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Benedict Arnold at Valcour Bay

British forces had successfully resisted the American assault on Quebec in the early months of the war and pursued the retreating invaders back to their bases at Crown Point and Fort Ticonderoga. The approach of winter in late 1775 had forced the British to return to Canada, but a strike against the rebels by way of Lake Champlain was a top priority for the campaign in 1776. Sir Guy Carleton, the British commander in Canada, supplemented his forces with 5,000 German mercenaries and a fleet of ships to be used in the planned assault. Vessels sailed up the St. Lawrence River, were laboriously disassembled and transported around the rapids on the Richelieu River, then reassembled for service on Lake Champlain. Smaller craft were built on site. The showpiece of the British fleet was the HMS Inflexible, an 18-gun man-of-war. The remnants of the American invasion force occupied Fort Ticonderoga in 1776 under increasingly dire circumstances. Food, clothing and ammunition supplies were low and morale was flagging. Brigadier General Benedict Arnold received permission to construct a fleet on Lake Champlain to stop or at least slow the impending British advance. Shipwrights were brought in from New England coastal towns to construct the fleet, including special flat-bottomed craft that were fitted with both sails and oars and carried cannon in the bow. The workers had no alternative to using green lumber, which quickly warped and allowed water into the vessels. In all, three schooners, three galleys, eight gunboats and a sloop were constructed. The British were unaware of the American efforts to build a fleet and allowed their own shipbuilding activities to stretch into the late summer. Arnold realized that he was badly outgunned and would have no chance against a direct confrontation with the enemy. He sought the most favorable position he could find, choosing to array his fleet in an arc from Valcour Island to near the New York shore in an area a few miles south of the village of Plattsburgh. The British fleet finally set sail in early October, the Inflexible in the lead and the troop transports at the rear. The two forces met on the 11th. The American ships were not easily visible in the bay and much of the British flotilla sailed past. When the American presence was made known, the larger British vessels had difficulty reversing direction and were late in joining the fray. In the ensuing seven-hour battle, both sides sustained heavy damage, but the British were unable to bring the full force of their firepower to bear because of the cramped confines forced by the American position; only a few of the British vessels could align themselves between the island and the shore and fire at close range. Soldiers delivered by Carleton’s ships poured withering fire from the shore into the American ships, which inflicted heavy casualties. As night approached, the British attempted to bottle-up the bay and were confident that they could complete their task in the morning. Arnold had lost the Philadelphia and knew he stood little chance when the battle resumed. During the night a heavy fog descended. Arnold capitalized on the reduced visibility by silently sailing his damaged fleet around the British blockade and heading south toward Crown Point. When the fog lifted in the morning, the British beheld an empty bay and immediately began pursuit. A valiant delaying action was fought by the Congress, with Arnold at the helm, and the Washington, which enabled other ships to reach Crown Point. At the last moment, Arnold’s ship managed to sprint to shore, where it was set afire, and the crew escaped on land to Crown Point. Crown Point could not withstand a British assault, and was destroyed as the garrison and Arnold’s surviving men pushed on to Ticonderoga. When the British fleet arrived outside of Ticonderoga, the Americans blasted away with their cannon — despite the fact that they were dangerously low on powder and shot — which gave the British the impression that they were prepared to mount a protracted defense of their position. Carleton was taken in by the ruse. He returned American prisoners in his possession under a flag of truce, then turned his fleet around and sailed back to Canada. Arnold’s small navy was nearly destroyed: 11 of 15 ships were lost and 80 casualties sustained. However, Fort Ticonderoga was held and the British invasion halted. The significance of Arnold’s defense at Valcour Island would be noted in the following year’s campaign when the British again mounted an offensive from the north; had Arnold and his men failed, the campaign of 1777 would have begun from Ticonderoga rather than Canada and might have ended differently.

See timeline of the War of Independence.