Royal Savage is shown run aground and burning, while British ships fire on her (watercolor by unknown artist, ca. 1925)
FIGHTING A LAKE BATTLE, 1776
The British followed up their success in clearing Canada of American invaders in May and June 1776 by cautiously advancing south to Lake Champlain. This advance revealed a facet of their capability because, on 11 and 13 October 1776, on the lake near Ile Valcour, a British flotilla that had been built from scratch under the command of Captain Thomas Pringle defeated an American flotilla under Benedict Arnold, destroying eleven American ships.
Upon collapse of the ill-fated Canada invasion, the British prepared a counteroffensive. In June 1776 they forced the Americans to withdraw from Canada, pursuing them as far as Fort Chambly on the Richelieu River. Control of Lake Champlain was critical to operations in northern New York because the only passable road hugged the western shore of the lake and troops or supplies moving along it would be vulnerable to waterborne attack. Thus, both sides hastened to assemble fleets.
Major General Sir Guy Carleton established a base at St. Johns on the Richelieu River and spent the summer constructing vessels, while the Americans did the same at Skenesboro at the southern end of Lake Champlain. On 10 September, Carleton’s army, including Major General von Riedesel’s five thousand German mercenaries, began moving southward. Leaving four regiments and part of a fifth with some artillery to secure St. Johns and Fort Chambly, Carleton sent a younger brother, Lieutenant Colonel Thomas Carleton, south with four hundred Indians in canoes; these were reinforced later with one hundred Canadian volunteers and thirteen hundred Germans. Brigadier General Simon Fraser went into position about five miles north of the New York state line with the light infantry, grenadiers, and the Twenty-fourth Foot. Ile aux Noix, which the British had taken in August and later organized into a fortified base, was occupied by Burgoyne with six regiments (the Ninth, Twenty-first, Thirty-first, Forty-seventh, Riedesel, and Hanau). Captain Thomas Pringle, Carleton’s naval commander, set sail with twenty-five vessels on 3 October, the day after work was completed on the sloop of war Inflexible. On 14 October, Burgoyne and Fraser started forward with all but two of Carleton’s British regiments (the Twentieth and Sixty-first garrisoned Ile aux Noix). (All German troops were left in Canada except the Hanau artillery, which was on the Thunderer.)
Having left Crown Point on 24 August with the ten craft that were ready, Brigadier General Benedict Arnold moved north to Windmill Point, near the Canadian border. Threatened in these narrow waters by some of Carleton’s Indians, he had withdrawn to the vicinity of Cumberland Head by 19 September. Then, having taken soundings of the half-mile channel between rocky Valcour Island and the west shore, Arnold skillfully anchored his ships in a crescent-shaped formation across the channel on the 23rd. The day of the battle he had fifteen vessels under his command: the sloop Enterprise ; the schooners Royal Savage and Revenge ; the galleys Congress, Trumbull, and Washington ; the cutter Lee; and eight gundalows. (The Gates galley was still under construction at Ticonderoga, the schooner Liberty had been sent after supplies, and there is no record of a ninth gundalow, Success, being present.)
Carleton sailed southward cautiously until 11 October, when he rounded Cumberland Head with a strong wind behind him and overshot his quarry by two miles before he realized it. The Revenge sighted the oncoming British fleet as it cleared Cumberland Head at 8 A.M. and scurried into Valcour Channel to inform Arnold, who quickly assembled his commanding officers on the Congress, went over his brilliantly unorthodox plan, and exhorted them to put up a ‘‘resolute’’ defense. When Brigadier General David Waterbury, his second in command, advised executing a fighting retreat to Ticonderoga, Arnold overruled him, explaining that given the uncertainty of winds and inexperience of his crews, such a maneuver would be more dangerous than making a stand. Arnold ordered the Revenge to sail toward the enemy until spotted, then return and join the line of battle; ordered his four fastest vessels, Royal Savage, Congress, Trumbull, and Washington, to sally forth to inflict what damage they might, but also to draw the enemy into the southern end of the channel and minimize the chance that Carleton might be smart enough either to anchor out of range and await a southern wind or return up the lake to come around the northern end of Valcour; and ordered his (Arnold’s) other craft to form a line of battle across the channel, facing south.
When Arnold and his galleys and schooners withdrew, beating against the wind, the British impetuously gave chase. Caught by winds made treacherous by the cliffs and tall timber along the shorelines, the Royal Savage grounded on the southwest tip of Valcour Island. The British schooner Carleton (armed with twelve cannon that fired six-pound shot), which aggressively led the attack, blasted the unfortunate Royal Savage with a crippling broadside and was passing, with all sails set, along the American front when it was suddenly betrayed by the same wind and whirled straight toward the American boats. Under heavy musket and cannon fire, Lieutenant James Dacres, its commander, anchored the Carleton and then, with a spring in its cable, swung it into position to fire broadside. British gunboats moved to support Dacres, but four of the five larger vessels were prevented by the northerly wind from entering the fray. By 12:30 P.M., a general engagement was in progress. At a range of 350 yards, with observation impeded by a haze of gun smoke, the two forces hammered away. In the absence of trained gunners, Arnold personally pointed most of the cannon fired from the Congress.
After about an hour, the spring was shot away from the battered Carleton, which then turned on the anchor to face helplessly toward the converging fire of Arnold’s fleet. When Pringle signaled it to withdraw, nineteen-year-old Midshipman Edward Pellew, in command since Dacres and the next-senior officer had been knocked out of action, climbed onto the bowsprit and tried to make a jib draw into the northeast wind and bring it about to sail away. Unsuccessful, he remained a conspicuous target of massed cannon and musket fire until he could throw a line to two boats that came up to tow the Carleton to safety.
The chagrined crew of the Royal Savage manned its guns until driven off by gunfire. A crew from the Thunderer boarded it and manned the guns until driven off by American fire. When the Americans tried to return, a crew from the Maria beat them to it and set the vessel afire. After dark, the Royal Savage exploded when the flames reached its magazine.
The British gunboats withdrew as dusk fell (around 5 o’clock) and continued their fire until dark from a line six hundred to seven hundred yards farther south. About the same time, the Inflexible managed to come up and deliver five broadsides that silenced Arnold’s guns.
Carleton’s Indian auxiliaries had landed on both shores of Valcour Channel and began to deliver They delivered a harassing, but generally ineffective, musket fire from the trees.
The British thought they had Arnold trapped and expected to destroy him the next day in Valcour Channel, but Arnold had not finished outgeneraling Carleton. Aided by a northeast breeze, a dark night, dense fog, and Carleton’s fear of the shoals along the shoreline, Arnold’s battered flotilla escaped by rowing with muffled oars single file between the western end of the British line and the shore. Colonel Edward Wigglesworth led with the Trumbull at 7 P.M.; the Congress and Washington brought up the rear. (Two vessels remained in the channel: the Royal Savage, which was on fire, and a gundalow, the Philadelphia, which sank an hour after the battle ended.) By midnight the last vessel had passed the British. Unfortunately, the slight north wind that had aided their escape turned, and by dawn their ten hours of backbreaking rowing and pumping had taken the last five of Arnold’s battered craft a mere eight miles. At Schuyler’s Island, desperate attempts at repair were made. The gundalows Providence and New York were unsalvageable, so their equipment was removed and they were scuttled in fifty fathoms. The Jersey foundered on a rock and, being too waterlogged to burn, had to be abandoned. At about 1:30 P.M. the hastily repaired Congress and Washington started rowing south.
When dawn revealed Arnold’s escape, Carleton sent scouts to track him, set out in pursuit himself, and then returned to his starting point to relay orders to the army to move southward. This allowed the Americans to keep ahead of their hunters on 12 October, but the next day the British closed the gap. At dawn on the 13th, after creeping six miles in sixteen hours, Arnold and his last two vessels were abreast of Willsborough, twenty-eight miles from Crown Point. When the wind turned to the northeast the British benefited first and got to within a mile before the sails of the slower-moving American vessels began to fill. At 11 A.M. at Split Rock, the end came quickly. The Maria, followed by the Inflexible and the Carleton, forced Waterbury to surrender the Washington and his 110 men. The Lee ran ashore and was abandoned. The Congress and four gundalows (that had fallen back from Wigglesworth’s group) kept up a running fight against the three enemy ships, which used their speed and maneuverability to rake the Americans at pointblank range. In a final act of defiance, the die-hard Arnold signaled his ships to windward, a maneuver the British could not follow, and the Americans rowed for Buttonmould Bay on the east (Vermont) shore. Here he beached and burned his wrecks with their colors still flying. That night Arnold reached Crown Point (ten miles away) with two hundred men, having escaped an Indian ambush en route. At Crown Point, Arnold found the Trumbull, Enterprise, Revenge, Liberty, and (according to some reports) ‘‘one gundalow.’’
Unable to hold Crown Point against such heavy odds, Arnold burned its buildings. He then withdrew to Fort Ticonderoga with his survivors of Valcour Island and with Lieutenant Colonel Hartley’s garrison of the Sixth Pennsylvania.
Benedict Arnold’s name is forever linked to treason, but on Lake Champlain, against all odds, he constructed a squadron that may well have saved the American Revolution by delaying the British invasion of 1776 until it was too late in the season for Carleton to press further southward. Arnold had lost the entire squadron, but the stout resistance of his men led Carleton to fear that if the defenders of Fort Ticonderoga fought as tenaciously, then winter would close in before it could be taken. Thus, on 2 November he began withdrawing to Canada.