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Notes on the Captains of the Vessels in the Battle of Valcour Island under Brigadier General Benedict Arnold

Part 1a: Introduction

by Stephen Darley

During the summer of 1776, the British and American forces were engaged in an important contest to see which side could put together the most formidable fleet of vessels to contest the waters of Lake Champlain. The Americanís invasion of Canada that began in the fall of 1775 had failed by June of 1776, and the remaining American troops had withdrawn from Canada after suffering a defeat in their assault on the City of Quebec on December 31, 1775 and after suffering through an occupation that featured disease in the form of smallpox, inadequate food and clothing supply, inadequate manpower and no artillery. By the time the returning army reached Crown Point, it was sick, dispirited, hungry and in no position to contest the British.[1]

The American command in the summer of 1776 was divided between Major Generalsí Horatio Gates and Philip Schuyler with Gates being the immediate on-the-ground commander at Fort Ticonderoga and Schuyler being stationed at his home in Albany, New York. The Americans knew the British were coming down the lake at some point to attack their fortifications at Crown Point and Ticonderoga. Fortunately for Gates, he had the one leader in Benedict Arnold who was capable of putting together a credible fleet and, more important, was capable of commanding it. Arnold was able to put together a sufficient enough force and through the force of his personality to delay the British advance down Lake Champlain in 1776. Because of the delay and the onset of winter weather, the entire British force returned to Canada in November of 1776.[2]

By the time the British came down the lake with their fleet in early October, Arnold had assembled, with much effort and frustration, a fleet of sixteen vessels to oppose the British. Each vessel had its own captain and its own story of how it was added to Arnoldís flotilla. The attached table presents a two page summary of information on the vessels and their captains. The table lists each vessel with information on its type, size and weaponry. The date when it entered the fleet is shown and the number of men authorized to serve on it as well as the actual number of men who did serve, where known. The list also shows the name and hometown of the captain of each vessel with the source, where known, that designates the captainís first and last name. The table also shows the disposition of the vessel since each one had its own story to tell.

Here also, for the first time, is a short biography of each of the sixteen captains who served in the Battle of Valcour Island, except for the commander of the Liberty Schooner, Captain Mathias Primier or Primer, whose personal history has so far been untraceable. It is surprising that no one has ever bothered to identify the names and personal history of these heroic men who, by commanding their sixteen vessels in a remarkable stand against a superior British fleet where they were out manned and outgunned, were instrumental in saving the American colonies from being cut in two by the British in the fall of 1776. Unfortunately, their names are forgotten and are now unrecognizable so virtually none of these men have received appropriate recognition for their valuable service at a crucial point in the war.

There is general agreement among previous writers regarding the service at Valcour Island of five captains, Seth Warner, David Hawley, Benjamin Rue, Philip Ulmer and Isaac Seaman. The rest of the captains are primarily mentioned in the lists and correspondence leading up to the battle by their last names and there has been some disagreement as to the actual identity of those commanders whose first name is not included in those contemporary lists or letters. What the information presented here demonstrates is that there is existing documentation to verify the service and first name of nine of the other captains.

First, there is a pension application for Joshua Grant containing a letter from six residents of York, Maine, confirming that he served on the lakes under Benedict Arnold;  Isaiah Simmons is identified in two contemporary documents relating to his service on the lakes in 1776; Samuel Mansfield is identified as a commander of a gun boat in a 1777 letter by Major General Benedict Arnold; John Reed is identified by name in the pension application of Daniel McCay; Mathias Primer is identified in Isaac Seamanís pension application as the commander of the Liberty; James Arnold is identified as a captain in his New Hampshire Company roll; Moses Grimes name appears on a company roll of the New Hampshire  Regiment of Colonel Wingate; and Job Sumner is identified in a letter from Major General Benedict Arnold to the Board of War in 1779. This leaves two captains, Dickinson and Davis, who are identified in the contemporary lists by their last names, but who have no documentation from any contemporary sources as to their first names. In the list below, the first name of both men is identified based on research undertaken by this author.

Since the construction of the Gondola Gates was not completed by the time the Valcour Island battle occurred, it is not included in this list. On the other hand, the Liberty Schooner had been on the lake under the control of the Americans since being captured by Arnold in May of 1775, but did not participate in the battle. It was primarily serving as a supply ship and had left to go from Valcour to Fort Ticonderoga two days prior to the battle. Because of its longevity on the lake, it is included on the list.


[1] See Douglas R. Cubbison. The American Northern Theater Army in 1776: The Ruin and Reconstruction of the Continental Force. Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland & Company, 2010.

[2] Justin H. Smith. Our Struggle for the Fourteenth Colony. New York: G.P. Putnamís Sons, 1907; William M. Fowler, Jr. Rebels Under Sail: The American Navy during the American Revolution. New York: Charles Scribnerís Sons, 1976; Russell P. Bellico. Sails and Steam in the Mountains. Fleischmanns, N.Y.: Purple Mountain Press, 1992.  

Date this page was last edited: 1/23/2016

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