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Valcour Bay 1776

2006-01-23 00:00

  Eversince the failure of the American invasion of Canada, it had been the intention of Sir Guy Carleton, in accordance with the wishes of the ministry, to invade New York by way of Lake Champlain, and to secure the Mohawk valley and the upper waters of the Hudson. The summer of 1776 had been employed by Carleton in getting together a fleet with which to obtain control of the lake. It was an arduous task. Three large York vessels were sent over from England, and proceeded up the St. Lawrence as far as the rapids, where they were taken to pieces, carried overland to St. John's, and there put together again. Twenty gunboats and more than two hundred flat-bottomed transports were built at Montreal, and manned with 700 picked seamen and gunners; and upon this flotilla Carleton embarked his army of 12,000 men. To oppose the threatened invasion, Benedict Arnold had been working all the summer with desperate energy. In June the materials for his navy were growing in the forests of Vermont, while his carpenters with their tools, his sailmakers with their canvas, and his gunners with their guns had mostly to be brought from the coast towns of Connecticut and Massachusetts. By the end of September he had built a little fleet of three schooners, two sloops, three galleys, and eight gondolas, and fitted it out with seventy guns and such seamen and gunners as he could get together. With this flotilla he could not hope to prevent the advance of such an overwhelming force as that of the preparaenemy. The most he could do would be to worry and delay it, besides raising the spirits of the people by the example of an obstinate and furious resistance. To allow Carleton to reach Ticonderoga without opposition would be disheartening, whereas by delay and vexation he might hope to dampen the enthusiasm of the invader. With this end in view, Arnold proceeded down the lake far to the north of Crown Point, and taking up a strong position between Valcour Island and the western shore, so that both his wings were covered and he could be attacked only in front, he lay in wait for the enemy. James Wilkinson, who twenty years afterward became commander-in-chief of the American army, and survived the second war with England, was then at Ticonderoga, on Gates's staff. Though personally hostile to Arnold, he calls attention in his Memoirs to the remarkable skill exhibited in the disposition of the little fleet at Valcour Island, which was the same in principle as that by which Macdonough won his brilliant victory, not far from the same spot, in 1814. On the 11th of October, Sir Guy Carleton's squadron approached, and there ensued the first battle fought between an American and a British fleet. At sundown, after a desperate fight of seven hours' duration, the British withdrew out of range, intending to renew the struggle in the morning. Both fleets had suffered severely, but the Americans were so badly cut up that Carleton expected to force them to surrender the next day. But Arnold during the hazy night contrived to slip through the British line with all that was left of his crippled flotilla, and made away for Crown Point with all possible speed. Though he once had to stop to mend leaks, and once to take off the men and guns from two gondolas which were sinking, he nevertheless, by dint of sailing and kedging, got such a start that the enemy did not overtake him until the next day, when he was nearing Crown Point. While the rest of the fleet, by Arnold's orders, now crowded sail for their haven, he in his schooner sustained an ugly fight for four hours with the three largest British vessels, one of which mounted eighteen twelve pounders. His vessel was woefully cut up, and her deck covered with dead and dying men, when, having sufficiently delayed the enemy, he succeeded in running her aground in a small creek, where he set her on fire, and she perished gloriously, with her flag flying till the flames brought it down. Then marching through woodland paths to Crown Point, where his other vessels had now disembarked their men, he brought away his whole force in safety to Ticonderoga. When Carleton appeared before that celebrated fortress, finding it strongly defended, and doubting his ability to reduce it before the setting in of cold weather, he decided to take his army back to Canada, satisfied for the present with having gained control of Lake Champlain This sudden retreat of Carleton astonished both friend and foe. He was blamed for it by his generals, Burgoyne, Phillips, and Riedesel, as well as by the king; and when we see how easily the fortress was seized by Phillips in the following summer, we can hardly doubt that it was a grave mistake.

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