Contemporary watercolor drawing of the American line of battle by Charles Randle. Drawing is titled as follows: New England Armed Vessels in Valcore Bay, Lake Champlain [including Royal Savage, Revenge, Lee, Trumble, Washington, Congress, Philadelphia, New York, Jersey,. Connecticut, Providence, New haven, Spitfire, Boston, and the Liberty] commanded by Benedict Arnold.

Control of the waters of Lake Champlain was key to the invasion of Canada from the south or of New York from the north. In 1775 all travel was on foot or waterborne. The only feasible route for a road between New York City and Montreal hugged the western shore of the lake so closely that it could be dominated by guns aboard lake vessels or cut by troops landed behind an army’s line of march from boats on the lake. There were few vessels of any size on the lake in 1775, and most that did exist were of the small, rowing type, with sails that could be used only when wind was from the rear. A flotilla of these craft would be at the mercy of a single armed sailing vessel. This explains the importance of the 10 May 1775 capture of a schooner belonging to the Loyalist Major, Philip Skene—renamed Liberty by the Americans—at Skenesboro at the southern end of the lake, and the use of the Liberty and two bateaux to capture a sloop renamed the Enterprise from the British at St. Johns at the northern end of the lake a week later.

After capturing the Enterprise the American commander, Benedict Arnold, returned to Fort Ticonderoga and devoted the summer of 1775 to building additional vessels. Meanwhile, the British dispatched four hundred troops to St. Johns and began construction of two large warships, each to mount from twelve to fourteen guns. Philip Schuyler, who had succeeded Arnold in command of U.S. forces in northern New York, returned to besiege St. Johns that fall. On 2 November, the British garrison surrendered and turned over to the Americans a large supply of naval stores, the newly completed schooner Royal Savage, and a sloop nearly ready for launching.


In the Canada invasion of 1775–1776, the Americans lost their entire St. Lawrence squadron. However, when they evacuated St. Johns on 18 June 1776, they still had the Liberty, Enterprise, and Royal Savage, which they had captured in 1775. The schooner Revenge was being built at Fort Ticonderoga, and from St. Johns the Americans evacuated frame timber to build the cutter Lee at Skenesboro. During the previous winter Schuyler had ordered that trees be felled; that abandoned sawmills at Ticonderoga, Crown Point, and Skenesboro be reopened; and that bateaux be constructed for the transport of men and supplies. At Skenesboro he ordered work begun on gundalows (vessels of from fifty to sixty feet in length, flat-bottomed with shallow drafts that mounted a single sail and carried a bow gun and two guns amidships) and galleys (larger vessels from 80 to 120 feet in length, with two lateen-rigged masts, and able to carry from ten to twelve guns).

The improvised boatyard at Skenesboro was worked by men from the ranks until thirty craftsmen were sent from Albany and another two hundred started arriving from Massachusetts, Connecticut, Rhode Island, and Philadelphia. To lure skilled craftsmen to Lake Champlain, each was promised a month’s pay in advance, one and one-half rations per day, and a day’s pay for every twenty miles traveled to reach Skenesboro. This was more than anyone in the Continental navy, save Commodore Esek Hopkins, earned. In July 1776, Schuyler named Benedict Arnold to replace Jacobus Wynkoop as commander of the American squadron on Lake Champlain. When Arnold reached Skenesboro on 23 July, he found as many as five hundred men at work, three gundalows finished, and two others nearing completion. Arnold delegated supervision of construction to Brigadier General David Waterbury and devoted his energies to obtaining critical naval supplies—spikes, nails, hawsers, anchors, canvas, paint, and caulking. He was aided in this endeavor, ironically, by the British blockade of New York and Philadelphia, which helped divert supplies to Lake Champlain because it cut off the frigates being built at those cities. Arnold’s driving leadership caused his fleet to be ready more than a month before the British.

When added to the schooners Liberty, Revenge, and Royal Savage, the sloop Enterprise and the cutter Lee that had been captured from the British, the newly constructed vessels—the row galleys Congress, Trumbull, and Washington, eight gundalows (Boston, Connecticut, Jersey, New Haven, New York, Philadelphia, Providence, and Spitfires), and numerous bateaux—gave Arnold a force the British could not ignore. Typical of the row galleys that would prove to be the most important American vessels, the Washington was seventy-two feet four inches on deck, twenty-foot beam, and six feet two inches in the hold, according to the Admiralty draught made after the British capture. The Washington mounted two eighteen-pounders, two twelve-pounders, two nine-pounders, and four four-pounders in her broadside, with a two-pounder and eight swivel guns on the quarterdeck.

One of the Gundalows, the Philadelphia, was recovered in 1935 by T. F. Hagglund in a remarkably good state of preservation, and a description has been assembled. It was an open boat measuring fifty-three feet four inches, fifteen feet six inches beam, and three feet ten inches depth amidships; flat-bottomed; and rigged with two square sails on a single mast. The gundalows were all armed with a twelve-pounder in the bow and two nine-pounders amidships; they carried forty-five men and were equipped with oars (as were the galleys). Having no outside keels, although this was called for in Arnold’s specifications, the gundalows could not sail into the wind; however, ‘‘with their relatively powerful rig [they] were very fast off the wind,’’ says the historian Howard L. Chapelle (p. 113).

On 24 August, Arnold sailed from Crown Point with the eleven vessels that were ready. He was joined later by the galleys Congress, Trumbull, and Washington and the gundalows New Jersey and Philadelphia as they were completed. The Gates was not completed in time for the battle. The existence of another gundalow, the Success, has been referred to by some authors, but it is not named as a participant in the Battle of Valcour Island by any eyewitness.


Meanwhile, at St. Johns, the British assembled a squadron of similarly disparate vessels. A large gundalow, the Convert, was captured from the Americans as they withdrew southward in June 1776, renamed the Loyal Convert, moved around the rapids on the Richelieu River, and reassembled at St. Johns, as were the schooners Maria, also captured from the Americans; the Carleton, which had been brought in pieces from a dockyard in England; and last of all, the three-masted ship sloop Inflexible, which was not ready for service until 4 October. The most remarkable vessel in Carleton’s fleet was the 422-ton ‘‘radeau,’’ or sailing scow, built at St. Johns and named Thunderer. Carrying a threehundred- man complement and two large howitzers, six twenty-four-pounders, and six twelve-pounders (manned during the battle of Valcour Island by the gunners of the Hanau Regiment), it was almost ninety-two feet long and over thirty-three feet in beam. The Thunderer had two masts (leading a contemporary British officer to call her a ketch), but being flat-bottomed, it could not work to windward and did not participate in the battle.

The British also moved several smaller boats past the rapids from the St. Lawrence: twenty gunboats each having one gun; four long boats with a field gun each; and twenty-four provision boats or bateaux—many received in frame from England. The Maria, with fourteen six-pounder guns, the Loyal Convert, with seven nine-pounders, and the Thunderer did not get within effective range during the battle of Valcour Island. The Inflexible delivered a long-range fire with her eighteen twelve-pounders initially, then was finally able to get within point-blank range and discharge five broadsides, which completely silenced Arnold’s guns and probably did most of the damage suffered by the American flotilla. Cannon in the fifteen to twenty gunboats that participated in the fight (Arnold estimated their number in those terms) varied in caliber from nine-pounders to twenty-four pounders.

At the start of Burgoyne’s offensive in 1777, the British flotilla consisted of the British gunboats and sailing vessels of their 1776 squadron; the captured Lee, New Jersey, and Washington; a newly built sailing vessel, the Royal George; five provision ships (Commissary, Receit, Delivery, Ration, and Camel); and ten transport bateaux. At Skenesboro on 6 July 1777, the last of the American squadron was burned by the departing rebels (Revenge, Enterprise, and Gates) or captured (Trumbull and Liberty).

BIBLIOGRAPHY Chapelle, Howard I. The History of the American Sailing Ship. New York: Norton, 1949. Lundeberg, Philip K. The Gunboat Philadelphia and the Defense of Lake Champlain in 1776. Basin Harbor, Vt.: n.p., 1995. Malcolmson, Robert. Warships of the Great Lakes, 1754–1834. London: Chatham, 2001.

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