When reenacting or acting as a historical interpreter, its good to have a few historical dates and stories to share. This series will publish a few.
October 11, 1776 – General Benedict Arnold engaged the British in a naval engagement off of Valcour Island on Lake Champlain. Although defeated, the American forces inflicted significant damage to the British Fleet forcing them to delay their advance on Ticonderoga as winter set in and British supply lines were at risk.
Following the failed American invasion of Canada, the British Navy launched a counteroffensive intended to gain control of the Hudson River Valley, which extends southward from Lake Champlain. Control of the upper Hudson River would have enabled the British to link their Canadian forces with those in British-occupied New York City, dividing the American colonies of New England from those in the South and Mid-Atlantic, and potentially finishing the revolution.
Access to the river’s source was protected by American strongholds at Crown Point and Fort Ticonderoga, and elimination of these defenses would require the transportation of troops and supplies from the British-controlled St. Lawrence Valley to the north.
Roads were either impassable or nonexistent, making water transport over Lake Champlain the only viable option, but the only ships on the lake were in American hands, and even though they were lightly armed, they would have made transport of troops and stores impossible for the British. The two sides therefore set about building fleets; the British at St. Johns in Quebec and the Americans at the other end of the lake in Skenesborough.
The British had adequate supplies, skilled workmen, and prefabricated ships transported from England, including a 180-ton warship they disassembled and rebuilt on the lake. All told, the 30-ship British fleet had roughly twice as many ships and twice the firepower of the Americans’ 16 vessels.
Gen. Arnold’s flagship was initially the USS Royal Savage, a two-masted schooner, but he transferred to the USS Congress, a row galley. Arnold’s fleet included USS Revenge and USS Liberty, also schooners, as well as the USS Enterprise, a sloop, and 8 gondolas: USS New Haven, USS Providence, USS Boston, USS Spitfire, USS Philadelphia, USS Connecticut, USS Jersey, USS New York, and the galley USS Trumbull.
Facing them were the ships of the British Royal Navy constructed in Quebec: The flagship HMS Inflexible; the schooners HMS Maria, HMS Carleton, HMS Royal Convert, the ketch HMS Thunderer, as well as over 20 gunboats armed with a single cannon. Arnold shrewdly chose to force the British to attack his inferior forces in a narrow, rocky body of water between the coast and Valcour Island, where the British fleet would have difficulty bringing its superior firepower to bear.
On October 11, the British fleet took up positions at noon around 300 yards in front of the American battle line with the small gunboats forward, and the five main ships around 50-100 yards behind the gunboats. The British then opened up a huge broadside against the American ships which continued for the next 5 hours.
During the exchange of cannon fire, the Revenge was heavily hit and abandoned. The Philadelphia, was also heavily hit and sank later at around 6:30 P.M. The Royal Savage, ran aground and was set on fire by the crew to prevent the ship from falling in British hands. The Congress, and Washington were heavily damaged, and the Jersey and New York, were also badly hit.
On the British side, casualties began mounting too. Carleton was heavily hit as it tried to land a boarding party on the grounded Royal Savage and was forced to withdraw under heavy fire. One small gunboat, commanded by Lt. Dufais, blew up and sank from a direct hit. Most of the other small gunboats were also hit, forcing them to withdraw and reform their battle line 700 yards from the American line. Two of the gunboats were so heavily damaged that they were forced to be scuttled after the action.
The battle was not going well for the Americans at sunset. Aware that he could not defeat the British fleet, Arnold decided to withdraw. He managed to sneak his fleet past (and through) the British fleet during the night and attempted to run for the cover of the shore batteries situated at the American-held fort at Crown Point at the south end of the lake. Unfortunately, the weather did not cooperate, and the Americans were caught short of their goal.
On October 12, after sailing only 8 miles, Arnold drove the Providence ashore in the shallow water of Buttonmold Bay off Schuyler Island where the heavier British ships could not follow. It was then stripped of guns, powder and everything else of use. The New Jersey also ran aground while the crew from the Lee did likewise.
On October 13, the British fleet finally caught up to the American fleet off Split Rock where the Washington was captured and the Congress sank attempting to flee. Arnold led about 200 men from the lost ships on foot to Crown Point where the remaining ships Trumbull, Enterprise, Revenge, New York, and Liberty finally reached safety. Arnold was forced to burn his remaining ships and withdrew further towards Fort Ticonderoga.
Arnold, convinced that Crown Point was no longer viable as a point of defense against the large British force, destroyed and abandoned the fort. He moved his forces stationed there to Ticonderoga. Carleton, rather than shipping his prisoners back to Quebec, returned them to Ticonderoga under a flag of truce. On their arrival, the released men were so effusive in their praise of Carleton that they were sent home to prevent the desertion of other troops.
With control of Lake Champlain, the British landed troops and occupied Crown Point the next day. They remained for two weeks, pushing scouting parties to within three miles of Ticonderoga. The battle-season was getting late as the first snow began to fall on October 20 and Carleton’s supply line would be difficult to manage in winter. He decided to withdraw north to winter quarters; Arnold’s plan of delay had succeeded.
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