How America’s First Arms Race Saved the Cause of Liberty
Before Benedict Arnold was a traitor, he was a hero to the patriot cause.
By Brendan Wilson
We Americans hold July 1776 in our collective memory as a triumphant time of victory, independence, and Yankee Doodle; a time during which, with a stroke of Thomas Jefferson’s pen, we flipped the bird to the most formidable superpower the world had ever known.
The reality, however, is less glamorous. 1776 was a year marked by stinging military setbacks that threatened to suffocate the cause of liberty in its cradle. If not for the dauntless valor of a few brave patriots, the war would have scarcely lasted twelve months. One such man was the least fondly remembered member of the revolutionary set: Benedict Arnold.
During the winter of 1775, Arnold led 11,000 men to Quebec City in an effort to add British Canada as the 14th colony. The siege ended disastrously a few months later when Sir Guy Carlton landed 10,000 redcoat reinforcements outside the city in early 1776, forcing the colonists to beat a hasty and disorderly retreat south, during which death, desertion and a devastating smallpox outbreak killed more than half the soldiers that had marched north the previous year. In the spring of 1776, Benedict Arnold limped into Crown Point, a small military outpost of the western shore of a strategically critical lake in the American northeast.
Lake Champlain is a long gash of fresh water that serves as the natural border between what are today New York and Vermont. It was formed when a giant glacier chiseled a divot in the landscape during an ice age 13,000 years ago, filling it with cool water as it melted. The valley is flanked by the Adirondack Mountains on the west and the Green Mountains on the east. Serving as the conduit connecting the Richelieu and St. Lawrence Rivers in Canada to the Hudson River, the lake’s importance as a commercial highway rendered it as strategically important during the French and Indian War as it was during the American Revolution. The warring Iroquois and Mohawks that settled the Champlain Valley centuries before had given it their own ominous name: the Great Warpath.
It was here that Benedict Arnold convened with his two superior officers, northern army commander General Philip Schuyler and General Horatio Gates. The outlook was bleak. Of the 5,500 troops stationed at Crown Point, 3,000 were incapacitated with smallpox. Further, the three men understood that if Guy Carlton could quickly sail south down the Great Warpath to link up with General Howe and his 30,000 men in the Hudson Valley, the northern and southern colonies would be cut off from one another, severing American logistics and communication lines. Carlton needed to be stopped. Benedict Arnold had a plan.
Leveraging his experience as a seafaring merchant, he oversaw a rapid ship building effort in Skenesborough, NY (Whitehall today) at the lake’s southern point. Despite lacking shipwrights and adequate supplies, the tiny shipyard launched eight 50-foot gondolas, each with a 12-pound cannon at the bow, and several 70-foot row galleys in just a few short months.
Meanwhile, General Carlton had no freshwater fleet with which to carry his army south. He also knew what the rebels were up to in Skenesborough. He set up a shipyard of his own at St. John’s, just over the Canadian border at the lake’s northern end to construct what would become a mighty 20-ship armada.
Thus began the first American arms race.
At the end of the summer, Arnold commanded his 16-ship fleet up the lake. The task ahead of him was monumental. “The preventing of the enemy’s invasion of our country,” Horatio Gates wrote to him from Crown Point, “is the ultimate end to which you are now entrusted.” Arnold acknowledged the gulf that divided the task at hand from the resources he had been provided, lamenting his “wretched, motley crew,” frequently firing out dispatches to Gates to send him better seafaring men (“no land lubbers”) and more supplies (“a ton of rum”).
While Arnold was drilling his inexperienced crew in the cooling September waters, Carlton made a crucial decision to delay his advance until his shipwrights completed one last ship: the enormous, 180-ton, three-mast frigate Inflexible. She was launched in just 28 days, a spectacular feat, but one that delayed British invasion one additional month.
Reports of British movement eventually reached Arnold. Aware of the enemy’s superiority, he knew he needed to choose a hiding spot form which he could spring his motley crew upon the larger, better trained British fleet. His choice in location was a strategic master stroke.
Valcour Island lay on the western side of the lake just below what is now Plattsburgh. The water between the island and the New York shore created a channel, the northern access to which was marked by shallows and rocky shoals that denied access to larger ships. “Few vessels can attack us at the same time and those will be exposed to the fire of the whole fleet,” Arnold wrote to Gates while he lied in wait. Fighting a superior fleet in close quarters was the strategy by which the Ancient Greeks defeated the Persians at Salamis. It was an unlikely triumph that Arnold intended to recreate.
The dawn of Friday, October 11th greeted the sailors with a blue sky and beautiful, snow-capped mountains. The morning was brisk and pleasant. Shortly after, scouts spotted the enemy. The Americans glimpsed the mighty Inflexible, the largest freshwater vessel any of them had ever seen upon the lake. Behind it, gunboats mounted with enormous cannons larger than anything aboard the American vessels.
As the British sailed past Valcour Island, the Patriots sprung their attack. Countless broadsides were fired, the deafening cacophony of cannon fire turned the normally tranquil Champlain Valley into a murderous amphitheater. The battle had begun.
What ensued was 8 hours of fire and return fire. Men’s ears bled. Grapeshot shattered limbs, forcing below-deck amputations. Cannon balls that connected with their targets disfigured unlucky men beyond recognition. Shot that hit the sides of boats splintered wood, sending thousands of deadly projectiles into the air. The dead were unceremoniously thrown overboard to make room on deck.
At dusk, neither side had gained an edge. Both suffered heavy losses. The American flagship, Royal Savage, was burning and badly damaged. The gondola Philadelphia was listing after having been hit at the waterline by an 18-pound ball. It was abandoned and sunk, later to be raised in 1936 and displayed in the Smithsonian in Washington, D.C.
On the British side, several ships were badly damaged. But Carlton knew that the Americans were short on powder and supplies. At the break of the following day, he would deliver the coup de grace and begin his campaign south to end the war.
The dawn brought a foggy mist over the lake. In the early light, General Guy Carlton strained to see the mouth of the channel. A slight breeze blew the fog away revealing empty water. Carlton blinked in disbelief. Arnold, under the cover of the previous night’s darkness, had given the enemy the slip, making a furious dash toward the cover over Fort Ticonderoga 70 miles south.
It would take until Sunday afternoon for Carlton to catch up with the patriots, reinitiating the battle. Three more American ships were destroyed during the frantic retreat: the Washington, the Lee, and the Spitfire. That battle occurred where the lake opens to 4 miles wide, near what is now the New York town of Westport. Facing a hopeless situation, Arnold directed his remaining gunboats to a small alcove at the southern end of Button Bay, where he burnt them so that they wouldn't fall into enemy hands. As flames engulfed the masts, the American colors flew high. Arnold refused to surrender the flag to the enemy.
Quite content with the turn of events, Carlton decided to return to Canada and wait out the punishing northern winter. The patriots, however, were astonished that he did not press his advantage further. The delay allowed them an extra season to reinforce, refortify, regroup, and rearm. The following summer, General Horatio Gates, with the help of Benedict Arnold, would defeat that same British army at Saratoga, influencing the French to enter the war on the side of the Americans. The victory at Saratoga changed the course of the war, but it would not have been possible without the British delay caused by the stalemate on Lake Champlain the previous fall.
A few years later, Benedict Arnold would attempt to betray West Point to the British in a plot that was foiled at the last minute. His ignominious betrayal would make his name synonymous with treason and earn him a spot next to Judas among history’s most reviled traitors. Before all that, however, he was a hero to the patriot cause.
The little alcove in which Arnold burned his boats is now called Arnold’s Bay. It is the only place in the country named for him.
Kelly, J. (2021). Valcour: The 1776 Campaign That Saved the Cause of Liberty. St. Martin's Publishing Group.