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The Battle of Lake Champlain – Making of A Hero That Would Become A Traitor

Under the golden haze of dawn, the Green Mountain Boys and other militiamen advanced very carefully toward the British-held Fort Ticonderoga, (NY). With just one enemy sentry on duty, the men under the command of Ethan Allen and Benedict Arnold easily captured all 48 of the fort’s defenders. Many of them were still asleep. Though one Patriot was reportedly wounded, it was the first American victory of the Revolutionary War.
During their attack on the fort and a nearby garrison at Crown Point, the Revolutionary forces recovered vital amounts of individual weapons, artillery and ammunition. In addition, Fort Ticonderoga was a critical fortification at the south end of Lake Champlain. With overland portage at both ends of the lake, the waterway was a direct route between Quebec’s Saint Lawrence River and the Hudson River.
In September of 1775, four months after the capture of Fort Ticonderoga, the Continental Army launched an invasion of Quebec. Its goal was to drive the British out of the province, while at the same time, persuade the French Quebecers (Québécois) to join up with the revolutionaries. Under the leadership of General Richard Montgomery, the troops headed north on Lake Champlain, capturing Fort St. John (St. Jean) and Montreal, before arriving in the vicinity of Quebec City. While attacking St. John, Montgomery’s troops seized the 70-ton schooner, Royal Savage. The ship would later play a role in the Battle of Lake Champlain, at Valcour Island.

Benedict Arnold led his men through Maine’s northwest wilderness, to the shores of the St. Lawrence River, opposite Quebec City. From there, Arnold commandeered a number of small vessels and crossed to the north side of the river. But the battle for Quebec’s fort did not go well. On December 31, 1775, during a raging snowstorm, Montgomery gained access through the fort’s northern gate. Withering fire from an enemy blockhouse took the general’s life along with most of his accompanying troops.
Arnold’s attack on the fort did not go any better. As they advanced through narrow streets, Arnold received a gunshot in his leg. He was carried back to safety, but more than 30 of his men were killed and many others were taken prisoner. The remaining troops eventually retreated to Fort St John. Once there, they took possession of useable boats and anything else of military value. They then burned all other materials that might be of help to the British. When the enemy arrived on the scene, their commander choose not to pursue the Americans. There were no vessels available to them.
Over the next few months, both sides embarked on building a viable fleet. The British disassembled some vessels from the St. Lawrence River. They then transported and rebuilt them at Fort St. John. At Skenesborough (now called Whitehall, NY), the Americans refurnished and armed their captured vessels while building eight gondolas, flat-bottom rowing craft with square sails. The 53-foot, 15-foot beam gunboat (=gondola) Philadelphia was armed with a 12-pounder cannon facing forward, and two 9-pounders on either side of the ship.
General Gates appointed Arnold as commander of the Lake Champlain fleet. Arnold anticipated a British move to take control of the lake. If successful, they would have had easy access to the Hudson River. With Manhattan already in British hands, they would have then been able to divide the colonies, north and south of the river.
On October 9, 1776, a superior British fleet began to sail south on the lake. Having received word of the approaching warships, Arnold ordered his vessels to anchor in the form of an arc, bow to stern, in the ½-mile wide strait between Valcour Island and the New York coast. Together, they could then concentrate their fire-power toward any approaching enemy ship.
On the morning of October 11, as the British ships sailed past the south-end of Valcour Island, the American ships were finally spotted. However, the direction of the wind was against them, making it difficult for the larger warships to maneuver closer to the Americans. Instead, the English commander ordered armed gunboats, propelled by oars, to carry out an attack. In the meantime, to lure the enemy even closer to his defensive arc, Arnold had ordered the schooners Royal Savage and Enterprise to sail toward the enemy. The Philadelphia remained anchored in the defensive arc. In the ensuing battle, the Royal Savage ran aground at the southern tip of Valcour Island. With enemy gunboats approaching, her crewmen abandoned ship, but they were soon captured. The British later set fire to the already crippled American schooner.
At about mid-day, the battle began in earnest. In the exchange of fire, Philadelphia was gravely damaged and eventually sank. By sunset, most of Arnold’s fleet lay silent. As the skies grew darker, the British broke off their engagement, giving Arnold the opportunity to make his next move.
It had become obvious to Arnold and his officers, that they could not withstand another day’s encounter. Under cover of night and fog, Arnold’s remaining vessels managed to slip past the British ships by hugging the New York shoreline. Despite adverse winds, the American fleet made its way to Schuyler Island (south of Port Kent, NY). While at anchorage, repairs were made to several vessels, but two of them, the gondolas Spitfire and Jersey, were beyond repair. They were abandoned.
As they made their way towards Fort Ticonderoga, the pursuing British fleet caught up to the Americans and managed to destroy most of the other vessels. When Arnold finally made it back to Fort Ticonderoga, only 4 of his original 15 Valcour Island fleet remained. But despite the destruction, Arnold was the battle’s hero. His tactics had prevented the British from dividing the colonies north and south of the Hudson. With winter coming on and a lack of sufficient supplies, the British returned north to their winter quarters.
Born in Norwich, Connecticut, Benedict Arnold joined the militia in 1756, during the French and Indian War. At that time, he was only 15 years old. As an adult, he operated a drug and book shop and later became involved in international shipping out of New Haven, Connecticut.
Following the Battle of Lake Champlain (= The Battle of Valcour Island), he was passed over for promotion, while five officers junior to him received promotions. Though Arnold also contributed greatly to the Battle of Saratoga (October 1777), he again received no recognition for his success. Apparently, part of his problem was that he did not get along with his superior officers. After a less than stellar appointment as military commander of Philadelphia, he assumed command of West Point. At about that same time, he had begun to side with the British. During secret negotiations, Arnold devised a plan to surrender West Point to the enemy. Luckily, however, his British contact was captured by the Americans in September 1780. Documents he was carrying exposed Arnold’s plans. Learning of his contact’s capture, Arnold fled to the British lines and later traveled to England where he resided until his death at age 60. The Revolutionary War hero had become a traitor.
In 1934, Lorenzo Hagglund, a hard-hat salvage diver, recovered remnants of the schooner Royal Savage, at the southern tip of Valcour Island. In 1995, the family sold some of the schooner’s timbers and artifacts to Harrisburg, Pennsylvania for a city museum. They remained in storage for years. On July 1, 2015, the Naval History and Heritage Command took possession of the historical materials, to preserve and study them, and place them on exhibition sometime in the future.
In 1935, Hagglund accompanied by other divers began searching for the gunboat Philadelphia. Towing a sweep chain, they located the vessel lying upright, some 60 feet below the surface. On inspection, they found the ship’s mainmast still erect and its guns still in place. After successfully raising the gondola, Hagglund attempted to donate to Lake Champlain museums, but none of them had adequate space to exhibit the vessel. It remained in his possession until 1961 when it was transferred to the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History. Visitors to the museum can see up close, the oldest surviving American fighting vessel and precious artifacts recovered from the wreck.