in le Vieux-Québec, is still there today and gives you a good idea of what a formidable barrier his men had to storm. Three historical markers testify not to Arnold’s heroism but to that of the defending troops led by Sir Guy Carleton—markers that not one in a thousand of the tourist passersby give a second glimpse, though had Arnold not been wounded at the critical moment, it’s entirely conceivable that Quebec City would now be the capital of an American state.

Arnold’s adventures in Canada weren’t over yet. His little army kept up a brave “siege,” but once spring came, a British fleet arrived from England and set in motion a semiprecipitous American retreat south along the St. Lawrence to Montreal, then, via the Richelieu, to Lake Champlain. Typically, Arnold made sure he was the very last American to quit Canada, shooting his horse a few minutes before the British arrived, then hopping the last boat to leave St. John.

If you drive south from Montreal to St. Jean-sur-Richelieu and pick up Route 133 until it crosses into Vermont and becomes I-89, you’ll begin to understand why this corridor was strategically vital. To your west rise the high peaks of the Adirondacks; to the east, the barrier of the Green Mountains. The only way between them is the great open corridor of Lake Champlain.

This was the route that the retreating Arnold, now with an army under Carleton hot on his heels, had to find a way to block. Naval command of the lake was going to be imperative; Arnold, who had once sailed his own ships in the West Indies trade, proved just the man to hastily improvise a fleet. To see the kind of warship he managed to build, we stopped at the excellent Lake Champlain Maritime Museum at Basin Harbor seven miles west of Vergennes, Vermont. Anchored in a cove there, looking shipshape enough to stop Carleton should he ever come again, is the Philadelphia II, a 54-foot-long working replica of one of Arnold’s ships. (The original, dredged from the lake bottom, is now owned by the Smithsonian.)

The place where Arnold’s makeshift fleet eventually fought the stronger navy assembled by the British on October 11, 1776 (you can imagine the vivid autumnal foliage on the shore, the blinding blueness of the water), is Valcour Island, a short distance south of Plattsburgh on the New York side of the water. Ausable Point Campground off Route 9 gives a perfect view of this still wild, undeveloped island; walk along the campground’s beach, face the northeast, and you’re looking at the bay where Arnold anchored his ships, awaiting the attack by Carleton’s fleet sailing down the broad reach to your right.

Valcour Island was a brutal eight-hour-long mutual pounding, capped by one of Arnold’s most audacious enterprises: He escaped certain destruction by slipping his badly damaged fleet away under the noses of the British during the night, passing very close to the spot you’re standing on. Carleton, badly stung, lost all heart for his invasion and withdrew to Canada, giving the American forces enough breathing space to re-group. The great naval historian Alfred Thayer Mahan summed it up best: “Save for Arnold’s flotilla, the British would have settled the business. The little American navy was wiped out, but never had any force, big or small, lived to better purpose.”

Lake Champlain has a number of other sites associated with Arnold. Ferris Bay, near Panton, Vermont, is where, after a two-day chase, he set ablaze his ship Congress and got his men ashore one step ahead of the pursuing British. Across the lake in New York, Crown Point, with the original fortifications still visible, is one of the strategic chokepoints on Champlain that Arnold relied on to stop the British; the other, 13 miles south on Route 22, is Fort Ticonderoga, with its deservedly famous restoration.

But for us the place where Arnold’s spirit seems to live most vividly is Whitehall, New York, on the southernmost point of the lake, where it’s hardly wider than a sluggish river. In 1776 this was called Skenesboro after its Tory proprietor. Arnold built his fleet here, before sailing it up to Valcour Island, bringing shipwrights and carpenters from the coast to assemble the “gundalows” and “row galleys” he was counting on to stop the British.

He got his fleet built just in time, and Whitehall, this quiet, forgotten canal town many miles from the sea, has the distinction of being the birthplace of the American Navy, attested to by numerous historical markers spaced around the honorably shabby downtown harbor, markers that refer, almost apologetically, to “B. Arnold.”