Battle of Valcour Island - Conflict & Date:
The Battle of Valcour Island was fought October 11, 1776, during the American Revolution (1775-1783).
Fleets & Commanders
Battle of Valcour Island - Background:
In the wake of their defeat at the Battle of Quebec in late 1775, American forces attempted to maintain a loose siege of the city. This ended in early May 1776 when British reinforcements arrived from overseas. This forced the Americans to fall back to Montreal. American reinforcements, led by Brigadier General John Sullivan, also arrived in Canada during this period. Seeking to regain the initiative, Sullivan attacked a British force on June 8 at Trois-Rivières, but was badly defeated. Retreating up the St. Lawrence, he was determined to hold a position near Sorel at the confluence with the Richelieu River.
Recognizing the hopelessness of the American situation in Canada, Brigadier General Benedict Arnold, commanding at Montreal, convinced Sullivan that a more prudent course was to retreat south up the Richelieu in order to better secure American territory. Abandoning their positions in Canada, the remnants of the American army traveled south finally halting at Crown Point on the western shore of Lake Champlain. Commanding the rear guard, Arnold ensured that any resources that could benefit the British along the line of retreat were destroyed.
A former merchant captain, Arnold understood that command of Lake Champlain was critical to any advance south into New York and the Hudson Valley. As such, he made sure his men burned the sawmill at St. Johns and destroyed all boats that could not be used. When Arnold's men rejoined the army, American forces on the lake consisted of four small vessels mounting a total of 36 guns. The force that they re-united with was a shambles as it lacked adequate supplies and shelter, as well as was suffering from a variety of diseases. In an effort to improve the situation, Sullivan was replaced with Major General Horatio Gates.
A Naval Race:
Advancing in pursuit, the governor of Canada, Sir Guy Carleton, sought to attack down Lake Champlain with the goal of reaching the Hudson and linking up with British forces operating against New York City. Reaching St. Johns, it became clear that a naval force would need to be assembled to sweep the Americans from the lake so that his troops could safely advance. Establishing a shipyard at St. Johns, work began on three schooners, a radeau (gun barge), and twenty gunboats. In addition, Carleton ordered that the 18-gun sloop-of-war HMS Inflexible be dismantled on the St. Lawrence and transported overland to St. Johns.
The naval activity was matched by Arnold who established a shipyard at Skenesborough. As Gates was inexperienced in naval matters, construction of the fleet was largely delegated to his subordinate. Work progressed slowly as skilled shipwrights and naval stores were in short supply in upstate New York. Offering extra pay, the Americans were able to assemble the necessary manpower. As vessels were completed they were shifted to nearby Fort Ticonderoga to be fitted out. Working frantically through the summer, the yard produced three 10-gun galleys and eight 3-gun gundalows.
Battle of Valcour Island - Maneuvering to Battle:
As the fleet grew, Arnold, commanding from the schooner Royal Savage (12 guns), began aggressively patrolling the lake. As the end of September neared, he began to anticipate the more powerful British fleet sailing. Seeking an advantageous place for battle, he positioned his fleet behind Valcour Island. Since his fleet was smaller and his sailors inexperienced, he believed that the narrow waters would limit the British advantage in firepower and reduce the need to maneuver. This location was resisted by many of his captains who wished to fight in open water which would allow a retreat to Crown Point or Ticonderoga.
Shifting his flag to the galley Congress (10), the American line was anchored by the galleys Washington (10) and Trumbull (10), as well as the schooners Revenge (8) and Royal Savage, and sloop Enterprise (12). These were supported by the eight gundalows (3 guns each) and the cutter Lee (5). Departing on October 9, Carleton's fleet, overseen by Captain Thomas Pringle, sailed south with 50 support vessels in tow. Led by Inflexible, Pringle also possessed the schooners Maria (14), Carleton (12), and Loyal Convert (6), the radeau Thunderer (14), and 20 gunboats (1 each).
Battle of Valcour Island - The Fleets Engage:
Sailing south with a favorable wind on October 11, the British fleet passed the northern tip of Valcour Island. In an effort to draw Carleton's attention, Arnold sent out Congress and Royal Savage. After a brief exchange of fire, both vessels attempted to return to the American line. Beating against the wind, Congress succeeded in regaining its position, but Royal Savage was plagued by the headwinds and ran aground on the southern tip of the island. Quickly attacked by British gunboats, the crew abandoned ship and it was boarded by men from Loyal Convert (Map).
This possession proved brief as American fire quickly drove them from the schooner. Rounding the island, Carleton and the British gunboats came into action and the battle began in earnest around 12:30 PM. Maria and Thunderer were unable to make headway against the winds and did not participate. While Inflexible struggled against the wind to join the fight, Carleton became the focus of American fire. Though dealing out punishment on the American line, the schooner suffered heavy casualties and after taking substantial damage was towed to safety. Also during the fight, the gundalow Philadelphia was critically hit and sank around 6:30 PM.
Around sunset, Inflexible came into action and began reducing the Arnold's fleet. Out-gunning the entire American fleet, the sloop-of-war battered its smaller opponents. With the tide turned, only darkness prevented the British from completing their victory. Understanding the he could not defeat the British and with most of his fleet damaged or sinking, Arnold began planning an escape south to Crown Point. Utilizing a dark and foggy night, and with oars muffled, his fleet succeeded in sneaking through the British line. By morning they had reached Schuyler Island. Angered that the Americans had escaped, Carleton began a pursuit. Moving slowly, Arnold was forced to abandon damaged vessels en route before the approaching British fleet forced him to burn his remaining ships in Buttonmold Bay.
Battle of Valcour Island - Aftermath
American losses at Valcour Island numbered around 80 killed and 120 captured. In addition, Arnold lost 11 of the 16 vessels he had on the lake. British losses totaled around 40 killed and three gunboats. Reaching Crown Point overland, Arnold ordered the post abandoned and fell back to Fort Ticonderoga. Having taken control of the lake, Carleton quickly occupied Crown Point. After lingering for two weeks, he determined that it was too late in the season to continue the campaign and withdrew north into winter quarters. Though a tactical defeat, the Battle of Valcour Island was critical strategic victory for Arnold as it prevented an invasion from the north in 1776. The delay caused by the naval race and battle gave the Americans an additional year to stabilize the northern front and prepare for the campaign that would culminate with the decisive victory at the Battles of Saratoga.