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|On boldness, gallantry and sagacity...|
The Story of
Benedict Arnold's name has become synonymous with traitor. Yet, had he not betrayed his country after suffering one indignity after another at the hands of jealous and ungrateful colleagues, he would have gone down in history as one of America's greatest heroes.
"NEVER HAD ANY FORCE, BIG OR SMALL, LIVED
Late in the afternoon of October 13, 1776, here in one of the smallest inlets on beautiful Lake Champlain, took place one of the most dramatic events to occur in the Northern Theatre of the Revolution. Pursued closely by the mighty British fleet, it was here in Ferris' Bay that Captain Arnold chose to scuttle and burn what was left of his navy.
After a stunning escape from entrapment in Valcour Bay during the blackness of a Fall evening, the battered American fleet fled south up the lake to safety at Crown Point. When the British discovered in the morning, to their horror, the rebels had somehow managed to sneak by their vessels, they immediately left in pursuit. A "running battle" ensued, one in which the tiny rebel fleet again took heavy casualties from the much stronger British fleet.
Finally, seeing the hopelessness of his goal of reaching the American base, Arnold decided to ground the ships that were left- his flagship, the row galley Congress, and four gunboats, upon the shores of this little bay and make a run for Crown Point overland. The events that took place here are shrouded in controversy:
What about the wounded?
The Battle of Valcour was a dreadful affair- a furious battle, fought at close quarters by "a wretched, motley crew" against a large, disciplined and well-appointed British fleet. In Arnold's own words, written aboard the Congress while fleeing south on October 12-"...the Congress & Washington have Sufferd. greatly, the Latter Lost first Lieut killed, & Capt & Master wounded, the New York lost all her officers except her Captain. the Philada was hulled in so many Places that She Sank, About One hour after the engagemt was over, the whole, killed & wounded, amounts to abt Sixty..." 1
This account was written while the fleet was temporarily at anchor at Schuyler's Island, just before the British caught up with them and resumed the punishing cannonade upon the ships. The exhausted crew frantically rowed into a strong headwind which favored their pursuers. Along the way, several other ships were sunk, many more casualties were taken and by the time the fleet pushed into the tiny bay, the decks were a hellish scene of death and destruction. We know the ships were set afire, and Arnold "ordered her colours not to be struck; and as they grounded, the marines were directed to jump overboard, with their arms and accoutrements, to ascend a bank about twenty-five feet elevation, and form a line for the defence of their vessels and flags against the enemy..." 2
It was at this time that Dr. Robert Knox, British "Physician to the Forces in North America," aboard the British Flagship Maria, noted: "...Mr. Arnold run five ships ashore, and remained on the beach till he set fire to them, burning the wounded and sick in them..." 3
Did this happen? Did the American rebels burn their own wounded aboard the scuttled ships? This story rapidly gained credence among the British- Baron Riedesel noted a report he had heard that "... General Arnold... had also burned about thirty sick and wounded men who were on board." 4
Much has been made of this matter, but the truth is that Arnold, despite whatever mistakes in judgment he may have made later in his life, cannot be blamed for such a heinous act as this. What Knox saw, that perhaps in some ways may have rightly caused him to draw this conclusion, was the body of a wounded man accidentally left aboard the Congress, blown into the air as the magazine of the ship exploded. This is confirmed by the eyewitness account of Squire Ferris, who lived in a house at the shore of the bay. Ferris tells us that the wounded man, a Lieutenant Goldsmith, was severely wounded by grapeshot and had been ordered removed from the vessel along with the rest of the wounded. He was not removed in time however, probably due to the actions of the gunner who set the ship ablaze. To quote Ferris- "To the credit of Arnold, he showed the greatest feeling upon the subject and threatened to run the gunner through on the spot."
Escape to Crown Point and Ticonderoga
After removing the wounded, torching the ships- colors waving defiantly in the wind stoked flames- Arnold and his bedraggled force fled south to safety at Crown Point and Ticonderoga. Followed closely behind by a force of British and Indians, it was quite a feat in itself that the survivors managed to escape after their harrowing experiences of the past several days. General Horatio Gates aptly described the situation as it truly was when in a letter he wrote" ...few Men ever met with so many hair Breadth Scapes in so short a space of time...and that upwards of 200 with their Officers escaped with Genl Arnold..." 6
Today peaceful Arnold's Bay betrays nothing of the horror that occurred on her waters and shores that day in October 1777. It is a quiet place, visited only occasionally by fishermen launching their craft at the access area. What a striking contrast to what was seen by the returning British on their way back to Canada after Carleton's expedition to Ticonderoga/Mt. Independence. Lt. William Digby was there, he wrote:
The Northeastern shore of Arnold's Bay- the Ferris home, the foundation of which has now eroded into the bay- was located in the area to the far right of the photo.
Another view to the Southeast- the photo was taken from the location where it is believed Arnold's flagship, the Row Galley Congress was run ashore. Notice the high bank- Joseph Cushing, in his account, mentions having to "ascend a bank about twenty-five feet elevation."
A wider view of the little bay, the clump of trees in the center is the approximate location of Squire Ferris' home, where incidentally, Benjamin Franklin and the rest of the Continental Congress delegation en route to Canada stayed overnight.
This view shows just how small the bay was, the British fleet continued to shell the rebels from the area to the right, just outside of the photo.
The site of the marker to Benedict Arnold. Situated beside the road, the site is lovingly maintained by the adjoining farm, as shown by the water jug, with its friendly "help yourself" sign, and the flowers and tattered Grand Union flag in the background.
Several views of Lake Champlain from the road above Arnold's Bay. The lake is very narrow here, those are the Adirondacks of New York in the distance. This road may very well have been an Indian path that Arnold and his men followed on their way south through to Crown Point, Ticonderoga and safety.
All photos Copyright © 2011 America's Historic Lakes
Related pages on the Site...
The Valcour Bay Research Project on the Web
Follow the progress of an actual underwater archeological survey in beautiful and historic Valcour Bay!
The Battle of Lake Champlain (Introduction)
The Battle of Valcour on Lake Champlain
Valcour Island- Scene of The Battle of Lake Champlain
Orders of Battle- the forces involved
A tale of two ships: The Continental Gunboat Philadelphia
Lieut. James Hadden's Account of the Battle of Lake Champlain:
An eyewitness account of the extraordinary events on Lake Champlain between October 11-13, 1776
1 Brigadier General Benedict Arnold to Major General Horatio Gates. Octr 12. 1776, Schuyler Island, Lake Champlain (Naval Documents of the American Revolution, Vol. 6) William James Morgan, Editor Naval History Division, Department of the Navy, Washington: 1972, 1235
2 Russell P. Bellico, "CHRONICLES OF LAKE CHAMPLAIN- Journeys in War and Peace" (Purple Mountain Press, Fleischmanns, New York, 1999, 231 footnote
3 J. Robert Maguire. "Dr. Robert Knox's Account of The Battle of Valcour- October 11-16, 1776." Montpelier, Vermont. Reprinted from VERMONT HISTORY- proceedings of the Vermont Historical Society, 1978 11
4 Russell P. Bellico. "SAILS AND STEAM IN THE MOUNTAINS- A Maritime and Military History of Lake George and Lake Champlain." Fleischmanns, New York: Purple Mountain Press, Ltd. 1992, 158
5 Russell P. Bellico, "CHRONICLES OF LAKE CHAMPLAIN- Journeys in War and Peace" (Purple Mountain Press, Fleischmanns, New York, 1999, 222 footnote
7 William Digby, James Phinney Baxter, "The British Invasion from the North. The Campaigns of Generals Carleton and Burgoyne, from Canada, 1776-1777, with the Journal of Lieut. William Digby, of the 53d, or Shropshire Regiment of Foot, Illustrated with Historical Notes, by James Phinney Baxter, A.M." (Albany, New York: Joel Munsell's Sons 1887) 176
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