Battle of Lake Champlain
Control of Lake Champlain was vital for the Americans in supplying their efforts to conquer Canada during the American Revolutionary War (1775–1783). It was also crucial to British plans to separate New England from the other rebellious colonies. Both sides had used row galleys and other small craft on the lake during the 1775–1776 American winter campaign. Even after the American retreat from Canada, the Continental Congress ordered Major General Philip Schuyler to hold northern New York and authorized him to build “gallies and armed vessels” to secure lakes Champlain and George. Continental Army brigadier general Benedict Arnold had charge of construction, and neighboring colonies sent materials and shipwrights.
Arnold preferred row galleys and hoped to meet the British with eight, each armed with two heavy 24-pounders and two 18-pounders. Only four were completed in time to take part in the battle, however. They were more than 72 feet in length with two masts and a lateen rig. Crew complement was 80 men. Most mounted two 12- or 18-pounders in the bow, two 12-pounders (along with possibly two 2-pounders) in the stern, and four 6-pounders in broadside. All carried smaller man-killing weapons known as swivels on their rails. As with all Lake Champlain squadron vessels, precise armament cannot be verified.
In 1935 one of the gondolas, the Philadelphia, was raised. It was an open boat 53 feet 4 inches in length. (The Philadelphia, today displayed in the Smithsonian Institution, is touted as the oldest U.S. Navy [actually army] warship in existence.) It had a single mast with a square course and topsail but was basically a rowing boat propelled by its 45-man crew. The gondolas each carried three guns: one at the bow on a slide mount and one on either side to fire over the rails. They also mounted swivels.The British had both larger vessels and more guns on Lake Champlain. What they did not have was time. Winter would bring their operations to a halt because their invasion route on the lake would freeze over. By early October, Major General Sir Guy Carleton’s fleet was ready to move.
The resulting engagements between the British and Americans began at Valcour Island, about 50 miles north of Fort Ticonderoga, on October 11, 1776. Arnold’s 800 men had 15 warships: 2 schooners, 1 sloop, 4 galleys, and 8 gondolas, with a combined throw weight of 703 pounds. He positioned his vessels in a crescent shape at the island so that the British would have to tack into position to engage his anchored vessels.
Commander of the British squadron Lieutenant vb Thomas Pringle had some 25 warships, many of them mounting heavier guns than those available to Arnold. Pringle’s smaller vessels alone were nearly a match for the Americans. The British warships were served by 667 trained Royal Navy seamen with 1,000 soldiers; their guns had a combined throw weight of 1,300 pounds.
On October 11 Pringle’s vessels pounded the Americans for six hours. The Americans lost 1 schooner and 1 gondola, and 3 other vessels were badly damaged. They had also used up most of their ammunition. During the night Arnold’s remaining 13 vessels slipped past the British in an effort to reach Fort Ticonderoga. The wind changed from the south though, and the Americans had to resort to their sweeps.
For a day the Americans kept ahead, but the British caught up with them, and a second engagement was fought on October 13 north of Crown Point. One American galley struck to the British, and Arnold then beached and set afire another galley and four gondolas. Although most of their vessels were either captured or sunk, the Americans lost only about 80 men. The others escaped ashore and got to Crown Point on foot, just ahead of pursuing Indians.
Although a tactical defeat for the Americans, the two small battles on Lake Champlain were also a strategic victory. They ended any possibility of a linkup in 1776 between Carleton’s forces and those of Major General William Howe in New York. Carleton thought it too late in the year to begin a land campaign and withdrew. If the British had taken Ticonderoga and held it through the winter, mounting their 1777 campaign would have been easier and might have been a success. In stead, the 1777 British thrust southward ended in an American victory at Saratoga, the turning point of the war.
Allen, Gardner W. A Naval History of the American Revolution, Vol. 1. Cambridge, MA: Houghton Mifflin, 1913.
Chapelle, Howard I. The History of the American Sailing Navy: The Ships and Their Development. New York: Norton, 1949.
Nelson, James L. Benedict Arnold’s Navy: The Ragtag Fleet That Lost the Battle of Lake Champlan but Won the American Revolution. New York: McGraw-Hill, 2006.