With an army of 20,000 men, George Washington could not hold New York City against an enemy force twice as large. The British drove him out of the city and across New Jersey into Pennsylvania. By December, he had 3,000 men left and was admitting to his brother, “I think the game is pretty near up.”
And that wasn’t the only threat to the patriot cause. Another British army was threatening to invade from Canada. A long, nearly continuous waterway traversed Lake Champlain and Lake George to the Hudson River, affording passage for their troops. To stop them, the patriots needed to revamp their own demoralized northern army, build a fleet of warships to defend Lake Champlain, and fortify Fort Ticonderoga on the lake’s New York shore.
As Congressional delegates were declaring that the colonies were “Free and Independent States,” the British strategy of suppressing the rebellion in one season seemed to be working. By fall, Congress would have to abandon Philadelphia and flee to Baltimore.
Historians have highlighted Washington’s struggle but often neglect the effort in the north. That operation was led by General Philip Schuyler, an Albany aristocrat noted for his lukewarm views on independence. He had little combat experience, having served as a supply officer in the French and Indian War. Schuyler’s field general was Horatio Gates, a former British Army major. Gates repeatedly tripped over his own ambition, seeking to replace Washington as overall commander. The actual fighting in the north would be directed by Benedict Arnold. The Connecticut merchant had had no military experience before the war. His prickly character, which would lead to treason four years later, was already on display.
Yet each of these men proved to be ideal for his role that summer. A logistical genius, Schuyler managed to obtain and transport to the wild interior the supplies needed to build a fleet on Lake Champlain. Gates was an administrative genius, able to reorganize the beaten patriot army that had spent the previous winter trying to take control of Canada. Arnold was a genius of war itself. He had an intuition for strategy and tactics and was a born leader. As a former sea captain, he understood how to the handle ships needed to confront the enemy.
These men spent the summer preparing for a clash that could come at any moment. Schuyler organized a shipyard at the southern end of the lake and carpenters began to hammer together fifty-foot-long gunboats. The construction of larger galleys, which would mount heavier guns, awaited the arrival of experienced shipwrights.
Meanwhile, General Gates restored order to the spiritless army he had inherited and set the men to constructing fortifications around Ticonderoga. He had to deal with a catastrophic smallpox epidemic in the ranks, a disease that sickened thousands of soldiers and required strict quarantine.
In August, Arnold sailed north with six of the new gunboats and a couple of schooners. For the next six weeks he used his small fleet to explore the northern end of the lake, which was filled with islands and coves. In the process, his men, most of whom were not experienced sailors, learned the rudiments of boat handling and gained information about the local waters. Only at the last minute did three row galleys finally arrive, adding to Arnold’s firepower.
On the morning of October 11, with a cold wind whipping down from the north, patriot lookouts spotted sails in the distance. The British were coming. The enemy deployed twenty-two gunboats to the Americans’ eight. They also had two armed schooners, an artillery barge and a full-size frigate whose guns outmatched those of any American craft.
Arnold had decided to conceal his fleet behind Valcour Island, just off the New York shore near today’s Plattsburgh. Seeing that they were facing a superior fleet manned by experienced Royal Navy sailors, some of his officers favored making a run for it. Arnold said they would wait in hiding and fight.
The British came rushing south on the lake with favorable wind. After they had passed Valcour, Arnold ordered ships out to fire at the enemy from behind.
The British now had to come around and head back against the wind in order to attack the American fleet in Valcour Bay. The maneuver proved difficult for the larger British ships. Only the gunboats were able to engage the Americans. Arnold’s fleet, stretched in an arc from the island to the main, faced point-blank cannon fire for seven hours. They returned the assault shot for shot. His men managed to sink one British gunboat and seriously damage an enemy schooner.
They paid a high price. One American gunboat, the Philadelphia, sank soon after darkness ended the fight. About thirty patriot sailors were killed by lethal cannonballs, their bodies tossed overboard without ceremony. They had spent three-quarters of their ammunition and several more boats were in danger of sinking.
Should they surrender rather than await a further enemy barrage at first light? Arnold said no. With his extraordinary ability to inspire, he rallied his officers and explained his plan — to escape. Historians still scratch their heads about how Arnold managed to slip out of Valcour Bay with his fleet, right under the noses of the enemy. But when the sun came up and the fog lifted the next day, the British were stunned to see the water empty.
The next phase of the battle was a 36-hour chase as the Americans tried to make it back to Ticonderoga and the British relied on their faster ships and superior seamanship to run them down.
The fighting broke out again on October 13. A few of the American ships made it to the protection of the fort. One row-galley had to surrender to the enemy. After two-and-a-half hours of fighting, Arnold ran his galley and four gunboats ashore and set them on fire to avoid capture. The narrow cove where they burned is called Arnold’s Bay, the only place in America named for its pre-eminent traitor.
The strategy devised by Schuyler, Gates and Arnold worked. The British, with winter coming on, decided to put off their invasion until the following year.
Gates and Arnold took 600 of the men from Ticonderoga to join Washington’s army in Pennsylvania. With the threat from the north neutralized and these extra fighters to deploy, Washington made the fateful decision to cross the Delaware River on Christmas night and attack the Hessians at Trenton. The victory there helped restore patriot morale and keep the cause of liberty alive.
Jack Kelly’s new book Valcour: The 1776 Campaign That Saved the Cause of Liberty (St. Martin’s Press, 2021) looks at one of the most crucial and least known campaigns of the Revolutionary War when America’s scrappy navy took on the full might of Britain’s sea power. Kelly is an award-winning author who lives and works in the Hudson Valley. More information can be found on JackKellyBooks.com.