Resource for Historians, Educators, Students and Visitors since 1997
At 8:00 in the morning of October 11, 1776, the largest assembly of naval vessels ever to sail Lake Champlain to that time rounded the peninsula known as Cumberland Head. A truly impressive force, it consisted of approximately 30 major vessels, almost 700 picked seamen, together with a number of soldiers, artillerists and Indians in canoes. Their goal was to destroy the rebel fleet on Lake Champlain, take the vital American forts at Ticonderoga and Mt. Independence, and drive a wedge between the eastern and western parts of the Colony. Several days behind this naval force was an invading army, some 7,000 troops in almost 400 bateaux.
The Americans spotted the British first. Seeing the size of the oncoming fleet, General Waterbury had second thoughts about Benedict Arnold's plan to hole up in the protected lee of Valcour. Calling a hasty council of war, he entreated Arnold to leave the shelter of the island and meet the enemy in the broad lake, while attempting a retreat to relative security under the guns of Ticonderoga and Independence. Arnold would have nothing to do with it—he ordered the lines of battle tightened and told his commanders to prepare to fight.
It was some time after 10:00 that the British finally caught sight of the American vessels. By that time the brisk wind from the north had taken them too far south, past the island, and it was necessary to attempt to change direction—against the wind—back towards the west in order to engage the enemy. Arnold was determined the British come to him— he had sent out a couple of schooners and some gallies to entice his antagonists into the bay. The gunboats came into range first, and the engagement began in earnest about 11:00. Early on, things took a dramatic turn for the worst for the rebels. The Royal Savage, the largest vessel in the American fleet, ran hard aground on the rocky southwestern corner of the island. Already heavily damaged by some well-placed shots from the Inflexible, this was a loss the tiny American fleet could scarcely afford. Seeing her plight, several gunboats turned their fire on the helpless vessel while the crew abandoned her and fled into the woods. Not all escaped, however, since a boarding party from the Loyal Convert quickly came aside, and captured 20 of her sailors. Lt. Edward Longcroft then turned the Savage's guns against her own ships. This lasted only a short time before long the blazing fury of the nearby rebel fleet was turned onto the Savage, and the redcoats were forced to abandon her again. They would return again- this time to set the vessel afire.
For several hours a fierce battle ensued. As Arnold himself says:
By 12:30 pm the Carleton and several gunboats had managed to get within musket shot of the American lines. The Congress, with Arnold aboard, took a terrific beating. By mid-afternoon, the Washington had been hulled in several places, her mast was gone and most of her sails were in shreds. On both shores a number of Indians had been landed, they kept up an incessant hail of musket fire upon the American vessels. Arnold continues:
Despite their best efforts, the largest ships were unable to come into range and bring most of their guns to bear. The Carleton, commanded by Lt. James Dacres, put up a fierce fight and paid a heavy price. Half her crew were killed or wounded. Dacres himself was rendered unconscious and command passed to Midshipman Edward Pellew, only 19 years old. Pellew proceeded to distinguish himself by his bravery.
By late-afternoon, the Thunderer and Maria still had not taken an active role in the engagement. In the case of the Thunderer, this may be understandable. The huge ship simply may not have been able to come around. The Maria's lack of involvement was to cause some controversy. Aboard were the Capt. Thomas Pringle, the Commander of naval operations, and the Governor-General himself, Sir Guy Carleton. Later, after the battle was over, the officers of the ships that did engage formally accused Pringle of mismanagement, and there were some hints at allegations of cowardice.
The battle continued through the afternoon, only beginning to abate around 5:00 pm. Finally, the British gunboats began to pull back, though sporadic firing continued well into the early Autumn darkness. The American rebels took stock- at least 60 killed and wounded, the Congress badly damaged, along with the Washington and New York. The Royal Savage, of course, was gone; and the Philadelphia was sinking fast. A British boarding party had returned to the Savage and set her afire. She burned well into the evening, when a gigantic explosion lit the sky- the magazine had been touched off by the flames. With the loss of this ship went all of Arnold's personal papers and most of his belongings.
Sometime before 7:00 pm, the commanders of each vessel assembled aboard the Congress for a Council of War. The British would sit and wait out the darkness, finishing off the rebel fleet with the coming of day. Somehow, the battered fleet needed to get away from the superior guns of their adversaries and reach relative safety at Crown Point. An unlikely and exceedingly daring plan was proposed- they would sneak around the waiting British fleet, rowing close to the shore, oars muffled, lanterns out until they attained the broad lake, where they could "make a run" for the south.
The Trumbull, Col. Wigglesworth commanding, went first. He was followed by the Enterprise and the Lee, then each of the gondolas. The Washington, and finally the Congress, brought up the rear. A single, shuttered lantern in the stern of each ship was meant to be followed by each succeeding vessel. Incredibly, the entire group of ships made it past the waiting British fleet. Some say the British were distracted by the fire and explosions on the south shore of the island. Certainly, the tasks of caring for the wounded and preparing for the finale to occur the next morning was daunting. Yet, it is amazing that all of the American ships were able to slip by each of the British vessels unnoticed. Arnold described the escape with rather atypical modesty:
Governor Carleton, however; admitted to being impressed with the escape:
By daybreak, Arnold's wounded and motley fleet had reached Schuyler's Island, some nine miles from Valcour. Here they took the time to again take stock by the light of day. It was also here that Arnold wrote General Gates, as we have seen; his letter shares the details of the battle. In a footnote to the letter he pleads for a dozen bateau to help tow the damaged vessels back to Crown Point. He knew that soon a reckoning would occur. Their enemy would pursue them... and with the renewed zeal of an angry and embarrassed antagonist.
Arnold found two more of his vessels could not continue the flight south. These ships-gondolas- were sunk in the waters off Schuyler's Island.
Meanwhile, the British had discovered, to their horror; that the rebel fleet had escaped. An enraged General Carleton ordered the pursuit. The battle would continue into a second phase- the "running battle."
After taking care of a crisis with the Thunderer (the huge ship had lost her lee boards and was listing so much she was taking on water) the fleet set out to catch up with the rebels. Orders were given to the ground troops to follow in the rear, and thanks to a freshening wind, good time was made heading up the lake. Just North of Split Rock, the first of the ships were overtaken. In a desperate move, the hybrid Cutter Lee was run into a bay on the eastern shore where she was taken as a prize. The already battered Washington took several more broadsides, then she was forced to strike her colors. General Waterbury was taken captive along with her crew. The Jersey is believed to have capitulated at Split Rock also (although some believe she was scuttled at Schuyler's Island.) The plucky Congress, with a determined Benedict Arnold aboard, refused to give up. This time it was the British ships, with all their massive firepower, that were coming to bear upon the American vessels- the gunboats were still lagging behind, and played a lesser role in this second phase of the battle.
Arnold was desperate— he saw that they wouldn't be able to reach Crown Point. He knew whatever ships were captured would be used again-—the very ships he had worked so hard to see built at Skenesborough would be used against him in the future. He decided to run his remaining vessels aground, burn them, and make a desperate run across land to Ticonderoga.
He chose a tiny bay on the eastern shore, a lovely little cove known as Ferris' Bay. Today this place is known as Arnold's Bay- Panton, Vermont .
Related pages on the Site...
The Valcour Bay Research Project
The Battle of Lake Champlain (Introduction)
1: Brigadier General Benedict Arnold to Major General Horatio Gates; Schuyler Island Octr 12. 1776
*America's Historic Lakes is a favorite of educators around the world. You can
feel confident that the material
on this site is accurate, well-researched, properly cited and presented.
America's Historic Lakes by James P. Millard and Guest Contributors is licensed under a
Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.
James P. Millard
Post Office Box 262
South Hero, Vermont 05486-0262
Terms of Service and Disclaimer of Liability
The historical information on this web site is provided as a public service by James P. Millard. I have attempted to be as accurate as possible in my presentation of this historical material. However, I make no claims, guarantees or promises about the accuracy, currency, or completeness of the information provided. In no event shall the publisher; James P. Millard, be liable for any errors or omissions with respect to any information on this site. Material submitted by guest contributors and published on the site is the property of the contributor and may be removed at any time at my discretion or upon request of the contributor. This website occasionally provides links to sites of other organizations maintained by third parties. These links do not constitute an endorsement of the content, viewpoint, accuracy, opinions, policies, products, services, or accessibility of that website. Links to third-party websites are provided as a public service and convenience to users of our site; James P. Millard/America’s Historic Lakes does not control, endorse or recommend the content on sites we may link to. Once connected to another website, you are subject to the terms and conditions of that website.