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Battle of Valcour Island

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Position of American ships on

The Battle of Valcour Island
ConflictAmerican Revolutionary War
DateOctober 11-October 13, 1776
PlaceValcour Island, Lake Champlain, New York
ResultDecisive tactical British victory

American Strategic Victory

Combatants
United States Britain
Commanders
Benedict Arnold Guy Carleton, and Thomas Pringle
Strength
16 ships of the United States Navy and 750 sailors 30 ships of the Royal Navy and 1,670 sailors
Casualties
80 killed and wounded, 120 captured, 11 ships lost 40 killed and wounded, 3 small gunboats lost

The Battle of Valcour Island, 11 October 1776, also known as Battle of Valcour Bay, was a naval engagement fought on Lake Champlain in a narrow strait between the New York mainland and Valcour Island. It is generally regarded as the first naval battle fought by the United States Navy. Although the American ships under the command of Benedict Arnold were largely destroyed, the campaign delayed by one year the British attempt to cut the colonies in half and eventually led to the British military disaster at Saratoga in 1777.

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Northern Lake Champlain, showing area of Valcour Island
Contents

Strategic importance of Lake Champlain

Following the failed American invasion of Canada, the British launched a counteroffensive intended to gain control of the Hudson River Valley, which extends southward from Lake Champlain. Control of the upper Hudson would have enabled the British to link their Canadian forces with those in British-occupied New York City, dividing the American colonies of New England from those in the South and Mid-Atlantic, and potentially finishing the revolution.

Access to the river's source was protected by American strongholds at Crown Point and Fort Ticonderoga, and elimination of these defenses would require the transportation of troops and supplies from the British-controlled St. Lawrence Valley 150 kilometers to the north. Roads were either impassable or nonexistent, making water transport over Lake Champlain the only viable option, but the only ships on the lake were in American hands, and even though they were lightly armed, they would have made transport of troops and stores impossible for the British. The two sides therefore set about building fleets; the British at St. Jean in Quebec and the Americans at the other end of the lake in Skenesborough (now Whitehall, New York). The British had adequate supplies, skilled workmen, and prefabricated ships transported from England, including a 180-ton warship they disassembled and rebuilt on the lake. All told, the British fleet (30 vessels) had roughly twice as many ships and twice the firepower of the Americans' 16 vessels.

Forces assembled

Benedict Arnold's flagship was initially the Royal Savage, a two-masted schooner, but he transferred to the Congress, a row galley. Arnold's fleet included Revenge and Liberty, also two-masted schooners, as well as the Enterprise, a sloop, and 8 gondolas: New Haven, Providence, Boston, Spitfire, Philadelphia, Connecticut, Jersey, New York, and the galley Trumbull.

Facing them were the ships of the Royal Navy constructed in Quebec: The flagship Inflexible, reassembled from pieces and measuring 80'; the schooners Maria, Carleton, Royal Convert, the two-masted ketch Thunderer, as well as over 20 single-masted gunboats armed with a single cannon.

American tactics

Arnold came from a seafaring Connecticut family. He shrewdly chose to force the British to attack his inferior forces in a narrow, rocky body of water between the coast and Valcour Island, where the British fleet would have difficulty bringing its superior firepower to bear (and where the inferior seamanship of his unskilled sailors would have a minimal effect.)

The British fleet took up positions at noon around 300 yards in front of the American battle line with the small gunboats forward, and the five main ships around 50-100 yards behind the gunboats. The British then opened up a huge broadside against the American ships which continued for the next five hours. During the exchange of cannon fire, the Revenge was heavily hit and abandoned. The Philadelphia, was also heavily hit and sank later at around 6:30 pm. The Royal Savage, ran aground and was set on fire by the crew to prevent the ship from falling in British hands. The Congress, and Washington were heavily damaged, and the Jersey and New York, were also badly hit. On the British side, casualties began mounting too. The HMS Carlton was heavily hit as it tried to land a boarding party on the grounded Royal Savage and was forced to withdraw under heavy fire. One small gunboat, commanded by Lt. Dufais, blew up and sank from a direct hit. Most of the other small gunboats were also hit, forcing them to withdraw and reform their battle line 700 yards from the American line. Two of the gunboats were so heavily damaged that they were forced to be scuttled after the action.

Nonetheless, the battle was not going well for the Americans when the sun set on October 11. Aware that he could not defeat the British fleet, Arnold decided to withdraw. Arnold managed to sneak his fleet past (and through) the British fleet during the night and attempted to run for the cover of the shore batteries situated at the American-held fort at Crown Point at the south end of the lake. Unfortunately, the weather did not cooperate, and the Americans were caught short of their goal. After sailing only eight miles on October 12, Arnold drove one ship, the Providence ashore in the shallow water of Buttonmold Bay off Schuyler Island where the heavier British ships could not follow, and the American ship was then stripped of guns, powder and everything else of use. The New Jersey also ran aground while the crew from the Lee did likewise. On October 13, the British fleet finally caught up to the American fleet off Split Rock where the Washington was captured and the Congress sank attempting to flee. Arnold led about 200 men from the lost ships on foot to Crown Point where the remaining ships of Tumbull, Enterprise, Revenge, New York, and Liberty finally reached safety. Arnold was forced to burn his remaining ships and withdrew further towards Ticonderoga.

Although the British had cleared the lake of American ships, establishing naval control, snow was already falling as Arnold and his men reached Ticonderoga on October 20. The British commander Guy Carleton had no choice but to defer the attacks on Crown Point and Fort Ticonderoga and withdrew to a winter camp in Canada by early November, a decision with profound consequences. The next year in 1777, a better-prepared American army would eventually stop the British advance at Saratoga and bring France into the war on the American side.

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