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The Battle of Lake Champlain at Valcour Island- October 11, 1776

The Battle of Lake Champlain
By James P. Millard
Contemporary map of the Battle of Valcour













The North American Atlas
Wm. Faden, London 1777
Library of Congress, Washington

At 8:00 in the morning of October 11, 1776, the largest assembly of naval vessels ever to sail Lake Champlain to that time rounded the peninsula known as Cumberland Head. A truly impressive force, it consisted of approximately 30 major vessels, almost 700 picked seamen, together with a number of soldiers, artillerists and Indians in canoes.  Their goal was to destroy the rebel fleet on Lake Champlain, take the vital American forts at Ticonderoga and Mt. Independence, and drive a wedge between the eastern and western parts of the Colony. Several days behind this naval force was an invading army, some 7,000 troops in almost 400 bateaux.
Awaiting them, hidden behind a large island just south of the Head, was a motley assortment of vessels-15 in all- hastily constructed of green timber shortly before at Skenesborough- the southernmost head of navigation on the lake. Formed in a line within a channel at most a half-mile wide, this ragged fleet awaited the mighty flotilla from the north. There were some 800 men aboard these vessels, described by their own commander as "a wretched, motley crew." Many had endured unimaginable hardships to serve aboard these ships, most were lacking in the most basic of provisions, some had no shoes. All were hungry, tired and apprehensive.
The British fleet sailing south from Canada consisted of the Inflexible, a ship of 18 guns, two schooners- the Maria and the Carleton, fourteen and twelve guns, an enormous radeau bristling with heavy weapons, the Thunderer, and a large gondola- the Royal (or Loyal) Convert.

Together with 20 gunboats and another two dozen longboats, they sailed south past Cumberland Head on a brisk Autumn breeze. On both sides of the lake, the hills blazed with the reds, yellows and oranges of a New England fall. Within a few hours, these same colors would light up the sky and reflect on the waters off Valcour Island- this time the source of the brilliant canvas would not be nature, but the horrifying killing machines of man.

Aboard the Flagship Maria, captained by Thomas Pringle, was Sir Guy Carleton himself, British Governor of Canada. They had much intelligence on the ships the rebels were building on the lake and the British High Command had seen to it that naval superiority was achieved. They expected to meet their enemy in the vicinity of Crown Point, and with such overwhelming strength, it was believed they would easily reopen the vital lake corridor to His Majesty's army.

The Americans spotted the British first. Seeing the size of the oncoming fleet, General Waterbury had second  thoughts about Benedict Arnold's plan to hole up in the protected lee of Valcour. Calling a hasty council of war, he entreated Arnold to leave the shelter of the island Click the thumbnail to see an aerial photo of the Valcour Island Battlefield by AHL Guest Contributors Roger and Doug Harwoodand meet the enemy in the broad lake, while attempting a retreat to relative security under the guns of Ticonderoga and Independence. Arnold would have nothing to do with it—he ordered the lines of battle tightened and told his commanders to prepare to fight.

Compare the aerial photo above to the Faden map to get a sense of the Valcour Battlefield topography.

It was some time after 10:00 that the British finally caught sight of the American vessels. By that time the brisk wind from the north had taken them too far south, past the island, and it was necessary to attempt to change direction—against the wind—back towards the west in order to engage the enemy. Arnold was determined the British come to him— he had sent out a couple of schooners and some gallies to entice his antagonists into the bay.  The gunboats came into range first, and the engagement began in earnest about 11:00. Early on, things took a dramatic turn for the worst for the rebels. The Royal Savage, the largest  vessel in the American fleet, ran hard aground on the rocky southwestern corner of the island. Already heavily damaged by some well-placed shots from the Inflexible, this was a loss the tiny American fleet could scarcely afford. Seeing her plight, several gunboats turned their fire on the helpless vessel while the crew abandoned her and fled into the woods. Not all escaped, however, since a boarding party from the Loyal Convert quickly came aside, and Click the thumbnail to see where the Royal Savage went agroundcaptured 20 of her sailors. Lt. Edward Longcroft then turned the Savage's guns against her own ships. This lasted only a short time before long the blazing fury of the nearby rebel fleet was turned onto the Savage, and the redcoats were forced to abandon her again. They would return again- this time to set the vessel afire.

For several hours a fierce battle ensued. As Arnold himself says:

Swivel gun on the Continental Gunboat Philadelphia, on display at the Museum of  American History, Smithsonian. Photo credit: Roger Harwood

", half past 11 the engagement, became General, & very warm...Some of the Enemies Ships & all their Gondolas, beat & rowed up within musquet Shott of us. they, Continued a Very hot fire with Round & Grape Shott..."1 .

Swivel gun on the Continental Gunboat Philadelphia, on display at the Museum of  American History, Smithsonian. Photo credit: Roger Harwood

By 12:30 pm the Carleton and several gunboats had managed to get within musket shot of the American lines. The Congress, with Arnold aboard, took a terrific beating. By mid-afternoon, the Washington had been hulled in several places, her mast was gone and most of her sails were in shreds. On both shores a number of Indians had been landed, they kept up an incessant hail of musket fire upon the American vessels. Arnold continues: 

"... the Congress & Washington have sufferd. greatly, the Latter Lost her first Lieut killed, & Capt & Master wounded, the New York lost all her officers except her captain. the Philada was hulled in so many Places that She Sank, About One hour after the engagemt was over, the whole,  killed & wounded amounts to abt Sixty, the enemy, Landed a large Number of Indians On the Island & each Shore, who. keep an Incessant Fire On us, but did little Damage- the Enemy had to Appearance Upwards of One thousand Men in Batteaus, prepared for boarding. - We suffered much for want of Seamen & Gunners, I was obliged myself to Point Most of the Guns on board the Congress which I believe did good execution- the Congress received Seven Shott between Wind & Water, was hulled a doz times, had her Main Mast Wounded in Two places & her Yard in One, The Washington was hulled a Number of times, her Main Mast Shot thro. & must have a New One. both Vessells are very leaky & want repairing...."2

Counterclockwise from top left: 9 pounder, bow with 12 pounder, anchor (note hole in deck), 9 pounder and swivel, rudder, and another view of the bow gun. Continental Gunboat Philadelphia, on display at the Museum of  American History, Smithsonian. Photos credit: Roger Harwood

Despite their best efforts, the largest ships were unable to come into range and bring most of their guns to bear. The Carleton, commanded  by Lt. James Dacres, put up a fierce fight and paid a heavy price. Half her crew were killed or wounded. Dacres himself was rendered unconscious and command passed to Midshipman Edward Pellew, only 19 years old. Pellew proceeded to distinguish himself by his bravery. 

By late-afternoon, the Thunderer and Maria still had not taken an active role in the engagement. In the case of the Thunderer, this may be understandable. The huge ship simply may not have been able to come around. The Maria's lack of involvement was to cause some controversy. Aboard were the Capt. Thomas Pringle, the Commander of naval operations, and the Governor-General himself, Sir Guy Carleton. Later, after the battle was over, the officers of the ships that did engage formally accused Pringle of mismanagement, and there were some hints at allegations of cowardice.

The battle continued through the afternoon, only beginning to abate around 5:00 pm. Finally, the British gunboats began to pull back, though sporadic firing continued well into the early Autumn darkness. The American rebels took stock- at least 60 killed and wounded, the Congress badly damaged, along with the Washington and New York. The Royal Savage, of course, was gone; and the Philadelphia was sinking fast. A British boarding party had returned to the Savage and set her afire. She burned well into the evening, when a gigantic explosion lit the sky- the magazine had been touched off by the flames. With the loss of this ship went all of Arnold's personal papers and most of his belongings. 

Sometime before 7:00 pm, the commanders of each vessel assembled aboard the Congress for a Council of War. The British would sit and wait out the darkness, finishing off the rebel fleet with the coming of day. Somehow, the battered fleet needed to get away from the superior guns of their adversaries and reach relative safety at Crown Point. An unlikely and exceedingly daring plan was proposed- they would sneak around the waiting British fleet, rowing close to the shore, oars muffled, lanterns out until they attained the broad lake, where they could "make a run" for the south.

The Trumbull, Col. Wigglesworth commanding, went first. He was followed by the Enterprise and the Lee, then each of the gondolas. The Washington, and finally the Congress, brought up the rear. A single, shuttered lantern in the stern of each ship was meant to be followed by each succeeding vessel. Incredibly, the entire group of ships made it past the waiting British fleet. Some say the British were distracted by the fire and explosions on the south shore of the island. Certainly, the tasks of caring for the wounded and preparing for the finale to occur the next morning was daunting. Yet, it is amazing that all of the American ships were able to slip by each of the British vessels unnoticed. Arnold described the escape with rather atypical modesty:

Business end of a 12 pounder.
Roger Harwood photo.

"... On Consulting with Genl Waterbury & Colonel Wiggilsworth, it was thought prudent to Retire to Crown Point, every Vessells Ammunition being Nearly three fourths spent. & the Enemies greatly Superior to us in Ships & Men - at. 7 oClock Colonel Wiggilsworth in the Trumbull got under Way, the Gondolas and Small Vessells followed & the Congress & Washington brought up the Rear. the Enemy did not, attempt to molest us, most of the fleet is this minute came to An Anchor, the Wind is small to the So ward, the, Enemies fleet is Under way to Leward & beating up.- as soon as our Leakes are Stoped, the whole fleet will, made the utmost Dispatch to Crown Point, where I beg you will Send Ammunition & your further Orders for us. - On the whole I think we have had a Very fortunate escape..."3

Governor Carleton, however; admitted to being impressed with the escape:

"... We then Anchored in a line opposite the Rebels within the distance of Cannon shot, expecting in the morning to be able to engage them with our whole fleet, but, to our great mortification we perceived at day break, that they had found means to escape us unobserved by any of our guard boats or cruizers, thus an opportunity of destroying the whole rebel naval force, at one stroke, was lost, first by an impossibility of bringing all our vessels to action, and afterwards  by the great diligence used by the enemy in getting away from us..."4

By daybreak, Arnold's wounded and motley fleet had reached Schuyler's Island, some nine miles from Valcour. Here they took the time to again take stock by the light of day. It was also here that Arnold wrote General Gates, as we have seen; his letter shares the details of the battle. In a footnote to the letter he pleads for a dozen bateau to help tow the damaged vessels back to Crown Point. He knew that soon a reckoning would occur. Their enemy would pursue them... and with the renewed zeal of an angry and embarrassed antagonist.

Arnold found two more of his vessels could not continue the flight south. These ships-gondolas- were sunk in the waters off Schuyler's Island. 

Meanwhile, the British had discovered, to their horror; that the rebel fleet had escaped. An enraged General Carleton ordered the pursuit. The battle would continue into a second phase- the "running battle."

After taking care of a crisis with the Thunderer (the huge ship had lost her lee boards and was listing so much she was taking on water) the fleet set out to catch up with the rebels. Orders were given to the ground troops to follow in the rear, and thanks to a freshening wind, good time was made heading up the lake. Just North of Split Rock, Click the thumbnail to see an aerial photo of the Split Rock vicinity of Lake Champlain the first of the ships were overtaken. In a desperate move, the hybrid Cutter Lee was run into a bay on the eastern shore where she was taken as a prize. The already battered Washington took several more broadsides, then she was forced to strike her colors. General Waterbury was taken captive along with her crew. The Jersey is believed to have capitulated at Split Rock also (although some believe she was scuttled at Schuyler's Island.) The plucky Congress, with a determined Benedict Arnold aboard, refused to give up. This time it was the British ships, with all their massive firepower, that were coming to bear upon the American vessels- the gunboats were still lagging behind, and played a lesser role in this second phase of the battle.

Arnold was desperate— he saw that they wouldn't be able to reach Crown Point. He knew whatever ships were captured would be used again-—the very ships he had worked so hard to see built at Skenesborough would be used against him in the future. He decided to run his remaining vessels aground, burn them, and make a Click on the photo to see a lated 19th Century topographical map of Arnold's Bay.desperate run across land to Ticonderoga.

He chose a tiny bay on the eastern shore, a lovely little cove known as Ferris' Bay. Today this place is known as  Arnold's Bay- Panton, Vermont .

Continue here with the story of Arnold's Bay.

Related pages on the Site...

The Valcour Bay Research Project
Follow the progress of an actual underwater archeological survey in beautiful and historic Valcour Bay!


The Battle of Lake Champlain (Introduction)

Orders of Battle- the forces involved

Valcour Island- Scene of The Battle of Lake Champlain

A tale of two ships: The Continental Gunboat Philadelphia

Lieut. James Hadden's Account of the Battle of Lake Champlain: An eyewitness account of the extraordinary events on Lake Champlain between October 11-13, 1776


1: Brigadier General Benedict Arnold to Major General Horatio Gates; Schuyler Island Octr 12. 1776
Gates Papers, Box 4, NYHS. Naval Documents of the American Revolution, Vol. 6. Naval History Division, Dept. of the Navy. Washington: 1972
4: Governor Sir Guy Carleton to Lieutenant General John Burgoyne; On Board the Maria off Isle Valcour October [October 12 to October 15] Guy Carleton Letter Book, Haldimand Papers- Naval Documents of the American Revolution, Vol. 6. Naval History Division, Dept. of the Navy. Washington: 1972

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