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Notes on the Captains of the Vessels in the Battle of
Valcour Island under Brigadier General Benedict Arnold
MATHIAS PRIMER OR PREMIER, SCHOONER LIBERTY
As mentioned previously, the name of Mathias Primer is found in a document in Isaac Seaman’s pension application presenting a list of officers and their vessels in 1777. That list contains the name of Math. Premier, who is listed as the captain of the Schooner Liberty. No trace of Captain Premier’s genealogy has been found and, therefore, no way to connect him to a hometown, a family or a record of military service. For reasons related to its role as the supply ship for the fleet, the Liberty was not at Valcour when the British attack commenced on October 11th so it was not a presence in the battle.
REUBEN DICKINSON, SLOOP ENTERPRISE
As is the case with Captain Davis, there is no contemporary document that contains the first name of the Captain Dickinson, Dickson or Dickenson who was the commander of the Sloop Enterprise. Bratten uses the name of Thomas Dickenson by which to identify the man who captained the Enterprise. Since Bratten offers no documentation for this name, it is reasonable to review the various possible men in the army with that last name for the correct identity of the Enterprise commander.
There was only one Thomas Dickinson who was an officer in the Revolution. He was from Deerfield, Massachusetts and he was captain of one of the New Hampshire companies in Colonel Field’s Regiment that was created in April of 1776. There is, however, no indication that this Thomas Dickinson was at or near Fort Ticonderoga in 1776 or that he served at the Battle of Valcour Island. There was also a Thomas Dickson who was a private in the company of Captain Swift of Colonel Burrett’s Regiment. His company was in Canada in 1776 and at Mount Independence in the summer and fall of 1776, but according to his pension application he remained at Mt. Independence during that period and was never promoted to captain. There was also a Private Thomas Dickinson from Sheffield, Massachusetts who was in Hitchcock’s company in Colonel Brewer’s Regiment, which was at Fort Ticonderoga and Mt. Independence in 1776, but he was also never promoted to be an officer. There are other Thomas Dickinson’s, Dickson’s or Dixon’s in the army but none that were officers and none that were on Lake Champlain in 1776.
After reviewing the names and military service information of the known Dickinson’s who were in the Revolutionary War, the most probable man who was the Captain Dickinson of the Sloop Enterprise was Reuben Dickinson from Amherst, Massachusetts. Reuben Dickinson was born in Hadley, Massachusetts in 1729. He was the son of Ebenezer Dickinson who was one of the original settlers of Hadley. He married Sarah Clark on November 9, 1753 in Amherst and they had eight children. Reuben Dickinson was a private in Captain Moses Porter’s Company in the French and Indian War in 1756. In the period before the Revolution, Dickson was a recognized leader in the community of Amherst serving as town moderator and as one of two members of the Committee of Correspondence.
As relations with England grew more difficult, Reuben Dickinson organized a company of Minute Men from Amherst, Shutesbury and Leverett in the fall of 1774. When the news of the Lexington Alarm reached Amherst on April 20th, Dickinson’s company left that evening for Boston with a total of sixty men. Dickinson’s company was in the Battle of Bunker Hill and he continued to serve around Boston until the end of 1775. In June of 1776, he raised a company to serve under Colonel Woodbridge’s Regiment to go to Fort Ticonderoga, where his company served until March of 1777. In 1777, he was again involved in raising a company which served at Bennington and Saratoga under Colonel Elisha Porter’s Regiment. He served under Colonel Porter until April 18, 1780, when he resigned from the service. There is no record of his life after the war and he died in Amherst on November 12, 1803 at the age of seventy-four.
Although I have been unable to find any specific reference to his service on Lake Champlain as a captain under Arnold, Captain Reuben Dickinson seems to me to be the most likely candidate for the man who served as the captain of the Enterprise. He was a captain in 1776, he was at Fort Ticonderoga in 1776 and he was a leader in Amherst before the war. No other Dickinson or person with a similar name meets those qualifications. Therefore, I believe that the captain of the Enterprise was Reuben Dickinson of Amherst.
There is certainly more work that could be
done both in terms of more completely researching the family information
on the sixteen captains and, equally important, in developing a
comprehensive list of the names of the men who served on each of the
vessels during the battle. Some information on the rosters is available
now, particularly regarding the roster of the men who served on the
Philadelphia gun boat, which is presented in full in Bratten’s book.
A few years ago, the Lake
Champlain Maritime Museum started to put together such a list, but, due
to disagreements between the Museum and the researcher, it was never
completed. At the time it was abandoned, the list of men contained over
which according to the attached table
was less than half of the men who served. Hopefully, someone will rise
to the challenge and complete this formidable task.
for Part II
 Mass. Soldiers & Sailors, Vol. , 751-2; Reuben Dickinson Family Tree, www.ancestry.com; M.F. Dickinson, Jr. Historical Address Delivered at Centennial Celebration in Amherst, Mass., July 4, 1876. Amherst: McCloud & Williams, 1878, 34-8; History of the Town of Amherst, Massachusetts. Amherst: Carpenter & Morehouse, 1896, 78-92
 Bratten, 139-144.
RECOMMENDED READING FOR THE BATTLE OF VALCOUR ISLAND
John R. Bratten. The Gondola Philadelphia & the Battle of Lake Champlain. This book focuses primarily on the gun boat Philadelphia and its role in the battle as well as its recovery in the early twentieth century and subsequent donation to the Smithsonian. The importance of the Philadelphia as an historically significant relic from the Revolutionary War cannot be over emphasized.
The best short history of the Battle of Valcour Island is found in Great American Naval Battles, edited by Jack Sweetman. Annapolis: Naval Institute Press, 1998. See the chapter on The Battle of Valcour Island by James Kirby Martin, pp. 3-26. Martin is a well-known historian and his account of the battle is excellent.
The most readable and interesting in-depth history, which is also the most recent, is James L. Nelson. Benedict Arnold’s Navy: The Ragtag Fleet that Lost the Battle of Lake Champlain but Won the American Revolution. McGraw Hill, 2006. Nelson is a well-known fiction writer and he knows how to present an interesting, and mostly accurate, historical narrative.
Another important history is by Russell P. Bellico. Sails and Steam in the Mountains: A Maritime and Military History of Lake George and Lake Champlain. Purple Mountain Press, 1992. Bellico has three chapters on the Lake Champlain battle in 1776, including an important thirteen page history of The Search for the Valcour Fleet. This chapter traces the efforts over the years to find various sunken vessels from Arnold’s fleet and what happened to those that were found.
The most often quoted statement about the significance of Arnold’s actions at Valcour Island is from A.T. Mahan. The Major Operations of the Navies in the War of American Independence. Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1913, p. 25. Mahan was one of the first writers to promote the importance of the Valcour Island battle in its impact on the outcome of the war by delaying the British advance down the lake in 1776. “The little American navy on Champlain was wiped out; but never had any force, big or small, lived to better purpose or died more gloriously, for it had saved the Lake for that year.”
The rarest printed item regarding the Battle of Valcour Island is a publication in paper wraps consisting of twenty-four pages that was issued in 1876. It is entitled Battle of Valcour on Lake Champlain, October 11th, 1776 and was printed in Plattsburgh, New York. Although he is not named as the author in the pamphlet itself, it was authored by Peter S. Palmer, who also wrote an important history of Lake Champlain. At the end of the pamphlet, Palmer presents three American and two British “Official Reports” written shortly after the battle. The rarity is in the scarcity of the item and not because of its narrative.
Date this page was last edited: 1/23/2016
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