were caught short

Battle of Valcour Island

The naval Battle of Valcour Island, also known as the Battle of Valcour Bay, took place on 11 October 1776, on Lake Champlain in a narrow strait between the New York mainland and Valcour Island during the American Revolutionary War. It is generally regarded as the first naval battle fought by the United States Navy. Although the American ships under the command of Benedict Arnold were mostly destroyed, the campaign delayed by one year the British attempt to cut the colonies in half and eventually led to the British military disaster at Saratoga in 1777.

Strategic importance of Lake Champlain

Following the failed American invasion of Canada in 1775, the British launched a counteroffensive intended to gain control of the Hudson River Valley, which extends southward from Lake Champlain. Control of the upper Hudson 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 quashing the revolution. Lake Champlain is connected to Lake George which has its southern end near the Hudson River. 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 90 miles (150 km) 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. 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 British fleet (30 vessels) had roughly twice as many ships and twice the firepower of the Americans' 16 vessels.

Forces assembled

Benedict Arnold's flagship was initially the Royal Savage, a two-masted schooner commanded by Captain David Hawley, but he transferred to the Congress, a row galley. Arnold's fleet included Revenge and Liberty, also two-masted schooners, as well as the Enterprise, a sloop, and 8 gunboats: New Haven, , Boston, Spitfire, Philadelphia, Connecticut, Jersey, New York, and the galley Trumbull.

Facing them were the ships of the Royal Navy constructed in Quebec under the direction of Commodore Charles Douglas: The flagship Inflexible, reassembled from pieces and measuring 80 feet (24 m) long; the schooners Maria, Carleton, Royal Convert, the 14-gun two-masted ketch Thunderer, as well as over 20 single-masted gunboats each armed with a single cannon.


Arnold came from a seafaring Connecticut family. He 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, and where the inferior seamanship of his unskilled sailors would have a minimal effect.

The British fleet took up positions at noon around 300 yards (c.300 m) 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 fire with a heavy broadside against the American ships, which continued for the next five hours. During the exchange of cannon fire, Revenge was heavily hit; Philadelphia was also heavily hit and sank later at around 6:30 p.m. Royal Savage commanded by Captain David Hawley ran aground and was set on fire by the crew to prevent the ship from falling in British hands. Congress and Washington were heavily damaged; Jersey and New York were also badly hit. On the British side, casualties began mounting, as well. HMS 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 Lieutenant 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 their crews were forced to scuttle them after the action.

Nonetheless, the battle had gone against the Americans when the sun set on 11 October. Most of the American ships were damaged or sinking, and the crews reported around 60 casualties. The British reported around 40 casualties on their ships. Aware that he could not defeat the British fleet, Arnold decided to withdraw. Arnold 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. As the British pursued, Colonel Guy Carleton mistakenly fired upon a small rocky island, thinking it was an American ship. The small island was later named Carleton's prize.


After sailing the eight miles (13 km) on 12 October, Arnold drove Providence ashore in the shallow water of Buttonmold Bay off Schuyler Island where the heavier British ships could not follow. The ship was then stripped of guns, powder and everything else of use. New Jersey ran aground, while the crew from the Lee likewise stripped their grounded vessel. On 13 October, the British fleet finally caught up to the American fleet off Split Rock where 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 Ticonderoga. American losses were ultimately listed as over 80 killed with 120 captured, many of them wounded. Aside from the 40 reported dead and wounded, there appear to have been no British casualties in the two days after the 11 October engagement.

Although the British had cleared the lake of American ships, establishing naval control, snow was already falling as Arnold and his men reached Ticonderoga on 20 October. The British commander Carleton had no choice but to defer the attacks on Crown Point and Fort Ticonderoga; he withdrew to winter quarters in Canada in early November. The next year, in 1777, a much larger an better-supported American army of mostly militia would eventually stop the British advance at Saratoga and bring France into the war on the American side.


The site of the battle--Valcour Bay itself--was declared a National Historic Landmark on January 1, 1961. The Philadelphia, which was sunk during the battle, was raised in 1935 and is on display at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C. It was also declared a National Historic Landmark in 1961.


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