The naval Battle of Valcour Island, also known as the Battle of Valcour Bay, took place on October 11, 1776, on Lake Champlain in Valcour Bay, a narrow strait between the New York mainland and Valcour Island during the American Revolutionary War. It is generally regarded as the first naval battle fought by the United States Navy. Although most of the ships in the American fleet under the command of Benedict Arnold were captured or destroyed, the American defense of Lake Champlain delayed until 1777 the British attempt to divide the colonies by gaining control of the upper Hudson Valley.
The Continental Army, which had retreated from Quebec to Fort Ticonderoga and Fort Crown Point in June 1776, spent the summer of 1776 fortifying those forts, and building additional ships to augment its small fleet already on the lake. The British, who had a 9,000 man army at Fort Saint-Jean, needed to build a fleet to carry it, as the Americans, during their retreat, had either taken or destroyed most of the ships on the lake. By early October, the British fleet, which significantly outgunned the American fleet, was ready for launch.
After being drawn to Benedict Arnold's carefully-chosen battle position on October 11, the battle was engaged. Many of the American ships were damaged or destroyed in the battle, which ended at sunset. That night Arnold boldly sneaked the American fleet past the British one, and began a retreat toward Crown Point and Ticonderoga. Unfavorable weather hampered the American retreat, and some of the fleet was captured, or grounded and burned, before it reached Crown Point. More of the fleet was destroyed when Arnold decided he could not hold Crown Point, and retreated back to Ticonderoga.
The British forces included four officers who later became admirals in the Royal Navy: Thomas Pringle, James Dacres, Edward Pellew and John Schank. Valcour Bay, the site of the battle, is now a National Historic Landmark, as is the USS Philadelphia, which sank shortly after the October 11 battle, and was raised in 1935.
The American Revolutionary War, which began in April 1775 with the Battles of Lexington and Concord, widened in September 1775 when the Continental Army embarked on an invasion of the British Province of Quebec. Quebec was viewed by the Second Continental Congress as a potential avenue for British forces to attack and divide the rebellious colonies, and was at the time lightly defended. The invasion reached a peak on December 31, 1775, when the Battle of Quebec ended in disaster for the Americans. In the spring of 1776, 10,000 British and German troops arrived in Quebec, and Quebec's governor, General Guy Carleton, drove the Continental Army out of Quebec and back to Fort Ticonderoga.
Carleton then launched his own offensive intended to gain control of the Hudson River Valley, which extends southward not far from Lake Champlain. Control of the upper Hudson would enable the British to link their forces in Quebec with those in New York City (recently taken by General William Howe), separating the American colonies of New England from those in the South and Mid-Atlantic and potentially quashing the revolution. Lake Champlain is connected to Lake George, whose southern end is not far from the upper navigable reaches of the Hudson River.
Access to the river's head of navigation from the north was protected by the American strongholds of Fort Crown Point and Fort Ticonderoga, and elimination of these defenses required the transportation of troops and supplies from the British-controlled St. Lawrence Valley 90 miles (150 km) to the north. Roads were either impassable or nonexistent, making water transport over Lake Champlain the only viable option. The only ships on the lake following the American retreat from Quebec were a small fleet of lightly armed ships that Benedict Arnold had assembled following the capture of Fort Ticonderoga in May 1775. This fleet, even if it had been in British hands, was inadequate to the needs of transporting the British forces down the lake to Fort Ticonderoga.
During the American army's retreat from Quebec, they were careful to destroy any ships that might prove useful to the British on Lake Champlain. When Arnold and his forces, making up the rear of the army, abandoned Fort Saint-Jean, they burned or sank all the boats they could not use, and set fire to the sawmill and the fort. These tactics effectively denied the British any hope of immediately moving onto the lake.
The two sides set about building fleets; the British at Saint-Jean in Quebec (the northernmost navigable point with access to the lake) and the Americans at the other end of the lake in Skenesborough. General Carleton, in planning Quebec's defenses in 1775, had anticipated the problem of shipping on Lake Champlain, and had requested the provisioning of prefabricated ships. By the time Carleton's army reached Saint-Jean, ten such ships had arrived. These ships and more were assembled by skilled shipwrights on the upper Richelieu River, as was HMS Inflexible, a 180-ton warship they disassembled and rebuilt on the lake. All told, the British fleet (25 armed vessels) had more firepower than the Americans' 15 vessels, with more than 80 guns outweighing the 74 smaller American guns. Two of Carleton's ships, the Inflexible and the Thunderer, carried enough firepower (Thunderer carried six 24-pound guns, six 12-pound guns, and two howitzers, while Inflexible carried 18 12-pounders) to threaten the entirety of Arnold's fleet by themselves.
Benedict Arnold's flagship during his patrols of the lake was the Royal Savage, a two-masted schooner carrying 12 guns, commanded by Captain David Hawley. When it came time for the battle, Arnold transferred his flag to the Congress, a row galley. Arnold's fleet included Revenge and Liberty, also two-masted schooners carrying 8 guns, as well as the Enterprise, a sloop (12 guns), and 8 gundalows outfitted as gunboats (each with three guns): New Haven, Providence, Boston, Spitfire, Philadelphia, Connecticut, Jersey, New York, the cutter Lee, and the galley Trumbull.[Note 2]
Facing them were the ships of the Royal Navy constructed in Quebec under the direction of Captain Charles Douglas: The flagship Inflexible (18 guns), the schooners Maria (14 guns), Carleton (12 guns), Loyal Convert (called in some histories the Royal Convert or Loyal Consort)[Note 3] (6 guns), the 14-gun two-masted ketch-radeau Thunderer (very roughly, a raft that has been rigged as a ketch), as well as about 20 single-masted gunboats each armed with two cannons.
Ships from Arnold's fleet patrolled the waters of Lake Champlain throughout the summer, while the British were busy building their fleet at Fort Saint-Jean. At one point, Arnold cruised part of the fleet to the far northern end of the lake, within twenty miles of Saint-Jean, and formed a battle line. A British outpost, well out of range, fired a few shots at the line without effect. On September 30, expecting the British to sail soon, he retreated to the shelter of Valcour Island.
Arnold, whose business interests before the war had included sailing ships to Europe and the West Indies, carefully chose the site where he wanted to meet the British fleet. Reliable intelligence he received on October 1 indicated that the British had a significantly more powerful force. He wanted to force the British to attack his inferior forces in a narrow, rocky body of water between the western shore of Lake Champlain and Valcour Island (near modern Plattsburgh, New York), 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 minimally negative effect. Some of Arnold's captains wanted to fight in open waters where they might be able to retreat to the shelter of Fort Crown Point, but Arnold argued that the purpose of the fleet was to delay the British advance on Crown Point and Ticonderoga, and not foremost to preserve itself.
Carleton's fleet, commanded by Captain Thomas Pringle, which included 50 unarmed support vessels, sailed onto Lake Champlain on October 9. Moving cautiously, the British advanced up the lake to the south, searching for signs of Arnold's fleet. On the night of October 10, the fleet anchored about 15 miles (24 km) to the north of Arnold's position, still unaware of his location. The next day, they continued to sail south, assisted by favorable winds. After they passed the northern tip of Valcour Island, Arnold sent out Congress and Royal Savage to draw the attention of the British. Following an exchange of fire that was more like a challenge than a threat, Arnold attempted to withdraw the two ships into his crescent-shaped firing line. Unfortunately, the Royal Savage was unable to fight the headwinds, and ran aground on the southern tip of Valcour Island. Some of the British gunboats swarmed toward her, as Captain Hawley and his men hastily abandoned ship. British men from the Loyal Convert boarded her, capturing 20 men in the process, but were then forced to abandon her under heavy fire from the Americans. Many of Arnold's papers were lost due to the destruction of the Royal Savage, which was later burned by the British.
The British gunboats and the Carleton then maneuvered within range of the American line; Thunderer and Maria were unable to make headway against the winds, and did not participate in the battle, while Inflexible eventually came far enough up the strait to participate in the action. Around 12:30, the battle began in earnest, with both sides firing broadsides and cannonades at each other. The action continued all afternoon. Revenge was heavily hit; Philadelphia was also heavily damaged and eventually sank around 6:30 pm. Carleton, whose guns wreaked havoc against the smaller American gunboats, became a focus of attention. A lucky shot eventually snapped the line holding her broadside in position; eight men were killed and another eight wounded, and she was seriously damaged before she could be towed out of range of the American line. The young Edward Pellew, serving as a midshipman aboard Carleton, distinguished himself by ably commanding the vessel to safety when its senior officers, including its captain, Lieutenant James Dacres, were injured. Another lucky American shot hit a British gunboat's magazine, exploding the entire vessel.
Toward sunset, the Inflexible finally reached the action. Her big guns silenced most of Arnold's fleet. The British also began landing Indians on both Valcour Island and the lakeshore, in order to deny the Americans the possibility of retreat to land. As darkness fell, the American fleet retreated, and the British called off the attack, in part because some boats had run out of ammunition. Lieutenant James Hadden, commanding one of the British gunboats, noted that "little more than one third of the British Fleet" saw much action that day.
When the sun set on October 11, the battle had clearly gone against the Americans. Most of the American ships were damaged or sinking, and the crews reported around 60 casualties. The British reported around 40 casualties on their ships. Aware that he could not defeat the British fleet, Arnold decided to try reaching the cover of Fort Crown Point, about 35 miles (56 km) to the south. Arnold managed to sneak his fleet past the British fleet during the foggy night, reaching Schuyler Island, about 8 miles (13 km) up the lake, by morning. Carleton, upset that the American fleet had escaped him, immediately sent the fleet around Valcour Island to locate it. As they were not there, he regrouped the fleet and sent out scouts to find Arnold.
The American fleet's progress was slowed by adverse winds and leaking of the damaged boats. At Schuyler Island, Providence, New York and New Jersey were sunk or burned, and crude repairs were effected to other vessels. The Lee was also abandoned on the western shore, and the ship was eventually taken by the British. Around 2 pm, the fleet set off again, trying to make headway against biting winds, rain, and sleet. By the following morning, they were still more than 20 miles (32 km) from Crown Point, and the British fleet's masts were visible on the horizon. When the wind finally changed, the British had its advantage first, and began to close, opening fire on Congress and Washington, which were in the rear of the American fleet. Arnold first decided to attempt grounding the slower gunboats at Split Rock, 18 miles (29 km) short of Crown Point. The Washington, however, was too badly damaged and too slow to make it, and she was forced to strike her colors and surrender; 110 men were taken prisoner.
Arnold then boldly led the remaining ships through the British fleet and into Buttonmold Bay, where the waters were too shallow for the larger British vessels. There, most of the small boats in the fleet were grounded, stripped, and set afire, with flags still flying. Arnold was the last to land, and personally torched Congress, his flagship. The surviving ships' crews, numbering about 200, then made their way overland to Crown Point, narrowly escaping an Indian ambush. There they found the Trumbull, New York, Enterprise, and Revenge, which had escaped the British fleet, as well as Liberty, which had just arrived with supplies from Ticonderoga.
Arnold, convinced that Crown Point was no longer viable as a point of defense against the large British force, destroyed and abandoned the fort, moving the forces stationed there to Ticonderoga. General Carleton, rather than shipping his prisoners back to Quebec, returned them to Ticonderoga under a flag of truce. On their arrival, they were so effusive in their praise of Carleton that they were sent home to prevent desertion.
The British, with control of the lake, landed troops and occupied Crown Point the next day. They remained for two weeks, pushing scouting parties to within three miles of Ticonderoga. But the season was late, and his supply line would be difficult to manage in winter, so Carleton decided to withdraw to winter quarters. Baron Riedesel, commanding the Hessians in Carleton's army, noted that, "If we could have begun our expedition four weeks earlier, I am satisfied that everything could have ended this year."
Captain Pringle was criticized by some of his peers because the American fleet escaped. The captains of Maria, Inflexible, and Loyal Convert, wrote a letter criticizing Pringle's for his failure to properly blockade the channel, and for not being more aggressive in his direction of the battle. Apparently the letter did not cause any career problems for Pringle; he and John Schank, captain of the Inflexible, went on to become admirals, as did midshipman Pellew and Lieutenant Dacres.
On December 31, one year after the Battle of Quebec, a mass was held in celebration of the British success, and Carleton threw a grand ball. Carleton was knighted by King George III for his success at Valcour Island.
The site of the battle, Valcour Bay, was declared a National Historic Landmark on January 1, 1961, and added to the National Register of Historic Places on October 15, 1966. The Philadelphia, which sank shortly after the battle ended on October 11, was raised in 1935 and is on display at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C. It received the same designations.