Battle of Valcour Island
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.
On October 11, the battle was not going well for the Americans when the sun set. Aware that he could not defeat the British fleet, Arnold decided to withdraw. He 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.
On October 12, after sailing only 8 miles, 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 Trumbull, 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, Gen. 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, a better-prepared American army would eventually stop the British advance at Saratoga and bring France into the war on the American side.
British forces had successfully resisted the American assault on Quebec in the early months of the war and pursued the retreating invaders back to their bases at Crown Point and Fort Ticonderoga. The approach of winter in late 1775 had forced the British to return to Canada, but a strike against the rebels by way of Lake Champlain was a top priority for the campaign in 1776. Sir Guy Carleton, the British commander in Canada, supplemented his forces with 5,000 German mercenaries and a fleet of ships to be used in the planned assault. Vessels sailed up the St. Lawrence River, were laboriously disassembled and transported around the rapids on the Richelieu River, then reassembled for service on Lake Champlain. Smaller craft were built on site. The showpiece of the British fleet was the HMS Inflexible, an 18-gun man-of-war.
The remnants of the American invasion force occupied Fort Ticonderoga in 1776 under increasingly dire circumstances. Food, clothing and ammunition supplies were low and morale was flagging. Brigadier General Benedict Arnold received permission to construct a fleet on Lake Champlain to stop or at least slow the impending British advance. Shipwrights were brought in from New England coastal towns to construct the fleet, including special flat-bottomed craft that were fitted with both sails and oars and carried cannon in the bow. The workers had no alternative to using green lumber, which quickly warped and allowed water into the vessels. In all, three schooners, three galleys, eight gunboats and a sloop were constructed.
The British were unaware of the American efforts to build a fleet and allowed their own shipbuilding activities to stretch into the late summer. Arnold realized that he was badly outgunned and would have no chance against a direct confrontation with the enemy. He sought the most favorable position he could find, choosing to array his fleet in an arc from Valcour Island to near the New York shore in an area a few miles south of the village of Plattsburgh.
The British fleet finally set sail in early October, the Inflexible in the lead and the troop transports at the rear. The two forces met on the 11th. The American ships were not easily visible in the bay and much of the British flotilla sailed past. When the American presence was made known, the larger British vessels had difficulty reversing direction and were late in joining the fray. In the ensuing seven-hour battle, both sides sustained heavy damage, but the British were unable to bring the full force of their firepower to bear because of the cramped confines forced by the American position; only a few of the British vessels could align themselves between the island and the shore and fire at close range. Soldiers delivered by Carleton’s ships poured withering fire from the shore into the American ships, which inflicted heavy casualties. As night approached, the British attempted to bottle-up the bay and were confident that they could complete their task in the morning. Arnold had lost the Philadelphia and knew he stood little chance when the battle resumed.
During the night a heavy fog descended. Arnold capitalized on the reduced visibility by silently sailing his damaged fleet around the British blockade and heading south toward Crown Point. When the fog lifted in the morning, the British beheld an empty bay and immediately began pursuit. A valiant delaying action was fought by the Congress, with Arnold at the helm, and the Washington, which enabled other ships to reach Crown Point. At the last moment, Arnold’s ship managed to sprint to shore, where it was set afire, and the crew escaped on land to Crown Point.
Crown Point could not withstand a British assault, and was destroyed as the garrison and Arnold’s surviving men pushed on to Ticonderoga. When the British fleet arrived outside of Ticonderoga, the Americans blasted away with their cannon — despite the fact that they were dangerously low on powder and shot — which gave the British the impression that they were prepared to mount a protracted defense of their position. Carleton was taken in by the ruse. He returned American prisoners in his possession under a flag of truce, then turned his fleet around and sailed back to Canada.
Arnold’s small navy was nearly destroyed: 11 of 15 ships were lost and 80 casualties sustained. However, Fort Ticonderoga was held and the British invasion halted. The significance of Arnold’s defense would be noted in the following year’s campaign when the British again mounted an offensive from the north; had Arnold and his men failed, the campaign of 1777 would have begun from Ticonderoga rather than Canada and might have ended differently.